University student Sophie Meehan was enjoying a family trip to the theater in London when pictures of a stranger’s genitals popped up on her smartphone.
The 20-year-old was about to board a train to return home to Kent in southeast England last year when an AirDrop file appeared on her phone, so she opened the file and was aghast.
Meehan, who closed the file to immediately be sent it several times more, said that she felt totally confused on receiving the unsolicited image and at becoming another victim of “cyberflashing,” a technology-based crime in a legal void.
“It was just shocking ... also a bit uncomfortable and a bit gross, but mainly just shocking,” Meehan said in a telephone interview, adding that the man she believed sent the image was close by and watching as she opened it.
Meehan said that it was only when she researched online that she discovered, like many women, she had fallen prey to a growing form of image-based sexual abuse called cyberflashing — when a man sends a photograph of his penis via a digital device.
In Britain, more than 40 percent of millennial women have been sent an unsolicited photograph of a man’s private parts, according to a YouGov poll in 2017, while just over half of US millennial women have received a graphic image, according to a separate YouGov poll in the same year.
However, despite this prevalence, only a handful of places — including Singapore, Scotland and Texas — have introduced specific legislation to deal with cyberflashing, with women’s rights campaigners pushing to fill the legal void.
Most nations have existing laws that only partially cover this sort of activity, normally related to sexual harassment or communication, Durham University professor of law Clare McGlynn said.
“It’s a real hotchpotch of different provisions [in different nations] and it’s not clear,” she said.
In late 2018, a cross-party group of British lawmakers recommended that the government introduce a new image-based sexual abuse law to criminalize cyberflashing.
The British government vowed to act in March last year, but later rejected the recommendations.
Legal changes are needed to keep pace with the way men are using technology to abuse women, said Niki Kandirikirira, programs director at women’s rights group Equality Now.
“Current laws are not keeping up with how technology is facilitating sexual harassment and abuse — old crimes are being perpetrated in new ways,” Kandirikirira said.
Cyberflashing can be “deeply distressing and unnerving for recipients, and sends a toxic message to women and girls that they are not safe in public space,” she said.
The anonymous nature of digital devices makes men think they can get away with the activity, she added.
“Being able to intentionally expose their genitals to a stranger using digital means significantly reducing the risk of being caught,” Kandirikirira said.
Research published last year by Denmark’s Aarhus University found that women find unsolicited so-called “dick pics” intrusive and often regard them as misguided attempts at flirting.
However, men who engage in the activity tended to view it as a means of showing off, complimenting, hooking-up, or even receiving nude photographs from women in return, the research found.
McGlynn said there were signs that women were becoming more aware of cyberflashing and speaking up about it, rather than just deleting the text and staying quiet.
“Raising awareness is as much about — particularly with younger women — being able to understand this is wrong and that they don’t have to put up with it,” she said.
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