I'm 15 and glued to my Motorola Razr phone, flirting with my crush. He's a little older than I am — and, in my eyes, totally out of my league. But what started as exhilarating banter ("how r u?", "I'm gud!") has spun out of my control. He just sent me a dick pic I didn't ask for.
When I open the text alone in my room, I panic and throw the phone into my fuchsia Papasan chair. I feel tears welling up in my eyes, but try to will them away. "I like this guy," I tell myself. "I should want this — this is normal." But I'm shaken.
I feel like a "prude" (a word I've always detested but which seems to fit this unsettling moment); I need to buck up and get over it. I figure that getting unsolicited dick pics is just another intimidating aspect of growing up.
Over 10 years later, I now know this experience wasn't okay. Unsolicited dick pics aren't just gross, they’re disturbing, and can even trigger feelings of trauma or distress, according to experts. This kind of harassment should be anything but the norm. And recently, legislators, researchers, and tech companies have been working to raise awareness about the harm receiving these images can cause. In fact, they’re passing legislation to stop folks from "cyberflashing," — or sending lewd images and videos without consent. Which, as you probably know, is all too common.
Nearly half of the U.S. respondents to a survey from the dating app Bumble said they'd received an unsolicited lewd photo within their lifetime, and 54% of those who had been sent one said that they weren't happy to have received it. Cyberflashing can take many forms — it can occur on dating apps, social media, or via text. Sometimes, the term refers to incidents in which explicit images are shared via AirDrop with strangers in crowded areas such as on public transit or at concerts. Just this August, a Southwest Airlines pilot threatened to turn the plane around if a passenger onboard didn't stop sending unsolicited nudes via AirDrop.
So far three states — California, Texas, and Virginia — have passed bills targeting cyberflashing. The most recent, the FLASH Act in California, passed in late September and allows users who receive unsolicited, obscene material electronically to recover at least $1,500 and possibly get up to $30,000 in civil damages. All these laws were backed by Bumble, which has spearheaded the legislation and taken a proactive approach to protecting its users from being exposed to such images, using technology that blurs the photos until (and only if) you consent to see them. The dating app also has eyes on launching similar legislation in New York, Washington D.C., and Maryland, says Payton Iheme, Bumble’s head of public policy for the Americas. "We’re not judging people's communication, but there should be some consent involved."
And while experts hope the legislation will foster change and deter folks from sending such images without consent, many say it feels like these laws should have passed over a decade ago. That cyberflashing should be illegal in all 50 states, just as flashing IRL is. Although people often say that the law needs to catch up with technology, "it's not so much that the law has got to catch up, it's that politicians and the public are slow to prioritize women's experiences," says Clare McGlynn, a leading researcher in image-based sexual abuse and professor of law at Durham University. "We could have adopted laws on non-consensual image sharing years ago. But we've chosen not to."
But penalizing the practice is less straightforward than one might imagine. The bills bring up some First Amendment concerns, chief among them is ensuring they don't criminalize protected speech, and prevent photos from being sent for medical, scientific, or artistic purposes. "Otherwise, people might self-censor that type of speech on social media or other electronic mediums out of uncertainty whether their speech might trigger a criminal charge or prosecution," says J.T. Morris, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment rights. "These laws also should not create an opportunity for abuse, like government officials using the law as a pretext to criminalize ideas or punish groups they don't like."
But, as "with all criminal laws, it is vital that they are fairly policed," McGlynn says. She adds that these laws are largely aimed at changing the discussion and culture, and that consent is the key to this legislation. "You can't — and should not, in my view — be able to justify sending someone a penis image without consent because you were being 'artistic' or thought the image was 'artistic,'" she adds. "Ask them first, then you get consent, then share it. It's simple." Iheme adds the use case and context is crucial to enforcing these laws. "For example, someone sending an image of a Michaelangelo painting to their friend, stating that they love the artwork, is very different from someone zooming in on the subject’s penis and sending it to everyone within the museum," Iheme says.
Politicians and the public are slow to prioritize women's experiences. We could have adopted laws on non-consensual image sharing years ago. But we've chosen not to.
But these laws also may have trouble being specific enough to meet their intent without being so broad they criminalize those who might unintentionally share images, Morris says. For example, Morris believes, in the case of the Texas law, its "broad reach, ill-defined terms like 'transmits by electronic means,' and lack of any exception for protected speech means texting an image of a medical condition to the wrong doctor could trigger the law." McGlynn notes that consent would likely be involved in such a case and would be the differentiating factor.
