UK sex offender Nicholas Hawkes first to be jailed for ‘cyberflashing’ under new legislation

A registered sex offender has become the first-ever person to be jailed for so-called “cyberflashing” in a landmark ruling in England.

Nicholas Hawkes has been sentenced to 66 weeks behind bars for sending unsolicited photos of his genitalia to a woman in her 60s and a 15-year-old girl, respectively.

The picture of the 39-year-old’s erect penis, sent via WhatsApp on February 9, left the teenager “overwhelmed and crying”, Southend Magistrates Court was told.

Both women screenshot the photograph, and reported Hawkes to Essex police that same day.

At a hearing on February 12, Hawkes pleaded guilty to the two counts of “sending a photograph or film of genitalia to cause alarm, distress, or humiliation”.

This week, on March 19, he pleaded guilty to breaching a community order and a suspended sentence for another sexual offence. Hawkes was already on the sex offenders register after being convicted of exposure and sexual activity with a child under 16 last year.

On top of his prison sentence, he was handed a restraining order for both victims lasting 10 years, and a sexual harm prevention order banning him from approaching women who he does not know on public highways and in parks for 15 years.

Cyberflashing laws in England and Wales have been a long time in the making, finally coming into effect on January 31 of this year as part of the Online Safety Act.

Under the Act, sending non-consensual intimate images – on dating apps and social media, as well as via AirDrop or Bluetooth – became a criminal offence. Its punishment brings it in line with flashing someone in person.

Research in the UK from 2020 showed that 76 per cent of girls aged between 12 and 18 had received unsolicited nude images of boys or men, while YouGov research found that four in 10 women aged 18 to 34 had been sent similar sexual images.

In Australia, the statistics are equally as concerning – a 2022 study found that 86 per cent of students aged 14 to 18 had received sexual messages or images, and 71 per cent had sent them. The majority of recipients were, unsurprisingly, young women or gender-diverse.

Given the increased challenges posed by the internet and social media when prosecuting such crimes – like the proliferation of deepfake porn – against women, the new laws will help to ensure victims are taken seriously, Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor for CPS East of England, Hannah von Dadelszen, said following Hawkes’ sentencing.

“Cyberflashing is a serious crime which leaves a lasting impact on victims, but all too often it can be dismissed as thoughtless ‘banter’ or a harmless joke,” she told reporters.

“Just as those who commit indecent exposure in the physical world can expect to face the consequences, so too should offenders who commit their crimes online; hiding behind a screen does not hide you from the law.

“The Crown Prosecution Service has delivered the first conviction for cyberflashing, but it will not be the last. I urge anyone who has been a victim of this shocking crime – whether via instant messages, dating apps, or by any other means – to come forward, knowing you have the right to lifelong anonymity (from the point of reporting).”

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