Sexting

What you need to know:

  • Sexting can be a crime
  • The penalties can include jail sentences and sex offender registration.
  • If your pic has been shared - or if you're nervous that it might be - there are things you can do to stop these pictures being sent around.

What is sexting?

Sexting is using the internet or your phone to share nude/sexy pictures.

Is sexting a crime?

Sexting is a crime when it involves people under 18. It’s also a crime when it involves harassing people of any age.

When sexting involves someone under 18…

When sexting involves someone under 18, it can be ‘child pornography,’ an ‘indecent dealing’, a ‘pornographic performance,’ or an ‘indecent article’.

What is child pornography?

Child pornography is a picture or film of a young person who is:

  •  showing their private parts (genitals, anus or breasts);
  • posing in a sexual way;
  •  doing a sexual act; or
  •  in the presence of someone who is doing a sexual act or pose. 

Child pornography can include real pictures, photo-shopped pictures, videos and cartoons. But a picture is only child pornography if it is offensive to the average person. That’s why a picture of a naked baby in a bath generally isn't child pornography, but a picture of a naked teenager in a bed could be.    

What is illegal about it?

Child pornography pictures are illegal if they are:

  •  asked for;
  • taken;
  •  received and kept; or
  •  sent, posted or passed around. 

These actions are crimes even if the picture is only of you, your boyfriend/girlfriend or someone else who says it’s ok. Remember, the laws say that a person under 18 can’t agree to sexting.

It can also be a crime to share a nude/sexy picture, of someone who looks like they are under 18, even if they are actually over 18 when the picture was taken.

Even if a picture is not child pornography, a nude/sexy photo can be an “indecent article” and sending it is a crime. An indecent article is a picture that shows a child under 16 in a way that the average person finds offensive. 

A real life example:                                        

An 18 year old boy in New South Wales texted a 13 year old girl and asked her for a “hot steamy” picture. The girl texted back the boy a nude picture of herself. The girl’s father found the picture on her phone and called the police. The 18 year old was charged with possessing child pornography and causing the girl to do an act of indecency. He was found guilty of the indecency charge and was placed on a good behaviour bond.

The girl also broke the law by taking and sending the picture. In this case, she was not charged (probably because she was so much younger than him, the 18 year old was considered more at fault).

What are the penalties?

The maximum penalties for child pornography can be up to 15 years in jail and being placed on the sex offender register (see below). The maximum penalty for an indecent dealing is 14 years in jail if the person in the picture is under 10. If the person is over 10 but under 16, the maximum penalty is 10 years in jail. The penalties are high because the laws were meant to stop adults from sexually abusing children. When the laws were passed, nobody realised that they might also be used against young people who took pictures of themselves or other people of their own age.

In some sexting cases, instead of using child pornography laws, the police might decide to:

  • charge you with a less serious crime (like posting an indecent picture, which has a maximum penalty of 2 years in jail);
  •  send you to youth justice conferencing;
  •  give you a warning or caution; or
  •  let your parents or school decide your punishment.

When sexting involves harassment and threats, it's much more likely that police will press serious charges that could lead to sex offender registration. in the Northern Territory, the police have not released guidelines on how they will deal with sexting offences. However, it seems the police are more likely to press serious charges that would lead to sex offender registration is sexting involves harassment or threats.   

If the person is under 18 when they commit the child pornography crime, the police must get the Attorney General’s permission before they can make child pornography charges under the national law.The police do not need to get this permission before making charges under the state law.

What is the sex offender register?

You may be placed on the sex offender register if you are found guilty of a child pornography or indecency crime. People on this register have to give their contact details to the police and inform them of any changes (like moving houses or switching jobs). They are even required to notify the police if they change their hair colour or get a drastic haircut. They are also not allowed to work or volunteer in places involving children. For example, they are not allowed to coach junior sports teams or become a surf lifesaver.

If you are under 18, you can’t be placed on the register unless the court is satisfied that you are a continuing risk to the lives or sexual safety of children. The court doesn't need to think that you are a risk to any specific child or group of children in order to place you on the list. If you have sexy/nude pictures of someone under 18 and keep the pictures until after you turn 18, you could be put on the Register at that point. 