"These laws are meant to protect and empower victims who have received an unsolicited lewd image," Iheme adds. "We don’t want to curtail free expression; we simply wish for the standards of acceptable behavior in the digital world to match the standards in real life."
Although finding appropriate ways to legislate cyberflashing can be complex, it doesn't mean it's not worth doing, advocates say. Because being exposed to such imagery can cause real psychological harm. I felt a taste of it in my bedroom as a teen, and I'm not alone. Back in 2017, I wrote about Madi Kohn, now 25, who received an unsolicited dick pic via Instagram DM, found the sender's mom on Facebook, and sent it to her to let her know what her son was up to. "When I received that unsolicited photo, I was angry," Kohn reflects now. "I had never talked to this person before, so what made them think I wanted that photo? I was and am still disgusted and repulsed by the choice that person, along with others, made to send that photo." At the time, there were no laws to hold the sender accountable, so Kohn took matters into her own hands. She's glad to see these new bills bringing a new, more official form of accountability for all.
The truth is, surprise exposure to such images will impact everyone differently but can have a particularly damaging impact on those who've been through sexual trauma. Although the exact harms of cyberflashing are difficult to measure, McGlynn has done research and spoken to many victims of cyberflashing who shared how they reacted directly after being exposed and long after. "While one person who gets sent a dick pic without their consent might be able to brush it off, it could be extremely distressing for another," McGlynn says. "It could trigger previous events of indecent exposure and it can make you feel threatened or intimidated. It's always violating because it’s a breach of your personal integrity and space." For example, if you receive an AirDrop on public transit at night and don't know who sent it, there’s the fear the person could follow you off the train, which can be particularly disturbing, McGlynn says.
Experiencing this kind of harassment adds stress to daily tasks you once went about without thinking, and that stress can compound and be harmful, adds JaNaé Taylor, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Minding My Black Business, which specializes in Black entrepreneurship with emotional wellness in mind. For some, being taken by surprise by such imagery can ultimately cause ongoing hypervigilance, particularly in regard to their phone.
It's similar to feeling extremely on edge if you're walking alone at night, but Dr. Taylor adds that there's also a particularly insidious nuance to it, because it feels like an invisible attack. "If you're walking down the street and you hear footsteps, you know something is there and you can take action," Dr. Taylor says. "But if I'm just sitting somewhere and an image pops up, it feels like it's almost in the air.” She says the AirDrop aspect may increase stress when you're in a place where people are gathered. This anxiety can impact you in small ways that add up, possibly impairing your sleep, mood, and general health. It's no small thing when someone trespasses into our digital worlds in this manner. Especially since phones can be like an integral extension of ourselves these days.
McGlynn and Iheme say that younger people are more likely to receive such images, and they're less likely to have been equipped with the tools to handle it — especially in a world where sex ed is constantly failing to teach about consent and sex beyond anatomy and abstinence.
"Young women are commonly experiencing this, and they can’t just block the sender and tell them to go away because it's often someone they know," McGlynn says. "People will say it's 'too prudish.' Or 'Oh, you just didn’t get the joke.' When it's a stranger, you might just be able to block them, but when it's a classmate, you can't just tell them to go away because you can be criticized for that."
When McGlynn says this, I'm transported back to my teenage bedroom, and the anxiety and pressure I felt that night. Yes, I feel less alone — but in the worst way; I'd hoped things had evolved. That the teens of today would all believe unsolicited nudes aren't okay and call it out — as Kohn did. But as much as phones have changed since the Razr, a lot has stayed the same.
But shifting that tide is what's fueling Iheme and McGlynn. McGlynn hopes that the more people talk about the issue and legislate around it, the better things will get. "More and more people are speaking up and saying they’ve had enough," McGlynn says. "They're saying, 'This is unacceptable,' and trying to put pressure on social media companies to do something about it… This lays the groundwork of dictating what’s acceptable and not."
As this work is being done on legislative and advocacy levels, there are also things individuals can do to support their mental health if they experience cyberflashing — even though it should never happen to them in the first place. Dr. Taylor suggests turning off the AirDrop function on your phone when you're not using it, and cutting down on screen time if you're experiencing anxiety around your phone after being cyberflashed. You can also block folks causing you harm — though, as McGlynn points out, this is sometimes easier said than done — or look into whether there's cyberflashing legislation where you live. Most of all, though, Dr. Taylor also recommends talking to someone so you're not alone in processing what happened. Lean on your community or even a therapist, if that's a tool that's available to you. Chances are, statistically, someone you know has been through something similar and may know just how you're feeling. Just hearing someone say, "Hey, that shouldn't have happened to you" can be validating, Dr. Taylor says.
I know it would have helped me at 15.