Ten years ago s-xting wasn’t even a word. Now it is such a difficult issue that at least one of our state parliaments is agonising over what to do about it.

S-xting is the practice of taking explicit images and sending them electronically, with or without consent. You’d think the ethics of explicit texting would be simple; the risk of exploitation and victimisation is so great that the practice should simply be deplored. But a look at some of the 60 submissions to the Victorian Law Reform Committee’s inquiry reveals this phenomena is anything but simple.

The committee has been tasked to investigate the practice, as well as the implications. The committee’s first public hearings were held in July and its report is due on December 30. Already it has highlighted that the laws have had perverse effects. For example, often it is the people who make and send the images — as opposed to the people who are filmed — who become the most victimised.

We asked the first-year journalism students at Swinburne University to explore the full spectrum of opinion reflected in the submissions. We asked them to find the most important news. Then we asked them to dig deeper and speak with the people most affected.

The results make for fascinating reading. Among the important findings is the extent of the push for law reform and the breadth and diversity of the arguments behind it.

When you have eminent jurists, as well as youth workers and police officers — and many others besides — all saying the current laws make criminals out of innocent young people, then clearly the laws may need reform.

A theme that recurs in the submissions is the injustice of mandatory listing on the S-x Offenders’ Register. Even consenting adults can suffer years of stigmatisation for a few fleeting moments of flirtatious frivolity. Children, too, can be snared by these arbitrary laws. In at least one case, a perpetrator was tried in an adult court for an offence committed as a child, resulting in harsh penalties.

It’s apparent from the submissions that many members of the public are acutely aware of the difference between exploitation and freedom of expression. It is also clear one law cannot fit all circumstances and that getting the balance right is no easy task.

There is widespread recognition in the submissions that young and vulnerable people need effective protection as well as better education about the repercussions. There is plenty of speculation about the extent of s-xting, and just how early in life people first experiment with it. And everyone seems to have a different theory about why it’s happening. But the resounding message in these submissions is that the law isn’t working and is failing in its duty to protect innocent people.

Nearly 200 years after its invention, photography is a great delight in people’s lives. For all their seriousness of tone, these stories also serve to taunt those in power with the question: Is it beyond the wit of our legislators to protect the innocence of childhood without redefining the largely innocuous games that late adolescents and adults play as guilty pleasures?