The New York transit system is becoming ground zero for the newest form of harassment that is sweeping across cities: cyberflashing. That’s when someone blasts sexual images to someone else without their consent.
But this form of digital harassment doesn’t just happen in open public spaces. It happens at work and school and on social media, by strangers and acquaintances alike — and those on the receiving end are unnerved, disgusted and violated.
At the National Organization for Women in New York City, we’re hearing more and more incidents of cyberflashing. In addition to subway riders, women who work in industries such as real estate, where their contact information is widely available, are being targeted. It needs to stop.
Research suggests that abusive online behavior aimed at women has only intensified in the last few years. The percentage of US adults experiencing severe online abuse increased to 25% in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly half of women said the abuse was gender-related, in comparison to just 18% for men.
According to Pew, 53% of young American women and 37% of young American men have been sent unsolicited explicit material through social media platforms, including Snapchat, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Cyberflashing also occurs via text messages, email and digital sharing in public spaces.
In 2018, the dating app Bumble commissioned a study that found that one in three women have received unsolicited lewd images in their lifetime, and — surprise, surprise — 96% of them said they didn’t want them. In response, Bumble launched Private Detector, a feature that uses artificial intelligence to automatically blur lewd images sent through its app.
We shouldn’t have to rely on companies being responsible to attack this reprehensible behavior. A bill making its way through the Legislature would make digital sexual harassment an offense for adults in New York, recognizing this unwanted behavior as not only abusive but unlawful.
The legislation, drafted by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin and state Sen. James Skoufis, would make cyberflashing a violation offense, which can lead to a $500 fine and jail time of up to 15 days if the court deems the perpetrator’s act warrants it. People who are getting their kicks by sending these unsolicited lewd images, often of male genitalia, could also be mandated to attend sexual harassment training.
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We know that online sexually abusive behavior is often one of the first steps in increasingly aggressive behavior that turns into real-life predatory behavior, so this is not only about the act itself. It’s about preventing even more serious harm. Online harassment is one key element of a pandemic-fueled surge in gender-based violence worldwide, according to a UN Women report issued at the close of 2021.
New York wouldn’t be the first state to take action. Last month, Virginia made cyberflashing an offense after Texas did the same in 2019. Bumble supported the bills in both states, and has partnered with the National Organization for Women in an effort to make cyberflashing a punishable offense in the remaining 48 states, with active bills pending in New York, Pennsylvania, California and Wisconsin.
Nor is this just an issue in the US This year, the United Kingdom made cyberflashing a criminal offense punishable by up to two years in prison, after research from 2020 found that 76% of girls aged 12-18 had been sent unsolicited nude images of boys or men. The measure comes on the heels of lawmakers there penalizing upskirting and breastfeeding voyeurism, which are also pernicious trends here in the US
The New York Legislature has a solid track record of recognizing the myriad ways sexual harassment takes place and has led the nation in passing strong measures to confront its pervasiveness in the workplace. The Legislature has enacted laws to give victims of revenge porn a right of action, to give those who are subjected to hostile work environments the legal platform to report it and employers the responsibility to address it. Nor did it stop there. In New York, the harassment that occurs on the street — from threatening, abusive language to stalking by those we know and strangers alike — has also been recognized as criminal.
But this year, on this issue, the clock is running out. If this measure isn’t passed by both houses before the session ends early next month, New Yorkers will have to wait another year to start the process over again. Women on their way to work shouldn’t have to be subjected to cyberflashers without any power to fight back.
It’s time for the New York Legislature to send a strong message to the public that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. Not by text, email, direct message or any other digital form of image sharing.
Ossorio is president of the National Organization for Women—NYC.