(Illustration by Owain Anderson)
When someone wanks at you in public, you don't necessarily register it immediately. Why would you jump to the conclusion that someone is literally masturbating in your direction, in the cold light of day, when you haven't explicitly asked them to do so?
Julia* heard what she thought was someone rubbing their hands together outside a public toilet, so didn't think much of it. After a few minutes she noticed under the toilet door that the person had their feet facing towards her. Then, in her words, "he shoved his dick through the gap between the wall and the cubicle, and came on the wall".
Although this happened two years ago, she still struggles to use public toilets and asks boyfriends or close friends to come with her. "My hands start shaking and I'm totally paranoid – while being on the toilet, I'll look towards the ceiling entire time to make sure that no one is peeking over the top," she says, adding: "A lot of people didn't understand how severe and life-changing it was for me. I think they just pictured some loser wanking in public and thought, 'What a freak,' and just saw it as one of those weird things that happens."
In reality, though, many others share Julia's thoughts.
Lucie* says she was approached in the street: "I didn't want to look at him. But, when I did, I saw he was masturbating. He was following me with his dick in his hand. When I arrived home I couldn't talk; I just burst into tears." Despite this, she adds: "I was lucky enough to be able to close my door. It is so frequent; it happens to so many women."
She's not wrong. It's difficult to find specific statistics on indecent exposure alone, but a 2013 government report found that, since turning 16, one in five women in the UK reported being a victim of sexual threats, unwanted touching or indecent exposure. Talk to your female friends and you can guarantee at least one of them will have been flashed or wanked at.
Beaches present the ideal environment for the opportunist public wanker – bare skin everywhere and long stretches of open space. As one woman tells VICE, "The first time it happened to me was on a beach on my year abroad. I caught a flurry of colour in the woodland not too far away from where I was stood. A hot panic swarmed over my whole body as I saw a man in trunks, standing between two trees, penis in hand, tugging on himself with enthusiasm. My eyes met his, he didn't pull away. He seemed unabashed by his choice."
"I asked policemen what else was going to be done and they laughed and said, 'This stuff happens in London, miss.'"
Public transport provides similar opportunities. Many women said they'd experienced this sort of behaviour on night buses but felt either too tired or too embarrassed to report the incident. In 2015 Transport for London launched a campaign, "Report It to Stop It", encouraging people to do just that – but for many it's hard to find the motivation. *Ellen says she has witnessed public exposure or masturbation a few separate times on public transport, and that "each time I was focused on just getting out of the situation, or getting home as fast as possible. On top of that, the police's reactions and efforts to me reporting it have been crap, so my default is not to report it."
As with other forms of sexual assault, the criminal justice system and police's failure to adequately address cases has caused widespread mistrust. Another woman, Violeta, was sitting on a bench in High Street Kensington when a man "just started masturbating while saying rather inappropriate things to me. I screamed at him and found a policeman nearby. They said something to the guy, who just put his dick back in his pants and walked off. I asked them what else was going to be done; they laughed and said, 'This stuff happens in London, miss.'"
This behaviour receives a similar response from authorities globally. In Cuba, for example, men who publicly masturbate at women are known as pajusos, meaning public wankers. If you're caught you will receive a fine of around 40 pesos cubanos (£1.70) as punishment, which according to Anglo-Cuban Masters candidate, Maria Victoria O'Hana – who is researching this problem in Havana – "acts almost like a license you can pay for to masturbate in the street". It's a similar story in Italy. In the case of Pietro L, a 69-year-old who was seen taking out his penis and masturbating in front of students in Catania, the Supreme Court decided he should be fined but that his action was not a crime.
In the UK, under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, the act of public masturbation is often criminalised under Section 66 – the crime of Exposure. However, unlike other offences contained in the act there is no mention of the word "sexual", and to count as an offence the perpetrator must cause "alarm or distress".
Of course, every encounter causes distress. Most of the women I spoke to explained how the man would lock eyes with them, proceed to masturbate and continue to stare solely at them. For Martha, who experienced this, along with the man in question licking his lips at her, "It felt a lot more like sexual harassment. It was directed specifically at me. If someone just says indecent exposure, it doesn't convey that it can be someone masturbating at you and it doesn't account for how traumatising it is for women."
According to legal academic Peter Ramsay, an associate professor at the London School of Economics' Criminal Law department, "Part of the problem with this type of public masturbation is, although there is no touching [the prerequisite to create a charge for sexual assault], there is nevertheless non-consensual involvement in another's sexual pleasure, in which the victim is treated as the object of the other's sexual pleasure. Is that particular violation adequately charged by intention to cause alarm and distress in Section 66 or by obscenity and disgust in outraging public decency? Both offences have something of public nuisance hanging about them, which is not the way the problem is necessarily experienced by someone subject to it."
In other words, because public masturbation almost always involves no physical touching, it's not treated as a serious offence.
The lack of repercussion for these men has disturbing consequences. In the world of porn, there are thousands of videos of men filming themselves publicly masturbating at women. There's even a subgenre reserved for public transport. On one popular website you can consume mobile phone-shot footage with titles such as "sweet girls pretend not to see man wank cock on bus" and "man going to shock Asian girl with cock". Each of these have racked up over three million views.
It's a worrying sign, that the behaviour is clearly so fetishised. Because while laws in the United Kingdom and internationally might not recognise this crime accurately and punish it accordingly, it's clear exactly what it is to anyone who's had to experience it: another form of sexual assault.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
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