In the press over recent weeks, there has been a spate of reported incidents of indecent exposure. In just the last month, three men have been arrested in connection with an alleged exposure in Slough; police in Kirkcaldy are appealing for witnesses following an incident, and another similar story has been reported in Colne.
Clearly the laws, powers, politics and procedures in place to help the police deal with this type of crime are not currently sufficient to stop it happening. Indeed in my personal experience as a long-serving police officer I would say that the detection rate for the offence of indecent exposure is frighteningly miniscule. By detection rate I mean successful police prosecutions in comparison to the number of offences committed, rather than those reported, because indecent exposure has to be one of the most unreported offences there is. It’s almost impossible to officially quantify the specific offence of exposure, even from the most reliable information from the Office of National Statistics, as it is amalgamated within ‘other sexual offences’.
Why would that be? Is the victim too embarrassed? Do they lack confidence in the police? Or doesn’t the victim actually care enough to formalise the incident?
The last point might appear a bit harsh but it’s certainly a question that needs to be asked because society’s attitude towards this particular sexual offence needs to be challenged.
I explore this topic in some depth in my new Edinburgh Festival show ‘The Naked Stun’. Is it wrong of me to use humour to highlight the issue? I realise that I could be accused of trivialising the offence and therefore become part of the problem. But I would argue not. I believe that humour is one of the most effective ways to raise awareness especially in respect of uncomfortable subject matter such as this particular sexual offence.
Make no mistake that’s exactly what this is – a sexual offence. Or at least it is now. For most of my policing years the main legislation in place was the Vagrancy Act 1824. Yes that’s what I said – 1824. This is a law which was brought in to stop soldiers begging on the streets after the Napoleonic Wars. The part of that Act that covered indecent exposure even read in old English ‘every person wilfully, openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person in any public highway, with intent to insult any female shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond’.
You haven’t been transported back in time, until 2003 those were the actual points to prove. A ‘rogue and a vagabond’, you wouldn’t know whether to taser him or glove him across the face and challenge him to a duel!
‘Wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely with intent to insult…?’ Really? Surely it’s much simpler than that? Has he purposely indecently exposed himself or not? That’s all I need to know. No-one in the history of the world has ever accidentally masturbated in public.
Tony Blair’s New Labour brought in a record number of new laws, over 3,000, and his government eventually got around to bringing in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This Act, for the first time, made provision for the specific offence of indecent exposure and thankfully coppers like me could at last replace the word ‘person’ with the word ‘penis’ on the charge sheet. Nowadays it doesn’t have to be a man (Sexual Offences Act 2003 – Section 66) although in my experience it almost always is.
But do all flashers intend to shock? Jane Warding-Smith, an experienced psychosexual consultant who specialises in sex addiction, told me that that’s not necessarily the case. “The most common client group I deal with are the guys that strip off and perhaps go for a drive in the car. These people don’t necessarily even need to be seen’ she explained ‘It’s the risk of being ‘caught out’ that gives them the thrill they’re seeking.” She went on ‘”The flasher who masturbates in front of people is primarily seeking their sexual gratification from shocking people”.
Apparently both these groups have something in common – they’re chasing the ‘dopamine high’. This naturally produced feel-good brain chemical fuels their compulsive sexual behaviour in a similar way to that of a heroin addict.
Just like an addict they build up a tolerance and will have to take greater risks in order to experience the same thrill. For this reason it is possible that some people will go on to commit ‘contact’ sexual offences. In fact Jane told me “If a flasher who goes out to shock doesn’t get his intended reaction – let’s say, for example, the victim laughs at him, then this could act as a stressor which could make him unpredictable and potentially violent”.
There has been a lot of discussion about whether this type of behaviour is an illness and whether we should have some sympathy for the offender. Not from me I’m afraid, I’ve been a copper for too many years and I’m institutionally victim-focused. My priority will always be to protect the public.
In America they have a clinic to treat this ‘disorder’. One of their methods is for women to be employed to completely ignore a man whilst he sits masturbating. A rather radical take on Supernanny’s ‘Naughty Seat’ perhaps; but if effective in cutting the rate of reoffending, then potentially worth consideration.
When I told Jane about this method she said, “That seems a bit extreme and not something that I would recommend. However there are recognised forms of one-to-one treatments that have proven to be very effective”.
So if we accept that a flasher’s behaviour may escalate towards more serious sexual offences and we also accept that there’s a good chance of successful intervention work all we have to do now is catch the offenders.
I’d be the first to admit that the police haven’t always taken this offence as seriously as they might. In the ‘bad old days’ of New Labour’s target culture I’ve known flashers receive an on the spot fine – a questionable practice I used to think of as ‘Pay and Display’. Looking back it’s hard to believe that that could have ever been the correct way to officially deal with a sexual crime.
So should the Criminal Justice System prioritise the offence of indecent exposure? I’m careful not to use the ‘P’ word too liberally. Prioritise is a nice quick-fix buzzword that can be interrupted as ‘problem solved’ when on a practical policing level it actually means ‘problem compounded’. The police already have a plethora of priorities and if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. What I personally would like to see is a formalised police procedure for ascertaining information from perpetrators of more serious sexual assaults, about whether they started out as ‘flashers’, and what if anything would have stopped them. That will help give us more understanding and insight into their world and potentially suggest ways to combat the escalation of their offending.
The courts already have a power to impose treatment orders on offenders which can be used as an effective alternative to custody. However in order to catch them the police need evidence and that means many more victims and witnesses reporting incidents.
Whilst recently previewing ‘The Naked Stun’ I’ve been approached by many women who tell me that they too have been victims. But a very small number have actually reported it. One woman, Judith, who is a very successful businesswoman, told me how traumatising the incident had been for her. “I’ve always thought of myself as a strong and confident woman but this completely floored me” she said. “Initially I felt very angry and insulted but afterwards it made me feel very vulnerable. For ages I felt afraid – even in my own home – finding myself irrationally double-checking whether I’d locked my doors”. When I asked if she’d reported it to the police she told me “No. For some reason I felt very stupid and hated the idea of being seen to as victim.”
We all need to change our attitude towards indecent exposure. This is not a cheeky chappie having a bit of fun. We need to lose this ‘harmless seaside postcard’ image of a flasher that sadly all too often still seems to prevail. We’re talking about people that may go on to commit serious sexual offences.
Remember – from little acorns can grow mighty Yewtrees……
Article first published in The Independent 25th July 2014