Technology is breeding a new type of sex offender and lowering the bar for men looking to commit crimes against women, leading experts in online harassment have warned.
And despite claims that digital or online ‘cyber-flashing’ or sexual harassment is less harmful, there are fears that such behaviour could be as damaging as acts committed in person.
“It is inevitable that some of these people will then go on to commit contact sexual offences, but it is not possible to say at this time what sort of proportion that is,” Clare McGlynn, Professor of Law and expert in image-based sexual abuse, from Durham Law School, told HuffPost UK.
“[However] the risk of these sexual offences is too great to wait around for ‘enough’ victims to come forward - we cannot wait for victimisation to happen and instead have to act to eliminate it through education and campaigning.”
HuffPost UK revealed earlier this month that the problem of ‘cyber-flashing’ on public transport, utilising the Apple AirDrop functionality, is being hidden from crime figures because women are not reporting it to the police.
A HuffPost reporter was sent more than a hundred sexual images via Apple’s AirDrop function over a WiFi connection while travelling on the London Underground.
The assault, which was reported to police, happened only 24 hours after US reports claimed that an increasing number of women were falling victim to this type of smartphone-linked harassment on the New York Subway.
Despite a growing body of anecdotal evidence, including five women who contacted HuffPost on social media to share their own experiences, British Transport Police (BTP) said it had seen “no rise” in this type of crime in the UK.
Laura Thompson, a lead researcher at City University, believes the problem is widespread but going unrecorded.
“There are no crime statistics on it, as you’ve found, and there is next to no academic research on cyber-flashing. Certainly, there are no large-scale surveys I know of that ask women specifically whether they have received such an unwanted image,” Thompson told HuffPost.
“[A study] from Australia] found 29% of women had received ‘unwanted sexually explicit images, comments, emails or text messages’. This could obviously include a variety of things, and not just dick pics, but it is still a concerning statistic I think.”
Thompson claims that not only is the problem more widespread than statistics would indicate, but this medium is opening the floodgates for a larger pool of perpetrators.
“[Technology] has opened it to people who would never have considered standing on a street corner in a trench coat,” because of the risk involved, the lack of anonymity, and greater potential for social and legal consequence, “I think there is probably a whole new bunch of offenders.”
And the problem is only going to get worse: “With the digital age and more and more platforms coming out, people always find a way to weaponise them.”
There have always been men who abuse power and abuse women and this is just another way to do it..."
Thompson found this isn’t just the case with AirDrop, and occurs across the web, where women she has spoken to feel potential harassment and receiving explicit images is just an accepted “hazard of the internet” for female users.
One anecdote she recounts from her research was from a woman who had been chatting with a man online, when they had a disagreement, and he responded by sending a picture of a large kitchen knife placed next to his erection: “There is very clearly a violent and threatening tone here.”
The victim did not report this incident to the police, despite it warranting a place on the sex offender’s register and up to two years imprisonment.
Another woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, went on a date with a man she met online and after she rejected his proposal for a second meeting, he bombarded her with drunk calls and messages in the middle of the night for up to a year, as well as sending her explicit images when he got no response.
The Airdrop app is one of Apple’s file-sharing functionalities, able to send photos, videos and documents instantly over a WiFi connection.
Although the default setting is to ‘contacts only’ (meaning only your phonebook can pair with you), if this is switched to ‘everyone’ you only need to be within 30 feet - tube carriages are 29 feet long - of another user for them to share unsolicited content with your device.
Several women have told HuffPost UK that they didn’t report instances of cyber-flashing that happened to them, adding weight to suggestions that cyber-flashing could be more widespread.
Rehema Figueiredo, 25, was targeted with a request to receive 129 photographs at Stockwell Tube station only 48 hours before the HuffPost reporter, she said: “I thought it was weird and it made me feel uneasy on the platform and then on the train. I was trying to work out who it was but everyone was on their phones.”
But Figueiredo didn’t alert the police, explaining: “I wasn’t convinced it was worth reporting it to the police or that they’d take it seriously. I’ve reported worse things to them and nothing has come of it.”
Gail Watt, 37, told HuffPost she had been a victim on two separate occasions while travelling in the capital, but did not inform the police, despite feeling that the situation was the “same as exposure, and should be treated as such”.
Professor McGlynn believes that these cyber crimes can be just as harmful, or even more so, than those committed in person: “Some will come forward and say [cyberflashing] is harmless, everyone struggles with the fact it isn’t face to face, but you can’t rank sexual offences like that.
“The harm of sexual offences is so significant and different forms of offending can have the same impact on different people.”
This isn’t exclusive to women who use the internet for dating, it also affects those required to use the internet for work - models on Instagram, journalists on Twitter, and even female Uber-drivers and DoorDash employees who are being “harassed by their customers and sent awful messages over the apps when they’re just trying to do a job,” says Thompson.
Thompson also cites the prevalence of the aubergine emoji, which has become shorthand for male genitalia, as a symbol of how cyber misconduct has become so embedded in our digital culture.
In fact, Thompson even deleted her Twitter account because she was worried about the backlash she would receive when people found out what she was researching.
The real-world implications that governments should be trying to address, says Thompson, as the psychological motivations of the cyber-flashers do not end when they log off.
“If they are doing something that they know is unwanted and nonconsensual [online], clearly they have less of a concern for having ethical, respectful relationships, or intimate encounters, with women in general,” .
“There is clearly a section of people that are aggressive and doing this in a deliberately offensive way. It is very clearly some kind of attention-seeking behaviour designed to provoke a bad response.
We can’t scare women off using the internet because it’s simply not fair...”
These incidences should not be considered purely as a sexual behaviour, but also as an expression of male power and dominance, Thompson adds: “It is that nexus between sex and power, and using the sexual image and action as an abuse of power.”
“These things have always been a problem, there has always been sexism, and men who abuse power and abuse women and this is just another way to do it.”
Thompson believes that, while women seem to have largely accepted this as part of the unwritten laws of internet interaction, finding the solution to this type of abuse should not fall into the laps of victims because it “curtails women’s opportunities”.
“I think that it is unfair to expect women to be continually self-policing and every time they want to use some function online they need to think about how it might be misused by someone else and we can’t scare women off using the internet, or smartphone technology, because it is simply not fair,” said Thompson.
Instead she has called on the British government to do more with sex and relationship education, to dismantle sexism and address this problem at the root - attitudes to women and sexism in our country: ”We need to keep telling people you just don’t send pictures of your penis to people who don’t want it.”