How many unsolicited pictures of a stranger’s genitals have you received in the past few days? Scrolling through my Instagram DMs, I can see hundreds. I receive countless abusive and sexually charged messages every single day. At first, I tried to simply laugh it off. But it’s just not funny any more.
Last October, I finally opened up about the dark online abuse I have been getting in an article for Grazia, explaining all about the daily sexual harassment I receive online from strangers, and how it makes me feel (at best, unsettled – at worst, very unsafe).
I was shocked by the response. While for the most part I was met with supportive comments from those who were clearly decent and respectful individuals (men and women alike), I was also met with comments from many men who couldn’t hide their anger and bewilderment. Don’t I deserve this kind of treatment, they said. Why was I moaning about it? After all, I am a blonde who has posed in lads’ mags and played Charlotte ‘Big Jugs’ Hinchcliffe in The Inbetweeners – how could I not expect this kind of behaviour from men online?
I would like to say things got better after I wrote that article – in fact, things actually got worse and I’m getting more sexually abusive messages than ever. I have sat there in the privacy of my own home during the past year of lockdown being bombarded with penis shots, rape threats, sexually aggressive comments, wondering what it is about my character that they feel they can get away with targeting me. Questioning myself. I would often cry to my sister down the phone asking, ‘Is this the reason I’m single? Is this really how some men view me?’ Meanwhile, the men who subject me to these messages have probably not given it a second thought; they’ve probably cracked on with their evening, either bothering another woman down some other back alley of the web, or cooked their daughters’ tea and helped them with their homework. Probably told their wife how much they love her when kissing her goodnight.
As we became all too aware after the tragic murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year, for a lot of women walking home through the streets alone at night is, sadly, often a terrifying prospect . For many of us, the internet – as wonderful as its power can be – is a whole new street we are having to navigate our way around, worrying if we are going to be sexually harassed or flashed. What fascinates me is that if you walk out in the street and someone flashes you, they will probably be arrested; yet when you receive a dick pic you haven’t asked for, let’s face it, an irksome conversation with the police is likely to become a laborious task that will amount to nothing.
This is why I am, along with Grazia, calling for the Government to criminalise cyberflashing, another term for dick pics. Cyberflashing has become increasingly common across social media platforms, dating apps and even via Airdrop, with YouGov research finding that close to half of female Millennials (46%) have been sent a photo of a penis, with women being more likely to have received one the younger they are (53% of 18 to 24-year-olds compared to 36% of 31 to 36-year-olds). Of those women who have been sent a dick pic, nine in 10 (89%) have received one without having asked for it, meaning that 41% of all Millennial women have been sent an unsolicited photo of a man’s private parts. Yet there is no legislation regarding cyberflashing – it is not a criminal act and the women who are targeted, like me, have little control over the content they receive.
This needs to be taken seriously. That’s why Grazia is campaigning for cyberflashing to be made illegal under the Online Safety Bill – legislation that aims to protect us online and tackle some of the worst abuses on social media by introducing new internet laws, so women can feel protected and heard. We also need to change the narrative around dick pics. The very term has become something that people often take as a joke. Using idioms is how most of my girl mates communicate – a ‘Bott for the Journ’, for example (a bottle for the journey) – it’s something we do to make something sound funnier. But perhaps the term ‘dick pic’ undermines the severity of the problem.
I think men often send them without understanding the impact and implications it can have on someone’s mental health. It ISN’T funny. Just because you aren’t physically assaulting us, it doesn’t mean you aren’t harming us.
And I can’t help but wonder, if it was made illegal, would men think twice before sending one? I hope so.