What should you do?

If you receive nude/sexy pictures or videos on the internet or on your mobile, you should:

  • delete the pictures/videos immediately and
  • let the sender know that you don’t want to receive any more of these pictures/videos.

You should NEVER forward these images onto other people because this is a crime. 

When sexting involves harassment…

Sexting can also be a form of harassment, or stalking. For example, someone might keep bothering you with requests for a naked picture. Or they might send you a naked picture that you don’t want. Or they might threaten to send a naked picture of you to other people without your permission.

Sexting that involves harassment can be a crime even if everyone is over 18 if the person tries to and does hurt the other person in some way, including emotionally. It can also be considered a menacing, harassing or offensive use of the internet or a mobile phone.

What is menacing, harassing or offensive use of the internet or a mobile?

It is a crime to use your mobile phone or the internet in an offensive way or to harass somebody. Something could be offensive or harassing if it makes a person feel disgusted, humiliated or threatened. When sexting is used to threaten or bother someone, it is against the law. The maximum penalty is 3 years in jail.

Real life examples:

A 20 year old boy posted 6 nude photos of his 18 year old ex-girlfriend on Facebook as a revenge for breaking up with him. His ex-girlfriend reported this to the police and he removed the photos for a short time. When he re-posted those photos later that day, the Police arrested and charged him with posting indecent pictures. He was given a 6 months home detention and was left with a criminal record. This was largely because of the embarrassment, humiliation and anxiety the boy’s actions caused his ex-girlfriend – something the court takes very seriously. 

In another case, a 19 year old boy used Skype to stream a video of him having sex with an 18 year old girl to several of his friends. When she found out that she was filmed without her consent, she reported this to the police. The boy was found guilty of using the internet in a menacing, harassing or offensive way and of committing an act of indecency. 

What if you didn't know or agree to your picture or video being taken in the first place?

It is also a crime to use your mobile phone, a camera, a webcam, or anything else to record or listen in on another person. It’s only a crime if the person didn't agree to you spying on them, and they’re doing something that they thought would stay private. Examples would be if you filmed someone having sex, or filmed someone walking around their house.

It’s a separate crime to show other people this footage, or to publish it on the internet. These crimes apply to adults and children, so it doesn't matter how old you are, or if the person that you’re filming is over 18.

These are both serious crimes, so if you’re caught you could be made to pay a big fine, or go to jail for a maximum of 2 years.

Other laws that can apply to sexting…

When sexting involves a person who is under 16 and a person who is over 18, the person who is over 18 could be committing some other very serious crimes. This is because when you turn 18, you legally become an adult, and the law takes any kind of sexual interaction between an adult and a child very seriously.

When sexting is unwanted and happens at work or at school, it could also be a form of sexual harassment.

What can I do to stop people sending images of me around the internet or through mobiles?

There are a number of things you can do to stop these pictures being sent around:

  •  If a picture is on a social networking site like Facebook, you may be able to report the picture and have it taken off the site.
  • You can also make a report to your mobile phone company if you are receiving unwanted pictures or requests for pictures. Call your mobile phone company or go to their website for details.
  • Apply for a protection order to stop a person from contacting you or sending out images to harass you.
  • Send us a Lawmail. We can tell you what your options are, help you make a complaint, or write a letter to the person who is threatening to share your picture.
  • Tell someone you trust – a parent, friend, school counsellor or teacher.

o You may also wish to speak to someone from the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

o Be aware that your teacher may feel that they have to report the incident to the police.

  • Contact the police if the images are being spread without your consent, or if you feel unsafe or threatened.

o Be aware that you may be charged if you took and sent the picture.  But the police have discretion not to charge victims of unwanted sexting.

What should I do if I have a picture or text I am unsure about?

It’s important to protect yourself by deleting any pictures you are uncomfortable with straight away. NEVER forward these images on to anyone else. If you’re worried you may have committed a crime, you can send us a Lawmail or call or call the NT Legal Aid Hotline on 1800 019 343.

If you decide to do any of these things, you should also have a look at our fact sheet on self-incrimination.


This information was last updated 13 December 2013.

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