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Flashing is a serious sexual offence: treat it as such

Flashing is a serious sexual offence: treat it as such

There is still a deep cultural assumption that indecent exposure is pathetic, or even funny – paying no heed to its traumatising impact upon women

Content warning: This article covers difficult topics, including sexual assault and child abuse.

Ask any woman and she will tell you exactly where she was – the weather, the time, the year, her age – when it happened to her. Because being flashed at has happened to an awful lot of women.

The first man to expose his penis to me has become part of my life, because five decades later I still can’t get him out of my head. I was eight years old and had been allowed to go to the shop on my own for the first time. 

I ran across the street in my school uniform and a man appeared in front of me, grinning. I saw he was holding his penis and rubbing it ferociously. I stood frozen to the spot until something made me run away. I don’t remember what he said but do recall that I was utterly terrified for several weeks after it happened.

Today – since the revelations about the history of Wayne Couzens’ record of offending before he murdered Sarah Everard – flashing is at last being taken seriously as a sex crime by media and politicians. But why has it taken the kidnap, rape and murder of a woman by a serving police officer for flashing to be seen as a problem as opposed to a joke? 

Colin Pitchfork – recently paroled before his arrest on 19 November for breach of licence – raped and strangled to death two 15-year-old girls in the 1980s. When originally arrested, he confessed to police that he had exposed his penis to more than 1,000 girls and women over the years.

Yet – despite its prevalence and obvious harm experienced by its victims – flashing is underreported and barely prosecuted. The latest figures show that police in England and Wales recorded more than 10,000 cases of indecent exposure last year. Of these, only 594 ended up in court and 435 defendants were found guilty. Don’t forget: CCTV cameras make it straightforward to prosecute. But then it is pretty telling that flashing was not even a criminal offence before 2003.

Why this story?

At our Policing Inquiry on 19 November, and in our subsequent investigations, we have heard time and again that misogyny and sexist behaviour have the deepest imaginable cultural and systemic roots. In this long-read investigation, feminist campaigner and author Julie Bindel examines the history of one specific offence: flashing. Too often, she finds, sexual exposure is still regarded as merely pathetic, or even funny, when – in fact – it is deeply traumatising for women. Crucially, flashing is also part of a spectrum of sexual offence that includes assault and rape – witness the horrific conduct of Wayne Couzens, Sarah Everard’s murderer. It is time that flashing was treated with no less seriousness than those appalling crimes. Matthew d’Ancona, Editor

Early feminist research

Feminist activist Sandra McNeill decided to research the effects of flashing on women for her Masters degree in 1982. The Labour government had planned to decriminalise it – so, even though the party had been kicked out of office in 1979, her investigations were clearly timely and essential. 

McNeill had been involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) since the 1970s and regarded exposure as part of a continuum of male violence towards women. It is striking that McNeil’s work from almost 40 years ago is still one of the only instances of research that focuses from a feminist perspective upon the effects of flashing on women.

Concentrating upon victims’ experiences, McNeill found that they routinely felt frightened, humiliated and degraded. The uncertainty as to what these men could do next means that the women she spoke to frequently thought of rape and death. 

The way in which this particular offence is usually framed is absolutely key: most of the existing literature focuses on indecent exposure as an individualised mental problem and (as the word “indecent” suggests) a matter of public morality, rather than a threatening form of male behaviour, primarily targeted at women and girls. McNeill’s pioneering work challenged this default mode of analysis, essentially providing the first sociological account of flashing and of how women are affected by it. 

In 1994, the senior criminologist Rosalind Beck wrote her Masters thesis entitled ‘Rape from Afar: Men Exposing Themselves to Women and Children’ – which showed that flashing was not necessarily a step towards worse forms of sexual abuse, but often a sign that the offender was already committing such crimes.

“I found that the impact on victims can be considerable. Indecent exposure constitutes a form of visual violence and although it is on a sexual violence continuum,” she says, “I didn’t find that it was an offence from which one graduated in steps towards physical attacks on women and girls, and sometimes boys or men. Men could, for example, be committing child sexual abuse in their family while also flashing around the same period.”

