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‘A pandemic in itself’: Lockdown hasn’t stopped the spread of cyber flashing

As our lives moved online in lockdown, cases of cyber flashing have increased. Now as we wait for the government to act on law reform, Sophie Gallagher looks at the dangers of allowing this harassment to boom

Friday 14 May 2021 14:14 BST

Throughout lockdown, Paige Nicholson, 29, from West Yorkshire, has been repeatedly sent pictures of a stranger’s penis online. Every time she blocks the social media account responsible, a new one springs up and continues. At first, she thought it was a troll with nothing better to do, but now she thinks it is a concerted effort by an individual to humiliate or intimidate her. On one occasion she posted a warning to other women on Twitter, but instead of discouraging the behaviour, the volume of pictures increased.

Like many women, Nicholson has been a victim of cyber flashing (the sending of unsolicited sexual images) since she started using the internet. The first time it happened was in 2004, when she was just 13 years old. Since then, it has happened upwards of 70 times across Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, iMessage, and on various dating apps. The senders have always been men, using mostly anonymous accounts but Nicholson has also received so-called dick pics from people she knows, including a former colleague who sent her multiple unsolicited images of himself in the bath during the first lockdown. “It was disgusting. Did he think I was going to leave my husband and kid and ride him into the sunset?”

As a YouTuber and small business owner, Nicholson had to spend more time online during lockdown than ever before. An Ofcom study from June 2020 found adults were spending an average of four hours a day online, a rise of almost an hour from 2018. While the internet has enabled many people to earn money, keep their jobs, and socialise with friends and family during one of the most fraught times in modern British history, it is not always a safe space.

Nicholson thinks many do not understand how commonplace the experience of cyber flashing is for women and non-binary people – it can happen via AirDrop in public places, on public transport, in restaurants, and even lecture halls, as well as online – and describes herself as “somehow desensitised” because of the frequency. “I don’t think [lawmakers] care,” she says. “But as a mum of a young girl, I know I’m going to have to talk to her about it when someone cyber flashes her and that’s a sad prospect.”

The issue of cyber flashing has been gaining traction in recent years with more coverage of high profile or particularly nefarious cases: in January the New York Mets sacked manager Jared Porter over sending unsolicited explicit images to a female reporter; a woman’s story went viral when she was cyber flashed after sharing her phone number to get a ventilator for Covid patients in India; reports about harassment in private schools highlighted how commonplace sending of unsolicited images is among young people; and most recently actor Noel Clarke was accused, among other things, of sending a woman a photograph of an erect penis. Clarke denied to The Guardian he had sent such an image.

Cases of image-based abuse are increasing year on year, and early data suggests numbers have been boosted by the intrinsically digital nature of life in lockdown. A report by the University of Leicester recorded a third of women had been cyber flashed. “Our ongoing research explores how extended periods of lockdown have worsened online forms of gendered harms,” the authors said. A UN Women report came to the same conclusion: “These incidents are likely to be rising as women and girls spend more time online during the pandemic.” A survey by Glitch, a safer internet charity, found 17 per cent of women or non-binary people had been sent unsolicited pornography in June or July 2020.

Cyber flashing is the dark side of social media that needs to be dealt with

Beth Fry, 22, who works in a mother and baby hostel in Cardiff, has noticed a “massive increase” in lockdown. “People being isolated at home is driving them to pester women more for their own personal pleasure,” she says. One incident that sticks in her mind was a stranger continuously contacting her on Instagram with penis images and saying he wanted to “cum over [her]”. “Let’s call it what it is: sexual harassment. It is absolutely disgusting. I feel violated and angry that men have the audacity to send [it],” she says. “Cyber flashing is the dark side of social media that needs to be dealt with.”

Data suggests that a fifth of women who have received unsolicited images would use the words “distressing” or “threatening” to describe it, with nearly 60 per cent picking the word “gross”. Professor of law Clare McGlynn, at Durham University, and author of Cyberflashing: Recognising Harms, Reforming Laws, has said that different women will experience the harm differently – particularly if they have a history of sexual trauma – and the conclusion should not be drawn that it is always less damaging than in-person flashing because it is behind a screen.

Fry says: “Some women come from horrific backgrounds of abuse and assault and seeing things like this unprovoked could massively trigger them.”

Alanna-Rose Whitney, 30, has been cyber flashed many times, including in lockdown. They also have experience of rape and made a comparison between the two: “Ultimately it is the same feeling or essence in your core”. It “hurts and [feels] violating every time” and “I feel like I want to cringe, but not just to pull back from the computer or phone in revulsion; there’s this deeper pull to withdraw emotionally. Like something’s crawling under my skin”.

