Kelly Gardner, 37, commutes from Leicestershire to London four or five days a week. Travelling on a mainline train and then the tube, she has taken the same journey for the past seven years. In 2016, she noticed strangers had started using AirDrop – the WiFi and Bluetooth enabled feature that allows the transfer of files between anyone within 30 feet of each other – to send her images.
At first it was just innocent communications – selfies or hellos. “I imagine men saw them as cute introductions,” she says. “It was harmless”. But things took a worrying turn when she started receiving dick pics. And it happened more than once.
Although Gardner didn’t report the incidents to the police, or any other officials, she decided to take matters into her own hands by changing the name of her iPhone – a feature you normally only use when you first install the software
Suspecting that men were targeting her because of her female name, she picked the name ‘John’s work iPhone’ and, she says, “the dick pics stopped immediately”. Other women, unaware of the growing risks of cyberflashing, remain prime targets for would-be offenders.
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Gardner’s tactic has proved so successful that a number of her female friends have done the same, much to the confusion of their male friends who often ask why their phone names have changed.
“Female friends seem to know why,” she says, adding that it’s just one example of the precautions women now have to take to avoid unwanted attention. “I don’t wear my pass with my name on in public. If I carry a package on the tube I always cover my address and name. Over time, it’s just become second nature to protect my identity as a woman.”
It’s not just Gardner who is focused on avoiding any further dick pics. “Like other forms of street harassment, many women just want to get on with things, rather than reporting, as they think that’s futile,” Professor Clare McGlynn, a researcher from Durham University, tells HuffPost UK.
This might start to explain the disparity between official figures on cyberflashing and widespread anecdotal evidence.
HuffPost UK has been reporting on the growing problem since 2017, but FOI data obtained by this publication has found only four reports of cyberflashing on public transport between 1 May 2017 and 30 August 2018. This is despite a large-scale study that found 41 per cent of women had received unsolicited sexual images.
MPs have recently called for a law to criminalise the non-consensual creation and distribution of sexual images, as well as threats to do so. But while waiting for the law to catch up with the scale of the cyberflashing problem, women are devising their own coping mechanisms in the short term.
Sophie Bork, 26, from Brighton – who has been a victim of cyberflashing on two separate occasions – says she has disabled the bluetooth functionality on her phone altogether. While this means she can avoid being AirDropped, Bork says that it infringes on her ability to use her phone as freely as she would like.
“Why should I have to stop using my phone how I want? Now, unless I am at home on my own private WiFi, if I want to send things to friends, I have to do it via Whatsapp or text (which costs me money). I just hate the idea of turning my AirDrop on, even momentarily, and being bombarded again,” she says. “I hate that men control how I behave.”
Laura Thompson, a lead researcher in this area at City University, says that cyberflashing is a continuation of the sexual harassment and violence that disproportionately affects women and girls.
“From a young age, girls are taught that they must keep themselves safe from sexual harm, for example by not walking home by themselves at night,” Thompson tells HuffPost UK.
“This sort of safety work is a never-ending task throughout women’s lives. It impacts on their freedom, sense of security, and ability to occupy public spaces. Now that digital technologies can also be used to harass and perpetrate new image-based sexual offences, this unjust burden on women is growing.”
She adds: “Think of how embedded digital devices are in our everyday lives and the many ways they can be used to send an image or video: Bluetooth, social media sites, email, messaging, video calling. You can get a sense of how difficult – impossible even – it is for a woman to prevent ever being cyberflashed, unless she gives up the technologies and platforms entirely.”
Some women have taken things a step further, not just using their technology differently, but taking additional precautions to avoid becoming a victim of cyberflashing.
Amy Martin from London, who did not want to provide a picture because she feared it would make her more of a target, said she has combined a change in her use of technology with a change in her behaviour online to try and deter cyberflashers.
Over time I have built up a defense mechanism of laughing it off. But at its core it is very invasive..."
The 25-year-old, who has been using dating apps for approximately two years and has had dick pics sent to her via dating apps around 30 times during that period, says she has built up an established system of defence.
She says: “The normality of this sexually aggressive behaviour is such that I am not massively surprised [when it happens] and over time I have built up a defense mechanism of laughing it off. But at its core it is very invasive.
“I have found harshly critiquing the picture or video will shut them down very quickly and give you back the control of the situation.” Alternatively, Martin will block those who attempt to send unsolicited sexual imagery.
Thompson says this isn’t an unfamiliar decision for women and that is doesn’t protect against all instances of cyberflashing. ”[I’ve heard] several women had come across dick pics being used as profile pictures whilst swiping. The answer is not that women simply can’t use dating apps or smartphones,” she says.
And it doesn’t end at changing your behaviour online. A 44-year-old woman, who wished to remain completely anonymous because she was embarrassed about being a victim of cyberflashing, told HuffPost UK that she now takes an alternative route home after she was targeted three times at the same tube station.
“It might sound dramatic, but it happened once too many times in that station to be a coincidence,” she says. “I’m just convinced whoever is doing it waits for women to pass through that place and then pounces. I don’t want to leave myself open to that again.”
“I know some people would just say – well you’ve turned your AirDrop off now so surely it’s okay, but they don’t understand how shocking it is to have your private device invaded. It really shakes you up.”