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Illustration Callum Abbott

Criminalising cyberflashing is just one step in tackling male violence

Activists and victims have welcomed the UK Law Commission’s recommendation to make unsolicited nudes illegal, but will it make any difference?

When 22-year-old Ella boarded the train to return home from university, she expected to put on some music, perhaps a podcast, and relax. She did not expect to be bombarded by 15 dick pics, via AirDrop, from an anonymous iPhone. 

“It was fucking scary,” she tells Dazed. “I knew he must have been somewhere in the carriage watching to see if I would react, probably getting off on it. It actually made me scared to get public transport for a couple of weeks. Now I just keep AirDrop off. I can’t believe this kind of thing is technically legal.”

Exposing your genitals in public with the intention of another person seeing and becoming alarmed or distressed is a criminal offense in England and Wales. Those found guilty of indecent exposure can expect to recieve two years in prison, and will be placed on the sex offenders list. The same rules do not currently apply to those who do this online. In fact, there is no legislation in English and Welsh law protecting victims who receive unsolicited dick pics via AirDrop, Snapchat, DM, or any other form of digital platform, despite the serious harm this can cause.

That is, for now. Last week, a new report by the Law Commission (LC) recommended that sending unsolicited intimate images be made illegal through the creation of a new criminal offence of cyberflashing, and that its perpetrators get placed on the sex offenders register. Defining cyberflashing as the “sending of images or video recordings of genitals, for example, ‘dick pics’ sent via AirDrop”, the report’s authors express the importance of shifting attention away from the content of the images and videos sent, to the “psychological harm” the act can have on its victims.

The report has been welcomed by many activists who have campaigned for years for a change in the archaic laws surrounding the issue. Journalist Sophie Gallagher, who has reported widely on the issue, described the recommendation as “great news”. She said on Twitter: “Needless to say if the government is really invested in tackling violence against women and girls then implementing these recommendations (and reading the vast body of evidence collected by the LC) should be a priority for MPs.”

Fitness influencer Elle Edwards has spoken publicly about her own experience of cyberflashing in the hopes of bringing about serious change. “It’s an important stepping stone,” she says of the Law Commission’s report. “Legislation will definitely make some people think twice before doing it. I receive sexual images daily. As someone who posts about fitness, my physique and body is a central part of my profile.”

After choosing not to respond to one sender, Edwards’ family was threatened after the perpetrator worked out her address. “I couldn’t leave my flat,” she reveals. “I took time to reflect on how I could try to change my social media direction to not only help people with their fitness goals, but also their safety online.”

The anonymous brains behind @lalalaletmeexplain – a sex and dating educator, author, and dating columnist at OK Magazine – has also frequently discussed cyberflashing with her 158k Instagram followers, both via posts and her much-anticipated livestreams. 

“(The Law Commisson’s recommendation) is an excellent recognition of how harmful receiving an unsolicited dick pic can be,” she tells Dazed. “It’s shocking – particularly for people who’ve had trauma from past sexual experiences. That dick in your inbox can really throw you back.”

“From what we know about flashers, people who commit crimes like these can also go on to commit more dangerous crimes,” @lalalaletmeexplain continues. “A prime example of this is Wayne Couzens, the man who murdered Sarah Everard, who had previously been caught flashing. There’s a link between indecent exposure and flashing, and the fact that physical flashing and cyberflashing are treated differently under the law demonstrates just how normalised unsolicited dick pics have become. It’s scary, misogynistic behaviour, so it’s excellent that the Law Commission is trying to do something about it.”

“There’s a link between indecent exposure and flashing, and the fact that physical flashing and cyberflashing are treated differently under the law demonstrates just how normalised unsolicited dick pics have become” – @lalalaletmeexplain

Ofsted recently found that 90 per cent of schoolgirls have experienced “unsolicited sexual material”. Mabel was one of them. At just 15, this had a significant lasting effect on her – only heightened when she ended up at the same university as the perpetrator. “It was literally the second Snapchat he sent me,” Mabel explains. “I didn’t think too much of it at the time, and just stopped talking to him. It was only in September 2020 when I unknowingly started at the same uni that it hit me: the outrage. Now whenever I see him in Tesco, I almost feel an obligation to keep out of his way and tuck myself behind the disposable nappies – an aisle he won’t go to.”

“I do think a change in law would make me feel safer – particularly now it’s nearly five years since (the incident),” Mabel continues, but adds that she’s “not convinced” a change in law would have any impact on younger teenagers, who may not feel comfortable or confident reporting what’s happened to them.

While the recommended changes are certainly welcomed by many, Clare McGlynn, a lawyer who specialises in image-based sexual abuse and pornography, argues that the proposed laws “may need further revision to ensure they cover all forms of cyberflashing”.

“Prosecutors will have to prove that the perpetrator was motivated to cause distress to the victim,” McGlynn tells Dazed. “This means that where men and boys send penis images for a ‘laugh’, as part of their banter – perhaps to boost their own status – it is not likely to be covered. We’ve seen from the recent Ofsted report that girls in schools are being subject to high levels of online harassment, including cyberflashing. But the boys sending these images without consent are not likely to be covered by this proposed new law.”

McGlynn also highlights law enforcement’s attitude towards sexual abuse. “We know from intimate image abuse cases that this threshold makes prosecutions harder, and the police are less willing to investigate. This means that the number of prosecutions is likely to be low.”

Furthermore, the recommended law doesn’t address the issue of sending an explicit image of someone else. This raises the problematic issue of proving that the image sent was of the person being prosecuted.

These same issues were highlighted in 2019, when Texas became one of the first places in the world to directly implement a punishment for cyberflashing. Although there doesn’t seem to be much data on criminalisation since the law came into place, a 2020 report in the Houston Law Review highlighted a number of flaws in the dick pic ban, including the anonymity of the internet, the fact that those accused will likely dispute the charge, and the expected low rate of reporting from victims.

“Cyberflashing leaves survivors feeling violated, and can be a way to intimidate people of marginalised genders to make them feel unwelcome on specific platforms,” says Sailaja Darisipudi, the social media manager for End Cyber Abuse – a global collective of lawyers and human rights activists working to tackle technology-facilitated gender-based violence. Founded in 2019, the group saw the need for a feminist, sex-positive, and survivor-centric approach to advocacy in this space. 

“Criminalising cyberflashing is just one step in eradicating the harm it can cause” – Sailaja Darisipudi, End Cyber Abuse

“Recently, we’ve launched campaigns such as #NotJustPhysical – designed to spread awareness about sexual assault in digital spaces – and #NoPrideintheDivide – to educate people on the different types of abuse people in the LGBTQ+ community face in digital communities, such as misgendering and outing due to image-based sexual abuse.”

“We welcome the Law Commission’s recommendation, and we’re glad they’re taking steps to understand the severity of harm cyberflashing can cause,” Darisipudi tells Dazed. “However, we also hope that the Law Commission realises that criminalising cyberflashing is just one step in eradicating the harm it can cause.”

Like many campaigners and victims, Darisipudi is keen to urge that criminalisation is only the first step. After all, the UK government has a habit of ignoring the root causes of gender-based violence. Earlier this year, following Everard’s murder and the subsequent protests against police brutality and male violence, the government evaded questions of state violence by making misogyny a hate crime and sending spy cops to clubs.

“It is essential that the Law Commission understands that cyberflashing – like all forms of tech abuse – stems from systemic inequality and deeply rooted misogyny, which require systemic changes to fix.”