Digital consent and education

February 6, 2018 was marked as International Safer Internet day. This day is a reminder for parents of teens, that the internet can be a dangerous place. It is a day to recognize cyberbullying and put further efforts towards combating it. It is a day to recognize child exploitation on the internet.

This year, it has included a discussion around sexting. In a CBC interview with Faye Mishna, a professor and Dean of Social Work at the University of Toronto spoke on a study she is currently working on called the Non-Consensual Sharing of Sects: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth.

In her study, Mishna identifies the two working parts of sexting – sending and sharing. Without consent, both can be problematic. There is nothing worse than going about your day, reaching for your phone and there is an unsolicited picture of a dick on your screen. Maybe you are in class, maybe you are at work or maybe it just makes you feel uncomfortable. Sending pictures without having consent from the other person first is not okay. It is also not okay to distribute a picture that someone has sent you without their consent.

Too often, there are headlines from high schools claiming a “sexting epidemic”, discussing non-consensual sexting. There were countless instances of this in my own high school. Typically, a girl would send their partner a picture and their partner would send it to their friends without her consent. It would spread through the school like wildfire – everyone would be discussing her body and making assumptions about her sexuality etc. It was disheartening, even more so, that it continues into university or college and beyond. This has to do with the objectification of female bodies. Mishna said including sexting into the sexual education curriculum would educate youth about “sending; how and when and what to make it okay but sharing sext, non consensual, needs to also be talk about but separately because that’s more about doing something that’s not okay.”

The very hallmark of being sex positive is consent. Sex positivity means all sex is good sex as long as it is consensual. Nude photographs have always been used as an expression of the human form, limited by nothing but the artist’s imagination. We see a re-emergence of this in the popularity of boudoir photoshoots. It is a way to feel empowered and liberated in your body especially when it does not fall into the category of conventional beauty. Sex positivity works against shaming people for what they like to do or how they choose to portray themselves. Like most sexual education taught in schools, abstinence has become the preferred method to employ when teaching about sexting.

Mishna, however, believes that method is as ineffective as when discussing abstinence and sex, explaining “And while most teenagers are told to stop [sexting] in order to avoid problems, that puts the blame on the person who sent the message, rather than the individual who shared it without consent.” Let me say it a little louder for the people in back – telling youth to stop sexting puts the blame on the person who sent the message instead of the shame put on the person who sent it without consent. Consent must always be part of the conversation when two or more people are involved. This Valentine’s Day be sure to establish boundaries with your partner(s) and enjoy being a beautiful, sexy, desirable human being.

Happy sexting (or not – because that is also totally ok)!


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