Indecent Exposure **content warning**

Two days ago I decided to take advantage of the warm, autumnal sunshine and take a walk along the Thames Path – the towpath that winds along the banks of the Thames river in London. I chose the south side, starting at Kew Bridge and ending at Hampton Court – a route that would be around 10 miles in length, through beautiful riverside leafiness.

It felt so good to stride out along the well-worn path, complete with dappled sunshine and smiling walkers, runners and cyclists. I came across Ham House, a 17th-century mansion owned by the National Trust, that was offering free access as part of the Open House London weekend – I decided to take a little detour and found the house and grounds enchanting. I tweeted, I Instagrammed, I Periscoped. All good.

Then about half a mile on from Ham House I became aware that I was being followed very closely behind by another walker. I didn’t look round but I knew it was a guy. After a few minutes, at 3.30pm precisely, I tweeted as I walked: “To the man walking RIGHT BEHIND ME on the Thames Path – ever thought that might be intimidating?” I figured he probably hadn’t realised so faked a photo stop on the side of the river next to a woman who was sketching. I watched him walk on – seemed like a normal guy out for a walk – and after a few minutes I carried on.

Then suddenly, there he was, flaccid cock waving in his hands, grinning at me from a spot just off the path in the woods. “Oh you f*cking dickhead,” I muttered and carried on walking, but as two guys – a father and son – cycled past me I asked them to stop. My legs had gone wobbly and I asked them to walk with me for a bit, which they did. The father was suitably horrified – not least I suppose, that this was happening in front of his son who looked about 11 – and said I should call the police immediately. “Really?” I said. I’d fully intended to carry on walking and ‘not make a fuss’ but he was insistent. “I think you should, in case this guy does it again to another woman.” He was absolutely right.

I’m still amazed at the speed and seriousness of the police response. Within fifteen minutes they were with me, further down the track, and taking a statement. They then went on to walk back along the path, using my description to track the offender. They’d offered to take me home, or at least to a station, but I was absolutely determined to carry on. I wasn’t going to let one dickhead stop me from walking freely on a public footpath.

PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.

PCs Whitaker and Lau walking ahead of me after the second call-out. Thames Path.

About half an hour later, I saw him again. He was way up ahead, and he’d turned round to carefully check out the lone woman passing him on the path going the other way. I readied myself to join her but he turned back again, leaving her be. I called the police again and they came out immediately. Not only that, but the call-centre officer insisted I stayed on the line while I waited for them, and said that I should call the police if I EVER felt threatened by a man walking too close to me, or whatever. Blimey, I thought. If I do that, I’ll be on the phone every week…

Then came the response to the incident on my social-media feeds. One young woman talked about how being flashed at by a local offender was a ‘rite of passage’ at her school and how the girls were told to tell him to ‘put it away’ and look disdainful. Another had seen a man peeing on a beach that morning, clearly after public attention, but unlike me, it hadn’t even warranted a Facebook mention.

So many women commented that it had happened to them at least once, but it was clear that we’d all been trained not to make a fuss. I am horrified that it took a man to insist I call the police on this occasion, but I’m afraid to say my initial response was to just walk on and process it, after sharing on social media, of course.

I suppose my amazement at the police reaction was as a result of being brought up on the traditional ‘Cagney and Lacey’ response to flashers. Remember that bit in the opening credits where a guy opens up his mac and Cagney just looks so ‘is that it?’ about it? That image flashed into my head on the day, and I think it sets the scene for our cultural response to a man getting his dick out in front of us. Treat it as a joke and move on, because there are bigger issues to deal with. Typically, an old lady I spoke to as the police were scoping out the area simply said, “he was obviously born with a small one.”

Cagney & Lacey opening credits - the 'flasher'

Cagney & Lacey opening credits – the ‘flasher’

I later found out that another incident had happened in the same area, half an hour before mine, involving two girls of twelve and thirteen. The guy had followed them, too, and then revealed himself. Goodness knows how many times he’d done it that day, but I’m willing to bet that only a minority of them were reported. There is some evidence that shows these relatively ‘minor’ offences can lead to greater ‘contact’ ones, when the thrill of the shock and disgust (that’s what arouses them) needs a bigger event to trigger it. We need make sure these offenders are reported and subsequently caught, because like many seemingly ‘harmless’ events, they can often build into something bigger.

People often ask me why I complain so much about wolf-whistling or Page Three – it’s because both can sometimes lead to something so much worse, whether it’s a torrent of abuse if you don’t accept the ‘compliment’ with a smile, or a rapist whispering the name of their favourite tabloid into your ear. All of these things are set on a continuum and the more we let the ‘small’ things slide, the more likely the ‘big’ things are going to happen.

The way the police dealt with my incident that day has made me realise that they are only too aware of the continuum, and the importance of taking these issues seriously. I have received two follow-up emails and a victim care card. My advice to any woman out there who experiences this would be to phone 999. Immediately. Don’t make like Cagney and walk on. These guys are preying on our ‘don’t make a fuss’ culture and they need to be stopped.

I know that there will be some people reading this thinking I’m making a fuss – hell, even I thought I was wasting police time at the start of it all. But then I heard about those two young girls and thought about the lone woman I saw, unaware of the guy scoping her out as a potential victim, and I’m so glad that guy encouraged me to call the police.

Make the fuss, ladies. Seek the attention.

It’s the only way things are going to change.

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(Special thanks to PC Kate Whitaker of the Metropolitan Police).

Read an interesting piece from a police officer on the non-reporting of these crimes:

“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.”

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