BRIDGEWATER, N.S. — It had all the trappings of a typical teen romance, until it became part of a high-profile case that shines a light on the consequences of mixing digital images and sexuality.
The 14-year-old girl had known the boy since they were young. When they talked in class, he would compliment her looks and tell her that he liked her.
The boy would talk about how they could trust each other, according to court documents, then asked her for photos, including full nudes.
“He asked her repeatedly and explained that it was ‘no big deal,'” the documents said.
The boy is one of six male teenagers in Bridgewater, N.S., who have admitted to distributing intimate images of at least 20 girls between the ages of 13 and 17 without their consent. They will be sentenced in Bridgewater provincial court Monday.
When the six were charged in July 2016, four of the accused were 15 years old and the other two were 18. However, all were under 18 when the offences were committed, which means their identities are protected from publication under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The victims’ identities are also protected.
The case is one of Canada’s largest involving a relatively untested law designed to combat the non-consensual sharing of intimate images.
A Crown attorney said in March that he hopes the case raises awareness about the criminal consequences of this kind of behaviour, but experts say the law may do little to deter teenage sexuality.
“It’s not clear that the law will be deterrent one way or the other, especially in the world of teenage hormones and sexuality run amok,” said Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University.
Documents submitted in court said two Dropbox accounts were created for the purpose of sharing dozens of intimate images of girls in various states of undress, including fully nude.
An agreed statement of facts said everyone who uploaded photos either knew outright or were “wilfully blind” to the fact that the subjects didn’t consent to their distribution.
In the statement, the photos’ subjects cited a variety of motivations for sending the images.
Some young women felt pressured by what they described as persistent requests for intimate images, while others said they were vying for boys’ affections or just joking around, the statement said.
The document said one 13-year-old girl was repeatedly asked for sexual photos by one of the accused over the course of several days, despite persistent rejection.
“The next day at school (the boy) and his friends were clustered near her locker and gave her the impression that they were talking about her. She felt pressured,” the document said, noting that she ended up sending the photos out of fear that he would spread a rumour about her.
McKay said it can be hard to draw the line between flirtation and coercion in intimate images cases, particularly when they involve young people.
He said the Bridgewater case shows the digital distribution of such images can reinforce high school social dynamics — like boys bragging about their sexual conquests, while girls are shamed for theirs — but said technology poses new potential for harm.
“I still think it’s important that we not minimize too much because that does send the wrong message that this is just boys being boys,” he said. “Some of these things have gone on forever, but because of the nature of social media and technology, the images and the damage is ongoing forever, potentially.”
The intimate images bill, which became law in 2015, was introduced after the death of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons, which captured national attention.
The 17-year-old died by suicide in 2013 after a photo — of what her family says was a sexual assault — was circulated among students at her school in Cole Harbour, N.S.
Lara Karaian, a criminology professor at Carleton University, said in the age of “sexual romance 2.0,” the circulation of intimate images has become the norm, and teens’ attitudes have shifted accordingly.
“This is not a trend that is going away. This is a new mode of sexual expression for young people,” Karaian said in an interview. “How much are we willing to use the law against so many young people who are doing this?”
McKay agreed that the legislation on intimate images has lagged behind the pace of technology and said we have to look outside the courtroom to address this growing phenomenon.
In the Bridgewater case, McKay said the distribution of images appeared to be so “systematic” that he thinks legal consequences could be appropriate.
He said the six accused could face court-ordered restrictions at the sentencing hearing Monday, including a prohibition on access to the Internet.
“For young people in the modern world, limiting their social media is what they’ll take note of,” he said. “For some, it may even be a bigger deterrent than time in custody.”
— By Adina Bresge in Halifax.