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Sexual offending and technology

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This week the BBC reported that the Police had logged a number of incidents relating to the game ‘Pokèmon Go’, including at least one which involved a man trying to tempt children back to his house with the promise of Pokèmon. Earlier in the month, the NSPCC in the Southwest, reported in the Bournemouth Daily Echo, claimed that two-fifths of parents were unaware that it was illegal for their children to send each other nude pictures. These stories are interesting because they highlight the challenges which arise from developments in technology, and the changes in societal attitudes which they bring.

The problems of keeping up with changing modes of technology

It is almost an iron rule of progress that any new mode of communication will be used to convey nudity. For example, it only took two years between the Lumière brother’s first cinematic film, a quotidian short of workers leaving their factory, and the much racier ‘After the Ball, the Bath’, in which Georges Méliès showed his wife stripping naked. In hindsight, such developments are unsurprising; after all, there was a long tradition of nude painting, and before the cinematic nude had come the photographic. However, being able to explain something after it has happened is not the same as being able to predict it or expecting it to happen. This means it can take a little while for society, and its legal systems, to catch up.

‘Sexting’ is a good example of this. Prior to the development of devices which integrated high-resolution cameras with a way of instantly transmitting the photos they took, it would have been hard to imagine that there was a large untapped desire to exchange photos of our genitals with each other. However, the existence of such devices made this exchange possible, and it turns out that such a desire exists.

Since it was impossible to predict, though, the law did not predict this. The laws on the creation of child pornography never imagined that someone under the age of 16 would be photographing and disseminating pictures of their genitalia; the only situation they imagined such photographs being taken was by abusers. The laws are written entirely from the standpoint of the subject of the images, the creator of the image is not considered. This means that two 15 year olds in a mutually consensual exchange of candid photos have manufactured and disseminated child pornography.

This difficulty of imagining how others will use technology also makes it hard to imagine how they might be used negatively. At the dawn of the internet, which makes communication across global distances almost free and almost instantaneous, most people wouldn’t have foreseen that one of its uses would be to send anonymous rape threats to female celebrities, or to invite the Pope to have sex with them. Just as the law has trouble keeping up with candid-snapping teens, it took some time to produce laws against adults who used the internet to groom children. The anonymity of the internet allowed adults to pretend to be children in a way that wasn’t possible in the physical, off-line, world and this possibility was spotted soonest by those to whom it offered an advantage.

Meeting the challenges of technology

This could be read as a counsel of despair: technology will advance, it will inevitably involve sexual content in a way which is impossible to imagine, we will always be playing catch up. But while we might not imagine the specific outcomes of new developments, we can imagine the form they might take. ‘Pokèmon Go’ is a game played in public, encouraging children and young people to explore unfamiliar areas. Almost instantly on its release, charities and local authorities started releasing information on how to enjoy the game safely. These spotted the vulnerable position that users were in, noted its similarity to vulnerable positions in the past, and issued guidance accordingly. It may take time for the law to catch up and make ‘luring children with Pokèmon’ an offence, but this doesn’t prevent us mitigating the danger in the meantime.

We can do this because, while any new technology offers new possibilities, all progress has precedents. The first cinematic nude followed a developmental path which started at the dawn of pictorial representation; offensive tweets are modern poison-pen letters. While the form a technology takes may mean we need a specific reaction, often we can proceed using more general and established principles. We can talk to our children about peer pressure, healthy relationships and not putting things in writing; we can arrest malicious Pokèmon users for breaking existing laws on grooming.

At TDI, the core of what we do is built around the idea of defensible decision-making. Given what we know about a situation, what reaction will mitigate foreseeable risk? For example, as part of our Leisurewatch programme, we’ve helped members pool best practice around phone use in public buildings, taking into account the fact that phones now have better cameras than they did even a few years ago. In our recent prison training, we had some really interesting discussions with attendees around how to monitor inmates’ communications in an era of email and easily-smuggled mobile phones. We might not be able to anticipate changes in sexual offending, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless in making spaces safer.

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