Wayne Couzens – the police officer charged with the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard — is allegedly linked to a case of indecent exposure at a fast food takeaway in South London, three days before Ms Everard went missing. We must await an independent investigation into this to establish what, if anything, was done during those three days between the indecent exposure claim and the abduction of Ms Everard.
Of course, everyone is wondering whether, but for the failure to make a prompt arrest, Sarah Everard would still be with us today. We must await a trial; until then, Couzens must be presumed innocent. It is quite likely, however, that if whoever was responsible for the flashing incident had been arrested, the police would only have given him a caution for the alleged indecent exposure. In certain circumstances, where a suspect admits the offence in the first instance at an interview, has no previous convictions and there are no aggravating factors, they are likely to not be incarcerated and thus free to commit further crimes.
Indecent exposure — often referred to as “flashing” — has usually been seen as a minor sex crime and certainly not as a predictor of murder. In the past, the stereotype was of the harmless, possibly mentally-ill, flasher in a dirty raincoat, and the victim pulling a comically shocked face — as in the opening credits of Cagney and Lacey. These men were not seen as particularly dangerous.
However, in research for my Masters dissertation in 1994, “Rape from Afar: Men Exposing Themselves to Women and Children,” I found that the impact on victims can be considerable. Indecent exposure constitutes a form of “visual violence” and although it is on a sexual violence continuum, I didn’t find that it was an offence from which one graduated in steps towards physical attacks on women and girls (and sometimes boys or men). Men could, for example, already be committing child sexual abuse in their family while also “flashing” around the same period.
I found that more than 50 per cent of women had been victims of indecent exposure at some time in their lives and some studies indicated it was the most common offence against women. It was also often referred to as “exhibitionism”. This term implied that it was seen as only a problem for the men who offend and for therapists who are concerned with their treatment — not with their female victims.
Many sexual offences have been trivialised — for example “peeping Toms”, stalking and rape in marriage — leading to a failure of the criminal justice system to protect women. In fact, only around 15 per cent of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police. Offenders are therefore free to continue virtually unchallenged by the criminal justice system.
In terms of the circumstances of incidents of indecent exposure, they vary considerably. Here is one example of a woman in my study who had been exposed to twice in her life:
“The second time I was exposed to I was 34. I witnessed someone masturbating at a window… This was more significant, more shocking than when it happened when I was a child. In the first incident he was walking along with his willy hanging out; in the second he was masturbating. It was 11am on a Monday. I was on my way to the Post Office to get my Family Allowance.
He was upstairs in his window – he had a net curtain pulled back so you couldn’t see his face. I reacted differently to how I’d expect – I was totally chilled, I went cold. I thought I was broad-minded and unshockable. I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach, like when I found out I was pregnant, like witnessing a car crash. I think he was getting the thrill from seeing my reaction through the net curtain. I have been raped – nothing can frighten me as much as that – but it did shock and frighten me. And I was surprised at other people’s reactions – people laughed, made light of it and were almost voyeuristic: ‘What was he doing, what did it look like?’ The police asked me ‘Did he have an erection?’”
Other cases I was told about involved the woman or girl being in an isolated area at the time of the offence. In these situations, women and girls can be in fear of their lives, both at the time and after the offence. Incidents can have an enduring impact on later behaviour, with another woman reporting she would not even go to the shop for a bottle of water after the incident as she felt fearful for her safety outside the home.
As I wrote in a subsequent book: “The fear of rape and, ultimately, death at the hands of the exposer has been identified in earlier research” (Qualitative Research in Criminology, edited by Brookman, Noakes and Wincup).
This takes on an added poignancy with the murder of Sarah Everard. When I presented my research to the British Criminology Conference in the mid-1990s, it was well-received and reported in the Independent. This led to an interview on Woman’s Hour and my university was then contacted by Scotland Yard, who wanted a copy of my thesis to help the police take crimes like this more seriously than they had in the past.
So, hearing about the alleged offence of indecent exposure now linked to this police officer, I have to wonder: how seriously are the police now taking it? Is the offence still being seen as minor and not urgent enough to merit an urgent response? What has Scotland Yard done to improve its policies and procedures during the intervening 27 years since they requested a copy of my study?
One positive outcome was that my work (like that of many others) was incorporated into the Sexual Offences Act, 2003; but what impact has this had on victims? Has this legislation failed in its purpose to offer some protection to women from men who commit indecent exposure? Judging by what seems to have been at best a tardy response by police in the present case, it would unfortunately appear that not much has changed. It is high time that the criminal justice system took “minor” sex offences seriously.
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