Women are facing an “epidemic” of flashing and other forms of indecent exposure, with police in England and Wales recording more than 10,000 cases last year but taking fewer than 600 people to court over them, Guardian analysis reveals.
The findings come after Wayne Couzens was reported for repeated instances of alleged indecent exposure in the years and days before he raped and murdered Sarah Everard, but faced no action. Police accepted they may have had enough clues to identify the police officer as a threat to women sooner, amid fears that flashing is a gateway to other sex crimes.
One in 10 women have been subjected to indecent exposure, and more than 113,000 last year, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Crime Survey for England and Wales.
Police recorded 10,775 cases of “exposure and voyeurism” in the year to March 2020, the ONS shows, while just 594 suspects were taken to court, resulting in 435 guilty verdicts, Ministry of Justice figures for 2020 reveal.
The victims’ commissioner for England and Wales said indecent exposure was rarely taken seriously by police. Vera Baird urged police forces to rigorously record and investigate reports of indecent exposure, as potential precursors to more serious sexual offences.
“It really seems to be an epidemic,” Baird said. “I hardly know a woman who hasn’t been flashed. It clearly is endemic and it needs to be taken seriously, particularly because I think that attitude that it discloses is quite risky.”
Her comments came as Boris Johnson gave his backing to Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, saying “we can trust the police” but admitting “there is a problem” with the way violence against women was handled.
In 2015 a male motorist reported Couzens driving naked from the waist down, while days before Everard’s disappearance he is alleged to have exposed himself to a female staff member at a McDonald’s restaurant.
A report from the police inspectorate published last month said 50% of women who responded to a public survey said they felt unsafe in public spaces, while the ONS found that two out of three women aged 16 to 34 had experienced harassment in the previous 12 months, and 29% felt as if they were being followed.
Baird said: “Too often the police don’t take indecent exposure seriously. Any reports need rigorous recording to build up an intelligence picture [because] the possibilities of escalation can’t be avoided.”
Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, an assistant professor at the department of sociology at Durham University and an expert on sexual violence and harassment, said ONS statistics – showing at least one in 10 women aged 16 to 74 said they had been a victim of indecent exposure since turning 16 – were likely to be an underestimate.
“From an early age, women are taught to doubt ourselves and not take exposure seriously,” she said. “We need to think differently about what the harm is, what it means. It’s saying to women: ‘I could hurt you; there is nothing in me to stop me from showing you my penis, it has a threat attached to it … Look at what I can do to you, look at how I can humiliate you,’ the ever-present threat of sexual violence.”
The data shows that 5.8% or about one in 17 of all adults say they have been a victim of indecent exposure since they turned 16.
Out of the 594 exposure allegations that went to the courts, 123 resulted in immediate custodial sentences, with the average length of custody six and a half months. Community sentences were imposed for 189 offences.
Jayne Butler, the chief executive of Rape Crisis, said: “Indecent exposure is a sexual offence and causes distress to those who experience it. Sexual assaults of this kind are sometimes viewed as ‘low-level’ sexual offences and this can deter people from reporting it as they don’t believe it will be taken seriously.
“We do see cases where a perpetrator escalates their behaviour and goes on to commit other sexual offences but in any case we would expect the police to take seriously and investigate any sexual offence reported to them.”
She added: “Crimes like indecent exposure often indicate an individual’s need for attention and sense of sexual entitlement – the scale of indecent exposure offending in the stats is reflective of a culture that tolerates toxic masculinity that must be challenged. These offences cause distress to victims and they can be indicators that a perpetrator has attitudes that might lead to further offending if not taken seriously.”