Sophie almost dropped her phone when an image of a man’s penis suddenly engulfed her screen.
An uncomfortable heat flushed through her body. She felt embarrassed, then angry, and utterly powerless to stop it.
She said it felt like some kind of forced intimacy and abuse by a man she had barely conversed with on an online dating app.
Although the abuse made her feel powerless at the time, sending unsolicited intimate images is to become a specific crime under the Government’s Online Safety and Media Regulation (OSMR) Bill after amendments to the bill were announced this week.
The online safety bill will also establish a Media Commission — or Coimisiún na Meán — which will include an online safety commissioner.
Through Media Minister Catherine Martin’s proposed amendment, the online safety commissioner would be empowered to tackle cyberflashing through online safety codes.
Tech companies would be forced to stop their platforms from being used to commit acts of cyber-flashing and social media companies would face penalties if they fail to remove cyberflashing imagery.
Change can not come fast enough.
Cyberflashing, or sending unsolicited ‘dick pics’ or nude images to someone else’s device without consent is a form of image-based sexual harassment, steeped in the dark and murky power games of all forms of sexual abuse.
It is dizzyingly common internationally. And although there is no published research yet in Ireland on its prevalence, that research is under way.
Debbie Ging, associate professor of Gender and Digital Media in the School of Communications at Dublin City University, and colleague Dr Ricardo Castellini da Silva, have just completed a study with 15-17 years olds on their experiences of sexual and gender-based abuse and harassment during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In the focus groups we conducted with young people, the girls told us that receiving unwanted ‘dick pics’ had become so normalised that they were almost de-sensitised to it," Dr Ging said.
“17.4% of boys and 33.3% of girls had received unwanted sexual photos or videos online (71.9% of girls and 81.2% of boys said they received the photo or video on Snapchat) and the frequency of this had increased since the start of the pandemic.
"People can also use AirDrop [Apple’s file sharing service] to cyberflash in public places.”
Dr Ging said cyberflashing appears to be more prevalent among younger people.
According to a 2018 British survey, 41% of women between 18-24 years old had experienced cyberflashing.
The impact on victims can be very serious, depending on multiple factors, including the person’s relationship with the perpetrator and the psychological wellbeing of the victim, Dr Ging said.
“Being cyberflashed is a form of intimidation, so the victim is likely to experience a sense of violation or intrusion into their privacy and safety.”
Online abuse has real-world impacts. Journalist, activist and blogger Dara Quigley took her own life after images of her walking naked in a mental health crisis were shared online by gardaí.
Limerick Social Democrats councillor Elisa O’Donovan, who has received multiple unsolicited sexually explicit images online, welcomed news the crime of cyberflashing would be formalised.
But societal attitudes are needed in conjunction with the new law to make the online space safer for women.
After reporting a man to gardaí for cyberflashing and outing the abuse on Twitter last year, Ms O’Donovan received further online abuse from people telling her to shut up and put up with it.
Ms O'Donovan said.
“In May 2021 I received a WhatsApp message from someone. It was a picture of their erect penis. I reported this to Henry St Garda Station the day after I received the image under section 45 of the criminal law act for offensive conduct of a sexual nature."
Gardaí took the complaint very seriously and she was informed of an arrest of a man in his 30s some weeks later.
Although she was previously regularly exposed to solicited sexual images in social media messages, after reporting that incident last year, she has received no more of these abusive images.
“I highlighted this case at the time as I think it’s very important as an elected representative that this type of sexual harassment is highlighted. The more we report, the less acceptable it will become and hopefully one day this sexual violence against women will stop.
“I was told that I was just creating attention for myself and should just deal with this like all women have been told, to just ignore and block.
“I can’t unsee these things. It’s not as simple as blocking. People don’t know what my own personal history is of sexual violence is and these unsolicited messages are not acceptable behaviour. I think it's very important that it is explicit in law that this is a crime.”
Dr Caroline West, outreach co-ordinator with Active Consent at NUI Galway, said sending unsolicited sexual images is a form of abuse.
“It’s about power and control. So on dating apps if someone rejects you they can do that for revenge, to punish someone.
“And others just seem to enjoy the thrill of it. On Facebook marketplace, people ask questions about something to buy and then send an image straightaway. It’s a specific thrill that they get just throwing it out there out of left field to a stranger.
“It can be very gendered, an act of misogyny, to say to women ‘you’re not welcome here'.
“When councillor Elisa O’Donovan was speaking up about things, men sent her unsolicited dick pics. It was saying ‘how dare you put your head above the parapet’.”
People with disabilities are at a higher risk of sexual and domestic violence, according to international research.
People from queer minorities are also at higher risk, Dr West said, with people who are bisexual at higher risk of sexual violence both in person and online.
Dr West said cyberflashing should have been encoded as a specific crime in Coco's Law, also known as the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act, which criminalised the distribution of intimate images without consent for the first time in 2020.
Although cyberflashing can be tried under current legislation, the law is not crystal clear on whether the internet and someone's phone constitute a public place, she said.
She welcomed its explicit inclusion as a specific crime in the new OSMR bill, but said that new laws, welcome as they are, are not enough to stamp out sexual violence both online and in real life.
“Like with domestic violence, you have laws against it but it still happens. We need that cultural and educational change.”
- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.