Sending unsolicited dick pics should land you on the sex offenders' register

It was March 2017 and I’d just got home from a gig with a friend in Kentish Town, London.

Earlier that night, I’d gone for a couple of drinks – literally two – with a guy from Tinder, at a pub near the venue. 

Knackered from a night of pints and dancing, I flopped down on my bed with my coat and shoes still on, and pulled out my phone. I messaged a couple of friends on WhatsApp, to let them know that the date earlier had gone alright. 

‘Yes, he seemed nice’. ‘No, we didn’t kiss’. ‘Yes, he was “normal”’. ‘No, there wasn’t very much flirting’. ‘A teacher’. ‘I’d maybe see him again, if he was into it’. 

It had been a brief date: We’d decided to meet after work, committing to no more than an hour and a half, before the rest of our evening plans. The perfect way to gauge whether someone is worth spending a full night on, at some point in the future. 

Lying on my bed, I tapped out of WhatsApp and into my Tinder profile, where I saw that I had a message from the teacher. 

I opened it up, and there it was. A close up picture of his erect penis. Accompanied by the words: ‘you like?’

Spoiler: I did not like. 

Cyber flashing, or unsolicited dick pics (with unsolicited being the key word, I’m not condemning sending nudes with consent), is becoming endemic. Disturbingly, recent figures found that almost half of women aged 18-24 have been victims of unwanted sexual pictures, in the last year alone. 

Yet, despite the fact that we all know it’s happening, it’s still not illegal in England and Wales. I think this should change. Scotland made the act illegal in 2010 – what reason is there for the rest of the UK not to have followed suit, almost 12 years later?

What is cyber flashing and is it a crime in the UK?

The Law Society report described the act as a ‘form of sexual harassment, involving coercive sexual intrusion by men into women’s everyday lives’.

It follows data released in early 2020 which revealed that incidents of cyber-flashing reported to British Transport Police had almost doubled in the space of two months.

Here is all you need to know about cyber flashing, and how to prevent it.

I’m no prude, but opening up those pictures that night, I felt sick. We’d exchanged nothing but an awkward half-hug on leaving the pub – and now, this man, who’d had zero encouragement or prior indication that it would be OK, had decided to send me a picture of his genitalia.

Aside from the fact that it was an incredibly ugly picture, what got to me the most was the thought of him imagining me opening it. He knew that I would have been forced to look at it. It felt like a power play. It felt abusive. And I felt angry. 

Deciding not to give him the satisfaction of a response, I deleted the message and blocked him. But I still felt as though he had infringed on me sexually, and wondered why he’d done it. I can’t imagine it was to try and secure a second date, so it was obviously as a means of sexual gratification for himself, against my will.

Before, and since then, I’ve received other unsolicited pictures of penises. Pictures that I didn’t consent to, pictures that I didn’t want. Pictures that genuinely made me feel violated. 

And this doesn’t just happen on dating sites – I met my now-fiancé a couple of weeks after this, and haven’t been on one since (he, thankfully, is not a cyber flasher). It happens on social media too. It happens to women all the time.

And increasingly, ‘cyber flashing’ is taking place in public, seeing strangers forcibly sending pictures of their penises to women within close proximity to them, via AirDrop – a file-sharing system on iPhones, that allows pictures and videos to be sent through Bluetooth, or over Wi-Fi. This increasingly happens on public transport, with trains and buses being a hot spot, due to the range of the technology. 

Data released in early 2020 revealed that incidents reported to British Transport Police had almost doubled in the space of two months. But, the true number of women being sent sexually explicit images by strangers in public is still likely largely unknown, because, as with lots of acts of this nature, you can report it, but not much is done.

However, since these figures were released, MPs in England and Wales have backed plans for cyber flashing to be made a specific offence – and following a review of the current Online Safety Bill, the culture secretary suggested that it is likely to happen.

This seems completely sensible – although, given the treatment of sexual assault victims in general, I wonder how helpful the system will be – and what measures will be in place to stop it from happening.  

If we has been on our date and that man had decided to flash his penis at me in the pub, that would – rightly – be illegal

The fact is that, although an adjustment of the law will hopefully help create a cultural norm that the behaviour isn’t OK, it requires a bigger societal shift. For such a huge issue, we don’t take it seriously enough.

The emergence of the term ‘cyber flashing’ is helpful, and gives the act a bit more gravitas – colloquially referring to the act as ‘dick pics’ trivialises it and makes it feel like it’s something a bit ‘lol’.

But let’s tell it like it is. If uninvited, it’s flashing, it’s harassment, it’s predatory behaviour. If invited, that’s entirely different – two consenting adults can send pictures of whatever body parts they like.

Unconsenting, it’s never OK – and it should be an offence.

If we had been on our date and that man had decided to flash his penis at me in the pub, that would – rightly – be illegal. But what could I do about this picture of it, in my hand, on my phone? Not much. I did report his profile to Tinder, but I don’t know if anything happened.

Perhaps if I’d been in Scotland, where I live now, I would have reported it to the police. Cyber flashing here is punishable by up to two years in prison, and a place on the sex offenders’ register.

However, we need more information on how the law works – lots of people I know in Scotland still aren’t even aware that they can report unsolicited pictures, unless it was perhaps ongoing – in the form of harassment. 

As well as an update to the Online Safety Bill, the tightening up of rules and moderation of sites like Instagram, Tinder, and other social media platforms where this behaviour is prolific, is long overdue.

The current reporting systems are, anecdotally, very inconsistent. 

The act of Air Dropping a stranger a picture of your penis in a public space perhaps feels even more of a violation than sending a DM, or message to a contact. If sending a picture via Air Drop, the offender can see the reaction of the recipient and, as it flashes up on your screen, there’s no way of ignoring it.

But I do believe that the sending of unwanted penis pictures should be an offence as well. (Before anyone says anything, yes, if a woman is sending pictures of her genitals without consent, that should be an offence too – it’s just not very common, that’s all). 

People often ask why men send dick pics. ‘It must work for them sometimes,’ is a common flippant suggestion, meaning that – on occasion women might be attracted by this.

I don’t for a second think that man I went on a date with was trying to entice me for a second date, or even to have sex with him. I believe it’s about power, it’s about sexual gratification at someone else’s expense, and it’s just another thing that women are just expected to put up with. And it’s not OK.

There is evidence that in-person flashing can lead to more serious acts of sexual violence, and the tendency to do it in a cyber capacity should be treated just as seriously.

In fact, according to Police Scotland, having a record of men who have been reported for cyber flashing in the past has helped them build a case against them in the future, when they have gone on to sexually assault women in person. 

So, reporting is good. But in order to do that, we need to have an effective means of doing so: We need to know where to go, and what to do.

In the meantime, I’m not going to suggest turning off your Bluetooth, or setting your social media profiles to private.

Ultimately, we need the flashers to stop the predatory behaviour – and they need to be held accountable for their actions. 

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