The recent ATM flashing wasn’t unusual. Scores of such incidents happen daily outside schools, hostels, on trains, and in parks but unlike the Mumbai girl, most women are too scared to record or report

Ketaki.Desai@timesgroup.com

It’s a summer day in Noida, and a 22-year old girl walks by a watermelon seller in his mid-20s. He is masturbating in the middle of the street. Two twenty-year-olds sit on a park bench until they notice a man flashing them. They call the police who never show up. School girls are walking towards their buses, when a man in a car asks them for the time. He shows them his penis, and then drives away.

Ask any girl/woman and she’ll probably have a flashing story to tell. With social media, men have been able to take flashing into women’s inboxes by sending unsolicited dick pics.

Last month, singer and activist Chinmayi Sripaada asked her female Twitter and Instagram followers from Chennai, Coimbatore, Bengaluru and Hyderabad to share their experiences of being flashed, and received 600 responses in only a few days. Sripaada had been flashed when she was in school, and still receives unsolicited pictures of men’s genitals on social media. Receiving a message from a girl who had been flashed at a Coimbatore bus stop made her wonder how common th, and whether gathering more information can help stop this.

In doing this, certain patterns became apparent. “The biggest pattern was men pretending to ask for directions and then pointing at their penis. Another was that many women had faced these experiences on buses and trains,” she says. Auto drivers exposing themselves outside schools and the roads to working women’s hostels were also common circumstances. She is working on mapping out these unsafe areas so women are more aware of them.

Unlike the incident in Mumbai last week where a 23-year-old woman not only filmed the man who flashed her, but also had him arrested, the shame keeps most women silent. Thirty-year-old Priyam Jain was in the sixth grade the first time she was flashed. “I was walking back from school. He was in a car, and asked me if I knew where a certain doctor lived. He said he was in a lot of pain and that he wanted my help. He lifted the bag on his lap and his pants were undone, and he took it out and asked if I would f*** this,” says the counseling psychologist and behavioural consultant. She remembers how guilty and violated she had felt, and the sleepless nights that followed.

Such behavior is a form of exhibitionism which derives pleasure from shocking and intimidating the other party, says clinical psychologist Pulkit Sharma. “When they flash their private parts to someone, the expression of disgust and fear is turn on for these people,” he says. In India, girls are taught to hide their private parts, but men aren’t. “By flashing, they give the message that they are not at all vulnerable, and the woman in the situation is,” he adds.

School-aged girls are often flashed for this very reason. Middle school counselor Vandana Nangya says, “School-going girls are less sexually experienced and their reactions are way more pronounced than older women. So they are not only easy targets but also most targeted.”

Sripaada says that the women who reached out to her didn’t attempt to report such incidents to their parents, let alone authorities, out of fear that it would limit their freedoms further. “Girls battle so much to get a chance at education and a career, so they fear that by reporting it, they would be prevented from doing these things,” she says.

Simran Arora, a 23-year-old teacher, was flashed for the second time when she was a student a Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram college. Walking to the metro station, she noticed a man staring right at her while he masturbated. “I considered reporting it, but what would I do or say? I didn’t know anything about him. Also, almost every girl who lived in and around LSR had a similar experience,” she says. Aware of the prevalent attitude of ‘he didn’t touch you, did he?’, she chose not to report the incident.

Design student Ajooni Bhogal, who was flashed in her colony when she was 15, says talking about such experiences is important. “Women are not very shocked that such incidents happen, but many of my male friends were very surprised. It’s how we think about things like rape and murder, like ‘oh, it wouldn’t happen to anyone I know’,” she says.

Kalpana Vishwanath, co-founder and CEO of SafetiPin, an app that uses maps to indicate safe and unsafe areas in urban centers, says that while policing and socialisation is part of the solution, it is also important to reconfigure public spaces to be safer. “In 2015-16, we worked with the Delhi government and identified 7,800 pitch dark spots in Delhi, and they did act on it. Now, we are working on making public toilets, schools, and parks safer. There has to be an understanding of how and where such incidents happen in order to prevent them,” she says.

CYBER-FLASHING ON THE RISE

Four in ten female millennials have received an unsolicited dick pic, a 2017 YouGov survey shows

It happens on social media and dating apps. Genital photos are also AirDropped or sent via Bluetooth to women in public

Fed up, women have started to retaliate in their own ways. In 2017, artist Whitney Bell put up an exhibition of 150 unsolicited pictures that she and her friends had received

Closer home, some women, including journalist Barkha Dutt, have taken to social media to reveal the identities of the men who have sent them such pictures