News

Cyberflashing: It’s not big and it’s not clever and it could soon be a crime

12 Sep 2021 4 minutes Read
Picture by Max Pixel (Creative Commons Zero – CC0).

Sarah Morgan Jones

A new law specifically tackling significant harms caused by cyberflashing could be introduced as part of an Online Safety Bill.

The UK Government is considering changes to laws to take into account online opportunities for crimes which are currently not recognised.

In January, Fay Jones MP for Brecon & Radnorshire called on Victoria Atkins MP, the Minister for Safeguarding, to make cyberflashing a criminal offence.

Commenting on her call, she said: “I was once flashed on a night out in Cardiff.  I could have had that man arrested and prosecuted as intentionally flashing in public is a criminal offence. But, if a person digitally exposes their genitals unsolicited, then it is not currently the same offence.

“This needs to change. No one should be made to feel alarmed, distressed or intimidated as a result of being sent an unsolicited explicit photo. With so many of our young people living their lives online, often with their own mobile phones, we need to put a stop to cyberflashing.

“I welcome the Minister for Safeguarding’s commitment to tackling 21st Century online crimes and the ongoing consultation to produce a new Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. Having worked with her on the Domestic Abuse Bill, I look forward to continuing our work to protect women and girls from abuse.”

Significant harm

The draft bill which could come into law by 2023, has drawn on studies and representations by academics, the Law Commission which fed into the Home Office “Tackling violence against women and girls strategy“.

An academic article by Prof Clare McGlynn and Dr Kelly Johnson, specialists in sexual and domestic violence and online abuse, has found that increasing numbers of women and girls are being exposed to image-based sexual abuse online, and it is causing significant harm.

The term ‘cyberflashing’ describes a spectrum of practices, all of which involve the sending of unsolicited genital images via technology, and most commonly involves men sending pictures of their penises, predominantly to women, without their prior agreement or consent.

The authors found that: “Victim-survivor testimonies demonstrate that women frequently experience cyberflashing in public spaces, with recent examples taking place in supermarkets, libraries, restaurants, museums, train stations and airports, as well as on various forms of public transport.”

They also state that “for many women and girls, it’s an everyday experience when engaging with social media and other technologies in professional and personal capacities.”

Studies cited in the article found that 40% of British women have been sent a penis picture without their consent and in the 18-24 age group that figure rose to 47%.

Coercive

Cyberflashing can cause serious harm. It is often experienced as a form of sexual harassment, involving coercive sexual intrusion by men into women’s everyday lives.

Women commenting on Twitter yesterday in support of a Welsh podcaster who had said that she woke up to find an indecent image sent to her phone echoed this view.

One woman said “Without sounding dramatic it ruins your whole day. It makes you feel violated as you didn’t ask for it and the social media sites don’t make it easy to report the perpetrator. It angers me that society brushes off the behaviour as comedic when it’s actual sexual abuse.”

Another: “Cyber-flashing is a form of violence against women and girls which often goes unrecognised and unchallenged. It is indecent exposure, simply in a new, technological form, and it desperately needs addressing as such.”

Sexual offence

The Law Commission produced a report containing recommendations after reviewing the criminal law governing harmful, threatening, and false communications, encouraging and assisting serious self-harm, and cyberflashing.

The report, “Modernising Communications Offences” published in July, recommends that a new offence based on ‘likely psychological harm’ should replace sections of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 the Communications Acts 2003.

It also recommends specifically changing the law so that cyberflashing becomes a sexual offence rather than a communications offence and that the Sexual Offences Act 2003 be amended to include the sending of images or video recordings of genitals.

Whether online or in the flesh, it seems clear that indecent exposure, flashing, cyber-flashing is intended to demean, degrade, traumatise, and frighten.

It is not a compliment or a display of affection or a sign of attraction, it is a statement of ‘power over’, and these changes in the law will be a step towards recognising this.

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