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From punny writer’s group photos and simply gross novelty costumes, the trope of the Funny Flasher is long-standing and pervasive in Western culture. As in a famous, not-unamusing Monty Python sketch, the archetypal Funny Flasher is a filthy old pervert in a soiled trench coat, sneering at the world and baring his pathetic, limp, unwashed genitals to it in a sad grasp for attention, for shock value. Maybe he’s insane, maybe it’s the only "action" he can get. He rattles the prude, and isn’t truly feared. We feel sorry for him.
As a woman who’s experienced it a half-dozen times, I can attest: being flashed is not remotely funny, and it doesn’t involve a washed-up St. Nick with his sack flapping free.
It happened the first time in Vancouver, BC, when I was sitting on a bus and my bored gaze was drawn to a man who seemed to be rummaging in his lap. When he saw he’d caught my attention, he poked his erection out of a cut hole near his zipper and rubbed it feverishly, his eyes boring into me. My mouth automatically formed perfect, round "O" of surprise, something I’ll always be annoyed at myself for.
The next three times were in San Francisco, once while sharing a bus with the flasher and twice while on the street. Since moving to New York two years ago, it’s happened twice: once on a subway -- causing me to move silently to another car while tugging down my interview skirt -- and once on a street corner, a half-mile from my house, while I was walking home at night. This last experience was two weeks ago.
Every time has been more or less the same: a man between the ages of 30 and 60 masturbating directly at me, hungrily, stealing my image, my horror making him harder. My flashers have had different methods of taking their cocks out, but all wore loose, nondescript, layered clothing, and represented a wide range of skin tones among them. And every one of them committed an act of sexual violence toward me.
In its World Report on Violence and Health 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined sexual violence as "any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person's sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work,” and points out that sexual violence -- a global behavioral pandemic predominantly, but by no means wholly, directed toward women -- “has a profound impact on physical and mental health.”
Of course, this is not news. As we know, “unwanted sexual comments or advances” are rampant, even commonplace, and the topic has recently been subject to increased discussion and scrutiny thanks to various controversial projects. And men keep it up, from making kissy faces to whipping their dicks out, and women keep getting hurt. Reflecting on her own terrifying experience in which a “fully exposed, fully aroused” man lured her into his proximity before revealing himself, writer Cynthia Ramnarace compared the act of catcalling to the actions of her flasher: “One is covert, the other overt, but, ultimately, they’re both forms of objectification. And I am nobody’s object.”
When I was walking home from a pool league match close to midnight two weeks ago and -- despite knowing, on some level, what was about to happen, and muttering, “Nope, nope, nope” to myself -- I lost my fight to keep my eyes away from the lap-rummaging man standing on the corner I was approaching, the cock he pulled out wasn’t surprising to me, wasn’t news.
What made this instance different what was I did: I decided that this time, finally, I would call the cops. I was sick of this shit.
After making this decision, turning on my heel, and taking up a post at a safe distance from the guy, I dialed 911. Just as I was connected, I realized I’d lost sight of him, hung up, and started walking away in frustration before he suddenly ducked back into sight from a doorway.
I called back and, keeping one eye on him while doing my best to play-act “Waiting for a Friend on a Corner While Lost,” started answering the female operator’s questions. Both times I dialed, my cell phone -- psychically, but not very supportively -- double-checked with me first, its “Call 911?” prompt seeming to ask discouragingly, “Are you sure you want to bother?”
“Brooklyn. Graham Avenue and Flushing Avenue. A man is exposing and playing with himself. Brown hoodie, blue jeans, brown coat. Yes, I’ll wait for them.” I said (inwardly rolling my eyes at the possible pun) that no, I didn’t think he had a weapon. “He’s got his cock out and is masturbating at people,” I explained again. I tried to wave down a passing cop car but failed. The operator said police were on their way. The flasher seemed to know I was up to something and started slowly moving down the street, around the corner, up the next block or two.
For fifteen minutes, I trailed this guy from about a block behind, smoking cigarettes, pausing between parked cars to hide myself from his glances back, once calling 911 again to update the police about my being on-the-move, stepping briefly inside a pizzeria to hide. He kept going but at a very casual pace, and even took up residence to stroke himself for a while (I had my eyes on the top of his head from behind a parked van) outside a housing project. At one point, when he doubled back across the street from me, I felt scared. This was stupid. But I was going to do this, for once.
The police called my cell phone as their car came rolling up the one-way street and I told them hurriedly, “he’s on your left, brown coat, brown hoodie, walking past you, right there!”
“Ma’am,” the voice said. “Ma’am. Can you see the car?”
“Yes, I’m about ten yards ahead of you on your right, black coat, on the phone. He’s walking away, he’s behind you to your left, brown coat...”
“Ma’am. You need to approach the car.” I did.
The officer in the passenger seat rolled down his window.
“Yeah, I’m Janet Burns, I called, he’s across the street there, walking slowly.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
With that small amount of fear from night-stalking my flasher draining away, I was left adrenaline-filled, angry, breathless.
“That guy is walking around with his cock out masturbating at people, at me!” I blurted.
The male officer seemed a bit surprised with my language, but was polite. He listened.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said kindly, slowly. “He looks like he’s not all there, not totally right in the head.”
I nodded (though, today, I think he was just stoned). “Well, OK.”
“We’ll definitely have a talk with him. But, you know. He’ll make his own fate.”
I stared at him for a second.
“OK, well, yeah. It’s just that, this has happened to me so many times and I thought, hey, today’s the day I call the cops. So I did.” The cop nodded.
Before pulling the car around, approaching my flasher (who immediately, well-coordinately put his hands up), and having some sort of conversation with him for about 45 seconds, the cops asked if I lived nearby, if I was OK walking home. I do, I was, and I did.
I’ve seen a lot of erect cocks in my life: quite a few by choice, many by benign chance, and at least several by force. And, when one more of the latter was shoved at me on a well-lit street in my own neighborhood last week -- an experience I won’t be able to shake for years, at best -- I called the cops, rather than doing nothing, again, beyond feeling like shit for a day. It was the least I could do, this time, and I’d hoped that the least the cops could do in acknowledgement of the class B misdemeanor that had just been pointed at me, hard, would be giving the guy a ticket, or even taking his name down. It wasn’t.
According to statistics released by the New York City Police Department, 33 misdemeanor sex crimes were recorded during the week of December 22-28, 2014, as opposed to 25 instances of rape, 322 instances of robbery, and 706 instances of grand larceny during the same week. Which is to say, perhaps, that New York City cops may well -- as if there were ever any doubt -- have bigger fish to fry, and are likely compelled from all angles to direct their time and personal resources toward inhibiting more violent and destructive criminal behaviors than are embodied by an asshole waving his cock around.
It seems unlikely, though, that perpetrators of this asinine, lewd practice will see any reason to even consider cutting it the hell out unless police, lawmakers, novelty costume-makers, and everybody else takes it more seriously, and recognizes it for what it is: sexual assault.
And -- like every form of assault -- not the tiniest bit funny.