Federal Politics


Wrong number? Sexting in the spotlight

About a month ago, I sent an extremely detailed message about an act of sex.

Name. Date. Place. Action. The sext had it all.

Tapped send.

Then panicked.

And, at that exact moment, my battery died.

I had three minutes of fearing the worst. That I'd sent the message to the wrong person.


Research from a mobile phone company in Britain says that about one in 10 Britons send their sexts to an unintended recipient. In my case, I thought I'd sent it to one of my children instead of my spouse. Those three minutes while I frantically scrabbled for a charger felt a lot longer than 180 seconds.

By the time my phone turned itself back on, a very cheerful reply was waiting. Sighs of relief all around.

I'm sure my kids have a sense of humour but not sure that sense of humour applies to knowing about the intimacy of their elderly parents - still; some time after the need or possibility for procreation is over.

Sexting is big in the United States and Britain. A sext can be as friendly as a booty call or as confronting as an unexpected video of a sex act. And while we certainly sext in Australia, it went largely unrecognised as worthy of research, either by journalists or academics, according to Catharine Lumby and Nina Funnell, from the University of NSW. That's all changing now, says Lumby, UNSW professor of journalism, because of a series of high profile cases in Australia.

House of Representatives Speaker Peter Slipper has been accused of sexual harassing a staff member by sending him explicit text messages. He has denied the allegations.

There was also the confirmation by the District Court of a six-month sentence (suspended) for a Sydney man who posted nude photos of his ex-girlfriend on Facebook, in an act of revenge.

It raises questions about whether we no longer clearly understand the distance between public and private. Adults need to have boundaries but social and digital media rub those boundaries out. Why don't we understand the difference any more?

David Vaile, the executive director of the cyberspace law and policy centre at UNSW, describes that as the $64 million question.

''It is the question of the age if you like,'' he says.

''We've grown up on the internet … basically, we think we are out there, we are beyond jurisdiction.''

And it's an unworldly view, which is only enhanced by the term ''the cloud''. Vaile says that idea only entrenches the view that in digital and social media use, we can cross borders without passports and never be held accountable.

Publish without punishment.

''People don't think there are consequences,'' he says, ''but it is permanent global publication. Just because the consequences aren't right here, right now, with the people beside you, doesn't mean that it won't have effects in the real world.

''We live in the real world but think cyberspace liberates us from our obligations. We are not relieved of reality just because we live in cyberspace.''

In the olden days, when we travelled (physically) between work and home, that journey provided the mental cue that we were in different places. Now, says Vaile, we use the same digital tool for home and work and sometimes we even do both from the same place. That's when we can get into big trouble.

''We forget there is a difference,'' he says.

The law, on the other hand, knows there is a difference. It recognises a ''domestic jurisdiction'' because there is much we say between, for example, husband and wife, which is unenforceable.

Thank God.

But sometimes we speak in our domestic voice to colleagues. And that's going to get us in to trouble. (Never mind trying to run a family dinner as if it is a meeting of lively colleagues.)

Professor of journalism at Bond University Mark Pearson says the last thing we need is more laws: ''We have hundreds of laws controlling free expression in various ways.''

But he says we really do need much more education in the community - starting in the school system - on the appropriate use of all media, not just social media.

Pearson, author of Tweeting and Blogging Without Getting Sued, says education is meant to prepare us for the challenges of life.

''This is clearly an important challenge - at least the next generation of citizens should not have our ignorance about the use of social media.''

And we may not need more laws but Pearson is insistent that all government and private organisations should be thinking about social media use and developing policies suited to their businesses and to the ways in which their employees use social and digital media. He says each business will have its own needs.

In the meantime, one rule of index finger I use is to never end messages with an X. Unless I am married to the intended recipient.

Follow me on Twitter @jennaprice or email me 


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