You’re standing on a busy train when your phone buzzes: someone’s trying to AirDrop you some pictures. Photos of an erect penis, it turns out when you check the thumbnails. You don’t know who is sending them, where they are in proximity to you, or why they are doing the digital equivalent of exposing themselves in public. But you do know that what’s not OK in real life isn’t OK on your phone either.
For more than six months, HuffPost UK has been reporting on cyber flashing – the sending of unsolicited sexual images via AirDrop or other social platforms such as Facebook Messenger or Snapchat – hearing from women across the UK who have found themselves targeted.
There is no law that directly addresses this “digital flashing” in England and Wales, although it has been illegal in Scotland since 2009. And, while the Women & Equalities Committee recommended the government introduce an image-based abuse law to criminalise cyber flashing, the government has rejected those plans.
That means many women do not know if, or how, they can report cyber flashing when it happens, leaving numbers of reports relatively small. (You can report incidents on public transport by texting the British Transport Police on 61016). Certainly, many women have told HuffPost UK that they have been victims of cyber flashing – in the last six months we have heard from 70 victims, more than 90% of whom say they did not report the incident.
Here we publish the words of all 70 women. We have included their name, age, where they are from and where they were cyberflashed. We also asked what they thought about the incident when they reflected on it afterwards.
Jess Shepherd, 28, Manchester, on AirDrop at a restaurant.
“It made me feel really violated. I felt very exposed that I could be sent something in the middle of the day without warning.”
Isabella Smith, 20, Birmingham, on AirDrop in a university lecture theatre.
“I’ve heard of this happening to people but I never thought it would happen in a lecture hall. That is meant to be a safe place.”
Rachelle Romeo, 34, London, on Instagram and Facebook.
“I don’t see how the government think the guard of glass on a screen differentiates the impact of a man in a mac walking down the street suddenly opening it [and] exposing himself.”
Rehema Figueiredo, 25, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“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.”
Mollie Davies, 21, Cardiff, on Snapchat at home.
“Why do men think we want them? What are we actually expected to do with them? Because whether they realise it or not, we don’t get off on it.”
Chloe Matthbury, 28, Leeds, on AirDrop on a train.
“I felt pretty vulnerable for the rest of my trip and it was scary not knowing who it was but that they might be looking at me or potentially follow me off the train.”
Natalie Richardson, 26, Leeds, on Snapchat on a train.
“The likelihood someone actually wants to receive a dick pic is like 1%. I was mostly shocked and disgusted as well as embarrassed other people might have seen that content on my phone screen.”
Lindsay Coldrick, 37, from York, over email at home.
“What gives men the right? It is disgusting. They think it makes them a man but it just doesn’t.”
Rosalie Falla, 22, the Channel Islands, on Twitter at a friend’s house.
“I was initially shocked and found it funny as I was around friends, but when I was walking alone back to my flat, I became aware that this man lived in my area and I felt almost unsafe.”
Gail Watt, 37, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“It is the same as physical exposure and it should be treated as such.”
Kate O’Sullivan, 37, Edinburgh, on AirDrop on an aeroplane.
“It felt like this was another harassment women just have to absorb. It should work like any indecent exposure.”
Suzy Bennett, 41, Devon, on Facebook Messenger and Twitter.
“I felt frightened, ashamed, confused and just pushed it to the back of my mind. It is only now I realise it’s not ok and just hope that man did not go on to hurt someone.”
Jenny Briggs, 27, Bristol, on AirDrop on a train.
“I was so shocked to be sent those kind of images whilst I was in such a public and safe setting.”
Holly Burgess, 31, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“It’s not funny, it’s not sexual, it’s not inviting. It’s disrespectful, ignorant and disgusting.”
Kelly Gardner, 37, Leicester, on AirDrop on a train.
“I changed my iPhone name to John’s work phone and the dick pics stopped immediately. Over time, it has now just become second nature to protect my identity as a woman.”
