Indecent exposure, legally defined as deliberately displaying your genitals in a public space to trigger alarm or distress, is something a substantial number of women are likely to have experienced.
Anecdotally, many women recount having been subjected to men masturbating or flashing them on the street or on public transport – with some having experienced it when they were as young as 13.
Official data paints a similar picture. The Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year ending March 2020, which polled 13,515 women aged between 16 to 74, estimates 10 per cent of women have experienced indecent exposure during their lives.
There has been renewed focus on the issue in the wake of the tragic death of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive who disappeared while walking home in south London last month.
PC Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan police officer who has been charged with her kidnap and murder, has also been arrested on a separate unrelated allegation of indecent exposure at a south London fast food restaurant involving another woman, alleged to have taken place at the end of February.
Maya Catsis, a youth worker who has lived in London her whole life, says she has experienced indecent exposure on two separate occasions.
“A year and a half ago, me and my friend got on the tube to come home,” the 31-year-old, who lives in Southgate, tells The Independent. “It was pretty empty. There was a guy sitting opposite. He was trying to make sustained eye contact. We were just looking away trying not to get involved.”
Catsis says he had a backpack on his lap which he removed to reveal a hole he had cut out of his crotch leaving his whole penis on display.
“He looked at us in the eyes,” she adds. “We were just in complete shock. In my head, I wanted to shout and say something. Then he jumped off the train. It wasn’t like it was a rip in his jeans or it was his zip unzipped. He’d cut out a square in his jeans.”
Catsis said the experience made her feel a mixture of emotions ranging from shock to disgust – adding that the ordeal has left her anxious about using public transport.
She cast her mind back to another experience around three years ago when she was sat with an ex-girlfriend and some friends at a bus stop after leaving a club in Shoreditch.
“I was being affectionate with my girlfriend,” she recalls. “This guy by himself out of nowhere crossed the road. He said: ‘Oh hi, where are you from? You look nice’. I immediately said ‘I’m not interested. This is my partner’.”
She then attempted to let him down gently – adding that she should not have to “stroke his ego” but felt obliged to – but he would not take no for an answer.
“He said: ‘You don’t like men because you haven’t had my dick yet’,” Catsis recalls. “When men realise you’re a lesbian, it is either a turn on and they want a threesome, or a challenge and they think their dick will change your mind.”
After Castis became more assertive and begged him to leave them alone, the man got his penis out.
“I was like: ‘I don’t want to see it’,” she adds. “I said: ‘Stop’. And he kept carrying on showing it to me. He wouldn’t leave the bus stop. It only ended when we got on the bus.”
Plan International UK, a charity that polled around 1,000 girls and women aged between 14 to 21 last year, found some 4 per cent had endured unwanted sexual exposure over the summer, such as being flashed or being forced to witness sex acts, such as masturbation.
“Incidents of indecent exposure can be deeply shocking and distressing – one incident is one too many,” Rose Caldwell, Plan International UK’s chief executive, said.
“Sadly, it is one of a multitude of forms of abuse and sexual harassment that women and girls continue to face every day. All women and girls should feel safe in public spaces, yet they are continually being followed, shouted at, touched and groped – and it needs to stop.”
She warned the law on public sexual harassment in the UK is “piecemeal and unclear” which means girls are not sure about what they can report and have fears they will not be “taken seriously if they do”.
Everard’s death had already generated a storm of anger as women shared instances where they were sexually assaulted, harassed or abused by men in public spaces.
In an unwelcome irony, the issue again struck home when a woman leaving the vigil in Everard’s memory witnessed a man expose his genitals to her.
The woman, who has just been named as Georgia, said she approached a group of police officers. While a female officer said she was willing to look into the allegation, one of her male colleagues allegedly overruled her, saying: “No, I’m not dealing with this” because police had had “enough of the rioters tonight”.
The Met Police, who sparked outrage for their manhandling of women attending Everard’s vigil that night, has since said it will look into the alleged incident.
Mary Kelly, who is from north London, says she was 15 when she suffered indecent exposure while on the bus heading home in the middle of the afternoon.
“It was an empty upper deck,” the 26-year-old, who works with children with disabilities. “Once it was empty, he moved to the opposite parallel seats to me. And then I noticed he was staring at me, masturbating over me. It took me a while to realise what was happening. I was so little, I didn’t know what to do.”
Kelly says she felt “paralysed” but then headed downstairs on the bus away from him. She did not tell her parents or friends what happened for years.
“It made me feel so petrified,” she says. “And so unsafe. Just terrified and really confused. That is probably why he was doing it. Because I looked so young, so he could tell I wouldn’t do anything about it.”
For a couple of years afterwards, Kelly did not go on buses alone. She still struggles to get on empty buses, tubes, and trains.
A recent survey by UN Women found 97 per cent of young women in the UK said they had been sexually harassed, while 80 per cent reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces.
Researchers, who polled more than 1,000 women aged between 18 to 24, found the sexual harassment included being groped, followed and coerced into sexual activity.
“We need a system that is joining up the dots of such ‘lower level’ sexual offences and disrupting the perpetrators of these crimes,” Deniz Ugur, deputy director of End Violence Against Women Coalition, tells The Independent.
“We know that if action isn’t taken it simply reinforces a sex offender’s sense that they can ‘get away with it’ and we have seen countless times how this can lead to a tragic escalation in the seriousness of their offending. It is unacceptable that we know this, yet the response to sexual offences remains woefully inadequate.”
Prosecution and conviction for sexual assault and rape are historically low – with government data showing in the year to March just 1.4 per cent of 55,130 rape cases recorded by police resulted in prosecution.
Another woman, who did not want to give her real name, said she was forced to call the police after a neighbour flashed himself and masturbated over her in the flat opposite her home in Sloane Square.
The 25-year-old says she was sat on her sofa in her top floor flat one morning, looking at her phone, when she suddenly sensed someone was looking at her.
“I looked outside and I could see the neighbour at the opposite flat in the opposite building looking at me maybe seven or 10 metres away,” she recounts. “He was wearing a T-shirt but not wearing anything below the waist. I could see him vividly. He looked at me. He could see I was looking at him. He proceeded to touch himself while looking at me.”
Amina said she works in finance so is “around douche bag behaviour quite a lot” but the situation still shocked her – calling it an invasion of both her privacy and her right to feel safe in her own home.
“He was invading my body, although not physically, he was having me in this act of his without my consent,” she says. “I think it is disgusting in every way.”
Nabilla Doma, a writer, says she experienced indecent exposure on two separate occasions as a teenager. Once as a 17-year-old on the bus on her way to sixth form college in north London around midday.
“We were pretty much alone,” the 25-year-old adds. “I noticed he kept looking at me. As most women do, I ignored it. I was reading a book or listening to music or eating something. I was trying to mind my business.
“I could still feel him looking at me. I looked at him as if to say: ‘What are you looking at?’ I could see his genitals and he was masturbating over me. He didn’t look away from me, he just carried on looking at me and masturbating.”
She says it made her feel a “cocktail of emotions” turning from fear, due to worrying the situation could escalate, to fight or flight mode.
“That was the second time in my life that a man has flashed me,” Doma adds. “The last time I was in the fields in Leytonstone. One man walking saw us and flashed us. It was the middle of the afternoon. We were 14 or 15.”
Eliza Hatch, who started a campaign called Cheer Up Luv in 2017 to retell stories of public sexual harassment via photography, says indecent exposure is a “common denominator” in people’s stories.
“People internalised and normalised these incidents and just got on with their day,” she adds. “It was so shocking to me that people suppressed these experiences and didn’t speak about them until up to 10 years later in some cases.”