If you were asked to imagine a flasher, you’d probably think of a cartoonish looking man in a trenchcoat, running shoes, and white crew socks. You might imagine him appearing suddenly in a parking lot, library or subway station. But that’s not what a flasher looks like now. In 2016, a flasher still attacks you in a public place, but through your most trusted, indispensable device: your phone. And you have Apple’s Airdrop feature to thank.
When I was flashed (or rather, cyberflashed), I was on the subway running a mid-day errand. I had only been living in New York City a couple weeks, but had quickly adjusted to subway life. Walk quickly, learn the difference between uptown and downtown, and mind your business. Like everyone else on the train, I was scrolling through my phone, taking advantage of periodic bursts of internet connectivity. I was texting with a friend—playing around with the new iOS 10 features, which allowed us to send doodles to each other, or announce texts with confetti, or—my favorite—easily send an array of gifs, when an Airdrop invite suddenly popped up on my phone.
When someone tries to send you an image via Airdrop, your iPhone shows you a preview of the image. So I got the full show before I had the chance to decline this stranger’s intrusion on my phone: a big, so-pasty-it-glowed dick. Completely absent a head, torso, or pretense.
It took me a fraction of a second to register that the picture wasn’t from the man I’d been texting. I declined it reflexively. My emotional response was as cool and casual as if someone had offered me a stick of cinnamon gum.
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Oh, sorry, nope. That’s not really my thing, thanks.
It wasn’t until a few seconds later that I fully registered what had just happened. A stranger, someone within 30 feet of me (per the limits of Airdrop), maybe across from me, maybe on the other end of the subway car, had just sent me a picture of his dick.
I took a quick scan of the car. No one was giggling into their phone, no one looked shifty-eyed or expectant, nobody met my gaze.
Weird, but whatever. Maybe it was an accident.
Then, two stops later, a second picture popped up on my phone: the same dick, now with a ruler held alongside it, proudly showing off the specs. This wasn’t an accident.
I paused before looking up. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I didn’t want to appear as though anything were wrong. I realized later it was because I didn’t want the sender to know I was his victim. I hoped that he didn’t know who had received his pictures and wouldn’t get the satisfaction of seeing me flustered or upset.
Surreptitiously looking around, I was confronted with the same innocuous subway car. Most people were looking at their phones, some texting furiously, others gazing blankly.
I furrowed my brow. Where was this guy? Was he even in the car anymore? Why me? What was happening? Who the hell just sent me TWO dick pics?
I’m not the first victim of cyberflashing. Experts say this behavior isn’t common, but it’s also not rare. A few women have written about their personal experiences being cyberflashed. Dozens of people have tweeted about witnessing or receiving unsolicited dick pics, and a few men have even tweeted about their intent to Airdrop these pics. One woman in the U.K. even successfully brought charges against a man who had sent her a couple dick pics.
The reason it happened to me, specifically, was that I had recently upgraded my iOS. For some reason, when users update their software, Apple automatically turns on their Airdrop—meaning, everyone has their settings reset so that images can be shared with them.
This would seem to be a fairly harmless oversight—that is, if one fails to consider how easy it is to weaponize even the simplest technological features to harass and intimidate others. Because Airdrop automatically gives you previews of incoming photos, there was no way to avoid seeing these pictures. When asked, Apple maintained that when it turns on Airdrop after an update, it sets it to “contacts only,” but this doesn’t match this user's experience.
Getting cyberflashed was unsettling, not for the actual pictures, but for the questions it raised. It’s a novel crime, born of the tech age, so new I wasn’t even sure how to categorize it.
Receiving an unsolicited lewd picture on your phone is something akin to flashing, but technology complicates the ability to really name this behavior. Are these pictures harmless pranks or harassment? Is cyberflashing public indecency, exhibitionism, trolling, a threat, or another example of the patriarchy waving a literal phallus in your face? When you can’t even name a thing, you have no idea how to handle it.
There's nothing like a dick pic to remind me that I've left my AirDrop on again.