Hannah Al-Othman, 33, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“If this offence isn’t covered by existing laws, then it should be legislated for as it’s not acceptable. If cyber flashing itself was a specific criminal offence then more people would report it.”
Sophie Bork, 26, Brighton, on AirDrop on a bus.
“After what happened, I just hate the idea of turning my AirDrop on, even momentarily, and being bombarded again.”
Amy Martin, 25, London, on AirDrop on the street.
“The normality of this sexually aggressive behaviour is such that I am not massively surprised [when it happens] and over time I have built up a defence mechanism of laughing it off. But at its core it is very invasive.”
Lisa Downs, 44, Bath, on AirDrop in a station.
“It might sound dramatic, but it happened once too many times in that station to be a coincidence. I’m just convinced whoever is doing it waits for women to pass through that place and then pounces.”
Natasha Harpley, 39, Norwich, on Facebook Messenger.
“It needs much more publicity to both change the law and public perception. It’s still deemed more serious when it [flashing] happened in person.”
Ella Whiddet, 23, London, on AirDrop on a train.
“I felt jittery for the rest of the journey and kept looking at the men seated and standing around me. I thought about it quite a lot for a long time afterwards.”
Dahaba Ali Hussen, 25, London, on Facebook Messenger.
“I think some men still see sex as a power tool and use unsolicited dick pics to shock or intimidate women.”
Josie*, 31, Brighton, on Airdrop at Gatwick airport departure lounge.
“I felt violated and looked around to see if I could see any indication of who it might be. I wondered what sort of person could think anyone would want this.”
Amy Sutton, 26, Kent, on Facebook Messenger.
“I was so embarrassed, no one ever sent me anything like this before.”
Dawn Finch, 50, Hertfordshire, on AirDrop on a train.
“It made me feel nervous about travelling to be honest. This was a hugely busy commuter train with standing room only. It wasn’t a bar or a club, not a dating app. Just a 50-year-old woman on a 7.30am train to work.”
Gemma Hall, 28, Essex, on AirDrop at a bus station.
“Women need to be told about cyber flashing, to help protect themselves against it. Otherwise we’re all in the dark.”
Lauren Smithe, 31, Liverpool, on AirDrop on a train.
“I was just minding my own business I don’t understand why this happens to women when they’re not doing anything to invite such behaviour?”
Melanie Macleod, 29, London, on Facebook Messenger.
“What the punishment should be I’m not sure but I do think it should be made clearer to men how it makes the receiver feel.”
Sophie Meehan, 20, Canterbury, on AirDrop at a train station.
“The man was so close to me. It was so intimidating. It was terrifying. I could feel my phone vibrating against my ear as he sent me more images.”
Lynn Anderton, 57, the Wirral, on Facebook Messenger.
“I’ve had enough dick pics on Facebook Messenger to host a Tate exhibition. I think for some men it has become their calling card.”
Daisy O’Byrne, 18, Chelmsford, on Facebook Messenger.
“He said: ‘I really want to bend you over and spank you.’ ‘Do you like being choked when you’re having sex?’ ‘Do you want to see a video of me wanking?’”
Jessica Cooke, 20, Newcastle, on AirDrop on a train.
“I felt so vulnerable as I knew he was getting a kick out of making me feel so uncomfortable.”
Ellie Clifford, 23, London, on AirDrop in the cafeteria at London City University.
“I felt totally violated, and then paranoid. I was looking around trying to figure out who it was. It’s so horrible and made me feel really uncomfortable.”
Mared Parry, 21, Wales, on Facebook Messenger.
“It was only later I realised how predatory that cyber flashing behaviour was.”
Ariane Sherine, 38, London, on Twitter.
“I felt utterly violated and shaken up. When I posted about the incident on Twitter, two guys following me made jokes like ‘It’ll never stand up in court’, which made me feel worse.”
Meredith Sneddon, 28, Colchester, on AirDrop on a bus.
“I felt incredibly violated. That someone felt it was acceptable to send this to another person. But also very vulnerable that someone could use digital technology in such an aggressive and reprehensible manner.”
