‘Every morning when I wake up, I see a man’s penis I haven’t asked to see.’
Emily Atack begins her documentary, Asking For It, with this startling confession to camera.
She then lifts up her smartphone and counts how many unsolicited images she’s received just that morning alone: 37.
‘It’s the ultimate disrespect,’ the 33-year-old TV star says as she continues to scroll. ‘It says: “I think you’re easy access and you’re up for it.”’
Cyberflashing and sexual harassment online is as old as the internet itself, but the increasingly digital nature of our lives, and the subsequent lockdowns of the past few years, has resulted in unsolicited sharing of images online rising massively.
One in four women said they have been cyberflashed in the last year, with only 15% of young girls feeling safe on social media.
It’s not just celebrities with huge social followings like Emily who have been targets for online harassment, either. According to domestic abuse charity Refuge, one in three UK women have experienced online abuse or harassment, with the government’s Online Safety Bill now looking to clarify the laws around inappropriate and worrying behaviour online.
Here, six women give an insight into the extent of harassment they see on an almost daily basis.
I don’t want young women to go through what I have
Bianca Westwood, 48, is a Sky Sports football presenter based in London.
This has been happening forever, but I think women’s consciousness has changed over the last few years. Before, we’d laugh it off. But after MeToo, we said: Hold on a minute, we don’t like this, we’re going to say something about it.
I’ve been on TV for a decade, and being in such a male dominated field I’ve always had nasty messages from men on Instagram, but cyberflashing and more sexual content has become more prominent in the last five years. They mostly fall into two camps – some that find it a laugh to tell me I’ve got nice tits, and then the distinctly more sinister guy that feels dangerous.
I have one man who messages me about once a month with really graphic sexual and pornographic descriptions of what he wants to do to me, what he’s doing to himself, what he thinks about. If I blocked him, he’d pop up with a new account. I ignored it for a long time. Once I lost it and replied that he was probably a virgin sitting at home on his own who’s never been with a woman. That just seemed to excite him more.
I only replied because I was so sick and tired of blocking and blocking just to see him pop up again – so I thought maybe I should try and shame him or make him feel small. That didn’t really help either. He then became more graphic and sexually violent, and it makes me feel ill.
I’m almost ashamed to feel someone can talk to me like that.
I was so sick of the graphic sexual content I was being sent, that I started naming and shaming them on my Instagram stories. I wanted to do something to fight back. If you report it to Instagram, they don’t seem to do anything.
I have had a few police officers contact me urging me to report perpetrators, but it’s such a long and drawn out process. It made me feel sick to even have those messages saved into my camera roll. There should be an easier, more streamline way to report cyberflashing.
After 10 years on screen, I’ve got quite a thick skin and I don’t care so much. If I want to post a picture of myself in a bikini, I will. But I’m 48. I worry for young girls online who aren’t aware of what suitable and appropriate behaviour is.
We need to stop people getting away with it
Anna Mapson, 44, is a nutritionist based in Bristol.
It happened just before lockdown. I accepted a friends request on Facebook from someone I last had contact with as a teenager – I genuinely hadn’t spoken to him in decades.
A couple of times, I had a missed call from the guy in the middle of the night, but I didn’t think anything of it: my name begins with A so I just assumed maybe it was a pocket dial.
A few months later, in lockdown, I got a message from him – he sent a video of his face and then a video of him playing with himself. It was just completely random. I was horrified – I’m a married woman in her forties, and I’d never had anything like that before.
It made me feel really uneasy: as it was during the pandemic and we were all stuck indoors, it felt particularly invasive. It was in my home, on my computer, in my hands. I felt almost as if I was being watched.
I didn’t say anything – I couldn’t. I didn’t even have a witty reply. I blocked him and reported him to the site, and reported him to the police. I didn’t hear anything back from Facebook at all. The police were pretty good – while they said they weren’t going to take any further action, they kept a record of the incident. I wanted them to have it on file, in case he was a serial offender.
I know this is mild compared to what many other women face, but it’s changed how I use the internet and social media. I’ve got my own business and I’m a nutritionist, so I’m constantly putting things on socials, doing live videos to promote my business. It made me feel worried about who could see me. I took my home address off my website and email signature. It made me reconsider how much I share online.
Misogyny is just accepted as part of life, and that with the internet, it comes with the territory. But we all have a role in calling it out. We need to stop people getting away with it.
If someone did this to you in Tesco, they’d be arrested
Michelle Minnikin, 40, is a psychologist based in Newcastle.
I was sent a series of d*** pics on LinkedIn a couple of years ago, if you can believe it. I was just getting ready for the day and saw I had a connection request from what looked to be a legitimate account. I accepted the request and drove into the office, not really thinking about it.
When I got in, I saw I had lots of messages to my LinkedIn account – there were loads of pictures of his penis in my inbox. This man had also seemingly found my work mobile number and messaged me a load of pictures of himself on WhatsApp too.
