I recently wrote a post about the epidemic of unsolicited indecent exposure via social media that many women are currently enduring. It’s strange to reflect on how, at the time of writing, I didn’t actually think that the topic itself was anything out of the ordinary. I knew the discussion of just how commonplace the receipt of these unwanted images, or cyber-flashing, wouldn’t be anything particularly groundbreaking.
In hindsight, the fact that I actually thought like this bothers me. It shows how quietly indifferent my sense of social justice has become, to think that such a topic wasn’t something that many women would find revelatory or be outraged by. That’s how bad this is. That’s how ‘used to it’ we’ve become. And that, in itself, is an absolute travesty.
Cyber-flashing – the law’s grey area
I received some interesting feedback on my previous post on this topic. Predominantly echoes of agreement and solidarity, but also some interesting responses from men, who were completely in the dark about how often this goes on. For this reason, it’s something that we should keep talking about. The lid needs prising off this particular can of worms, no matter how flaccid and repellent they may be.
I want to caveat this part of the post with the following acknowledgement. In the social media sphere, I am a small fry. It has happened to me, but I am in no way one of the unluckier ones who receive this sort of thing en masse. However, that’s not to say that because I’m not constantly inundated with unwanted pictures of male genitals, I’m not affected by it.
We are all affected by it. We have all had enough of it, quite frankly.
So I’m going to try and examine some of the facts and figures around this issue, and more importantly, take a closer look at where the law currently stands on cyber-flashing. While I’m in no way an expert on this subject, I hope that this post can shed a little light on the issue, and hopefully provide some help if you’ve been a victim of unwanted sexual images.
What is cyber-flashing?
To recap, cyber-flashing is an indecent exposure that increasing numbers of women are being subjected to online. The unsolicited onslaught of photos of male genitalia in our social media inboxes is astounding. And yes, as I’m sure someone’s desperate to point out, this isn’t restricted to male genitalia. Sending unsolicited pictures of female genitals is also included in this discussion. Although I’ve absolutely no experience of that personally, I imagine cyber-flashing is probably not within the remit of men alone.
With that said, evidence, both statistical and anecdotal suggests that this is a predominantly male-related pattern of behaviour. A YouGov study released last year reflects this; almost 40% of women interviewed had been sent a picture of male genitals. Of this 40%, nine out of ten of them said they’d received this picture without asking for it. That’s 89% of a relatively small sample of women, being sent unsolicited photos of penises.
What’s even more concerning is that the study found that almost half of these women were younger than 18 when they first received the unsolicited image. This is despite the very clear illegality of sending someone under the age of 18 an indecent image.
This research was done back in 2017. Imagine where we’re at now. Some people may not be convinced yet as to the scale or impact of this issue. Let’s look at that for a while. There’s not a massive amount of data currently available on this issue, possibly because of the secretive nature in which it occurs, or perhaps because most of it goes unreported (but more on that in a minute).
Where can cyber-flashing happen and how prevalent is it?
Bridget was on the train, on the phone with her mother when she randomly received an indecent image on WhatsApp from a man she’d met on Tinder many months earlier. They’d chatted on the app itself and swapped numbers, but he’d never messaged her after that. Time had passed and Bridget had chalked it up to something and nothing. Then out of the blue, she received the following messages:
Somehow though, this exchange was entirely Bridget’s own fault:
Even when clearly told that his picture was not wanted nor appreciated, this man still persisted with the ‘sexy when you’re angry’ narrative. He just didn’t get it. Apologies are hollow when they’re followed up with another thinly veiled attempt at a come-on. And this is the problem – this issue is just not taken seriously enough. Beyond the obvious creepiness of this exchange, Bridget told me she’d felt revolted by it and that it was actually pretty horrendous, especially given the complete lack of communication for months prior.
There’ll be those out there who believe that if you’re on a dating app in the first place and you give out your phone number then actually, you can’t complain about this sort of thing. Those people are wrong. No one is ‘fair game’ to indecent exposure, regardless of the situation. It’s not restricted to dating apps either. I’ve received images like this on various social media platforms, most specifically Instagram and Twitter. Do I deserve to get them because I have a profile on there?
No. Of course, I don’t. And neither does anyone else.
Cyber-flashing is digital sexual harassment, but can we criminalise it?
If this kind of thing happened out on the street, we’d be able to report it to the police and something could be done. So why then, are we expected to simply ignore it because it’s happening in the virtual world?
Cyber-flashing is not yet criminalised, meaning this ongoing digital offending is largely going unchecked.
I recently spoke to Professor Clare McGlynn, Professor of Law at Durham University. Professor McGlynn is an expert in the field of legal regulation around pornography (and especially ‘revenge pornography’), sexual violence and image-based sexual abuse. Her research and evidence on the concept of image-based sexual abuse have been presented to Parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee and the Scottish Justice Committee in order to support recommendations to reform the current laws around these issues.
