Cyberflashing will now be a crime – but what does that actually mean for women?

New laws will be just words written on vellum unless we do this right. After all, it is illegal to rape – but the vast majority of people who do are walking freely amongst us without a care in the world

Jess Phillips
Thursday 17 March 2022 17:31 GMT
Comments
<p>I used to think it was just male pride and bravado that made idiots send these unsolicited images to women</p>

I used to think it was just male pride and bravado that made idiots send these unsolicited images to women

I have never understood d*** pics. Perhaps I am just too old, an out of touch mother attempting to raise digital natives. Even the idea of consensual images is not for me. To each their own and all that, but just the image of someone’s appendage would never be anything but either alarming or gross to me.

Of course, this does not mean that I have escaped them, quite the contrary, in fact. Regardless of my views, some men still feel the need to share their privates with me. They are called “privates” for a reason!

I used to think it was just male pride and bravado that made idiots send these unsolicited images to women. I used to laugh it off and feel superior. After all, my reproductive organs are so clever that they have managed to build, grow and then release to the earth two penises. Men being proud of just having one seems silly to me, being as I’ve made two from my womb and you don’t see me flashing pictures of that around the internet.

It is however much more sinister than that. Flashing someone online should be considered in exactly the same way as flashing at someone in public. A woman told me recently about how a man on the tube had airdropped her a picture of his penis. She had her airdrop file-sharing function open as she used it frequently in her work as a journalist. She had no way of knowing who this man was, but there she was, in a confined space with a man flashing at her.

It is not just one of those things; a quirk of modern life. That man wanted to watch while she received the image, he knew who she was but she had no idea of his identity. He wanted to watch her be disgusted and frightened. He wanted to control her with that image, to humiliate her. This is not a small thing. It is the mark of a dangerous man.

Male violence against women and girls is always about power and control. He had the power to do this, she had no control over the situation, and this is where the kick for some comes from. It isn’t a sexual deviance, it is deviance born of desire for power.

So the news this week that cyberflashing will be made a criminal offence in the Online Harms Bill is to be welcomed. It is something that I and other cross-party MPs have been asking for for a while. However, new laws will be just words written on vellum unless we do this right. After all, it is illegal to rape – but the vast majority of people who do are walking freely amongst us without a care in the world.

The current proposal for the new cyberflashing law will only cover offences where a victim can prove that the perpetrator sent the image for sexual gratification or to cause distress. Many have pointed out that this means the defence –  “I was just having a laugh” – may well make the prosecution of this crime about as successful as current rape convictions.

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This is a very real issue, and I speak as a woman who suffered from weeks of online abuse by hundreds of different people talking about how they wouldn’t even rape me, and the defence laid out by the main organ grinder of these particular online monkeys claimed it was satire, just a bit of joke.

It is quite hard to prove that someone wished to cause you distress, especially in cases where you may know the person or have had a relationship with them before. The vast majority of women who receive these images will not feel confident enough to go through the process, and with our courts operating with years of backlog, the new law alone will be, as it stands, cold comfort to many.

But it’s a good start. Now, perhaps, the government could finally deliver the long-overdue strategy for perpetrators of violence against women and girls. Perhaps we can expect a nationwide programme of diversion and support for boys and men showing sexually harmful behaviours. Perhaps the government’s promises to the brilliant young campaigners who spoke up about sexual abuse in schools could do something more than simply saying “we are looking in to this”.

Too often, when victories are won by campaigners, we are all then meant to act joyous and grateful to our generous leaders. But if other sexual crimes are anything to go by, there is a very long way to go before they could dare ask us to doff our caps in humble gratitude on cyberflashing. In the meantime, I imagine I’ll be seeing much more of many men than I wanted to.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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