When Dawn Finch received three unsolicited sexual images on a busy morning commuter train from Hertfordshire to London, she presumed it was an accident. She felt unsettled by the pictures – not least because the sender was called ‘big John’ – but presuming he had intended them for his partner, not her, declined them and carried on with her journey.
It was weeks after the incident that Finch joined the dots. She hadn’t unwittingly been caught in the middle of a private conversation on the train – she had been targeted by a cyberflasher – the pictures were the digital version of a man flashing her on a street corner.
“It made me feel nervous about travelling to be honest,” she tells me, reflecting on the incident last November. “This was a hugely busy commuter train with standing room only. It wasn’t a bar or a club, not a dating app. Just a 50-year-old woman on a 7.30am train to work.”
Although Finch, a librarian, regularly uses social media, she hadn’t come across any cyber flashing coverage. In fact her understanding of the issue was so non-existent she didn’t identify herself as a victim – it was only after reading HuffPost UK’s reporting on cyber flashing that she recognised what had happened.
“I still don’t think people know about it. I deal with social media a lot, and have a 25-year-old daughter, so I’m not exactly naive, but I had no idea that men were doing this so often,” she says.
Gemma Hall, 28, from Bath, who was sent more than 10 dick pics while waiting alone in a London bus station, had the same experience. She too presumed it was a one-off incident, rather than something that is happening to many women but going unreported.
“I was glad to find out it wasn’t just me who was attracting these weirdos online,” says Hall. “But the discovery did leave me wondering why there hasn’t there been greater public awareness about this problem.”
And, while the perpetrators can be prosecuted under the Indecent Displays Control Act (1981) – and the Sexual Offences law if the victim is under 18 – the law is largely outdated. MPs have been calling for a new law to specifically legislate against cyber flashing.
“Women need to be told about this, to help protect themselves,” Hall says. “Otherwise we’re all in the dark.” The law recently made upskirting illegal – and the government could have also acted on cyber flashing, she argues. “They did that after women said enough is enough. Why can’t they fix this too? Why are they not taking us seriously? The government doing nothing makes you feel alone when it happens to you.”
The government was due to respond to calls for a new law to criminalise cyber flashing on 22 December, but is yet to do so.
“Women need to be told about this, to help protect themselves. Otherwise we’re all in the dark."”
A lack of awareness about the issue leaves women in the position of having to “laugh it off” because there is no clear pathway for help, Finch says. She compares this to how other sexual offences have been treated historically.
“Look at how much people laugh at the trope of the flasher in his dirty mac. I was flashed in an alley when I was 12 and it was anything but funny. We have made great strides forward to stop things like bottom pinching and groping, but it still happens, and now we have to put up with random dick pics too?”
Lisa*, 31, was sitting in the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport when she was AirDropped a video titled ‘rubbing one out in the shower’. It took her a while to work out what was happening, she says, because cyber flashing wasn’t at the forefront of her mind.
“I’d just been talking with my partner on the phone and thought they were sending me some stupid meme or something via WhatsApp – then very quickly realised it wasn’t that,” she says.
Lisa, who wants to remain anonymous because she uses the airport frequently for work, said that the experience made her feel “violated”.
She says there needs to be greater awareness about the extent of cyber flashing, in part so women can protect themselves by turning AirDrop off, but also so men understand that it’s never OK.
“The law needs to catch up. The government needs to catch up with the times and implement something that stops people thinking it’s okay,” she explains.
As well as a law, Lisa believes we need to implement societal change that addresses the underlying reasons why men send dick pics. “That’s very long term I know,” she admits. “But men do it because the society we live in is rife with toxic masculinity.”
Finch says the government needs to stop burying their hand in the sand and inform women about the dangers of cyber flashing and being vulnerable online.
She says: “When photography was invented the first few photos were of landscapes and houses, but the next were of maids’ breasts. It’s not as if using new technology to take and/or send unsolicited sexual images is an unheard of thing – it’s literally the second use of every technological advance.”
If you have been a victim of cyber flashing and would like to help with our reporting of this issue, email email@example.com