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about a girl: consent, teens and technology

Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

A few weeks ago, a teenage girl was reportedly raped by three adolescent males, while two other female adolescents recorded the event on a mobile phone. This footage was forwarded to a journalist who quickly passed it on to local police. Her location remains undisclosed.

The police response was lacklustre at best, insisting nothing could be done unless the young woman in question pressed charges. Stories like this are becoming a regular occurrence. It raises several concerning questions – in particular, is a 16-year-old emotionally equipped to take on the challenge of not only surviving rape, but reporting it to the authorities?

Belinda Lo, Principal Lawyer for Victoria’s Eastern Community Legal Centre explains that under the Commonwealth Telecommunications Act, people are forbidden to transmit intimate images to a minor. However it’s unclear whether this would include a recording and there is an exemption if the underage person has recorded themselves. Under section 41DA of the Victorian Summary Offences Act 1966, there is legislation preventing some production of underage pornography, but even here it’s a grey area.

‘It just refers to “images” not necessarily sounds, or recordings,’ Lo clarified.

‘It’s not certain that images includes recordings, and this hasn’t been tested as far as I’m aware.’

Because these laws vary largely state to state and the girl’s location is undisclosed, it’s unknown if police could have intervened further. This is not intended to pigeon hole adolescent females as ‘helpless prey’. For that matter, it doesn’t pigeon hole any particular gender, because in the aforementioned case two young women took part in this reported crime. Instead, it’s an overdue look at the blatant potholes of our current legal system and the issue of sex crimes.

Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) is a Victoria-based organisation that helps victims of violence and sexual assault. It has several centres set up throughout the state, providing counselling, advocacy as well as a 24 hour helpline. One of their most significant contributions in the fight against sexual assault is SARA – a phone app that enables victims to report assaults anonymously.

One crucial inconsistency is that the degree of involvement police and the law are prepared to take can often come down to location. In Victoria, any individual is legally required to report anyone they may suspect to be ‘at risk’ if they are under the age of 15. But this is not the case Australia-wide.

Carolyn Worth, Manager and Spokesperson for CASA, explains that while this new Victorian law is strict, it can be difficult to follow. While they receive many reports of sexual assault from teenagers, most are reluctant to contact police and file a report.

‘We think it’s better if someone actually came and spoke to us and was comfortable talking to a counsellor for a week or two and maybe we can change their mind,’ Worth says, who adds that CASA’s approach is one of “harm minimisation”.

Lo explains that teenagers rarely comprehend the legal implications and can feel overwhelmed by a sexual assault, which may explain why so few press charges. However, it is not as simple as taking the decision out of the teens’ hands.

‘It may cause a victim more damage if forced to go through the process,’ Lo said.

There has been recent discussion about the inadequacy of current sexuality education programs, with teachers able to discuss the mechanics of sex, but not the emotional and psychological impact. Lo is part of an education program that informs teens about the legal implications of sexting.

‘Almost 90% of the kids we speak to indicate they know someone who’s either seen a sext or been in a sext,’ Lo explains.

Participating in sexting is becoming a social norm for teenagers; the myth of peer pressure is quickly evaporating. While this may be a healthy exploration of sexuality, it becomes far more complex when consent is unclear and what is in intended as a private image goes public. Arguably, the girls in the aforementioned case could be considered accessories to the sexual assault by recording it, and potentially ‘encouraging’ the assault.

‘There’s a chance for that 16 year old to be charged with production of child pornography, even if it’s not being distributed,’ Lo adds.

Worth meets with sexual assault victims on a daily basis, she has worked with social services for several decades and in that time she has seen improvements. Stricter legislation within Victoria has meant that defence lawyers cannot interrogate the reported victim on things like clothing and sexual history.

‘They’d end up making you look like a bit of a hussy in front of the jury… they’re not allowed to do that anymore,’ Worth said.

This is allowing “victim blaming” to become a thing of the past.

There’s an obvious pitfall to the proposed idea of allowing the parent or legal guardian to take full control of reporting assaults, and this is that many parents refuse to accept their children’s sexual maturation. Over the years, Worth has witnessed hysterical parents distort sexual encounters.

‘Occasionally young women get dragged in by their parents who say “we want to press charges, she was raped”,’ Worth notes.

‘We ask the girl, “is he your boyfriend?” and she says, “Yes”.’

Defining the age of consent is complex in the state Lo and Worth work in. In Victoria, the age of consent is 16, but as the state’s Legal Aid Commission website shows, penetrative and non-penetrative acts can be deemed consensual based on a principle of how much older one partner is than the other. Discrepancies outside the law’s age limits deem acts assault. The age of consent varies between states and territories in Australia.

CASA relies heavily on providing anonymity to their clients and, unsurprisingly, this clashes with the current laws. Regardless, Worth believes the system would be improved if there was a greater consistency on a national basis.

The fundamental issue here, is that while we have empowered teenagers to take ownership of their sexuality, there is insufficient support, empowerment and knowledge when that sexual freedom is violated.

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