Would Making Cyber Flashing Illegal Stop People Sending Dick Pics?

Scotland introduced a law against cyber flashing in 2010 – should England and Wales do the same?

Caitlin* switches her phone to aeroplane mode and places it on the small table between us. She isn’t doing it to be polite. This is what she’s done for the last three months when in a public place. “It’s safer that way,” she explains, glancing nervously over her shoulder at a couple of male builders entering the cafe.

In December last year, the 25-year-old was cyberflashed as she waited to pay for her early morning latte in an Edinburgh coffee shop. Somebody was trying to send her 90 images of an erect penis via AirDrop: as she rushed to decline the invitation and avoid the pictures downloading to her phone, the person immediately sent them again.

Shaken, Caitlin left the cafe, anxious about walking alone through still-dark streets to her nearby office. She remains convinced the perpetrator knew which building she worked in and could come back to find her.

She didn’t pause to take a screenshot as evidence of the cyber flashing (AirDrop displays a thumbnail of the image before you accept it). She didn’t report it to the police.

HuffPost has heard from more than 70 women across the UK who have been cyberflashed; like Caitlin, 95% did not report what happened. But Caitlin’s circumstances are different from many we’ve heard from because she lives in Scotland – where it has been illegal to cyberflash since December 2010.

In Scotland, if a person intentionally shares sexual images without the consent of the recipient – for the purpose of sexual gratification, or humiliating, distressing or alarming the victim – they have committed a sexual offence. This, known as a section 6 offence, is punishable by up to two years in prison and a place on the sexual offenders register. As with other sex crimes, victims are given anonymity.

The Scottish government made these amendments to the Sexual Offences Act in 2009, but England and Wales is yet to introduce similar legislation. There were signs that lawmakers were considering it: in October 2018 a cross-party group of MPs made recommendations that the government should make a new image-based abuse law to criminalise cyber flashing and in March the government vowed to act. But in May the government announced they would be rejecting the recommendations.

“We had an explosion of reports overnight..."”

- Detective Superintendent Alwyn Bell

I meet Detective Superintendent Alwyn Bell on an unseasonably warm Edinburgh day in Police Scotland’s Fettes station. (The view from the fourth-floor training room is of the private boarding school Fettes College, which counts Tony Blair and Tilda Swinton among its ex-pupils.)

Bell was a detective when the law was changed in 2009. Working on the ground in the capital, he saw what happened firsthand: “We had an explosion almost overnight of reports about text messages and pictures,” he says. FOI data obtained by HuffPost UK shows that since the law was introduced, there have been 3115 reports of adults coercing other adults into looking at sexual images, and 734 reports of children aged 13-15 and 1,228 reports of children 12-and-under being victims of the offence.

In contrast to most other crimes in Scotland, the incidence of sexual offences continues steadily to rise, Bell explains. Increasing each consecutive year since 2008-09, they now account for 5% of all recorded crime in Scotland. Figures show that cyber-enabled sexual crimes accounted for around half of the growth in recorded sexual crimes between 2013-14 and 2016-17. In Bell’s opinion, this is likely to be due to a mixture of greater prevalence and growing awareness of cyber flashing laws.

DS Alwyn Bell outside of Police Scotland.
DS Alwyn Bell outside of Police Scotland.

But an increase in reporting of cyber flashing hasn’t necessarily led to an equal increase in convictions. Police Scotland is unable to provide a precise number of cyber flashing convictions because of the way this data is recorded: cyber flashing is grouped with other crimes under ‘other sexual offences’. But figures show the number of convictions in this category rose from 315 in 2011 to 597 in 2018. In 2015-2016, the highest point, there were 694 convictions.

One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells HuffPost her now ex-husband was arrested and convicted under Scottish law on two separate occasions for cyber flashing women – and added to the sex offenders register. It was, she says, a “horrible experience for all involved” but also stands as an example of the law working. It can provide results.

The Scottish law has also had an impact on the police, explains DS Bell; things are now clearly mapped out for officers and prosecutors. He hands me an A5 pamphlet containing the exact breakdowns of sexual crimes and the thresholds for conviction. “The differences before and after the law change are night and day. It’s really clear for us in terms of what needs to be proven.”

For Bell, looking through the lens of law enforcement, the law is working –although he acknowledges that it isn’t perfect and there should be greater training for individual officers. But there’s also the question of how much the law really changes things for women on the ground; why women like Caitlin still don’t feel able to open up when they are victims.

Carolanne Irvine, from Glasgow, has been sent multiple sexually explicit pictures by strangers. The first incident happened when the 25-year-old was on her break at the roller disco where she works. She was sent an unsolicited dick pic on Twitter. “It made me feel disgusting,” she tells me over email. “I experienced pure physical disgust. It makes my stomach turn thinking about it.”

Carolanne Irvine.
Carolanne Irvine.

The second time, she was at home on her own, doing chores when she was sent another unsolicited image on Twitter from someone she didn’t know. “I don’t know why they think it is an acceptable thing to do to someone,” she says.

Irvine is aware that cyber flashing is illegal, but has never thought about reporting her experiences because she’s convinced nothing will be done. “It’s just like other sexual harassment,” she says. “It feels like the type of situation where they’d sweep it under the rug.”

Caitlin, who also knows that cyber flashing is against the law, feels similarly. “Most of the time it feels like the only option is to block, delete, move on with your day.”