I feel like I want to cringe, but not just to pull back from the computer or phone in revulsion; there’s this deeper pull to withdraw emotionally

Rachel Jones, 24, from Greater Manchester, who works as a trainee solicitor, was cyber flashed in lockdown also makes the comparison between the harms of offline and online flashing. “No one understands how damaging it is,” she says. “People believe that because you send it on the internet it has less of an impact, but it does not. It is no different and the fact you can receive these pictures in your home, your safe place, can make it worse. Cyber flashing has become a pandemic in itself.”

Lawmakers have been circling the issue of legislating against cyber flashing for years. In October 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee recommended the government introduce a law criminalising cyber flashing as a sexual offence. This would convey a victim’s lack of consent, acknowledge the harms caused and provide victims of such crimes anonymity, as in non-digital sex crimes. Two years later, the Law Commission made a similar recommendation.

Individual players continue to raise the issue in parliament: MP Fay Jones said in January 2020, “the scourge of cyber flashing needs to be made a criminal offence” and MP Victoria Atkins replied that she was “very aware of the offence... and very much wants those sorts of twenty-first century online crimes to be dealt with”. Conservative MP Maria Miller is clear in describing cyber flashing as a sexual offence and tells The Independent : “It is completely unacceptable that you can be sitting at home or on a train or in a supermarket and can relieve a sexually explicit image without your consent and that is not against the law. The government has to act – [it is] not an option to simply set it aside.”

Despite this voicing of support, and the government’s Online Harms Bill being put forward in the upcoming parliamentary session, there is still scant detail on exactly how it plans to deal with cyber flashing in England and Wales. Scotland already has a law against it.

McGlynn says that as we are required to spend more time online, cyber flashing becomes an increasingly powerful weapon. “Cyber flashing impacts on people’s relationships with online media and their phones. If most of us use Facebook or Instagram as a relaxing space, it can become a site of trauma [following online harassment]. Those sorts of adverse impacts will only have intensified in lockdown because so much more is now online so trying to withdraw [to protect yourself] is going to be even worse.”

This is particularly true for women whose financial prospects rely on online work. For Kenya*, 22, a sex worker, unsolicited sexual images have gone from being a rare occurrence to a daily one. “The pandemic has 100 per cent made this issue worse. Mostly because millions more people are online. Before the pandemic, I rarely ever received unsolicited nudes, even as an online sex worker. Men have gotten so used to doing it, there’s absolutely no way they’d stop now unless it were made a criminal offence.” She describes the perpetrators as “predators” who “know what they are doing”.

Some worry about cyber flashing being a gateway to further abuse. Fry says: “I keep thinking if they’re willing to sexually harass someone on Snapchat and suffer no consequences, then what’s stopping them progressing to more severe forms?” Professor McGlynn has previously said that it is “inevitable that some of these people will then go on to commit contact sexual offences [in person], but it is not possible to say at this time what sort of proportion” at this stage.

Increasing evidence has demonstrated that image-based abuse has profound implications for victims. “It reaches people in what is usually a very private space,” says Miller, “and because of the way the law is constructed they are often not taken seriously so sometimes online instances can be even more destructive than offline abuse.”

If they’re willing to do this suffer no consequences then what’s stopping them progressing to more severe forms

Both experts and victims believe it is so commonplace it is normalised and instead of an onus on perpetrators to stop, it requires women to deploy strategies to resolve it. This creates a complacency among authority and the wider population about law reform, instead leaving it to individuals. “It’s fighting against the idea that it’s so normal we can’t take action against it,” says McGlynn. “But that isn’t the case for offences like shoplifting or people stealing bikes, we don’t just give up on it.”

As campaigners wait for change, there are some grass roots initiatives, like the “Don’t Be a Dick” scheme to educate school-aged children, or the DickPickLocator, which gives women the potential power to locate where a picture was taken using GPS coordinates. Cannelle Roumanie, 23, a criminology master’s student at Anglia Ruskin University, has also set up an Instagram page (@itsadickmove) to encourage awareness. “My hope is that young people understand that it is not normal,” she says.

Early data indisputably shows that cyber flashing is a growing rather than diminishing problem. Keeping people behind closed doors during the coronavirus pandemic has not shielded them from harassment but been a catalyst for increasing harm online. When deciding how to move forward, MPs will have to consider the findings of a recent report by the House of Lords: that our lives are no longer distinct offline and online zones but a hybrid. This not only means that we can’t afford to dismiss digital problems as discrete or inconsequential, but also that the failure to address these concerns can have real-world impact.

A government spokesperson said: “We are making our laws fit for the digital age. Our world-leading Online Safety Bill will make tech companies more responsible for people’s safety online but we have also asked the Law Commission to look at strengthening criminal offences too, including to better protect women from vile cyber flashing.”

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