Cyberflashing: When indecent exposure goes online

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By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow, Health Services Management Centre

The UK government is cracking down in ‘cyberflashing’ by including it as an offence with up to two years imprisonment in its new Online Safety Bill. This forms part of a larger scale initiative to keep people safe on the internet. The term ‘cyberflashing’ refers to unsolicited indecent images being sent online via social media, dating apps, or data sharing services such as Airdrop and Bluetooth. Consisting of sending photographs and videos, without request or consent for the “for the purpose of their own sexual gratification or to cause the victim humiliation, alarm or distress”. Some apps previews images sent so the image may be seen even if the recipient chooses to reject it.

Recent research demonstrates that this is not just an issue for the adult realm but it is also affecting children and young people. It has been found that 76% of girls aged between 12-18 have been sent unwanted images by boys and men. So, what does this mean for our young people?

This raises two questions, the first one being why do men and boys think that this is ok? And why is online ‘flashing’ seen to be less damaging than offline?

The Online Safety Bill is a move in the right direction for these actions, as ‘cyberflashing’ will carry the same maximum penalty as indecent exposure. It has been all too easy to forget online sexual behaviours in the wake of the latest issues seen with male violence on the streets, such as that seen by the murders of Sarah Everard, Ashling Murphy and Sabina Nessa. However, ‘cyberflashing’ poses a very real issue for children and young people and needs to be seen as such.

As outlined in research carried out by Dr Sophie King-Hill that came out last year, there is no current UK research that tells us about the sexual behaviours of children and young people and we do not know what behaviours constitute, normal, problematic, abusive and violent. Therefore, it stands to reason, we do not know fully the sexual behaviours that have moved online, what risks they pose, what education is required on these and to what extent they are being carried out. This is being addressed in King-Hill’s new ESRC funded project ‘Understanding Sexual behaviours in Children and Young People in the UK’ which was recently featured in TES.

We have very little knowledge of the impacts of image-based harassment and the lasting affects that his can have on children and young people. In fact, we have very little knowledge about the range of online sexual behaviours that are taking place for children and young people across the board. However, behaviours such as ‘cyberflashing’, whilst relatively new, do have echoes from history and that of indecent exposure and sexual harassment.

This brings us onto the other issue for consideration, why are the majority of these cases being carried out by men and boys? The only way to answer this question is to open the dialogue across all genders to find out the motives and also to address the problems within society about gendered expectations.

Quite often it is all too easy to hide behind a screen, making behaviours more extreme than they would be in person. This also raises the issue of young men and boys under the age of 18 also putting themselves at risk by sending unsolicited images over the internet. It is possible that they are not aware of the long term consequences, the permanency of the internet and the risks they pose to themselves in relation to grooming.

Whilst the punitive measures offered here are a move in the right direction to acknowledge that unwanted online sexual behaviours are on a par with those that are offline and can be just as damaging, more restorative work needs to be completed with all genders to ensure that children and young people are supported adequately in this rapidly moving online world.

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