Beck adds: “I found that more than 50 per cent of women had been victims of indecent exposure at some time in their lives and some studies indicated it was the most common offence against women. It was also often referred to as exhibitionism. This term implied that it was seen as only a problem for the men who offend and for therapists who are concerned with their treatment, not with their female victims.”

Beck feels that many sexual offences have been trivialised, such as the crimes carried out by “peeping Toms”, stalkers and those committing rape in marriage – and blames this on a broader failure in the criminal justice system to protect women. “Only around 15 per cent of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police,” she says. “Offenders are therefore free to continue virtually unchallenged by the criminal justice system.”

This took on an added poignancy and bleak topicality with the murder of Sarah Everard in March. When Beck presented her research to the British Criminology Conference in the mid-1990s, it was well-received and reported in the Independent. This led to an interview on Womans Hour – and Beck’s university was contacted by Scotland Yard, which wanted a copy of her thesis to help the police start to take crimes like this more seriously.

According to Beck: “Hearing about the alleged offence of indecent exposure now linked to this police officer [Wayne Couzens], I have to wonder: how seriously are the police now taking it? Is the offence still being seen as minor and not urgent enough to merit an urgent response? What has Scotland Yard done to improve its policies and procedures during the intervening 27 years since they requested a copy of my study?”

One positive outcome, she recounts, was that her work was incorporated into the Sexual Offences Act 2003; but she questions how much appreciable impact this has had upon victims. “Has this legislation failed in its purpose to offer some protection to women from men who commit indecent exposure?” Beck asks. “Judging by what seems to have been at best a tardy response by police in the present case [Sarah Everard’s murder], it would unfortunately appear that not much has changed. It is high time that the criminal justice system took ‘minor’ sex offences seriously.”

The situation today

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics and Crime Survey for England and Wales figures show that, in 2020, one in ten women were flashed at. Last year, there were 147,000 incidents of someone exposing themselves to an individual, with the vast majority of victims being women and girls. Approximately one in 17 adults says they have been a victim of indecent exposure since they turned 16.

But – as with all forms of sexual violence and harassment – women and girls rarely report flashing; not only because of the potential stigma of being blamed for the crime, but also because, to an appalling extent, exposure of the penis is still seen – by many other men – as funny and harmless.

In addition, men who flash women are considered to be a bit weird and pathetic, often eliciting an unearned degree of sympathy that can confer upon them something close to victimhood status. According to Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Durham and an expert on sexual violence: “Some women feel quite sad for the guy. But he is saying to her, ‘I have a penis, look at my penis’, and we live in a world where the penis has particular significance and message and threat. That message is sexual violence. That’s the world women inhabit.”

Vera-Gray believes we need to look at the effects of sexual violence outside of the medical model of trauma. “When it comes to things like flashing, the harm is much more pernicious than trauma, it’s about how it sends a really strong message to women about the fact that they need to be constantly on guard and constantly vigilant,” she adds. “We are haunted by it, and being told by Cressida Dick [the Met Commissioner] and others that we are hysterical to feel scared. Flashing does scare women.”

She is concerned that many of the victims of flashing will have experienced other forms sexual assault. “For some young women it is an initiation into the continuum of sexual violence,” she says. “You are supposed to feel fear, you are supposed to be scared of the penis, all hail the mighty penis.”

Gia is in her early 50s and able to reel off a whole catalogue of incidents in which men have exposed their genitals to her. “I was first flashed when I was ten, at a swimming pool. The second time I was 14, a guy pulled over in a car. The third time, I was 17, walking down the street and a guy was standing in a doorway. The fourth time, I was 21, on the tube and a guy across from me started wanking. The fifth time was a year ago, during the day, just off Clapham High Street.”

The law

Flashing might be one of the most common sexual offences – but very little systematic research has been conducted on the effect it has on its victims. However, according to results of a 2019 online survey completed by 1,075 women, 58.7 per cent had been flashed. The most likely place for an encounter with an exhibitionist was an open green space such as a park; while the perpetrators did not usually chase the victims, those who did chase the women would become more aggressive. 