She explained that the Government will be reviewing the law in its violence against women strategy, as published a few months ago, but made interesting points surrounding the specific issue of the law on exposure in regards to cyber-flashing:
I think there is an interesting issue in terms of whether the offence of exposure (section 66 of sexual offences act 2003) can apply in the online world of cyber-flashing. It is assumed this law is only about physical exposure (or live, eg via facetime) but this is not evident from the face of the legislation.
Other laws on harassment and public order could apply, though that would usually only be if there were multiple instances. There is also the same point as above about knowing who the perpetrator actually is. And if the image is taken by an under 18, then it also falls foul of laws on child sexual abuse images – and that applies to the person who receives the image if they then have an indecent photo in their possession.Professor Clare McGlynn
Can you report cyber-flashing to the police?
Because of the current fuzziness around the law, it’s hardly surprising that so few of us feel confident in reporting cyber-flashing to the police. For one, it’s unclear whether or not cyber-flashing constitutes an offence in the same way as real-life flashing does.
In addition, there’s the difficulty around identification; who exactly is it that has sent these images? Often, they’re unannounced, anonymous and entirely impossible to distinguish a person’s identity from. Then, the million-pound question – will anything actually be done about it anyway?
In terms of reports, few will report this to the police because, as in cases of street harassment, many who experience this simply want to get on with their lives and for this not to happen. They do not want to have to undertake the process of reporting, especially as there is little that is often done as a result. Tracing Airdropped images is, as I understand it, not possible. Therefore, it is important to report (in order to keep records of this happening etc), there is little that even a proactive responder (such as Transport for London) can or will do.Professor Clare McGlynn
So, the honest answer here is no. So what are we all meant to do now, just keep tolerating it? Accept it as part of digital life nowadays, as the natural evolution of the creep in the flasher-mac into the flasher behind a Mac?
One tiny light at the end of the tunnel comes courtesy of the British Transport Police, who have a dedicated text service for anyone who is a victim of a sexual offence on public transport. They classify the sending of unsolicited dick pics as obscene sexual behaviour and encourage anyone who receives one to report it to them on their text number 61016.
What impact is this having on our society as a whole though? Is it changing the way we perceive one another?
What effect is cyber-flashing having on women?
Bianca is a dating and sex blogger who is no stranger to the effects of cyber-flashing. Her inbox is regularly crammed with unwanted images of erect penises and suggestive messages from complete strangers. She feels, like I do, that aside from the obvious moral and legal issues around cyber-flashing, there are wider emotional consequences for women. We talked about how the multitude of images she receives actually makes her feel.
I’d say it’s mainly repulsive, but my overwhelming feeling these days is just numbness. I’m so desensitised because I’ve been so bombarded over the years that I feel nothing. To the point where a lover sent me one and I flipped at him about it because I just overwhelmingly associate them with online predators that I can’t even enjoy it from someone I was sleeping with because of the negative connotations I’ve developed in addition to my coping strategy of remaining dead inside.Bianca
It’s a sad fact that so many women feel, as Bianca does, that the barrage of unwanted sexual images we’re subjected to is changing our emotional and social responses to men as a whole. It begs the question; do the people who do this realise the damaging effect their actions are having on many women’s ever-increasing sense of ‘us vs. them’?
Cyber-flashing and the law, going forwards
As revealed earlier, the Government planned to review the laws around sexual harassment of women and girls in response to the October 2018 report published by the Women And Equalities Committee (see above). However, in this update from Sophie Gallagher of HuffPost, who has reported extensively on the subject of cyber-flashing, it’s clear that many of the key recommendations made by the committee have been largely ignored.
If you’d like to read more of Sophie’s work and find out more about the extent of cyber-flashing in general, I’d highly recommend checking out HuffPost’s Cyberflashing archive. In light of what little legislative support there currently is, it’s really important to keep this conversation going and to keep affirming how unacceptable this online behaviour is.
So, how do you sum up a problem like cyber-flashing?
You can’t. That’s the problem. It’s not a topic that can be nicely rounded off with a quotable soundbite or tidy final phrase. It’s an endless deluge of upset after upset, issue after issue, picture after picture. The only way this problem can ever begin to be summed up is when we have proper law reform and new legislation that specifically enables these offenders to be held to account. Until then, we’ll just keep blocking, deleting and hoping for the humanity of these perverts to eventually kick in.
And to anyone who has ever sent a photo to a stranger, or might feel inclined to one day, just know this. It’s not OK. Stop doing it.
Help and support if you’ve been a victim of cyber-flashing
I hope you’ve found the issues raised here useful and not too triggering, but if it’s brought up some uncomfortable feelings then please don’t be afraid to discuss them. Support and solidarity are out there in the social media sphere, if nowhere else.
So, if you’ve been on the receiving end of image-based indecent exposure then there are ways we can raise awareness and help each other until the laws become stricter on the issue of cyber-flashing. Some places to get support and reassurance if you’ve been affected by this issue:
British Transport Police Cyber Crime Unit And Text Service: text 61016 to report cyber flashing on public transport
Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve been affected by cyber-flashing or if you’ve got any thoughts about the topic in general. As always, if you’ve found this post useful then please do share it so that others can get something helpful from it too.