Wolf whistlers and catcallers should be prosecuted if they intended to cause offence, according to CPS guidance
The Crown Prosecution Service is pushing for those who are sent obscene images or who are sexually harassed in the street to come forward and speak to authorities
Victims who are sent unsolicited nude pictures are being encouraged to report the offences to police, despite warnings from campaigners that many young people do not realise it is abuse.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is pushing for those who are sent obscene images, have pictures taken up their skirt, get flashed in person or sexually harassed in the street - such as by being cat-called or wolf whistled - to turn to the criminal justice system.
A number of celebrities including actor Emily Atack, podcast host and writer Emily Clarkson and former Love Island star Zara McDermott have all spoken out publicly about their experiences of so-called cyber-flashing and the distress it caused.
But campaigners have warned that sending obscene pictures, colloquially referred to as d*** pics, is so common among young people that many do not realise it is abuse.
Anti-cyber abuse charity Glitch wants the emphasis to be on education rather than potential prison sentences.
New legal guidance is being published by the CPS on Monday including a specific chapter on charges relating to public sexual abuse.
A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) 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 were not reported to police.
Siobhan Blake, CPS national lead 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 equally concerning that so few incidents of sexual harassment in public are reported.
“The law is clear that if someone exposes themselves, tries to take inappropriate pictures 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 harassment. Feeling safe should not be a luxury for women.”
An Ofsted report on sexual harassment and abuse in schools last year said that nearly 90% of girls and nearly 50% of boys had told inspectors being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happened a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.
And research by dating app Bumble in November suggested that 48% of women aged 18 to 24 had received an unwanted sexual image in the previous year.
Gabriela de Oliveira, head of policy, research and campaigns at Glitch, said that the current law on cyber-flashing is based on whether the sender intended to cause distress.
She said: “I don’t think that any of us really believe that creating really steep prison sentences for cyber-flashing based on an intent to distress or humiliate will prevent people from doing cyber-flashing in the first place if they can say it was banter.
“‘I didn’t think, I didn’t mean to distress, I just did it because I thought it was normal’.
“Because it is incredibly normalised, and that is the core of the problem, it is normalised to an extent where people don’t understand it yet as abuse.”
Instead Glitch wants to see the law based on the fact that the victim has not given 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 whether they had consent to send the image would also be useful.
“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 has a prison sentence (of up to two years), that risks putting young people and marginalised communities, particularly ethnic minorities who are more likely to be over-policed, in prison for up to two years on an issue that isn’t yet well 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: “Criminalising cyberflashing may go some way to reinforcing the message that it is unacceptable.
“However, simply making something illegal doesn’t stop it from happening.
“Unless we genuinely address the misconception that cyberflashing 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 tackle cyberflashing is through education that promotes a better understanding of consent and equips people to develop safe and healthy relationships both online and in the real world.”
A spokesperson for the CPS told the Telegraph: “There is no specific law criminalising catcalling or wolf whistling, so a one-off incident is unlikely to amount to an offence.”