I remember when I saw I received these pictures, I actually threw my phone at one of the guys alongside me for him to deal with it. I hadn’t even had my morning coffee yet. When I was younger and dating, I’d got a few pictures before, but LinkedIn is meant to be a professional network so I was really disgusted that he’d done it that way.
I’m an organisational psychologist, and even I don’t have any idea as to why men would send these messages. Is it a power/dominance thing? Is it because it’s ‘hilarious’? Are they looking to strike up a relationship? I haven’t a clue. But just because it’s online, doesn’t mean we should just ignore it. If you’re literally walking along the aisle in Tesco and someone slapped you in the face with a penis, they’d be arrested.
I’m a mum to a 13 year old boy, and seeing these sorts of messages have only made me all the more worried about what he can see online. Even on Instagram there’s so much pornography and worrying imagery – I just don’t think 13 is old enough for him emotionally to deal with that.
To ultimately fix this, we need to get to the bottom of why men send these pictures – but until then, social media should use technology to prohibit these pictures being sent.
There’s still this stigma that women are asking for it
Jemma Brookes-Nuckowski, 35, is a charity volunteer from Nottingham.
I’ve been harassed online since I was a teenager, when I was on MSN chatrooms. I’d get random add requests, and once you accepted, you’d see men on camera, half naked. These men would always be so much older as well – I’d be about 15, they’d be thirties and forties.
I can remember that feeling of all the colour rushing to my cheeks and feeling so embarrassed. I would close the screen and I would be so scared these men would still see me, and then it creates a fear and anxiety about going back online because you feel you’ve got no control over what you will see.
The harassment hasn’t stopped as I’ve gotten older. I’m more internet savvy now, with private personal accounts, but work has meant more often or not, I’ve had to have a public account.
I would get endless messages or DMs from people. One man once even found my phone number and would call me to breathe heavily down the phone. It means now, even when I get requests from strangers on my personal account, I reject them – even if they’re innocent people messaging about business.
I think the scariest thing is, now I’m older, I can see just how ordinary so many of these men were. They were just like any other bloke you’d meet down the pub. Some of the rude and sexual DMs I got were from public profiles, with pictures of these men with their wives. It was strange. It just goes to show it could literally be anyone prepared to do this.
All of my friends have examples of receiving graphic, violent sexual messages – every woman has a story. Whether they post pictures in bikinis, or pictures in workwear, they’ve been harassed, yet there’s still this stigma that we’re asking for it.
I genuinely think these men are deluded
Laura Johnson, 30, is an associate director working in market research in London.
I’d been cyberflashed when I was a teenager, but it was when everyone got Snapchat during my first year at university where I was getting d*** pics constantly. I was eager to make friends and was just accepting everyone. I had my Snapchat address on my Tinder profile, so sometimes guys from there would add me and send unsolicited pics my way.
If I got these pictures when I was with friends, we’d all laugh and I’d give a snarky response back like: ‘Bit small, innit?’ But then they could get nasty. You’ve hurt their pride and their reaction to that is trying to get you back. I’ve been called a slag, an ugly bitch – all sorts.
One incident that really stuck with me happened a few years ago at the start of my career. I posted a picture of myself in a bikini on Instagram and a client who I worked for liked it. He didn’t follow me so he had deliberately sought me out. I was taken aback by it but I chose to ignore it.
A couple of months later I had to go to his office – when I got home, he’d sent me a d*** pic. It didn’t stop there, he then sent explicit pictures and short videos of other body parts. I was so shocked, particularly as he made no secret about being married.
I couldn’t tell him to f*** off, because he was important to the company – and I was reluctant to tell my colleagues, as I had reported someone else who had messaged me inappropriately and the company didn’t really do anything. Thankfully I’ve long left that company – so I’ve since blocked him.
I genuinely think these men are deluded. They must be. Why on earth do they do it? Maybe they just like the thought of showing it off? I don’t know a single woman that has ever asked for a d*** pic. I’ve certainly never asked for one.
They don’t seem to be concerned they can get into any trouble
Francesca Henry, 33, runs the money saving blog The Money Fox, and lives in Gloucestershire
I have my own business, so I have a very active Instagram page and I get a lot of messages from guys on there, even though my audience is mostly 90% female followers.
The male followers that do message me tend to message me… interesting things. I’ve had some unsolicited pictures, I get told I should film in a bikini to get more clicks. I remember I was selling a dress on Gumtree, and I got a man message me asking me to wear it, so they could come and rip it off my body.
I think it’s just disgusting. These men don’t tend to hide who they are: it’s their real account with their actual name and pictures. That’s worrying itself because they don’t seem to be concerned they can get into any trouble.
While I hate the online harassment, it’s the trouble I have offline that really gets to me. I’ve been harassed at work, had men expose themselves to me on the street. Online I can block and delete – but men act without impunity in both real life and online.
I just think more people need to call out these behaviours, particularly men themselves. It’s generally guys who are unwilling to speak out. They grew up with this being normal as well. I always say to my boyfriend, if it’s something you wouldn’t want said in front of me, then call it out. It’s a good measure.
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