Nancy Roberts, 42, Cornwall, on AirDrop on a train.
“Why are men still doing this? I just don’t understand what they get out of it apart from upsetting women. Maybe that’s what they want.”
Naomi*, 53, Sussex, on Twitter.
“I was unsurprised, and resigned to be honest. Not really shocked, just disappointed by men in general. I wish men would stop this behaviour.”
Vicki Scott, 19, Guildford, on Facebook Messenger.
“I had never seen a penis erect before I was sent that, or had never been sent a sexual image so I was terrified but learnt that nothing could be done.”
Emily Whitehead, 29, Derbyshire, on AirDrop in Matlock town centre.
“I was just a bit shocked to see it pop up on my screen unexpectedly. But then couldn’t help but laugh that someone thinks I’d want to see that. I know some people would be really offended but luckily I can just brush it off.”
Carolanne Irvine, 25, Glasgow, on Twitter at work.
“I know so many other people who have had the exact same thing happen to them. It happens so often in fact.”
Elanor King, 40, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“I immediately looked up and glared at my neighbouring passengers, asked ‘Which asshole did that?’ I turned to my husband and said loudly “someone just airdropped a nudey pic at me”.”
Ar*, 35, County Durham, on Instagram.
“It makes me feel as though I should go on lockdown and shut down all my personal social media accounts, as if that’s the only way to stop this happening.”
Cydney Yeates, 24, London, on AirDrop at a train station.
“I was disgusted and felt shocked and awkward that someone might see my phone and what was on the screen!”
Marie-Clare*, 51, London, on AirDrop on a train.
“I felt ‘on alert’, unsafe, uncomfortable and started planning the quickest route home. When I got off the train I wished I’d bought a personal alarm.”
Monikah Lee, 27, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“I didn’t want to give the perpetrator the satisfaction of me succumbing to their vile move so I ignored and acted as normal as I can.”
Kasia Dilenardo, 19, Leeds, on AirDrop in a library.
“I just felt totally violated.”
Samantha Chiesa, 19, Motherwell, on AirDrop at a restaurant.
“It was mortifying because the person behind me noticed and pointed it out. Not the best thing you want a stranger to see on your phone. I think they [the perpetrators] think it’s sexy but it’s really not, especially when you’re sitting trying to eat your food.”
Beth Ashley, 22, Hampshire, on Instagram.
“I was utterly horrified – it was a five second video of a guy ejaculating. My mum was also sat next to me when he sent it so two women had to see that without giving their consent. I think since I was about 12 myself and my friends have received unsolicited dick pics. As soon as AirDrop was introduced I knew that’s what it would end up getting used for.”
Lucy*, 29, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“I found it a little creepy knowing the man might have been watching me as I received it. It is draining though – like for God’s sake, can I not even travel home in peace – I’m tired!”
Evie*, 40, Australia, on numerous dating apps.
“I was married for 12 years, so innocent me at 37 when I got back into the dating pool had no idea about this. I accepted it at first because I just thought I was out of touch. It was only once I got on Twitter that I realised what a universal experience it was. How anyone could just send that without having said one word to someone is beyond me.”
Hannah Price, 25, Birmingham, on Twitter.
“It happened after I shared an article about cyber flashing on Twitter... it made me feel grossed out and disgusted.”
Rachel Hawkins, 33, Bristol, on Twitter and Facebook Messenger.
“Sometimes I feel really angry. Disgust is another emotion. Sometimes I just simply roll my eyes and get on with my day without even flinching – this shows how common ‘dick pics’ have become.”
Hannah Jayne Smart, 49, Reading, on AirDrop on a train.
“A couple of my friends have been sent dick pics on dating apps so I knew it happened, but just on the train when I’m travelling to work, no that was a shock. I’ve told everyone I can to spread awareness.”
Stacey*, 32, Leeds, on Whatsapp on a train.