The most common reactions experienced by the victims were surprise, disgust and fear. Some 29 per cent of respondents said they took action to try and prevent further incidents, while only seven per cent reported the assault to the police. The report found that the impact on victims of encountering an exhibitionist was similar that experienced by victims of other types of sexual assault. 

Vera-Gray recounts the surprise expressed by a male journalist on being told that one in ten women had been flashed . “He thought that was a lot,” she says, “but most women have been flashed. These men literally have no idea of how common it is because it does not happen to them. They then think that they have the right to talk about it with authority.”

Prior to a change in the law in 2003, flashers were typically arrested under Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which states that, “every person wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his person with intent to insult any female … shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond.” 

If convicted under the post-2003 rules, the maximum penalty is three months in prison for a first offence, and one year in prison for a second. However, while women are encouraged to report these crimes to the police, the chances of men ever being arrested remain depressingly low.

A brief history of flashing

In the 1980s, clinical psychiatrists in the US devised what they thought would be an effective way of deterring men from flashing women. This involved lining up a row of female volunteers and telling the flasher to expose himself in front of them. The women were instructed to stand their ground, and not to respond. This, it was believed, would change the significance that flashing had for the man. If the women appeared indifferent, the offence would lose its core purpose (a vile demonstration of power). In practice, the experiment was judged a failure and was ditched. 

Some flashers have been known to use penis pumps to enlarge their genitals before exposing. An online group of child abusers**, since closed down by police, called itself, grotesquely, the “Dick Flash Club”. But, as was horribly demonstrated by the Sarah Everard case and Wayne Couzens’ history, police officers are all too often offenders themselves. 

In 2001, for instance, serving police officer Andrew Chatfield exposed himself to a group of elderly women in a care home. It prompted a slew of light-hearted news reports about the case being “zipped up” – an unpleasant indication of the cavalier approach taken by the media to a horrible sex crime perpetrated against the vulnerable. 

There is also the offence of peeping, and criminologists have long recognised that some of these men do go on to commit rape. What needs to be acknowledged now – but isn’t – is the probability that a significant proportion of flashers go on to commit other sex crimes (or are already doing so). 

Studies have shown that in the five years following an offence for indecent exposure, 5-10 per cent of perpetrators would be caught for a more serious sexual offence – while around 25 per cent reoffended with a further exhibitionistic offence. 

These crimes also include voyeurism, which only became a criminal offence in 2003, as well as the relatively new criminal offence of “upskirting” – taking photographs under women’s clothing without their consent.

Digital media has transformed the scale and opportunities for exhibitionism and sexual abuse. One concern is the non-consensual distribution of images of personal nude photos of women and girls by digital means, as well as the high number of unwanted “dick pics” sent by men to women. 

Sending “dick pics” is a new form of flashing. Carrie* tells me: “When I was younger, my sister was flashed on her way home and the police were called, notes taken and questions asked. Fast forward to 2021, and not a week goes by that I don’t see a penis I haven’t asked to see. Whether on dating sites or on social media, the unsolicited dick pic is like a calling card for abusers. The police couldn’t be less interested in following up.”

In an online survey in 2020, 1,087 men were asked questions regarding their motivations for sending unsolicited pictures of their genitals to women online. Unsurprisingly, the most common response was “sexual excitement”. The study found that men who sent unsolicited “dick pics” had a much higher level of narcissism and greater ambivalent and hostile sexism than men who did not send such images. 

Jen* tells me: “I have received several ‘dick pics’ over the last six years. I feel a boundary has been crossed but I do not feel intimidated or unsafe because I can block the perpetrator and report them online. I always forget that it’s the kind of thing that should be reported to the police. I don’t know why so many men think it’s acceptable to send us pictures of their ugly penises.”

A flash of power

Radio and TV presenter Chris Evans has openly admitted to flashing in front of female colleagues, including when sexually aroused. He told the Sunday Times: “If you get your willy out, it is the funniest thing. Everybody laughs. Girls love it.” This view was not shared by his producer, Fiona Cotter-Craig, who described being flashed at by Evans as “very unpleasant”.

