A Flash of Violence
At least 20 women have been confronted by a serial flasher prowling Victoria streets this year — and police want him caught
A young woman is standing alone at a bus stop. She’s listening to her iPod, studying the bus schedule and thinking about the friends she’ll be meeting later that afternoon. Then, a man leaps in front of her. His pants are pulled down, exposing his genitals, and he jeers at her while he touches himself.
She’s trapped between him and the bus shelter. Does she scream? Run? Take a photo? Laugh?
She’s one of the 20 or more women who have been met with the sexualized violence of a flasher since January in Victoria. But while it may be easy to find humour in stories of someone dropping their pants in public, experts caution there is nothing funny about the spate of flashings in recent months — in fact, taking these acts lightly could harm everyone’s sense of wellbeing.
“Flashing is a targeted act that forces someone to see something against their will,” says Stephanie Capyk, manager of direct client services with the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre. “This is a form of sexualized violence, and it impacts everyone’s sense of safety and ability to move about freely in public.”
Capyk says survivors are often riddled with guilt and feelings of responsibility, but she impresses that people who survive an act of sexualized violence have always done the right thing.
“When something like this happens, your brain goes into threat-response mode. There’s a cascade of emotion, and time can slow down,” she says. “Women who come forward often feel like they should have done something different … but the thing we can never emphasize enough is that this is not your fault. It is 100 per cent the perpetrator.”
Currently, there are no links between the Victoria flashings and an act in Nanaimo where a naked man in a gorilla mask jumped out at a female jogger and “rubbed against her” as reported by the media. The woman ran away, only to have the man cut her off later in the trail, this time while wearing sparkly pants. Capyk says acts like this further humiliate the survivor, who often is made to feel the event isn’t “bad enough” to be taken seriously.
“Our society is constantly looking for ways to downplay the seriousness of trauma, or events like this … [but] adding farcical elements to an act of sexualized violence further diminishes and humiliates the survivor, as she may already have trouble talking about it,” says Capyk. “Instead of focusing on her response and the impact it’s having on her, by laughing at these events or trying to give it a scale of danger, we’re sending the message to survivors that this isn’t that important.”
Capyk adds that flashers don’t just target anyone — they target those they see as vulnerable, often women. In the Victoria instances, the acts were first aimed at young Asian women sitting alone at bus stops. Since then, they’ve escalated to a variety of women around town. Nearly all acts have been mid-day, yet police have still to arrest a suspect — partly due to the time delay in reporting the incidents. And while Saanich Police suspect there could be more than one perpetrator, the Victoria Police Department says early calls will be the only way to nail down the case.
“We’re certainly still actively investigating the case,” says Cst. Mike Russell, media spokesperson for Vic PD. “One challenge we’ve really been faced with, however, is that all the reports have come to us hours and even days after the flashings take place. We need to get an officer there immediately.”
Police were given one photo for evidence, but Russell says “it might as well be Sasquatch — we’re chasing a black blob.” So far, descriptions have been consistent: white male, mid-20s to mid-30s, around 200 lbs and six-feet tall. While the acts and lack of evidence are frustrating, Russell says no incident is too “minor” and encourages anyone involved to call 911.
“You can disappear into a crowd in three seconds [as a perpetrator], so this is very frustrating for us,” Russell says. “Indecent acts aren’t uncommon. We do get about one call a week — not including the flasher — concerning indecent exposure. We do take all reports seriously.”
Capyk says survivors must be given the space and power to deal with incidents in the way they feel fit — even if time lapse would affect the investigation.
Both Russell and Capyk agree, however, that while indecent is indecent, there is a huge difference between a flashing and public nudity.
“The acts we’re seeing are a lot different than, say, going to a nude beach,” says Russell. “Wagging your genitals at someone and masturbating in front of them holds elements of victimization. If someone is just out there naked walking around, they’re probably going to get a talking to, but this is different.”
Rebecca Johnson, a UVic law professor who specializes in the socio criminal mindset, says it’s never clear what makes a person act out in sexual violence, but it’s no joke.
“What we need is not men to protect women from other men — there is a long history of that — but is for men to think about their collective behaviours as something other than ‘boys being boys,’” Johnson says. “Would a man be prepared to do this same behaviour in front of other men — how tolerant would the average man be to have this experience?”
Johnson says “pack mentality” could contribute to the increasing number of instances, although she also considers that some form of mental illness or social dysfunction around attention and control could be playing a part. She adds that the “rise” someone gets from performing these acts is a political issue.
“Both [traumatizing and trivializing] these responses kind of ignore the more important questions about political space — the way this kind of behaviour marks out public space as something men are entitled to, and that women must be cautious in,” she says. “I often wonder to what extent the encounter is not just about his sexual pleasure but is a form of political violence, a message that women are not entitled to freely interact in public space.”
Johnson also adds that while the harm may seem light, there’s no way for a victim to tell if the incident is “just” an exposure, or an impending threat to her life.
“What we have is an incident that forces a person into a sexual relationship with someone against their will … in a way which denies the right of the other to be free of that encounter,” she says. “It’s a problem not just because one is forced to see a penis when they didn’t want to see one, nor because a penis is inherently such an upsetting thing to see — the problem is that the encounter is a way of marking power.”
Capyk says that if she could say one thing to the flasher(s), it would be “stop it.” Survivors however, should know that the act is serious, she says, and help is always available.
“It’s really important that people don’t make these judgments about the level of impact, but recognize that something like this can be terrorizing. Someone is using sexuality as a tool of power and control over someone else,” Capyk says. “Funny is only funny if both people are laughing — and we’re not laughing here.” M
What to do
If you or someone you know has experienced an act of sexualized violence, contact the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre at 250-383-3232, or visit vwsac.com.
If you experience an act of flashing, police advise women to get away from the situation and do not approach the individual, but call 911 immediately. Those with information can call Vic PD at 250-995-7654. To access the Greater Victoria Police Victim Services branch, contact 250-995-7351.