I was quoted in the Daily Mail recently in a story about a supposed increase in sexting by Irish children. The reporter was interested in the possible criminal liability of children who send and receive sexual images - something which featured only to a small extent in the story - and I thought it might be useful to jot down some more observations about the surprisingly complex law in this area.
(i) When will a "sext" amount to child pornography?
The most important legislation on this point is the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998. Consequently, the first question we must ask is whether sexts will amount to child pornography prohibited under that Act.
In relation to particularly explicit images, section 2 makes it clear that images of a child "engaged in explicit sexual activity", or images which focus on the "genital or anal region" will constitute child pornography.
What about less explicit images? Might e.g. a topless photo constitute child pornography? Possibly. Under section 2, child pornography includes images relating to a child that "indicates or implies that the child is available to be used for the purpose of sexual exploitation". Sexual exploitation is in turn defined in section 3 to includes inducing a child to "participate in any sexual activity which is an offence under any enactment". Consequently, even a less explicit image might amount to child pornography if it implies that a child is available for (illegal) sexual activity.
(ii) Is there a "Romeo and Juliet" defence?
Suppose a 16 year old girl takes an explicit picture amounting to child pornography and texts it to her 16 year old boyfriend. Might the boyfriend be liable for the offence of possession of child pornography, contrary to section 6?
Yes. The 1998 Act (in common with other areas of Irish criminal law - consider this case involving a 15 year old boy and a 14 year old girl) doesn't recognise a so-called Romeo and Juliet defence in relation to sexual activities between children of similar ages. One might hope that in this scenario prosecutorial discretion would prevail and no prosecution would be brought - but on the face of it a crime would have been committed.
(iii) Can the person taking and sending the sext be prosecuted?
Maybe. Section 5 of the 1998 Act creates an offence of knowingly producing or distributing child pornography which on the face of it would seem to cover the actions of children who take photos of themselves and then send them to others. Children in other jurisdictions have been charged with offences in this situation.
The Act itself doesn't provide a defence for a child in this position, unlike other legislation dealing with child sexual offences. For example, Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006 provides that "A female child under the age of 17 years shall not be guilty of an offence under this Act by reason only of her engaging in an act of sexual intercourse."
Would it be possible to read such a defence into the law, arguing perhaps that the child is the person intended to be protected by the legislation and as such it would be inappropriate to criminalise their actions? Possibly - but at this point we might be entering uncharted waters.
The common law does recognise a general principle against criminalising the victim, a rule often traced to R v Tyrell (1894) 1 QB 710 where it was held that a girl could not be guilty of aiding and abetting a male to know her carnally. In that case, Lord Coleridge CJ famously said that an Act could not have "intended that the girls for whose protection it was passed, should be punished under it for the offences committed against themselves". This has since been accepted as a wider principle - see e.g. Hallevy's interesting article on this point.
The difficulty with that principle, however, is that it generally applies where there are two or more parties involved in the commission of the criminal act - but I'm not aware of any authority applying it to the case of a single perpetrator who is simultaneously the victim. It should certainly apply where A (a child) consents to B taking explicit pictures - but it may be more difficult to argue that it should apply where A takes and sends the pictures. In that situation, could it be said that A is the victim of their own activity, so that the Tyrell principle should apply?
Any answer to that question might also be influenced by policy considerations. It could be argued, for example, that it is desirable to impose possible criminal liability in order to deter children from doing something which may result in their being further victimised in the future; it might also be said that an effective exemption for "self-produced" child pornography could hamper criminal investigations.
These thoughts merely scratch the surface of this area. Mary Graw Leary has more on the difficult problem of sexting and "self-produced" child pornography in this nuanced article, while Radley Balko has a rather different (and to my mind more convincing) argument at Reason.