— Dr. Jen (@BetterOffJen) June 23, 2016
And you can’t name it precisely because it’s hard to determine the intent. There are no other signals to read, no body language or tone of voice. Just an anonymous dick, thrusting itself into a space many of us consider among our most personal. And, as some of the tweets I found show, there are guys who will Airdrop dick pics as though it were some harmless prank (what’s a little phallus between friends?). Then, there’s this: Even if I’d actually been able to find out who the culprit was, what could I have actually done about it? Legally, not much.
Flashing someone is illegal, but the cyber equivalent isn’t, said Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, who has written a book on cyberstalking.
In order for what happened to me to be considered a crime—harassment—it would have to be “repeated and persistent,” according to Citron. A standard that two lewd pics probably doesn’t meet.
“This is just the general problem when it comes to network tools, so often law enforcement's response is, ‘it's not a big deal,’” says Citron. “We are, I think culturally, playing catchup to understanding the harms that can be inflicted. And if people don't—if the law enforcers themselves aren't well trained in the technology or the tools we have at hand to use, then of course there's a lag in enforcement.”
Essentially, that means the long-standing tradition of harassment on public transportation can move into cyberspace, with perpetrators worrying less about the consequences.
Reports of sexual harassment on the subway have gone up 50% this year, though the digital variants seem to mainly consist of “the taking of unwanted or surreptitious video or photos,” according to Fortune, not the sending of unwanted photos.
“The New York subways have always had a bit of a problem with people touching, groping and grinding,” says Dr. Karen North, a clinical professor at the University of Southern California and an expert in social media and psychology. That’s because it’s a crowded space where incidental touching isn’t unheard of, and because the social norm on public transportation is to ignore bad behavior.
“It's polite to be inattentive to strangers in public spaces,” says North. “You get on the subway and there's an incredible lack of eye contact.”
This is called civil inattention, also known as the “elevator effect,” named for the behavior that follows when a stranger walks into an elevator. Typically, everyone will look at the floor numbers (or their phone) rather than the other person in the enclosed space with them. It’s a way of being polite, of preserving people’s personal space even when they are in close proximity to you.
For the harasser, though, whether it’s a flasher or a cyberflasher, that’s likely the appeal of public transportation. His victim is stuck in a confined place with him.
The thing is, it probably would have been fairly easy to catch the guy if I’d taken down the name of the phone the photos were shared from, or, worse, downloaded one of the photos he sent along with any incriminating metadata it included. But it didn’t occur to me. I didn’t even think to report the incident to the cops.
My first reaction was to simply ignore the messages and carry on, pretending as though nothing had happened. It was instinct, my usual behavior when subject to unwanted advances. Brush it off, keep walking, don’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge it, it will pass. It was my way of exhibiting control and avoiding danger. Aware that someone could have been watching me, I wouldn’t give anyone the privilege of seeing me lose my cool.
But that gut-reaction also prevented me from catching and stopping the sender. So, here I am. Outsmarted by a guy who took a picture of a ruler next to his dick.
The most surprising part of the whole experience was my reaction to it. I wasn’t offended by the photos—in fact, I was mildly amused by how ridiculous and gross they were in their earnestness and sheer unsexiness. But I was bothered by the anonymity of it all, the suddenness, the inability to discern the perpetrator or the motive, or even if there were other victims.
“The thing that makes people really uncomfortable is uncertainty,” says North. “When somebody violates your privacy or attacks you or startles you or does something that violates your sense of being, and if you don't know who did it or why, then you don't know whether or not you're at risk.”
Since then, I’ve updated the settings on my phone so that only my contacts can Airdrop me pictures. And unless you’re dying to see an anonymous dick slap itself across your screen, you’re best off doing the same (or turning off the function entirely).
I don’t think about the incident often, but on the train, I’m aware now of a certain tension that runs through every subway car packed tight full of strangers, their blank, almost serene faces lit up with the soft glow of their smart phones. A glow that seems benign on most days can now take on a more sinister cast. It all depends on what you’re looking at.