Victims who receive unsolicited nude photos are encouraged to report the offenses to the police, despite warnings from activists that many young people do not realize it is abuse.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is pushing for those who receive obscene images, have their skirts photographed, flashed in person or sexually harassed on the street to turn to the criminal justice system.
A number of celebrities, including actress Emily Atack, podcast host and writer Emily Clarkson and former Love Island star Zara McDermott, have all spoken publicly about their experiences with so-called cyber-flashing and the distress it has caused.
But campaigners have warned that sending obscene images, colloquially known as d*** photos, is so common among young people that many fail to realize it is abuse.
Anti-cyberabuse charity Glitch wants the focus to be on education rather than potential jail time.
New legal guidelines are released by the CPS on Monday, including a specific chapter on charges related to sexual abuse in public.
An All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report for UN Women last year found that 71% of women in the UK had experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public place, but 95% of cases went unreported to the police.
Siobhan Blake, CPS national officer for rape and serious sexual offences, said: “It is sickening that seven in 10 women – almost three quarters – have been subjected to this disgusting behaviour.
“It is also concerning that so few incidents of sexual harassment in public are reported.
“The law is clear: if someone exposes themselves, tries to take inappropriate photos or makes you feel threatened on the street, these are crimes and should not be dismissed.
“Everyone has the right to travel on public transport, dance at a festival or walk the streets without fear of being harassed. Feeling safe should not be a luxury for women.
An Ofsted report on sexual harassment and abuse in schools last year said almost 90% of girls and almost 50% of boys had told inspectors they were being sent explicit photos or videos of things that they didn’t want to see happen often or sometimes to them or their peers.
And a study by dating app Bumble in November suggested that 48% of women aged 18-24 had received an unwanted sexual image in the past year.
Gabriela de Oliveira, head of policy, research and campaigns at Glitch, said current cyber-flashing law is based on the sender intending to cause distress.
She said: “I don’t think any of us really believe that creating really heavy prison sentences for cyber-flashing based on an intent to distress or humiliation will stop people from doing cyber -blink in the first place if they can tell.was a joke.
“’I didn’t think, I didn’t want to worry, I just did it because I thought it was normal’.
“Because it’s incredibly normalized, and that’s the crux of the matter, it’s normalized to such an extent that people don’t yet understand it as abuse.”
Instead, Glitch wants to see the law based on the victim not giving consent, and wants tech giants to take responsibility for abuse on their platforms.
A number use AI to detect obscene images and blur them, and Ms de Oliveira said a prompt asking the sender if they had consented to send the image would also be helpful.
“Something like that prevents it, but also teaches people what is abuse and what isn’t,” she said.
“Rather than creating a new law that provides for a prison sentence (up to two years), which risks putting young people and marginalized communities, especially ethnic minorities who are more likely to be over-policed, in prison for up to two years on an issue that is not yet fully understood.
Lisa Hallgarten, head of policy and public affairs at sexual health charity Brook, said there is a misconception that cyberflashing is “just a joke”.
She said: “Criminalizing cyberflash can help reinforce the message that it is unacceptable.
“However, just making something illegal doesn’t stop it from happening.
“Unless we genuinely tackle the misconception that cyberflash is harmless or just a joke, people will continue to send unsolicited images without understanding the distress and intimidation it can cause.
“The best way to combat cyberflashing is through education that promotes a better understanding of consent and empowers people to develop safe and healthy relationships both online and in the real world.”