The Hunting, a TV drama by SBS, opens with Adelaide high schoolers Andy and Zoe giggling as they touch themselves for each other via Skype. It’s awkward and fumbling, as many first sexual experiences are, but it feels safe, comfortable – until we learn that Andy has recorded the interaction without Zoe’s knowledge or consent.
At another school, Andy’s friend Nassim has a crush on his classmate, Dip. After they share a secret kiss at the beach, she texts him a flirty photo of herself naked. Andy doesn’t believe it, so Nassim reluctantly forwards the photo as proof.
Both Zoe’s video and Dip’s photo end up on a website called Our Local Sluts, uploaded by Andy for reasons that are never made clear. The intent of the website is simple: to shame, denigrate and objectify these young girls, who are sluts for giving themselves up so easily and as prudes for not wanting to perform this burgeoning sexuality publicly.
This story line mirrors a real-life event in 2016, which saw female students from over 70 schools around Australia targeted by a ‘pornography ring’, where teen boys and young men swapped over 2000 images of girls, complete with identifying features including full names, schools and addresses. They ‘hunted’ for images of particular young women, offering trades and rewards for pictures.
Back then, laws around image-based abuse were nascent and ill-defined – but in the years since, legislation has firmed up, with offenders facing up to seven years of jail and hefty fines for sharing intimate images without consent.
In 2017, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner launched a new online portal, providing practical support and advice for victims of image-based abuse. Their report showed that the experience of image-based abuse is highly gendered, with women twice as likely to have their images shared without consent. It found image-based abuse is more common among those who have felt pressured into taking and sharing such photos. A report from RMIT and Monash University found that people aged between 16 and 29 years were at highest risk.
To call it ‘revenge porn’, as is the common parlance, is not always accurate – though vengeful ex-lovers are often the perpetrators, as in Andy's case. For the boys in the show it's more about gaining social capital. As the show goes on, though, revenge certainly becomes part of the terrain. Paramount to it all is the perception of women as objects rather than people.
Andy’s anger is palpable and terrifying – though we also see his visceral personal response to misogyny as a bystander, especially when it involves his family, and are presented with a holistic view of an abuser as someone who can be a ‘nice guy’ in some ways, an entitled monster in others. The juxtaposition between Andy and the mild-mannered, kind Nassim proves that boys can easily become entangled in these toxic webs through peer pressure.
The territory is thornier when it comes to sexting between teenagers – in the show, Zoe and Dip find themselves in hot water when Dip is charged with producing and distributing child pornography. The laws around this are a little murkier, though in Victoria an exception is made when the recipient of the image is no more than two years older than the sender.
The lessons to be taught to young men around sexting are the very same as those about sex and consent itself.
The dichotomy between the necessity for laws to protect children, while also acknowledging and allowing them agency in exploring their emerging sexualities, presents a question to which there is no easy answer, but advocacy groups in Australia, such as Youth Action, continue to work towards a viable solution.
What’s undeniable is that the conversation around stopping image-based abuse begins with educating young men. Sexting is a way for teenagers to express themselves sexually without the danger of STIs or pregnancy, or for those who are beginning to feel desire but are not quite ready to take the next step physically. In the digital age, it’s an unavoidable part of growing up – the moral panic should be reserved for violations of consent within this phenomenon, rather than punishing the young women themselves for partaking in a natural exploration.
Legalities aside, the lessons to be taught to young men around sexting are the very same as those about sex and consent itself.
As technology continues to evolve, new ways to violate consent will emerge – by having important discussions with boys from an early age, perhaps the culture can catch up to, and keep up with, the continually changing sexual and personal realities of a post-digital world.
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.