Dick pics aren't new – men made art out of penises as far back as the Roman Empire – but the methods by which they're sent are changing, and the law is failing to keep up. It's illegal to flash your naked body on the street in the UK (aka indecent exposure) but if an adult sends another person sexual images or videos without their consent, it's unlikely to result in serious legal consequences.
"Cyberflashing", as the phenomenon has become known, is when someone sends an intimate, sexual image of themselves to someone without the recipient's consent. It can be done through features like AirDrop or Bluetooth in a public place, or on dating apps, via DMs, email and other modes of communication. The practice is often done by anonymous men to women in order to intimidate or provoke reaction.
It's become so common that many women consider unsolicited dick pics a fact of life, but once these images are fired off into the ether, there's no way of knowing how the recipient will respond. Some laugh it off, some stand up to the perpetrators, but for others the impact is more damaging.
A YouGov survey last year found that 41% of millennial British women (aged between 18 and 36) had received an unsolicited photo of a man's genitalia, and while more than half said they found it "gross" (58%) or "stupid" (54%), others described the experience as "distressing" (23%) and "threatening" (17%). Just 13% described receiving a dick pic as "pleasing".
What's clear from these figures is that dick picks aren't just a joke, and campaigners are stepping up their efforts to make them illegal. It's easy to argue that women – or anyone who'd rather not receive a photo of someone else's genitals, thanks – should "just turn off" the AirDrop or Bluetooth settings on their phone or make their DMs private, but we know victim-blaming doesn't work and anyway, they shouldn't have to. Cyberflashing is not illegal in the way that IRL indecent exposure is, but the calls for this to change are getting louder. (Many want Apple to remove its photo preview feature, to which the company responded by telling the BBC that "you can just change your privacy settings".)
Initiatives such as 'Don't be a dick' from The Empowerment Project and media reporting on the topic are giving voice to victims' experiences; in October, a group of MPs said a new law criminalising the creation and distribution of sexual images "on the basis of the victim’s lack of consent rather than perpetrator motivation" was needed. (Currently, cyberflashing can be prosecuted under laws including the Indecent Displays Control Act (1981) but many, including lawyers, politicians and academics, argue current law is unfit for purpose.) Ahead, three women who have been cyberflashed tell Refinery29 why it's not always easy to laugh off.
Rochelle, 23, from London, was cyberflashed on the Northern Line via AirDrop.
It made me feel shocked, uncomfortable, annoyed and quite sick as it kept popping up despite me declining the image. I think men do it because they think it’s funny to see other people’s reactions, although I was far from amused. Perhaps they get a sense of power over others, especially when people are unaware of who it's coming from. It seems predatory to me because it’s subjecting people to unwanted and inappropriate images.
Rachel, 40, from Brighton, was cyberflashed on a bus last year by an unknown sender.
I was travelling home alone by bus when a dick pic popped up on my phone. In the space of a second or two I was confused, shocked, then disgusted. But once I deleted it I was suspicious about who’d sent it. No one I could see looked likely so I wondered if it was a joke and some teenagers had done it to see how I reacted. It didn’t occur to me until afterwards that someone would deliberately send that to a stranger – it’s not a nice thing to see. If someone is sad and desperate enough to have to do that for attention then they need help. It also made me think that AirDrop shouldn't have a preview of the photo as the first thing you see. What if I’d been in a work meeting or with my partner? I didn't consider reporting it to the transport network or police. I imagine they would've just dismissed it as a prank. In my shock, I also didn’t accept the image so had no evidence anyway.
I couldn't even tell you how many times I've been sent dick pics on dating apps, specifically Tinder and Bumble and also on WhatsApp during conversations without me asking.
Cara*, 31, from London, has been sent unsolicited dick pics countless times while online dating.
I couldn't even tell you how many times I've been sent dick pics on dating apps, specifically Tinder and Bumble and also on WhatsApp during conversations without me asking. They've always been sent randomly and out of nowhere. Guys will start off seeming mega chilled, we'll be having a good chit-chat about work and life, and then you get a message which is an instant red flag, like "So, what are your kinks? When was the last time you got laid?" and then, BAM, a penis is thrust into my inbox.
I used to feel quite embarrassed and because I had low confidence I wouldn't want to offend them and would say something like, "Sorry I'm really not into that". Eventually I started to reply with sass. I'd send a message about why I find their dick repulsive and then hit block. But I know either way they're doing it for a reaction, so I'm not sure what would have been the best reply. It makes me think that so many guys are gross and do it as a power trip.
*Name has been changed