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England cyberflasher gets jail time for sending genital photo

The first person to be sentenced for sharing unsolicited explicit photos of his genitals in England and Wales is a 39-year-old man from Essex, England.

Nicholas Hawkes was sentenced to 66 weeks in prison, the Crown Prosecution Service said Tuesday, after sending photos of his erect penis to a 15-year-old girl and an adult woman through messaging service WhatsApp on Feb. 9.

The woman took screenshots of the image on WhatsApp and reported Hawkes to local police in Essex on the same day.

Hawkes, who was already a convicted sex offender, was charged within days of the complaint, and on Feb. 12, he pleaded guilty to two counts of sending a photograph or film of genitals to cause alarm, distress or humiliation, the CPS said.

Sending unsolicited explicit photos, or “cyberflashing,” became a criminal offense in England and Wales on Jan. 31, with the passage of the Online Safety Act.

“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,” said Hannah von Dadelzsen, a spokesperson for CPS East of England. “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.”

Hawkes was already on the sex offender register until November 2033 after a conviction last year on charges of sexual activity with a child under 16 and exposure.

He was sentenced to 52 weeks for cyberflashing and an additional 14 weeks for breaching a previous court order, the CPS said. Hawkes was also given a restraining order to prevent him from contacting or approaching the woman and the girl for 10 years, and a sexual harm prevention order, which could prevent him from taking up certain jobs or visiting specified public places for 15 years.

Under the recently passed online safety law, which aims to combat online sexual harassment, cyberflashing offenses on dating apps and other platforms such as WhatsApp can result in up to two years in prison.

Some U.S. states, including California and Texas, have also passed laws to encourage those impacted by cyberflashing to bring lawsuits or file civil complaints against the perpetrators.

California’s 2022 Forbid Lewd Activity and Sexual Harassment Act, or FLASH Act, would allow users who receive “unsolicited” and “obscene” material electronically to seek up to $30,000 in civil damages from the sender, The Washington Post previously reported.

Unlike the law signed in Texas in 2019, which classifies cyberflashing as a Class C misdemeanor with fines of $500, the California measure stops short of labeling cyberflashing a crime. It simply creates a legal mechanism for those receiving unwanted lewd images to seek compensation.

There are no federal laws in the United States prohibiting cyberflashing, and so far none of the states pushing bills to prevent the behavior are encouraging jailing the offenders.

Von Dadelzsen of the Crown Prosecution Service said that Hawke’s sentencing was just the start of convicting those guilty of cyberflashing, and she encouraged other victims to come forward, reminding people that the law grants them lifelong anonymity, from the point they report the offense.

Hawkes borrowed his father’s phone under false pretenses to send the photos, the AP reported, and the 15-year-old girl began crying upon receiving the unsolicited images.

The AP also reported that Hawkes’s lawyer, Barry Gilbert, said his client did not receive sexual gratification from his offenses, which he said arose out of the post-traumatic stress he suffered after being kidnapped, stabbed and held for ransom eight years ago.

Judge Samantha Leigh rejected that argument, telling Hawkes that “you clearly are deeply disturbed and have a warped view of yourself and your sexual desires.”

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