Similarly, Doctor Who star John Barrowman gleefully admits to exposing himself on TV sets, laughing it off as mere “tomfoolery”. A female runner on Doctor Who told the Guardian: “He would get his genitals out on a regular basis … he’d just sort of have his balls hanging out his trousers or something, which he just thought was really funny”.

On one occasion, she said that she saw Barrowman “slapping” his penis on the windscreen of one of the driver’s cars, “thinking it was really funny”. During a live BBC radio interview, broadcast to audiences via a live webcam, Barrowman also exposed his penis. Barrowman later dismissed complaints, saying it was merely “light-hearted banter”.

For Vera-Gray, “To these men is it a laugh. For women it is experienced as a threat.”

The psychology of flashing

Retired psychologist Anne Carling* has worked with dozens of men who flash, including those in hospitals and care homes who, she believes, expose themselves to these women in a bid to exert some power in generally powerless lives. “The nurses are much more powerful than the patient, which is a complication,” she says. “If you can’t even feed or wash yourself, some of these men compensate by flashing to get back some power.”

Flashing was often culturally trivialised as a natural subject for farce, and treated as pathetic, or funny, or both. For instance: flashing has been humorously depicted in popular culture for decades. From Benny Hill sketches back in the 1970s and 1980s, all the way through to a 2007 episode of the US version of The Office, in which the boss, Michael, pretends to be a flasher to amuse his staff. 

Meanwhile, the idea of a “flasher mac” is so deeply embedded in common culture that many people continue to joke about it without a second thought. You can even buy a “men’s flasher costume” from Amazon for your next fancy-dress party. 

Exhibitionism is considered a psychiatric disorder by many mental health professionals. Carling had a client who had been arrested for exposing himself and masturbating on buses. “I think he genuinely wanted to change because he realised he was getting himself into trouble. But he had no conception that what he was doing might harm women,” she says. “This bloke had a pretty shitty life, had been bullied at school, there was something quite pathetic about him. He couldn’t understand the consequences of his actions.”

Carling adds: “When I said to one particular flasher I was working with, ‘You don’t know on that bus whether there’s women who’ve been sexually abused, and if you wank in front of them, that’s going to trigger their trauma about their own abuse’, he looked really shocked, upset and was immediately contrite. It was clear that he had spent no time considering the potential impact on his victims.”

This man was eventually reported and subsequently sentenced to eight months in prison for indecent exposure: “He had very little power in his life,” says Carling. “Maybe wanking in the back of buses gave him a momentary feeling of power that was a compensation for this desperate, awful life that he had. He said, ‘I’ve really tried to stop myself but I don’t plan it, it’s just impulsive’”.

I asked Professor Daniel Wilcox, a forensic psychologist in Birmingham who treats sex offenders for the probation service, why he thinks so many men commit this crime. But he tells me although he accepts that an awful lot of women and girls have been subject to it, it is not the case that significant numbers of men flash. 

“It’s something that can become quite compulsive,” says Wilcox. “These guys are really busy. Most men who expose – they do lack social confidence. If you look at Wayne Couzens, this is a sadistic psychopath, who might expose and who might look at pornography on his day off, and he might use it to plan something quite horrendous.”

He adds: “I’ve worked with men who might decide that they’ll miss a bus in the morning because they got up late, and they’ll get so angry that they decide to stalk somebody and expose themselves. There’s not a lot of joined-up thinking there, it’s just a way to fuel their anger.”

Child abuse by any other name

Gia tells me about being flashed at, aged 10, whilst enjoying a friend’s birthday party at a hotel swimming pool. 

“There were only four of us in the pool, and an old man was reading the paper next to it. We noticed his genitals hanging out of his swimsuit, then noticed he’d ripped ‘eye holes’ out of a newspaper to watch our reactions. He chased us into a sauna with his penis out, so we ran screaming to the reception area and he continued chasing us. The woman at reception just said, ‘Oh. He does that to everyone.’ And that was that, we were left scared and confused.”

