NEWS
12/13/2018 13:03 EST | Updated 12/13/2018 20:38 EST

Canada’s Laws Can’t Handle ‘Cyberflashing,’ A New Type Of Sexual Harassment

The “underground” phenomenon cannot be ignored, expert says.

Brian Vinh Trinh/HuffPost Canada
Women have experienced cyberflashing by way of Airdrop on iPhones.

TORONTO — A photo of a penis suddenly flashed on Mallory Hood's phone screen, followed by another and another, leaving her helplessly looking around the subway car in search of the sender.

Was it a group of kids pulling a prank? The stranger sitting beside her? A man wanting to hurt her?

After another three stops worth of Airdrop requests, Hood was shaken. Originally headed to a birthday party that Saturday evening in April, she instead got off at an earlier stop and fled to a nearby friend's place.

"I was crying, trying to work through it in my mind. How could it happen?" said Hood, a 30-year-old retail manager in Toronto.

"I felt super violated. It's a way of assaulting somebody without touching, of getting into my personal space without getting close."

Mallory Hood
Mallory Hood says she was a victim of cyberflashing while riding the subway in Toronto last spring.

Cyberflashing — most commonly in the form of men sending unsolicited penis pictures to women — is a kind of sexual harassment that can occur through social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram, as well as the wireless technology AirDrop that's available on iPhones, iPads and Macbooks.

Airdrop enables users to share photos, videos and files between Apple devices over Bluetooth and WiFi as long as the devices are within about nine metres of each other.

This is a way for someone to show you something you don't want to see. It's the same thing as flashing in public.Mallory Hood

Even though Hood declined the Airdrop request, she still saw the photos automatically previewed on her phone screen.

"We actively consume media, images and videos, but we choose what we look at," Hood said. "This is a way for someone to show you something you don't want to see. It's the same thing as flashing in public."

Nadje Masoro, 20, was on her way to work in July, passing through downtown Toronto on the subway, watching Netflix on her phone and wearing wireless headphones connected to Bluetooth.

"I was grossed out," Masoro said. "This is not a time or place for a dick pic, what's the point of this? What's the person getting out of this? I'm not smiling or laughing. It's just ruining my day."

Nadje Masoro
Nadje Masoro was on her way to work this summer when a barrage of penis photos suddenly appeared on her phone.

Masoro and Hood's experiences are becoming more common. While researching this story, HuffPost was contacted by several women who shared experiences of receiving unwanted dick pics through Airdrop, text and Snapchat from strangers or men they met just once. They did not want to speak on the record, for fear they'd be targeted in the future.

Prof. Wendy Craig, head of psychology at Queen's University, said there's no research or data available on cyberflashing in Canada, with the majority of reports coming from New York City and the United Kingdom. She called it an "underground phenomenon."

"I think it totally happens and it's underreported in part because some people experience shame and embarrassment," said Craig, who is a bullying expert.

Cyberflashing is new, but must be taken seriously, she said.

"Every incident is a form of sexual harassment and has negative consequences. The notion of being unsafe and not knowing where and whom and when it can happen to you is going to heighten your fear arousal and stress response, so these people don't feel safe in public spaces."

Getty Editorial
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2018/09/27: Wide angle of a TTC subway train interior. This vintage cars are being replaced by modern Bombardier ones. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has received four reports of cyberflashing since it launched its reporting app in September 2017, but it's likely underreported, said spokesman Kadeem Griffiths. The TTC will keep the data to identify future trends, and will only contact police once there's a "critical mass" that requires a criminal harassment investigation.

"We take all harassment on our system seriously and encourage any customer who receives an inappropriate photo without consent to report it," Griffiths said.

Hood reported the incident to the TTC, and although it did follow up, nothing came of it as she did not save any of the photos that could have helped to identify the perpetrator, she said. Masoro tweeted about it, but didn't inform the TTC, as she was eager to put it behind her.

Craig said authorities need to find a way to address cyberflashing like any other form of harassment.

"We don't respond because we don't know about it, take it seriously, or know what it is, or what the consequences are," she said. "But we need to think about if there's a way to identify the perpetrator."

Toronto police said it has never received a report of cyberflashing, and declined HuffPost's interview request.

British Transport Police previously told HuffPost UK that people who receive a dick pic through Airdrop should screenshot the image, and report it as soon as possible, in the hopes that it will contain some identifying information.

WATCH: What is cyberflashing? Story continues below.

Other ways to prosecute cyberflashing could include using subway camera footage showing a perpetrator sending the photo, but ultimately it will be a challenge, said Toronto criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown.

"It would require police to identify who was sending the materials and I'm not sure that can be easily traced because it's not going through a cellular network and is mostly undetectable," Brown said. "You're going to need some sort of smoking gun to prosecute a case like this, and I'm not sure this type of offence creates the type of evidence you'd need to secure a conviction."

Need to clarify existing laws or create a new one: lawyer

Sexual harassment is not technically a criminal offence, so where cyberflashing falls within the Canadian Criminal Code is unclear, said Brown. Cyberflashing could potentially be considered as corrupting morals, mischief, an indecent act, or mailing obscene matter, which means transmitting or delivering anything that is offensive.

"This type of conduct doesn't fit neatly under any of our criminal laws and from time to time the laws need to be expanded to capture this type of conduct," Brown said. "So maybe there's a need to clarify existing laws or create an entirely new offence."

New York City council members introduced a bill in November to make cyberflashing punishable with jail time of up to one year, and a maximum fine of US$1,000. In the U.K., MPs are calling for a new law to make cyberflashing illegal, which will soon be considered by the legislature.

Hood wants to ensure that cyberflashing is taken seriously: "The more people that speak out about it, the more awareness is brought to a faceless crime."

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