Now more than ever, everyone around the globe is relying on technology to stay connected and adjust to a new normal in our lives. The conversations that we used to have in-person are now swapped for chatting online, using apps like FaceTime, Discord, Instagram, and more. However, while we are lucky to still be able to connect with each other in a way that was not possible before, conversations about consent are now turning to the digital sphere.
When we think of consent, we think about what it looks like in a physical space. If you are on a date, and someone leans in for a kiss, you can either consent to it or not. But things may not be as simple online. That is why it is especially crucial to have clear communication with others, even online. In any situation, it is vital to respect and understand others’ boundaries and their right to say no.
Having consent boils down to the concept of FRIES. It is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific. While this may look different online, the overall concept remains the same.
Doing something with someone is a decision that should be made without pressure, force or manipulation. Using technology, if someone is misled into doing something that they wouldn’t normally do or did not agree to, then consent has still not been given. Consent is still key to how we think about how others circulate our private information.
Sexting involves sending sexual photos, videos, or messages from your phone or computer, and follows the same rules of consent as any other sexual activity. If someone says no to any online sexual activity, it is important to respect their decision. It is never okay to send unwanted sexts, even to a long-term partner.
Sexting coercion occurs when someone pressures or forces another person to digitally send explicit pictures or texts. This is not consent and is never okay. You have the right to protect your body and choose when to participate in any kind of sexual activity.
Anyone can change their mind about what they want to do, any time. Consent is always reversible. If someone agrees to something, that doesn't mean that they always agree to it every time. If both parties agree to send suggestive pictures or texts one time, it doesn’t mean that the same will be true every time. You have the right to choose whether or not you want to engage in any kind of sexual activity, online or in-person. If your partner is okay with sexting, ask them before you send anything.
This also applies to sharing any kind of personal information. Ask your partner how they feel about sharing and tagging photos of them and posting about your relationship online. Find out if they’d like to see what you’re posting first, or maybe they’re okay with you sharing without asking every time. Either way, it is important to respect their right to say no or change their mind at any time.
While there is no surefire way to have lasting consent for privacy or discretion when it comes to the exchange of photographs or texts, it is important to be clear about what you have permission to do. It is important to be informed of the privacy risks of online technologies: once you send something electronically to someone else (whether it be words or pictures) it is no longer completely under your control. It can be copied, altered, or shared with anyone else, and never completely erased.
That is why it is vital to consider the pros and cons of any sexual act before engaging, and as sharing sexualized photos or messages is a sexual act, make sure that you are prepared for it physically, emotionally, and socially. Discuss each act with your partner before you engage in it to make sure that you are both comfortable with taking that step.
There is no guarantee that a person won’t distribute suggestive texts or photos, even if he or she promises not to. If someone chooses to distribute your private messages without your consent, then that is not your fault; rather, it is the fault of the offender for breaking that trust. Sharing intimate photos with someone that they weren’t meant for is a violation of trust and could be illegal.
When sexting involves minors, it violates both state and federal child pornography laws, even if both parties are under the age of 18.
Just like any other sexual activity, digital sexual interactions should be exciting, comfortable, safe, and enthusiastic for all parties. Not everybody feels comfortable sexting, and that’s okay – there are very valid reasons to have concerns about sharing a private image or text.
Make sure that permission is clear, and ask questions if you don’t know. If someone isn’t excited or not into it, then that’s not consent. Direct communication is crucial. It is easier to miss out on non-verbal cues like tone and body language, so make sure that both parties are clear in their response.
It is important to set boundaries for all forms of communication. Saying yes to one thing doesn’t mean that they’ve said yes to others. If someone says “yes” to sending suggestive texts, that doesn’t mean that you have permission to send an unsolicited picture. Both parties should be certain of what is being sent and exchanged.
This applies to other aspects of communication such as texting and sharing information with your network. Just because technology may connect us 24/7 doesn’t mean that your partner is always available. Some people may enjoy rapid-fire texting, while others may only like to text occasionally. And your partner may be okay with being tagged in some photos but not others.
Smartphones and social media have now become a regular part of dating and flirting and even more so now during the time of COVID-19. Healthy relationships and communication do not stop once the conversation turns to the digital sphere. Rather, it is even more important for us to practice digital consent when online communication makes it more difficult to determine how someone truly feels. Although you aren’t talking in-person, you should always consider how your actions might make another person feel. Consent should be a vital part of your interactions with others whether you are talking in-person or online.