In 2002, I was seventeen years old. I had just passed my driving test and, flush with my new-found independence, I offered lifts to whoever I could just so that I could get behind the wheel. One Saturday night, I went above and beyond and offered my dad a lift home from town after one of his boozy dinners.
At about 10pm, I parked my car in Cardiff City Centre and made my way to the restaurant where my dad was having dinner. A tall, young man walked towards me. I wasn’t scared – I was metres away from the door to the venue and he seemed pretty normal looking.
'’Scuse me?” he said. I assumed he wanted directions. 'Do you want some of this?' he slurred at me, gesturing downwards.
From under his hoodie, he took hold of his penis and testicles in both hands, offering them up to me.
Frozen but repulsed, 'Eurgh, fuck off' was the only thing I could think to say and darted for the door. He carried on walking. I dived into the restaurant, found my dad and could hardly speak. I drove home, feeling so ashamed. It was half an hour later at home that I finally told my mum and dad what had happened.
Just seventeen, it was the first time I had seen anything like that. I often wonder where that man walked on to that night. Did he just stumble his way home? Did he go home to a girlfriend or a wife? Did he harass another woman that night or in the future – or worse?
More than one friend sniggered when I retold the story. But this is no joke. It is a crime. It is intrusive, indecent and threatening. Evidence suggests it is the gateway to more violent aggression towards women. I refuse to name him, but the man responsible for the murder of Sarah Everard was accused of flashing six years before his brutal attack on Sarah. Far from dismissing it, we should be deeply worried that flashing’s sinister digital twin is rifer than ever before.
This is no joke. It is a crime. It is intrusive, indecent and threatening. Evidence suggests it is the gateway to more violent aggression towards women.
Cyberflashing is on the rise – thanks in part to pandemic boredom mixed with lax regulation by social media companies. It has two sick currents. It’s one type of offence to send a woman you follow on social media a ‘dick pic’ but it’s even more insidious to use Bluetooth or AirDrop to force photos of your genitals onto strangers in a public space – many offenders often watching surreptitiously to see if you react.
Grazia has identified research which shows that around half of female Millennials have been sent a photo of a penis, with women being more likely to have received one the younger they are. Of those women who have been sent a dick pic, nine in 10 have received one without having asked for it. This means that 41% of all Millennial women have been sent an unsolicited photo of a man’s genitals.
It is important to remember the notion of consent here. I did not consent to being flashed. And thousands of women up and down the country do not consent to receiving explicit photos on a daily basis. But now, more relationships do take place in the digital space. Sharing intimate photos between willing adults is a part of modern courtship for some. (Not mine, I should hasten to add. I once sent my boyfriend a photo of me in a new dress. He replied with a thumbs up. I never bothered again.)
With so many more young people living their lives online – and even more post-pandemic relationships springing up from digital dates – it is important to separate lawful image-sharing and the pernicious offence of cyberflashing.
Currently it is not illegal. However, as the Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins told the House of Commons this week; ‘what is illegal offline should be illegal online.’ A layer of glass on a mobile phone screen is not enough protection – we need to make cyber flashing a criminal offence.
This is not a party-political issue. Nor is it a women’s issue. This is about keeping people safe online. And making sure there are consequences for those who do it. So, I fully support what Grazia is trying to do through its cross-party campaign. It is imperative that we all stand up and add our voices to this campaign and pile pressure on the Government to take cyberflashing seriously. In fairness, I know they are listening.
In the wake of Sarah Everard’s death, the Government asked to hear the testimony of women around the country through a consultation on the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, and tens of thousands of women came forward. The Government is working its way through those responses, and I believe the call is clear – make cyberflashing a crime.
Later this year, the Government will publish its Online Harms Bill and if this isn’t an online harm, I don’t know what is. I’ll be urging the Government to make cyber flashing a criminal offence and I hope you will too.
We are calling for criminalisation of cyberflashing within the Online Harms Bill which is due to be published later this year. We have an opportunity to change things NOW,so please sign our petition to show your support.