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Calls to criminalise cyberflashing: “It was really intimidating”

Following the news that cyberflashing is finally being taken seriously by the government, one woman tells Stylist exactly why it needs to be criminalised.

“I was on a train to London for work. I had a series of five images sent to me via Airdrop – weirdly, it was like they were telling a story. The first was a picture of someone getting on a train (like a CGI mock-up). It was followed by a topless photo of a guy with his face covered, then by a picture of his crotch. I received messages saying, ‘Want more?’. I declined them all. 

“I was messaging my friend at the time, trying to figure out how to turn my Airdrop off (I didn’t even realise it was on and wasn’t aware I could manage it). In the meantime, I got another picture – a full on nude of his privates (a so-called ’dick pic’). 

“There were only a few people on the carriage at this point. It was really intimidating, as I was the only female and my phone would’ve showed up with my name. It wasn’t nice. In the end I got in touch with the British Transport Police (which my boss advised me to) and reported it.”

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“When I arrived in London the BTP were waiting and I could’ve identified myself if I felt threatened, but it was quite busy at that point so I felt I could just get on with my day. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a nice experience and it has been logged officially as a case.

“I think what happened to me was quite calculated: sending a picture of me getting on the train followed by progressively revealing photos – he must have been able to see that I was the only female in the carriage. The only reason I want to speak about it is because I want to raise awareness. It absolutely should be criminalised.”

Jessica*, 28, was a victim of cyberflashing: the act of someone using the internet to send an unsolicited image of their naked body. She’s just one of a growing number of victims.

 A 2018 YouGov survey found that 19% of all surveyed women and 40% of women aged 18-34 received an unsolicited sexual photo from someone who is not a romantic partner. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, with the UK’s Revenge Porn Helpline reporting that calls about explicit imagery being shared without consent rose by 87% between April and August 2020 versus the previous year. And cybersecurity and anti-virus provider Kaspersky found that 24% of 2,000 survey respondents have sent or received explicit material from someone they have never met in real life during the pandemic. 

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In the government’s strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, which was released last week, Priti Patel acknowledged that “digital crimes such as cyberflashing, ‘revenge porn’ and ‘up-skirting’ are taking place every day”. The report stated that the government is “carefully considering the recommendations of the Law Commission’s review of abusive and harmful online communications“ which includes “a new offence of cyberflashing”. This means that it could be criminalised under the online safety bill.

But is it enough? And how have campaigners reacted?

“I welcome more robust laws around sharing unsolicited images – but the reality is that technology moves faster than law, and new forms of online abuse and harassment are continuously emerging,” Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tells Stylist.

“I want to see social media giants like Facebook and Twitter taking accountability and doing far more to address digital harassment of women – including cyberflashing. They already have the infrastructure and technology in place to do so: look at how Instagram automatically adds a Covid-19 information tag to any post that mentions the coronavirus.

“Quite frankly, social media and tech companies need to prioritise ending all forms of violence and harassment on their platforms – anything less is unacceptable.” 

Woman receiving text
Cyberflashing might become criminalised in the UK.

Women’s safety campaign group We Can’t Consent To This added: “It’s good to see that cyberflashing is finally being taken seriously. It’s horrendously common – and for too long, women have been expected to put up with this. 

“The Law Commission has recognised that victims of cyberflashing feel ‘utterly violated’ and ‘humiliated’. It’s over to the government to see what they do next; but it’s heartening to see Home Office minister Victoria Atkins say that ‘we are very clear that what is illegal offline is also illegal online” about the online dafety bill expected for later this year. This should be the chance to make cyberflashing a criminal offence at last.”

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Clearly, this is something that requires the big tech companies to offer a commitment to, with a regulator holding them to account. And we won’t see what the new laws are until the bill is finalised. But stories like Jessica’s, which would make any woman shudder, are enough to prove criminalisation needs to happen so that women can feel safer.

If you experience cyberflashing on public transport, report your case to Transport for London or British Transport Police. You can also report cyberstalking through GOV.UK. And anyone affected by online abuse can contact Women’s Aid.

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Images: Getty

*Name changed at contributor’s request