Ellen* recalls how a 14-year-old school friend was flashed. “A man had exposed himself to a girl at the school. The trauma was written all over her face. It clearly affected her deeply. We were all frightened to walk that route and would talk about how we’d respond if it happened to us. Many of us naively thought it would be a funny experience. We didn’t have a clue how grown men think and how dangerous that kind of situation could be.”

Julie Foster was also at school when she was first flashed at. “It was shocking at first but then we got used to it and used to chase them away,” she tells me. “Looking back, I’m astonished that it became normalised for a bunch of 11-18-year-olds to accept seeing a man wanking in the playing field. I think my calmness was a learned response, they want a reaction, and if you don’t give them one, hopefully they’ll go away.”

Rosalind Hardie grew up in Leith in Scotland. In 1974, aged nine, she heard rumours about a “bad man” who hung around at the bottom of Pilrig Park. “One day me and a friend went out on our bikes and a man said that he had lost his dog and could we help him,” she says. “He told us he needed to pee and called me over. He said he was finding it difficult to pee so I had to help him by putting my hand on his penis to help him. I did so, briefly, but then yelled that my friend had signalled that somebody was coming. As soon as I got to her, we both got on our bikes and cycled back to our street.”

“In 1983, a girl was abducted and murdered in Edinburgh and I started having nightmares about what had happened to me and my friend in the park, conflating the man who had flashed then tried to make me wank him in park with the killer.”

A culture of fear

Claudia Clare is an artist living in London, and tells me she has “been flashed more times than most people have had hot dinners.”

For Clare, it began when she travelled to Italy and Spain on her own aged 16. “It was relentless,” she says, “Parks and public gardens were where it happened most. I’d hear a hissing sound, turn round and a man would be wanking at me. It didn’t stop me using parks or gardens. I wanted to draw and paint there, so I did. But it did stop me talking to men. I learnt at 16 that they were not to be trusted. Even now, almost 60, I keep my senses alert in a park any time of day.”

Clare didn’t report any of the incidents, but four years ago she saw a man in an opposite window to her home masturbating in full view of the gardens at the back of two streets of houses. Many of those households included girls in their teens – and younger.

“I now recognise, after being a feminist for decades, that this behaviour is a prelude to further acts of sexual terrorism against women and girls. I suspect it was those early days of experiencing flashing almost daily that most influenced my decision to follow my lesbian impulse.”

Jo* was out shopping with her husband in the town centre [in England] one Saturday when she spotted a very tall and muscular man standing outside a shop. 

“He had a very imposing presence and was wearing skin-tight silver leggings and obviously no underwear,” says Jo. “His genitals were improbably large and engorged and I was instantly shocked. I shouted, ‘That is obscene and you fucking well know it’ as we walked past. I was angry with myself for giving him the attention he was after. My husband told me he is a well-known figure in the town. Why is he being allowed to do this? He was all puffed up and pleased with what he was getting away with.”

Policing failures

Tracy Earnshaw lives in Newquay and has reported flashers several times to the police.

“I was regularly told, ‘What do you expect, it’s Newquay?’”. I was flashed at when I was with my daughter, aged 14. The man was in the window of a hotel. It was 4pm. He shouted, ‘Here, come and take a look at this’. When I reported it to the police, they said, ‘You don’t want to go to court, do you?’ I said, yes, I did. I insisted they arrest him. They came back and told me he had said he was sorry, it was a bit of fun. They eventually conceded that had this occurred in a posher part of Cornwall, they would have arrested him.”

As a general rule, are we taking the crime more seriously? “Yes,” says Professor Wilcox. “Where a person gets into deviance, they are very likely to move into other offences. Typically, flashers have the highest crossover of all sex offenders into crimes against children. With flashers, people tend to focus on the jokes, but other behaviours will develop, such as rape, bestiality, assault.”

This is not to say that the flasher you see on the railway platform today is necessarily a rapist. “They work up to committing more serious crimes over time,” Wilcox says. “However, flashers are prone to stalking, rubbing themselves up against women in crowded trains [frottage] and sending offensive pornographic letters and photographs to targeted women. It’s part of the offender profile.”

He adds: “Exposers do have crossover [into other sex crimes] that research indicates to be pretty substantial. If somebody could expose to a mother that’s got a child with them, they lack a sense of moral concern.” 

