Ask the average man the last time he saw an unsolicited vulva and he’s likely to look at you as if you’ve gone mad. Ask a woman how many unwanted ‘dick pics’ she’s received and she’ll probably run out of fingers to count them on. The disparity is because forcing unsolicited pornographic images on people is a form of sexual abuse, and like all sexual abuse in our society, it is gendered.
So while Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, is right to say that schools should be teaching boys about inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment, it isn't enough to blame the problem on a 'wider culture' of misogyny, or to suggest these problems largely happen outside school. We know that for many girls, sexual harassment, abuse and assault are also taking place on school premises and that they are often shockingly under-supported by schools when these incidents occur. Yet dick pics are still often seen as a bit of a giggle. Harmless fun. Nothing to make a fuss about.
As a society, we struggle to take this issue seriously, to see it as a real violation. It is one of those feminist issues, like street harassment, or gendered toys, that tends to induce an eyeroll and a mouthing of the word ‘feminazi’ behind your back. Is it really such a big deal? Is it really hurting anybody?
The answer is yes. It isn’t just about the experience of receiving unwanted pornographic images, which can have a massive and varied traumatic impact. It is also about what the freedom to send those images with impunity means. It shows men that they have the right to intrude sexually on women’s lives without consent, whenever they choose. That their sexual impulses are more important than women’s autonomy and choice. And it starts incredibly young. 75% of teenage girls have been sent unsolicited ‘dick pics’. It teaches them that men can force unwanted sexual experiences on them without consent. It teaches their male peers that they can violate girls’ boundaries and autonomy, often with no consequences.
And I know from the thousands of teenage girls I work with that it is often interlinked with other forms of abuse. One 14-year-old received an unwanted dick pic every single day from the same boy. She repeatedly blocked and reported his online accounts but he simply set up new ones. At school, meanwhile, he harassed her, followed her and grabbed her breasts. Another 14-year-old described how a man approached her in a park and showed her a photo of his genitals on his phone before sexually assaulting her.
Sexual harassment, assault and other forms of abuse are a spectrum of behaviours. The more we normalise and ignore the sending of unsolicited explicit photographs, the more we make other behaviour on that spectrum seem increasingly acceptable too. That’s why Grazia is campaigning for cyberflashing to be made illegal under the Online Safety Bill, with a petition you can support at change.org/make-cyberflashing-illegal.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that girls are beginning to believe this is just something they have to accept. In a recent Ofsted report, 79% of girls said that sexual assault was happening regularly in their peer groups, but they told inspectors it was normalised: a routine part of life. We owe it to those girls to fight. To show them that they’re not alone, that this isn’t and never should be normal. And that we won’t give up until things have changed.
The Trial by Laura Bates is out now (Simon & Schuster)