A man 'cyber-flashed' me a photo of his penis - and it could happen to you

Bethan Ryder
Bethan Ryder received an unsolicited photo via her smartphone (posed by models) - PA

As the mother of two daughters, there are many things I mourn the passing of, in this digital age. Waiting for photos to be developed, writing and receiving letters, watching Top of the Pops and buying albums… technological advancement has stolen these rites of passage from future generations, and I’m sad that my daughters won’t get to share those simple joys that enriched my coming of age.

There is, however, one less appealing experience that I thought they had been spared, thanks to technological advances: flashing.

Flashing was big in the Eighties. It seemed you could barely walk through a beauty spot or transport hub without it being gate-crashed by a stranger’s penis. For me, tube stations became particularly unsettling after one unsavoury encounter, which involved a man on the opposite platform masturbating (never has the arrival of a train offered such relief - for me, not him).

Was he watching me? Could he see my reaction? Would some passerby glance at my screen and think I was sex-crazed?

But in recent years, the sick practice of exposing one’s genitalia to passing women seems to have waned. Could it be that I am middle-aged and therefore past the target demographic? Perhaps. But the more likely explanation is that the prevalence of cameras and video functions on smartphones - enabling the live recording of this type of event - is sparing young girls the embarrassment and distress we just accepted as part of our growing pains.

This is surely a cause for celebration. How empowering that smartphones could become pocket-sized shields from this supposedly “harmless” male act. How satisfying that instead of defensive giggles - the only armoury a woman had - we now have the ability to shame the exposer on social media. Or report him to the police.

Imagine my surprise then, when during my morning commute last week I found myself confronted by the unexpected, and entirely unsolicited, erect male member. Not in the flesh, I should point out, though the effect of this Eighties flashback was just as unsettling as being confronted by someone in a dirty mac.

No, I was cyberflashed. 

Transport for London has a sexual harassment awareness campaign

I was striding off the train at London's Victoria station, surrounded by other commuters, texting a friend, when an image pinged onto my screen. It was a naked selfie, cropped at the neck, foregrounded by an penis in extreme close up. My jaw dropped.

I had innocently left on my Airdrop - now rebranded among my acquaintances as “Cockdrop” - unaware that it would leave me open to cyberflashing. This is Apple's version of bluetooth, if you like - a file sharing function that lets a person standing nearby share an image, if both of you have it switched on. 

Men are renowned for interrupting women’s conversations, but this was a seismic disruption. Most worryingly I had no idea how close the perpetrator was. Airdrop, I subsequently discovered, works at roughly a 30-foot range. At the time I thought the distance was much shorter. Was he watching me? Could he see my reaction? Would some passerby glance at my screen and think I was a sex-crazed midult?

I tried to screen-grab the message as evidence, even though the sender was anonymous. It didn’t work. Even worse, this pornographic image - now looming large on my screen - came with the invitation to “Decline or Accept”. Airdrop etiquette seemed a little off in this scenario. My consent had been ignored so far. I longed for a third option - a more vehement responsive.

Flashing is evidently still a popular “sport” for male bullies, who adopt new technology to exert fleeting control over women

As I processed this morning wake-up call, my thoughts passed to my daughters. What if a 12-year-old had left her Airdrop on and received this image? In one sense it felt less dangerous than traditional flashing, and yet somehow more creepy. Who was it? How close was he? What kind of thrill did he get from watching women being shocked and disgusted?

Particularly unsettling was the fact that he had invaded my personal e-space.

There’s obviously a very simple lesson here: keep your Airdrop or bluetooth, switched off. But my other main take-away from the experience is the depressing realisation that flashing is evidently still a popular “sport” for male bullies, who adopt new technologies to exert fleeting control over women by making them feel unsafe.

The digital revolution has facilitated a flashing evolution. It left me wondering how many cyber willies are out there, waiting to pounce. My initial mild amusement turned to a wearied resignation – it seems my daughters may not be spared this rite of passage after all. 

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