In the age of social media, when there is a phone with a camera in just about everyone's pocket, sexting is a real issue. What can initially seem like a simple thing between two people can quickly evolve into something a lot more widespread, and before you know it, the situation is out of control.
There can be legal implications of sexting, especially when children are involved, as well as the risk of images getting into the wrong hands. Because of these risks, there is legislation in place to help protect children from becoming the victims of sexting, which we will explore in this article about the laws on sexting in the UK.
The word sexting is an amalgamation of ‘sex’ and ‘texting’ and describes what happens when someone sends sexually explicit messages to others. The content can be photos or a video and could be of themselves or another person, or it could just be sexually explicit text.
There are various terms used to describe sexting, such as pic for pic and sending nudes, which are essentially the same thing.
Taking and sharing sexual images can be done on many devices, including phones, tablets and laptops, making it very easy to take and share explicit imagery. The problem is that once this private content has been sent, the sender cannot get it back, and they face the possibility that explicit images of themselves will be widely circulated.
Some people can feel pressured to participate in sexting by someone they are in a relationship with, or even a person they know but don't consider a boyfriend or girlfriend. This pressure can lead to people being coerced into sending explicit photos or videos of themselves which may then be used to harm them or manipulate them into doing other things that they aren’t comfortable with.
There are numerous risks of sexting, even between consenting and trusting adults.
Nobody should share sexual content of themselves because they feel pressured to do so, and any adult that does send pictures or videos of a sexual nature should be aware of the consequences before doing it. By taking and sharing explicit images of yourself, or even just writing explicit messages, you risk private content being used against you by another person or distributed for a lot of other people to see.
As well as these potential consequences, there are also legal risks of sexting in certain circumstances. For example, ‘revenge porn’ involves sharing someone’s sexually explicit images or videos without their consent and has been illegal in the UK since 2015.
The risks of sexting are even greater when one or more of the people involved are under eighteen. Not only can the impact of the images being shared be more distressing and have greater consequences for young people, but it’s also against the law to create or share explicit images of a child, even if the person taking or sending the photo is also a child. Engaging in sexting as an under eighteen or with someone that is under eighteen is breaking the law, and you risk being prosecuted if you are discovered.
While it is illegal to have sexual relations with a person under the age of 16, there are laws to protect anyone up to 18 years old from sexting. There are four main UK sexting laws that outline the legal consequences of sexting when it involves someone under eighteen or the images involved are shared with others without consent.
The Protection of Children Act 1978 makes it illegal to take, make, show, distribute or possess in order to distribute “indecent photographs” of anyone under eighteen. It is also illegal for anyone to permit indecent photos of children to be taken, either by the child or someone else.
Anyone in possession of sexually explicit photos of an under eighteen that they have been sexting is breaking the law, whether they share these photos or just keep them to themself.
In Section 160, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 also makes it illegal “for a person to have any indecent photograph (or pseudo-photograph) of a child (...) in his possession”. Anyone found with images of an under-eighteen in their possession from sexting is in breach of this law.
In terms of sharing the images received whilst sexting, Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 makes it a criminal offence if somebody “discloses, or threatens to disclose, a private sexual photograph or film in which another individual appears” if they intend to “cause distress” and sharing the explicit image “is, or would be, made without the consent of that individual”. This applies to images of anyone of any age that may have been shared or acquired during sexting.
Finally, Section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 defines “sexual communication with a child” as an illegal offence. In this case, a ‘child’ is defined as someone that is under the age of sixteen.
The kind of illegal communication outlined in this piece of legislation doesn’t just cover sexting, but anyone over eighteen that is sending sexual messages and/or images to a child is committing an offence as outlined by this act.
The laws around possessing explicit images of people under eighteen apply to the person under eighteen themselves if they are taking the pictures or video. Since January 2016, the police in England and Wales can record that a young person has been creating and sharing explicit images (as part of sexting) without taking formal action, if this is in the public interest.
Actions that are illegal when carried out by a child:
If sexting occurs between an adult and a child, the implications in terms of the law are much more serious. As well as covering the taking of pictures and videos, sharing and storing, an adult who requests such content from a minor is breaking the law, so any kind of sexting between an adult and a minor is a criminal offence and should be punished.
Sending sexually explicit photos and videos from one adult to another is not a sexual offence. If, however, they are unwanted by the recipient, then there is other legislation under which they could get into trouble, such as harassment, for example.
As we’ve already touched upon, an adult will also face legal consequences if they share explicit images of someone else without their consent, especially if they’re doing so with the intent to cause distress. Sending explicit images and videos whilst sexting might seem safe between consenting adults at the time, but these images could then be shared without permission, which is illegal in the UK.
The police will find out about sexting if it is reported to them, either by someone involved in the interaction or by someone else who finds out about it. Police may also find out about sexting if they discover explicit images on a person’s phone or device that they are searching for another reason, such as suspected possession of inappropriate content.
In the Serious Crime Act 2015, sexting falls under the umbrella term of ‘sexual communication’ which is classed as communication that relates to sexual activity and is sent with the intent of obtaining sexual gratification or encouraging a response that is sexual in content. In many of the relevant laws around sexting, the term itself isn’t actually used, but the act of sexting falls under the description of the illegal activity.
Whilst the age of consent in the United Kingdom is sixteen, it is illegal for anyone under the age of eighteen to engage in sexting. No matter the context, sending explicit images of someone under eighteen is against the law, even if the images were taken by the under-eighteen and sent to someone else who is under eighteen.
Young people are getting access to smartphones and other electronic devices at younger and younger ages, which means that cases of sexting are more likely to happen with those under the age of eighteen. It’s important for everyone to understand the laws surrounding sexting and the potential legal consequences of sexting so that they know what the activity could lead to and the kinds of interactions to avoid.
If you’d like to learn more about keeping safe online and the potential dangers of online activity like sexting, we recommend our online ‘E-Safety’ course which includes a section on the risks and consequences of sexting.