From our weekly food shop to the way we meet potential partners, society is moving towards an increasingly online world. So, you'd be forgiven for thinking that when something bad happens online, it'll be treated with the same seriousness as it would in the offline world.
But while this is true for some web crimes, including revenge porn (which became illegal in 2015), unfortunately, not everything on the internet is as regulated as it should be – especially when it comes to sexually explicit content, such as cyberflashing. So, what actually is cyberflashing, and why isn't it illegal?
What is cyberflashing?
Cyberflashing is when an unsolicited photo of a person's genitals is sent without consent, either through social media apps like Instagram, dating apps like Hinge or iPhone's AirDrop feature. Typically, cyberflash is a crime wherein the perpetrator is male and the victim is female.
In 2019, the British Transport Police revealed that there were 66 reported cases – emphasis on the 'reported' – but sadly, it's likely there were countless more that went unreported. Anecdotally, there have been many more stories shared of cyberflashing by AirDrop taking place on trains, busses and tubes (and this is before the pandemic hit, forcing the nation to stay at home and spend more time online than ever before).
In the last year alone, nearly half of women aged 18 to 24 received a sexual photo they did not ask for, according to a new study carried out by dating app, Bumble.
Although cyberflashing takes place entirely online, it has a massive impact on the receiver's experiences in the offline world too. "Cyberflashing is a form of sexual intimidation that can have devastating impacts on women," points out Clare McGlynn, Professor of Law at Durham University. "Women can be very fearful for their physical safety, wondering who sent them this photo and what will they do next? Women also feel violated and humiliated which can lead to considerable distress and anxiety."
On top of that, McGlynn points out, "Cyberflashing impacts women's everyday lives, like the decisions we make about using certain apps, AirDrop, social media and engaging online. It limits our freedom to live our lives as we choose."
23-year-old Jade from Manchester, who's been a victim of cyberflashing multiple times, says the experiences have made her feel "violated."
"I make a conscious effort to engage with likeminded people on my social platforms, as I know how difficult a place it can become," she explained, "To have someone come into my online space and violate that trust was difficult to get over."
What is the law on cyberflashing?
Despite the long-term impact that cyberflashing can have, and YouGov's study finding that 41% of millennial women say they've been a victim of it, cyberflashing isn't illegal in England and Wales. It's something that 95% of women (under the age 44) think needs to change, according to Bumble's research, and the vast majority have said they'd like to see more done to stop unsolicited nude images.
McGlynn agrees: "Women's experiences of online abuse have not been taken seriously and too often the abuse we face, such as cyberflashing or upskirting, is trivialised and thought to be funny."
As for why online flashing isn't a crime, whereas offline flashing is, McGlynn points out there needs to be a "new, comprehensive criminal law that covers all forms of cyberflashing, focusing on consent and the harm women experience" to bring England and Wales in line with Scotland, where cyberflashing has been classed as a sexual offence for over a decade.
"Flashing your penis in the street is a criminal offence, but sending someone pictures of your penis online is not. Both should be criminalised," she adds, "regardless of the perpetrator's motivation – humour, banter, sexual arousal, causing distress."
What is being done to tackle cyberflashing?
Following on from a similar, successful campaign in the US, Bumble is calling on the UK government to make cyberflashing illegal in England and Wales. Earlier this month, the dating app launched their #digitalflashingisflashing campaign, teaming up with UN Women UK (the United Nations' gender equality arm) and other organisations advocating for cyberflashing to become a criminal offence.
"Now more than ever, we spend a considerable amount of our lives online and yet we have fallen short of protecting women in online spaces," Whitney Wolfe Herd, Founder and CEO of Bumble told Cosmopolitan UK. "Cyberflashing is a relentless, everyday form of harassment that causes victims, predominantly women, to feel distressed, violated and vulnerable on the internet as a whole. It’s shocking that in this day and age we don’t have laws that hold people to account for this."
As well as launching the campaign, the app have introduced their 'Private Detector' feature, which captures and blurs nude images. It's a step in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go says McGlynn. "This is the sort of action we need other social media companies and dating apps to take urgently," she points out, "more companies should be following Bumble's example of being proactive against cyberflashing."
As for what women can do to protect themselves from cyberflashing, McGlynn stresses the importance of reporting incidents. "I encourage women to report being cyberflashed if they feel safe to do so," she added, "This might mean reporting to police, to their school or university or to their employer. This can help to build a picture of what is going on, and to get authorities to take it seriously. It might also lead to action against the perpetrator."
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