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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 June 2007, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
How serious a crime is flashing?
By Victoria Bone
BBC News

The acquittal of a High Court judge for exposing himself on a commuter train has highlighted how the crime of "flashing" continues to divide opinion.

Convictions for exposure can result in up to two years in prison, yet until three years ago, it was not even defined as a sexual offence.

Before that, it came under two 19th Century laws - the Vagrancy Act 1824 and the Town and Police Clauses Act 1847 - and was gathered in official statistics alongside trade descriptions and public health offences.

'Trigger crime'

In the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which applies to England and Wales, the law was strengthened, but some experts believe this is not enough and the entire judicial system needs to take a more serious attitude towards exposure.

That is because they see it as a "trigger crime" - a minor offence which hints at a propensity to commit more serious acts in future.

Jane Monckton-Smith, a former police officer turned criminologist, says its significance is grossly underestimated.

Before 2004 there were between 8,600 and 9,900 incidents each year
Exposure now comes under "miscellaneous sex offences" in Home Office statistics
Clear-up rate for these was just 24% in 2005/6 and 18% in 2004/5

"It's a far more dangerous phenomenon than people admit," she said.

"It's seen as a bit of a joke, or just something that some men 'do'.

"People just laugh it off as the 'dirty old man', even though it's more likely to be younger men or teenagers who do it.

"But it can be very frightening for victims.

"It's very important to understand that women have a heightened fear of crime compared to men and research shows that is down to their fear of sexual crime.

"Therefore, anything like flashing, stalking, funny phone calls heightens that fear because it is seen in a sexual context."

'Flight not fight'

Not everyone is convinced about the seriousness of exposure.

Professor Keith Soothill, from the University of Lancaster, believes the perpetrator may be frightened as well as the victim.

"I don't buy the notion of accelerating from indecent exposure to crimes like rape," Prof Soothill says.

It's a far more dangerous phenomenon than people admit
Jane Monckton-Smith

"I think indecent exposure is more a flight than fight crime. People who commit it are afraid of others rather than intent on being violent towards them.

"Those sorts of people don't strike me as violent predators like rapists."

But Ms Monckton-Smith takes the opposite view: "It is all about power. The person doing it wants to make the other feel powerless, just like in rape."

Gender neutral

Ms Monckton-Smith recalls a time during her police career when there wasn't even a power of arrest attached to exposure unless the officer actually witnessed the incident.

Now the law does take a tougher line.

Since the new act came into force in 2004, the legal definition has become gender neutral - rather than "exposing his person" it reads "person exposing genitals".

The victim can also be a man or woman.

The punishment for a single offence is a community order, but repeat offending or where there are threats of violence or exposure to a child, the possible penalty increases considerably.

Those sorts of people don't strike me as violent predators
Prof Keith Soothill

Sentencing guidelines recommend that a pre-sentence report be done on a flasher "to identify sexual deviant tendencies" which might require a programme of treatment.

And they insist that a person convicted of exposure must be considered in terms of public protection just like any other sex offender.

Andrew Buckingham from Victim Support also believes the crime should be taken seriously, but says: "I think some victims themselves take a light-hearted approach to it - they might just pity the person.

"Others have the presence of mind to shoot a withering comment back to humiliate them.

"That seems like a good tactic given the aim of the flasher is almost certainly to cause shock, distress or even anger, but certainly not amusement."


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