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Dating app Bumble wants to criminalise cyberflashing in England and Wales

By Malavika Pradeep

Nov 3, 2021

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In 2019, Texas authorities teamed up with the Austin-based dating app Bumble to crack down on cyberflashing—the act of sending sexually explicit material online without consent. At the time, several researches revealed how women encountered sexual harassment in the cyberspace at much higher rates than men. In order to tackle these shocking statistics, Texas actually passed a law—surprising because the state doesn’t exactly have the best track record—making electronic transmissions of explicit material a Class C misdemeanour, with a fine of up to $500 if it was non-consensual.

Although the law currently applies to text messages, email, dating apps and social media in the state, statistics have shown little to no improvement in the issue worldwide. Now, Bumble wants to change that—starting by criminalising the act in England and Wales with the help of a dedicated campaign dubbed #DigitalFlashingIsFlashing.

According to a new research carried out by the dating app, 48 per cent of women aged 18 to 24—out of the 1,793 respondents based in England or Wales—had received an explicit, non-consensual photo over the last year alone. 59 per cent of them admitted to losing their trust in other internet users afterward, while one in four felt violated in the process. Interviewing nearly 100 women about their experience with cyberflashing, journalist Sophie Gallagher also found that one in four women believe that the number of incidents have increased during the pandemic.

“The evidence clearly shows that such online sexual violence does not sit in a separate arena to its offline equivalents,” she said in an interview with Mashable, adding how the issue exists on a spectrum of harm. The survey by Bumble additionally states that 95 per cent of women under the age of 44 believe more needs to be done in order to tackle the non-consensual proliferation of such material.

In the UK, cyberflashing has been widely reported since 2015, when the British Transport Police opened its first investigation on unsolicited AirDropped images. Since the recipient did not ‘accept’ the photographs, there was no digital evidence to work with and the report was recorded as intelligence. This continues to be the case for many. In fact, cyberflashing is now normalised in the country, with one in three women in the UK stating that it is just “part and parcel” of online behaviours today.

On the other hand, Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, is surprised we’re still failing to protect women in online spaces in an age synonymous with space-age developments. “Cyberflashing is a relentless, everyday form of harassment that causes victims—predominantly women—to feel distressed, violated and vulnerable on the internet as a whole,” she said in a press release, highlighting the absence of laws needed for accountability. “This issue is bigger than just one company, and we cannot do this alone. We need governments to take action to criminalise cyberflashing and enforce what is already a real-world law in the online world.”

Bumble’s #DigitalFlashingIsFlashing campaign hence calls on the UK government to acknowledge this necessity, thereby bringing England and Wales in line with Scotland—where the act has been criminalised for over a decade. The app also plans to hold cross-party parliamentary consultations alongside UN Women, the United Nations’ gender equality arm, to galvanise support from members of the parliament in the UK.

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This is also not the first time Bumble has taken a stand against cyberflashing. In 2019, the app introduced a feature called ‘Private Detector’ that leverages AI to automatically detect and blur unsolicited nude images. It then alerts the recipient—who can either choose to view, delete or report the image. Although victims of cyberflashing are not the subject of the picture or video footage in question, they are the recipient. The explicit material is also not required to be of the sender’s genitals for them to be found guilty of the act.

According to The Week, victims of cyberflashing often do not know the identity of the sender, although the harmful act can sometimes be carried out by people known to them. Such content is additionally sent via peer-to-peer (P2P) platforms like AirDrop rather than by email or the internet—which gives the recipient the two-fold threat of a sender who is not only anonymous but also in close proximity to their area of residence.

“We must understand that cyberflashing is not a small act, it is a form of sexual intimidation that can have devastating impacts on women and young girls,” said Professor Clare McGlynn QC from Durham University. “In essence, cyberflashing is a sexual violation infringing women’s sexual autonomy, privacy, and their right to live life free from harassment.” According to the expert, what’s particularly concerning is the fundamental lack of consent and the intrusive way these images are typically sent. “For some women, cyberflashing is worse than being flashed in the street—with the offender unknown, no one seeing what is happening, and it feeling like an invasion into the very personal space of your phone which is impossible to ignore or forget.”

If flashing wouldn’t fly on the street—or at the office, or in the classroom—it shouldn’t be tolerated in your inbox. With Bumble currently advocating for similar laws in California and New York, you can share your experiences of cyberflashing using the dedicated hashtag #DigitalFlashingIsFlashing. Until then I’m looking at you, creepshots. You’re undoubtedly up next.