“I’d spoken to them on Tinder, months earlier, gave my number, never heard from them and had never met them. The message was entirely unsolicited. It made me feel disgusting. And actually really embarrassed.”
Justina Greene, 27, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
″This is another example of women not being equal to men in public spaces. They say we are, but we can’t walk home alone at night without fear of being raped, we can’t ride trains without men ‘manspreading’, and now they’re getting into our phones too.”
Rosy White, 22, Isle of Man, on AirDrop on a bus.
“My mum was with me and I was just so embarrassed that she might see it on my phone and think I’d asked for that from someone. Who does that?”
Paula Cassidy, 44, Bedford, on Instagram.
“I’ve only started using social media recently so part of me thought maybe it’s just something that happens on here. But I really didn’t like it and it made me want to stop using Instagram.”
Kara*, 28, London, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“I’m born and brought up in London so was pretty unphased by it, but I was worried for two reasons – I think he was targeting the [younger women nearby], and we were left alone on the Tube and he made me feel very uncomfortable. I was afraid.”
Analicia Vaamonde, 45, Washington DC, on AirDrop on the London Underground.
“My face was red. I was disgusted and pissed at the fact I felt I couldn’t do much about it. My mum was there. I’m 36 weeks’ pregnant. How do I know the guy is not going to get violent if I speak up?”
Persephone-Rebecca Salway, 37, Basingstoke, on Instagram and Facebook.
“I get a lot of messages from guys about my boobs which I decline a lot, also a lot of spam which I decline, but occasionally you get one with an attachment. Every time it’s always a dick with a caption like ‘this is for you babe’. I worry for my daughter who is 12 as I don’t know how she’d feel if it happened to her.”
Catherine Jonson, 52, Egham, on AirDrop on a train.
“I was annoyed at myself for being stupid and leaving AirDrop on, but then I thought that’s essentially just victim blaming and I should be more annoyed at the man who sent it than myself.”
Kayleigh Tanner, 27, Brighton, on Instagram, Snapchat and Bumble.
“It always makes my skin crawl and makes me feel uncomfortable - some of those times I was seeing someone, and definitely didn’t want a random man sending me dick pics! I have no idea what they’re expecting either - who has ever received an unsolicited dick pic and felt positively about it?”
Mya Davids, 24, London, on Facebook Messenger.
″I know men think women should just deal with these types of micro-aggressions because it’s not ‘that bad’ but it’s so constant. Can’t I just use Facebook or other social media without worrying this might happen?”
Amelia Perrin, 22, Essex, on Snapchat and Instagram.
“It makes me feel violated because although now I’m good at telling whether it’s going to be one (it’s more likely to be a dick pic if it’s a photo with no text from a random man online), I still open them without warning and usually in public, so theres a mad dash to put my phone away. It’s a power trip to them to know they can make me feel vulnerable like that in public, in the middle of the day.”
Rosie Kerridge, 37 Sheffield, on AirDrop in Sheffield town centre.
“I was with my baby and was worried people might see and think that’s what I was looking at when we were out shopping together.”
Jessica Anderson, 23, London, on dating apps.
“This has just happened countless times. It is totally bizarre. I’ve thought about this before and girls would never behave in this way.”
Angela*, 56, Crawley, on AirDrop on a train.
“I know men might struggle to understand why it upsets women so much – because they wouldn’t mind seeing boobs on their commute – it just is another thing that makes us feel like second class citizens. The fact that we are uncomfortable is such a secondary concern to them.”
Sophie*, 25, Belfast, on AirDrop on a bus.
“Until you contacted me I didn’t realise this had happened to other people. I thought I was just unlucky. Guess not.”
Nikki Mattocks, 21, Croydon, on Facebook and Snapchat.
“I’ve been sent so many pics on snapchat it is unreal. I honestly don’t get why they do it. It’s not like I’m gonna see a picture of their dick and be like OMG I wanna marry you. Take your genitals away from my phone. I’d rather look at memes.”
*Some names have been changed (or surnames not used) at the request of the victim to remain unidentifiable.