Wilcox admits that the policing of flashing offences is inadequate, which is a marked shift from his attitude to the crime back in 2001. “Ignore him and walk away,” he told the Guardian when asked what action victims should take. “Flashing is an angry act. These men are so unskilled at communicating with women, they tell me they would find it easier to flash at a woman than to go up and say hello.”

When I spoke to Wilcox recently, I asked if he had changed his mind since 2001? “I’m quite content with people being held accountable,” he told me. “I think it should be criminalised [as it is] because it is causing emotional harm to others.”

He adds: “Somebody who is a high-frequency public masturbator may go on to be interested in other kinds of deviant sexual activity because he’s crossed that threshold, but he may be locked into that. So he’s going to be seen as low-harm in comparison with somebody who commits forced sexual assaults.” As we end our conversation I am left wondering what other form of sexual assaults there are.

The girl on the train

Rebecca Brueton tells me about an incident in 1989 when she was a child travelling home with a friend. 

“A man masturbated at my friend on the Tube while staring at her breasts. He was tall and in a bright yellow jacket, so would have been easy to pick out of a crowd. It was a packed train, and 100 per cent obvious what he was doing, but no adult intervened. It went on for a couple of stops. After he finished, he just got off the tube and went on his way.” 

According to Vera-Gray: “Women are taught to doubt ourselves when it comes to sexual violence, we are called paranoid and hysterical, so it was hard for us to really make sense. It starts to make you feel like you should be vigilant and feel different about how you operate in public space.”

Setting the Boundaries’, a Home Office report published in 2000 which would lay the foundations for the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, outlined how the 19th-century offence of indecent exposure appeared to be “quaint” long before the laws were overhauled – contributing to the impression that indecent exposure was a minor nuisance rather than outright criminal behaviour. The problem – indeed, the heart of the matter – is that this perception has persisted and remains embedded in culture and the criminal justice system.

We need to banish for good the pernicious idea that flashing is somehow a relatively minor matter. It is not just the unpleasantness of the experience: in incidents where the exposed penis is erect or being masturbated, the effect is to induce fear, shock, disgust and a fear of rape or death. 

Jennifer Temkin’s research for ‘Setting the Boundaries’ showed how the common perception of men who expose themselves as sad and lonely but harmless is a misrepresentation. It is high time that – 21 years later – the system absorbed that message fully and without qualification.

Research among those convicted of serious sex offences shows that many had previously committed what were considered to be minor offences such as exposing or voyeurism. In one study it is estimated that 80 per cent of rapists began with non-contact behaviour. Not all those who expose are serious sex offenders, but there is a clear link between exposure and other sex crimes within a significant number of these men.

What is the solution? It cannot be denied that had Wayne Couzens been dealt with properly by the criminal justice system when he was first reported for flashing in 2015, that Sarah Everard might still be alive today. But – crucially – it is not only the responsibility of that system to deter men from committing sex crimes. 

Vera-Gray believes that peer pressure and peer influence makes a huge difference to men’s behaviour. “Flashing is illegal but people are more likely to change their behaviour based on peer norms rather than the norms of the law. The culture behind men is telling them things like ‘Your penis can intimidate women, women are there to be intimidated, humiliated, degraded, women aren’t humans’.” 

This is not, in other words, just a question of official systems, vital as they are. It is about the signals sent to men, the culture in which they operate, the impunity which they are considered to expect.

Consider the harsh reality of where we are: bearing in mind that the current conviction rate for reported rapes is under one per cent, the subliminal message given to men today is that if they chose to rape a woman, they will very likely get away with it. 

Why on earth, then, would a man worry about facing consequences for taking out his penis in public?

*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity. 

** I choose not to use the term “paedophile” as its literal meaning is “lover of children”, and additionally to that, I believe it medicalises a criminal activity. 

Julie Bindel is a journalist, feminist campaigner and the author of Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation.

Watch all of the sessions from the Tortoise Policing Inquiry, our investigation into why police forces consistently fall short when it comes to protecting women and girls from violent crime.