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What are indecent exposure, flashing and cyber flashing?

Indecent exposure or ‘flashing’ is when someone shows their genitals in order to scare or upset another person. 'Cyber flashing' is when indecent exposure happens online or over text message.

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If you are affected by anything you read here, you can talk to us.

At Rape Crisis, we always believe victims and survivors, and take their experiences seriously.

Indecent exposure is a form of sexual violence – the phrase we use to describe any sexual activity or act that happened without consent. Other types of sexual violence include rape and sexual assault.

Indecent exposure – or 'flashing', as it is sometimes known informally – is sometimes treated as something 'funny'. But, it's in fact a crime that is often upsetting and scary for the victim or survivor, and can make them feel unsafe. For some people, it can have a long-term impact on their wellbeing.

No-one ever deserves or asks for indecent exposure to happen. 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

It is common to hear of people being ‘flashed’ in parks, on the street and on public transport. However, it can happen anywhere and at any time of the day or night.

So, what exactly do people mean when they use the terms ‘indecent exposure’, ‘flashing’ and 'cyber flashing'?

How indecent exposure is defined in law

The term ‘indecent exposure’ is widely used in England and Wales, including by lawyers and police. However, in English and Welsh law, the offence is just called ‘exposure’.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says someone commits exposure if they intentionally expose their genitals and intend that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.

Indecent exposure

Someone who commits exposure can be sentenced for up to two years in prison.

Some people who commit this offence show their genitals very quickly before covering them or running away – which is where the term ‘flashing’ comes from.

But, others might expose them for longer and/or sexually pleasure themselves at the same time.

No matter how long it lasted, exposure is always a crime.

Many people who commit exposure also go on to commit other sexual offences that involve physical contact. These include sexual assault and rape.

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Victims and survivors of indecent exposure should never feel under any pressure to report what happened to them to the police. It is 100% their decision and they should always only ever do what feels right for them.

Those who do choose to report their experience to police or anyone else are never just ‘making a fuss’. Reports of exposure should always be taken seriously.

'Cyber flashing' and 'dick pics'

Indecent exposure can happen in person but it can also happen online or via a text message.

In other words, when someone sends another person an unwanted photo or video of either their genitals or someone else’s – what is commonly known as a ‘dick pic’. Or, when someone exposes themselves to another person over live video.

This form of indecent exposure has become known as ‘cyber flashing’.

Cyber flashing

Cyber flashing can be carried out by someone the victim knows, or by a stranger. It can happen in lots of different situations – for example:

  • On dating apps or websites.
  • On social media.
  • Over text message.
  • Over WhatsApp or other messaging apps.
  • During a video call.
  • Over email.
  • Via Airdrop, Nearby Share or other apps that allow someone to send files to other people close by – including strangers.

Although cyber flashing is a form of indecent exposure, it isn't always treated as a criminal offence in the English and Welsh justice system. That's partly because the law that makes 'exposure' a crime wasn't really written with the online world in mind...

However, the British government recently said it plans to make sure that 'cyber flashing' is clearly named in law as a criminal offence.

The Law Commission, an organisation that recommends legal reforms, says:

“…those who have been subjected to cyber flashing compare its impact to that of other sexual offences: for example, it can cause similar feelings of violation and sexual intrusion.”

Like indecent exposure or flashing that happens in person, cyber flashing is often upsetting and scary for victims and survivors, and can make them feel unsafe. For some people, it can have a long-term impact on their wellbeing.

Getting help and support

Everyone responds differently to indecent exposure – so whatever someone feels is a valid response. But for lots of people, it can have a long-lasting impact on their feelings and wellbeing. 

If you have experienced indecent exposure – whether it was recently or a long time ago – Rape Crisis is here for you. We will listen to you and believe you.