Cyberflashing: Why Is It Legal?

Sep 6, 2021 | cybercrime, tech ethics

More than half of all women have experienced sexual harassment from a stranger online, according to a study by Toronto University. The study details harassment encompassing threats of sexual violence, offensive remarks, and demands for sex as well as so-called ‘cyberflashing’, the unsolicited sending of nude images or videos. 28% of women in the Toronto study had received inappropriate photos, and 23% had received photos of men showing their genitals. A separate study from the University of Leicester revealed that a third of women reported being victims of cyberflashing and charity Glitch found that 17% of “women or non-binary people had been sent unsolicited pornography in June or July 2020”.

Cyberflashing is a wide-spread problem being battled by women online with the perpetrator’s anonymity aiding their lack of persecution. However, the reality remains that laws are hazy. Legislation has not adapted alongside technology, so cyberflashing is not legally categorised as a sexual offence. So, why should cyberflashing be criminalised?

Why Is Cyberflashing A Problem?

Sophia Ankel discusses why cyberflashing should be a criminal offence in the Guardian, noting “with technology infiltrating every aspect of our private lives, this unwelcome input from male strangers has become so normal that it is frequently ignored and brushed off”. Indeed, these gestures of sexual aggression are not only understated by men, but women too, with many admitting that they would not have expected cyberflashing to potentially constitute a crime.

“Sending unsolicited sexual images is not a joke. It is violating behaviour that cannot be tolerated and should never be normalised.”

Sophia Ankel

Sophie Gallagher, who has been campaigning to make cyberflashing an official sexual offence since 2019, explains that a fifth of women who have been sent unsolicited pictures would employ the words “distressing” or “threatening” to describe it. In one study, nearly 60% chose the word “gross” to describe the experience of receiving these images.

Women surveyed describe cyberflashing as “gross, distressing and threatening:”

Cyberflashing also feeds into pervasive issues surrounding the rise of dating apps, with the practise causing problems when chatting online. Cyberflashing has been denoted as an act which causes genuine harm, and is “accompanied by a clearly wrongful purpose”. Once again, the anonymity of the act heightens the lack of responsibility of the perpetrator in question, as many will never meet their cyberflashing Tinder matches.

Should It Be Criminalised?

In a report published by the Law Commission, cyberflashing has been addressed, with the current laws described as “ineffective at criminalising genuinely harmful behaviour”. The commission has identified that although the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 criminalises the exposure of genitals, it should be amended to include photos and videos of the same. The Law Commission have stated that the present wording, i.e. “grossly offensive” and “indecent”, has set the criminality bar too low, whilst simultaneously possibly criminalising legal activities, such as consensual sexting.

However, some have voiced their concerns regarding the genuine effects of the propositions on freedom of speech. The pressure group Article 19 has condemned the Law Commission’s report, asserting that it wrongly utilises overly-broad phrases. Furthermore, Article 19 have voiced that the commission’s addendum, “without reasonable excuse”, subsequently affords blame on the defendant, broaching supplementary concerns for free speech laws. Whether or not the Law Commission’s report genuinely poses to solve the problem, the practise of cyberflashing, like so many issues untouched by legislation in the online world, is a subject that urgently needs to be addressed.