Voices: How would you react if I told you I’d been flashed?

I was 12 when I was flashed for the first time. On a local golf course on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with my best friend – we were probably talking about the people we had crushes on at school, whether we would be allowed to get the bus to Ilford to go shopping for outfits for Gemma’s big 13th birthday party at the local athletics club. We’d never even had first kisses, let alone knew much about penises (or sex). Yet right there, standing among the trees, was a grown man with an erection.

The fact that I remember this experience so vividly, 30 years later – can picture him still (he was in his sixties and staring at us, grinning, his coat held wide open) – is testament to the effect flashing has on women and girls. I’d hazard that if you were to speak to any woman you encounter on the street, in the boardroom or at the school gate, she’s had an experience of flashing. It’s akin to street harassment, such as cat calls or “casual” groping: so commonplace as to (mistakenly) appear benign. In fact, as news of Wayne Couzens’s sentencing for indecent exposure now proves, it is anything but.

Couzens was sentenced to 19 months in jail for flashing multiple women in the months before he killed Sarah Everard. The former Met Police officer, who used the pretext of Covid rules to lure Sarah to her death, exposed himself to a female cyclist in a country lane in Kent, in November 2020, when he was supposed to be working from home. He then went on to expose himself to two female attendants at a drive-through McDonald’s restaurant just days before attacking Sarah on 3 March, 2021.

Flashing is still treated by many as an act that is frivolous or close to harmless – something we can dismiss or laugh away – whereas it should represent a grave warning that an individual has taken their first steps into the area of sexual violence. Thankfully, it is treated this seriously by the law, at least on paper, but why is there still a disconnect with how many people see it in everyday life?

New legal guidance was published in August by the CPS, tackling issues such as cyberflashing, upskirting and flashing. It follows a report published last year from the All-Party Parliament Group (APPG) for UN Women which looked at the prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in public spaces. It found that 71 per cent of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space, but the incident was not reported to police in 95 per cent of cases.

So if this is happening to seven in every 10 women in the UK, why are so few of us reporting it? I’m asking myself that difficult question right now, and can only conclude that it’s because we still don’t take flashing seriously enough.

I’ve been flashed three times, all by men decades older than I was. The second time was while on a weekend trip as a teenager to a castle; and the third was in a public park, aged 19, when I was having lunch on a bench with a friend. I looked up, catching movement out of the corner of my eye. What I saw put me off my sandwich. He wasn’t “just flashing” – he was masturbating.

I’m now wondering how to explain incidences like this to my daughter, who’s 11. I was just a year older than her when it happened to me for the first time. It seems wrong that I need to prepare her for an inevitable kind of sexual violence. It should not be an unavoidable fact in anyone’s life.

The judge sentencing Couzens said that failing to be caught for flashing women before he murdered Sarah Everard made him “feel invincible”; that he “could easily have been traced” after McDonald’s staff gave police his car registration and credit card details on 28 February 2021.

“Nothing was done at the time and Sarah Everard was taken three days later,” Ms Justice May said. “The fact that no police came to find him or his black car, to question him about these incidents, can only have served to confirm and strengthen in the defendant’s mind a dangerous belief in his invincibility, in his power sexually to dominate and abuse women without being stopped.”

So instead of dismissing such instances as unpleasant facts of life and putting them out of mind, we should all be proactive in reporting this violence to the police immediately. The police should then treat such instances with the utmost seriousness and act – before another one escalates into outright tragedy.