LAST summer, Jon Peterson arranged to have lunch with his friend Becky Shawcross, who was encountering a flasher several times a week on her way to work. As they walked along the path where it happened, he joked that she'd be safe with him. Then a man jumped out from behind a hedge, stark naked.
Mr Peterson froze with shock, embarrassment and fear. Eight months on he is still visibly distressed as he recounts the tale. Flashing is generally regarded as a harmless prank, but when it happens to you, it isn't funny. "You take it for granted that you can shout for help, or belt him - but you don't," says Mr Peterson, a strapping 28-year-old. "You can't. You would hope that the shock would prompt a reflex, but it doesn't." He had nightmares afterwards, not least because he had been the subject of a serious sexual assault two years earlier. "The flasher reminded me that I wasn't safe," he says.
Mr Peterson is an isolated case, however. Victims of flashers are primarily female, and they don't receive much sympathy. The perceived idea is that when a flasher flashes, the victim can wryly comment that she's seen a bigger one on the end of a cocktail stick, and he'll slink away shamed. Another myth is that flashing is the preserve of sad old men who haven't had their end away for some time and are indulging in some innocent fun. Both notions infuriate Mr Peterson, who says that the man who flashed at him was young, fit and tanned. He also points out that to be embarrassed one needs a sense of shame: a quality flashers singularly lack.
Victims are further distressed by the difficulties of enlisting the law on their side. "With flashers, we've got a problem with the power of arrest," a police spokesman admits. The police can only arrest a flasher if they catch him committing indecent exposure, a summary offence. If he's reported later, they don't have the power of arrest. They can issue a summons against him, for which they need some form of identification. If he refuses to give his name and address, then they can arrest him. "But if it was your neighbour flashing at you as you went to work, we'd interview him at home, but we couldn't arrest him because we know who he is. It's unsatisfactory really."
Even if an arrest is made, a charge doesn't necessarily follow. However, if a flasher is convicted he may face a fine of up to pounds 1,000, 14 days in prison, or a combination of both.
Victims are routinely offered counselling - if they come forward at all. Schoolgirls are a common target, but they make poor witnesses: "Unfortunately, 14-year-old girls get very upset by it and take as little notice of the flasher as they can. They just want to get away. That makes it very hard when you want a description."
Lisa Atwell, who was flashed at age 14, was a stereotypically inefficient victim: she didn't even tell her mother. "I was very upset and disturbed by it all," she recalls. "I went to an all-girls school and I didn't really know about boys."
The incident occurred as she walked home along a main road. A young man on a bicycle rode past, saw her and turned back. He stood beside her and began to talk. "At first I couldn't hear him properly so I stood there going 'pardon?' Then he pointed downwards. He'd unzipped his trousers and was holding his penis. It was sticking up. I looked away and ran. I'd never seen one before. He shouted something crude after me. It was just horrible."
Pat Bacchus, who trains rape counsellors and runs Victim Support Barnet, in north London, can empathise. She was also flashed at the age of 14. "It is a form of sexual assault," she says. "It's distasteful, it's intimidating, it's violating the woman. It's the same whether he touches her or not." Her latest such encounter occurred en route to Scotland Yard to discuss rape counselling with police chiefs. She and a female colleague were standing on the platform waiting for the Tube.
"I turned around and there was a boy - he couldn't have been more than 15 years old - swinging his penis in the air! I said to my colleague, 'You're not going to believe this'. There he stood, enjoying the glance of a woman. And in such a public place! I thought, 'How has he got the nerve to risk it?' "
Ms Bacchus could laugh at her teenage flasher because he was a little schnip and she was surrounded by people. But if a burly man confronts a lone female walking her spaniel through woods, the fear is paralysing. For most women the sight of a penis isn't the problem. The problem is, will he attack her? He has already proved that he is prepared to cross the boundaries of normal conduct. How much further is he willing to transgress? The flasher's unpredictable behaviour is the most terrifying aspect of all.
Is today's flasher tomorrow's rapist? No, says Katherine Mair, consultant forensic psychologist at Aberdeen's Royal Cornhill Hospital: "Today's flasher is tomorrow's flasher. These guys find flashing itself rewarding. They fantasise about what their victim is imagining. They have persuaded themselves that their victim is aroused by the sight of their penis. If they had more direct contact with the victim, they would be swiftly disabused of this belief. That's why they keep their distance."
There are various methods to reform flashers. Ms Mair, who specialises in the treatment of sex offenders, says: "We use a technique where they're not committing the offence but doing something they associate with it. What they think of while masturbating is very important. If they masturbate to a fantasy of flashing, I'd try to get them to change the fantasy, so the meaning of sexual pleasure has different associations. I also tell them that flashing is silly and that they should stop for their own sake, rather than for their victims' sake."
A more radical - and reportedly very successful - approach has been pioneered by clinical psychiatrists in the United States. A row of female volunteers are lined up in the clinic and the flasher is told to expose himself in front of them.
Ms Mair says: "They all stand there poker-faced and don't respond at all. It's very traumatic for the bloke and he never wants to do it again. It changes the meaning that flashing has for him. I might try it myself if I can get the volunteers."
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