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Four in 10 young women have reported being sent unsolicited explicit images. But what makes some men send photographs of their genitals to unsuspecting women — and is it time for a change in the law? W hen Leah Holroyd ed a dating site five years ago, the year-old noticed a lot of men had listed The Great Gatsby as a favourite book. Holroyd found him pleasant enough, but she was looking for a relationship rather than just friendship, and he only ever talked to her about authors.
After a couple of weeks, the bibliophile said he would be visiting London where Holroyd, who builds online learning courses, was living. He suggested they swap phone s to make arrangements easier. Nor does this just happen through online dating. Some men have used the AirDrop function on their Apple devices — which allows users to share files with other nearby Apple devices — to send unsolicited pictures to women. Anyone, of any age, who has AirDrop turned on at its most unrestricted setting is at risk of picking up their phone to see a graphic image that was sent anonymously by someone in the same restaurant, cinema or train carriage.
Laura Thompson, a researcher at City, University of London, whose work examines harassment over dating apps, says the issue has until now been trivialised. What happened in the mind of that man between talking about books, inviting a woman for coffee and a walk — and sending her a photograph of his penis? Unsurprisingly, I did not get very far by asking men in person if they had ever sent unsolicited photographs of their penis.
So I set up an on Reddit, where users can post anonymously in forums on a range of topics, and I asked the question again. Shortly afterwards, I went to the cinema. When I checked back a few hours later, I discovered more than comments, and the moderators had shut the thread down. The comments were fascinating.
But the reality is that there are many different motives that people have, some of which are perhaps more troubled and troubling than others. Some who shared their experiences anonymously wrote about not feeling confident with their bodies, and wanting praise. Although most men will never admit to it, we are very insecure about our bodies, especially down there.
So, unconsciously, we just want someone to say we look nice, or that we are attractive. Not even sexy or incredibly handsome — just OK. Others described wanting to turn up the sexual excitement in a messaging conversation they felt was flagging. Because either they stop texting me or I get laid. It was now OK for them to reply in kind, or to steer the conversation down more sexual routes. Another, John, estimated he has sent unsolicited pictures in chatrooms over the years, after becoming aroused.
The feeling was a bit of a rush in the anticipation of a response. He described the four types of responses he received: very rarely, it would lead to an overtly sexual conversation in a chat window, in which further pictures might be exchanged; or he might be sent a complimentary message; or he might receive a negative, angry response. But, most often, he received no response.
John is now in his 60s and has not sent a picture like this in more than a decade. I have learned this is offensive and an unwanted intrusion, even if it is the internet and anonymous. Even online, it is a violation, in my opinion; little different from the stereotypical street flasher in a trenchcoat.
This notion makes a lot of sense to Blumenthal. The flasher is looking for something very particular: he is interested in the response, focused on the faces of these women — he wants to see shock and surprise, and a kind of disabling of the person he is flashing. In almost every case of real-world indecent exposure, he says, there will have been hood incident where the perpetrator endured a trauma that made him feel out of control.
This is the notion of identification of the aggressor: determined never to be a victim again. Perhaps some women do feel that, but others find them much more disturbing. Nothing in the conversation had made me think he was going to do that. He told me that I must be mentally unstable because I had changed my mind so quickly. He put the blame on me; made me feel I had done something wrong and had been unfair to him. In expressing his rage towards Holroyd, he was also describing exactly how he had made Holroyd feel about him: he was the one whose behaviour had been unstable, unpredictable, disturbed and disturbing.
He had projected his feelings directly on to her.
There were many thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to my question on Reddit. Or for a man to ask a woman if she would like to receive one. Some men said they had stopped sending unsolicited photographs after a negative response. Rightly so. Others replied that leaving it up to women to teach men what is acceptable by responding negatively could put those women at risk.
Blumenthal says that it is crucial to distinguish between noncontact offences, in which the perpetrator does not touch his or her victim, and contact offences — and that the overlap between those who commit indecent exposure and those who go on to sexually assault their victims, is low. Cyberflashing can be prosecuted under a of different laws, which carry prison sentences of up to two years.
But there are problems with these laws, says barrister Kate Parker, director of the UK-based Schools Consent Project, a charity she founded to educate young people about consent and sexual assault. We can improve the law, criminalising this latest incarnation of flashing, but, unless we try to understand the motivations behind it, we have no hope of stopping it.
When I was a schoolgirl, a man flashed me as I walked home from the local park — he ran ahead of me then stood masturbating, with his T-shirt over his face. When I was 17, on holiday in Paris with my best friend, a man thrust a photograph of a deformed penis in our faces. When I was in my 20s, a man I was flirting with texted me an unexpected dick pic. All these experiences, shifting in format, but not in nature, as technology progressed, were shocking, and unpleasant.
On the upside, I am happy to report that in researching this piece, I did not receive a single one.
Some names have been changed. For help and advice with any of the issues raised in this article, go to schoolsconsentproject. Online abuse. What makes men send dick pics?
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