It was 7.30 on a dark January evening and Ella was making her way home from her office in London. Browsing her phone, the 23-year-old was suddenly AirDropped a sexual image from someone unidentified but sitting in the same carriage.
“I was just minding my own business,” she tells HuffPost UK 10 months after the cyber flashing incident. “I’d never used AirDrop so it took me a couple of seconds to work out exactly what was happening. I rushed to decline it and then just felt a bit sick.”
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Six months later, she was at the start of a holiday that would see her travel solo from Toronto to California. Flying into Canada on 11 June and knowing no one, Ella decided to go to the cinema to watch the new Baywatch film. “I thought it would be a bit of light relief,” she says. Instead, she experienced her second case of sexual harassment in a year.
Both experiences were unpleasant – and the fact that one happened online, didn’t diminish its impact. After receiving the AirDropped image, Ella says she felt jittery for the rest of her journey and suspicious of the men around her. “My embarrassment quickly turned to anger,” she says. “I thought about it quite a lot for a long time afterwards.”
The experience in the cinema also had a strong effect. Ella had taken her seat in the middle of the near-empty auditorium when a man came in alone and sat one seat away from her. “It immediately raised my suspicions and I was on high alert from the start,” she says.
Throughout the film the man fidgeted and swore under his breath at Ella, which scared her, but it wasn’t until an hour into the film that she noticed he had his genitals out and was masturbating. She ran out into the foyer to find the manager, at which point he escaped through a fire exit door.
It left Ella feeling incredibly vulnerable and scared. She was worried the perpetrator would follow her back to her AirBnB where she was staying alone.
Under UK law, the incident would be reportable as indecent exposure and sexual harassment. Ella’s only other experience of this had been second-hand, when a teenage friend saw a man masturbating in a park. “It was only after it happened to me that I truly empathised with the feeling of complete powerlessness sexual harassment makes you feel,” she says.
Although the incident has had a long-term impact (Ella still feels uncomfortable in cinemas) – in some ways the cyber flashing was worse, she says.
“With cyber flashing, because you don’t know who’s sent it, and you’re in a public space, that threat is never really eliminated,” she says. “Both are a complete invasion of your private space, whether physically or digitally, and both forms completely blindside you and take you by surprise.”
Ella’s experience chimes with evidence from researchers who suggest that online and offline harassment should not be presented in a hierarchy, with online abuse presumed to be less damaging.
“Different women will experience these harms in different ways, depending on a whole variety of reasons,” says Professor Clare McGlynn, an expert in image-based sexual abuse, from Durham Law School.
Professor McGlynn believes cyber crimes can be just as harmful as those committed in person: “Some will come forward and say [cyber flashing] is harmless. Everyone struggles with the fact it isn’t face to face, but you can’t rank sexual offences like that. The harm of sexual offences is so significant and different forms of offending can have the same impact on different people.”
Dr Christian Buckland, psychotherapist and a UKCP spokesperson, agrees that the psychological impact of being flashed in person is not necessarily different from being cyberflashed. “It is like asking the question whether cyber bullying is not as bad as being bullied at school or work. They are both wrong and can cause a great deal of psychological and emotional distress.”
Indecent exposure has been illegal in the UK as far back as 1824′s Vagrancy Act, but MPs are still waiting for the government to introduce a law to criminalise non-consensual creation and distribution of sexual images. This would cover cyber flashing – which appears to be on the rise.
The government has to respond by 23 December to a report from the Women and Equalities Committee, which called for the new law.
“They are both wrong and can cause a great deal of psychological and emotional distress.”
Ella didn’t report the cyber flashing incident because she didn’t know it was an offence. Nor did she report the flashing incident because she was discouraged by the cinema manager. “I definitely didn’t know enough about Canadian law to argue,” she says.
Buckland says that victims of indecent exposure often do not come forward to report. “They do not want to relive the story or are worried they will be told they should have made a one liner joke at the perpetrator about the size of his manhood (if it was a male), which belittles the horrific ordeal,” he says.
Yet the experience of flashing can stay with a victim, and for some can lead to emotional difficulties including anxiety, hyper-vigilance, depression and issues related to food, alcohol, sex or relationships with current partners. Cyber flashing can have similar repercussions, adds Buckland, and needs to be taken seriously.
“Some people view their online world as one of the safest places for them,” he says. “A situation where they are subjected to a stranger exposing themselves online can cause them to lose the only safe place they felt they had.”