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Cyberflashing: young women are being “bombarded” by unwanted sexual images on social media

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Over half of young people who receive unwanted sexual images online don’t report the abuse, a new report has found.

Three in four young women have been sent sexual images on social media, a new report has found.

The study, which was based on the responses of 480 young people aged 11 to 18 from across the UK, including 144 who took part in focus groups, found that over half of the young people who had been sent unsolicited sexually explicit images via social media had not reported the offence to their parents, authorities or the apps themselves, with a third of those saying they didn’t report because they don’t believe reporting is effective.

The research by academics at University College London and the University of Kent also looked closer at the abuse young women receive in particular.  

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As part of one of the focus groups, the team asked the young women who had received images of male genitals to share who they had received these images from.

They said that close to half of the harassment had come from what appeared to be adult men – including adults who had created false identities. They also reported online harassment and abuse from boys in their age range and peer groups.

Speaking about the study, Professor Jessica Ringrose of the UCL Institute of Education, one of the report’s authors, said young people in the UK were facing “a crisis of online sexual violence”. 

“Despite these young people, in particular girls, saying they felt disgusted, embarrassed and confused about the sending and receiving of non-consensual images, they rarely want to talk about their online experiences for fear of victim blaming and worry that reporting will make matters worse,” she told The Guardian.

“We hope this report allows all of us to better identify when and how image-sharing becomes digital sexual harassment and abuse and spread the message that, although the non-consensual sending and sharing of sexual images may be common and feel normal, it is extremely harmful.”

While the practice of adult men sending unwanted sexual images to under 18s is categorised as indecent and a sexual offence, the experiences of the girls who took part in this study are not isolated. 

A woman on her phone
The experiences of the young women in this study are not isolated.

In fact, ‘cyberflashing’ – when someone uses the internet to send an unsolicited image of their naked body – is an experience shared by a growing number of women of all ages.  

A 2018 YouGov survey found that 19% of all surveyed women and 40% of women aged 18-34 had received an unsolicited sexual photo from someone who was not their romantic partner.

And the pandemic has exacerbated the problem: earlier this year, the UK’s Revenge Porn Helpline reported that calls about explicit imagery being shared without consent rose by 87% between April and August 2020 versus the previous year.

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While the government is currently considering an amendment to the forthcoming Online Safety Bill which will criminalise cyberflashing against individuals of any age, experts are also calling on social media companies to crack down on the practice and make it easier for women and girls to report their experiences.

Cyberflashing may have become part of life for most women, but it’s still incredibly harmful and intrusive – and it’s clear that something needs to change.  

If you have been a victim of sexual assault or another gender-based crime, find advice and support at endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk. For free and confidential legal advice, contact Rights Of Women’s telephone advice line.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.