This is not the case, insists DS Bell, who is also head of Police Scotland’s rape task force. Any woman who reports a sexual crime will be taken seriously, he says: “Our start position is always that we will record the crime and investigate it. Even if we don’t get anywhere it will always be on our system, on record.”

In March Gavin Scouler, 24, was given a 12-year sentence for seven rape charges – but he was only on the police’s radar at all because he had cyberflashed a woman who had gone on to report to police, says Bell – who highlights the case as an example of why reporting these crimes is important. “Something that looks minor in nature can often become a serious offender – you get non-contact turning into contact crimes,” he says. “Women should report as it can be part of a larger jigsaw puzzle [that] we need to convict people.”

Yet many women in Scotland still do not report incidences of cyber flashing because, despite widespread campaigning, media attention and educational programmes, there are those who don’t know about the law change.

Samantha Chiesa had been queuing for food in a restaurant in Glasgow’s Silverburn shopping centre when she was sent a dick pic. I talk to the 19-year-old, who works as a make up artist, the following day. At first she didn’t notice that the image had arrived on her phone screen, via Snapchat. It was pointed out by a stranger standing behind her in the line: “It was mortifying,” she says.

Samantha Chiesa.
Samantha Chiesa.

It wasn’t the first time Chiesa had been cyberflashed. She tells me it’s happened so frequently over the last couple of years – usually via Instagram and Facebook Messenger – that she’s lost count of the number of unsolicited images she’s received.

Despite the frequency of these incidents, she didn’t know cyber flashing was illegal and has never reported it, instead blocking the perpetrators. Even when she learns she could have gone to the police, Chiesa says she doesn’t believe anyone would have helped without “significant proof” that she didn’t ask for it.

Not only does the law not always seem to empower women, it’s not clear it is deterring perpetrators. “I know many other women who have had the same thing done to them,” Chiesa tells me. “It happens more often now, in fact, than before, I think.”

Cyber flashing is not just about legal change, argues Brenna Jessie, who formerly worked at Scottish Women’s Aid and is now campaigns officer at Rape Crisis Scotland. “Laws obviously have their place and are necessary but they do not always provoke culture change,” she explains. “A law can spark a conversation but won’t necessarily spark change. And laws alone without this have limited impact. That’s what happened with this issue.”

““If culture doesn’t change you won’t have this sudden influx of reports – even with a law in place"”

- Ellie Hutchinson, The Empower Project

When we meet in a restaurant just a few metres from where Caitlin was cyberflashed, Jessie tells me that despite cyber flashing legislation being in place for a decade in Scotland, there is a culture – as in many other places – that means the burden is on women and girls to fix the problem: “Boys will be boys, just turn off your phone, why did you have AirDrop on?”

She’s also noticed a trend where if women don’t get a supportive response when they first tell someone (partner, friends, parents) about being sent unsolicited sexual images, they will be less likely to report the cyber flashing. “If just one person belittles it or say it’s ‘not a big deal’, then it doubles down on our tendency to doubt ourselves and trivialise these things,” she argues.

The cultural change required to get everyone to be in that same place, will take generations, she says. Even with a law already in place.

And this is acknowledged throughout Scotland. Humza Yousaf, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Parliament, agrees that laws alone will not change people’s actions. “We have always been clear that legislation alone will not eradicate this, or any other kind of sexual offence,” he says. “Education and early intervention, as well as the influence of family, peers and work colleagues, also has a significant role to play in addressing such damaging behaviour.”

Ellie Hutchinson is one of the people instrumental in education in this area through The Empower Project, a charity campaigning against gender based violence that runs workshops for children on cyber flashing. She tells me that rather like other forms of harassment – catcalling or whistling – cyber flashing is still seen as an “everyday nuisance” that women should just tolerate. “It’s not that bad, it’s funny, it’s a compliment,” she repeats, exasperated.

Having a law against cyber flashing doesn’t change this overnight – or even 10 years later. “If culture doesn’t change you won’t have this sudden influx of reports, even with a law in place,” she says.

“A law is necessary and a strong symbol of what a society stands for."”

- Brenna Jessie, Rape Crisis Scotland

DS Bell wishes women had more confidence in his system to protect them. Sitting behind his desk, tapping his pen on a notepad, he notes that the police now have dedicated cybercrime units and work with Interpol, EuroJust and the FBI. “We make it as much of a hostile environment for perpetrators as possible,” he says. “And even if we don’t catch them today, if you report to us we’ll have that intelligence there for tomorrow.” He seems genuinely frustrated with not being able to do more.

For Jessie and Hutchinson, who work on the frontline with women, the way to force real change is to confront a patriarchal system which allows behaviour to continue unchecked. “But that’s big, that’s really big,” says Jessie. “We’re not ready for a society where everyone reports – no institution is logistically ready for that.”

But while there are many issues with how the law works and is being used in Scotland, that doesn’t mean those who’ve spoken to HuffPost think that replicating it in England and Wales would be pointless. Everyone I speak to believes that a cyber flashing law would be a good step forward.

“I’m pretty sure my colleagues down in England and Wales will be immensely frustrated that there’s no legislation in place,” argues Bell. “There is nothing more frustrating than knowing someone is going down that path and not being able to do anything with it.”

All laws are idealistic, notes Hutchinson, and don’t instantly transform behaviour. “It doesn’t mean behaviour suddenly stops but it creates a cultural norm around what is and isn’t okay, and creates a springboard for potential change” she says. Jessie agrees: “A law is necessary and a strong symbol of what a society stands for. To know it is wrong and have that be validated by law is important for women.”