Consent In The Digital Age: Lessons From Katie Hill

Earlier this year RedState and Daily Mail published nude photographs of Congresswoman Katie Hill (D-CA) without her consent after her husband leaked the photos to those platforms, also without her consent. I will not minimize the serious implications of other allegations facing Hill about the ethics of a relationship with a former staff member, but I am not here to dissect every angle of this story. 

There are many lessons to learn from Katie Hill, about gender norms, ethics, power dynamics, victim blaming, and consent. Katie Hill is the first prominent female politician to experience this nonconsensual cyber exploitation, but she won’t be the last in the digital era. The former Congresswoman has since resigned, releasing a statement to her constituents explaining her departure. After a brief digital hiatus, Hill was back on Twitter, vowing to continue the fight against revenge porn and to call attention to advocacy efforts on cyber exploitation. I would like to explore what consent in the digital age means for students because what happened to Katie Hill on the national stage can happen to youth in schools.

We know that students engage with social media platforms every day. With ease and wide accessibility, communicating through social media and photo sharing is the norm for the so called “iGen.” The jump from digital communication to full blown “sexting” (Sex + Texting) among adolescents is overwhelming school leaders who are trying to confront sexting among high school and even middle school students. Sexting includes sending or possessing written, audio, or visual messages with explicit sexual content. Washington State schools include the act of viewing sexually explicit content in their definition of sexting found in the 2019 student conduct booklet titled “Rights and Responsibilities in the Digital Age.”

Researchers are currently working to document the impact of sexting. An article in the Journal for School Health reported thatnearly 30 percent of 9th-12th graders in a Pennsylvania study indicated that they had knowingly participated in “consensual” sexting (Frankel et al. 2018). Another study, published in the Journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy, codes sexting into categories based on either the intent or outcomes of an exchange (Thomas 2018). We can’t deny the fact that youth are sending and receiving sexual digital content. We need to equip students about the facts and dangers of this behavior and conduct.  

The best way to prevent the release of personal, digital sexual content is simply not to sext, but that premise sounds a lot like abstinence only education. If we’ve learned anything from data on abstinence education, we know it is not effective. We need to empower youth to make safe choices and understand the consequences of their behavior. Comprehensive sex education, like the curriculum offered by Advocates for Youth, does this in the classroom because it teaches youth about their autonomy, informed decision making, consent, and interpersonal relationships. It warns of the consequences of engaging in risky behavior, some of which include sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, or HIV. 

It is crucial that comprehensive sex education curriculum adapts to include sexting as a content area focused on defining consent and risk. Sexting is risky sexual behavior and the consequences of nonconsensual sharing of sexual content need to be addressed both in formal sex education courses and in other classrooms.

What we need now is information about the digital footprint of sharing photos, coupled with clear provisions regarding student rights and understanding of consent. Schools and districts are quickly incorporating nonconsensual sharing of sexual photographs or messages into their Title IX and misconduct policies. K-12 schools and colleges are including terms like “revenge porn,” “nonconsensual pornography,” and “cyber exploitation” into policies for the protection of students. My alma mater, Furman University, includes the nonconsensual sharing of sexual photos and content under both sexual exploitation and sexual misconduct policies

States are taking the matter of teenage sexting seriously because it involves minors. This is where legality becomes cloudy, as the definition of the legal age of consent varies by state. Some states define the legal age of consent as 18, meaning minors can’t give consent to each other, while others have exceptions for teenagers engaging with other teenagers. The Connecticut statute for Teenage Sexting, for instance, makes sending and receiving explicit content illegal. Crimes under this law are punishable as a misdemeanor for minors aged 13-15 years old who have sent explicit content and for minors aged 13-17 years who possess shared images of explicit content. Those outside of this age range who send or possess this content then cross into child pornography possession, a felony.

The landscape is not always clear on consent and sexting, but the consequences carry lifelong implications. In the event that photos or videos of a student are released without their consent, they need to know the protections and rights that they are entitled to under school policy and state law. If this happens, adults must not resort to victim blaming, which sounds a lot like, “why did you send that photo in the first place?” Students need to be supported if their information is spread to the school community without their consent. The matter must continue to be taken seriously. It’s on us to prepare our students to understand their own digital impact. 

From a national stage to a school community, sexting and nonconsensual cyber exploitation will continue to be pressing issues in the digital age, but we have the tools to empower youth to understand consent in the cyber realm.

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