Britta Carlson was riding the NYC subway in late July when a man airdropped a photo of his dick to her phone. “It was just a huge close-up picture of a disgusting penis,” she told the New York Post. “It really felt like someone had actually just flashed me.”
She wasn’t alone, however, as airdropping dick pics to strangers soon revealed itself to be a growing trend.
“AirDropping Dick Pics is Now a Thing, and People Are Horrified,” explained Men’s Health.
“Watch Out for Creeps AirDropping Their Dick Pics to You in Public,” warned Jezebel.
And earlier this week, Mashable offered step-by-step instructions on “What to Do If Someone AirDrops You An Unsolicited Dick Pic on Public Transport.” (The CliffsNotes: 1. Change your AirDrop settings; 2. Retain the image; 3. Report it to law enforcement.)
All of this now made me familiar with two centuries worth of public nudity — I was guilty of many moments of 20th century flashing while drunkenly pledging Sigma Nu my freshman year of college. But I’d never considered anything before that. What was the biblical equivalent of the airdropped dick pic? Or the neanderthal version of my collegiate streaking — was there even enough bare skin on their hairy bodies to constitute true nudity? Or the medieval twist on mooning?
And so, over the last few days, I cracked open the history books to see how we’ve been undressing in front of each other for millennia — unsolicited or not — and to better understand the progression from rampant public nudity to puritanical conservatism to Mardis Gras flashing to criminal exhibitionism.
Here are a few of my findings…
2. That said, according to a 2006 Swedish study, twice as many men reported at least one occurrence of exhibitionism as opposed to women (4.1 percent to 2.1 percent of the 2,450 randomly selected individuals) — meaning many more penises have been “whipped out” as opposed to tits shown. Though there is a two-to-one advantage in breasts-to-penises per flashing, which at least in terms of body part count, would seemingly even things out. And as Broadly noted last year, “the desire to be naked in public is driven by a common motive for both sexes: It’s a turn on.”
3. But back to linguistics: Timothy B. Jay, professor emeritus in psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of We Did What?!: Offensive and Inappropriate Behavior in American History, makes an important distinction in the definition. “Flashing involves revealing one’s private parts to those who may or may not be willing participants,” he explains. There are increasing stages of taboo, too, Jay tells me. “Men showing their chest isn’t a big deal. Men and women showing their butts is more of a big deal. Followed by women showing their breasts, and the most severe of all, men and women showing their genitals.”
4. The latter, known as anasyrma, involves a woman lifting her skirt while not wearing underwear underneath. As U.K. arts project “Raising the Skirt” explains on their website, “A flash of the cunt has been known to calm forces of nature; in Madras India women were known to subdue storms by exposing their genitalia. In other folklore women could drive away devils, evil spirits and even invading warriors.”
5. Indeed, flashing by women has been recorded since the classical era (8th century B.C. to 5th century A.D.). As the ancient Greek historian Herodotus noted in an account from the 5th century B.C., “When traveling to Bubastis for the festival, women shout out scornful remarks to the people in the town, or dance, or stand and pull up their clothes to expose themselves.”
6. Public nudity was rampant in Ancient Greece, Jay explains, with public baths and fluid takes on sexuality. In fact, clear restrictions on who could and couldn’t see you naked weren’t developed until the 1500s. Erasmus, the Dutch theologian, wrote a book of etiquette for boys on how to maintain a civil society, which prohibited belching, farting, spitting and public nudity. Other scholars followed suit with similar books on good manners (none of which included disrobing).
7. Things only became more buttoned-up from there. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, for example, American men and women swam in almost fully clothed suits, Jay notes. (It was a society liberating only for “never nudes” like Tobias Funke.) In fact, aside from a brief period of exhibitionism by “flappers in the Roaring Twenties,” the phenomenon of baring any kind of skin lay dormant in the U.S. until the 1960s, when a new form of flashing called “streaking” was popularized.
8. The current record for the largest group streak was established on March 7, 1974 at the University of Georgia, with 1,543 simultaneous streakers. That same week, 1,200 streakers attempted to beat the record at the University of Colorado while 553 naked students did the same at the University of Maryland.
10. Then there’s Mardi Gras. The conventional wisdom: Beads equal breasts — tons and tons and tons of breasts. The cold hard truth, though: “Most Mardi Gras flashers are men,” Jay notes. “It’s rare that you get women who do this other than what you see on Girls Gone Wild.”
11. “Ancient Greek women used to expose their breasts to men to shame them,” says Jay. “But now with the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement aligned with women’s rights to breastfeed in public, it’s about empowering women to be able to do things that men do.”
12. Yet another form of flashing, mooning, is the act of displaying one’s butt cheeks, often in protest. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the use of “moon” and “mooning” back to the 1960s, when the gesture became increasingly popular among American students.
14. Another Great Moment in Mooning History: On November 22, 1987, an intruder interrupted the broadcast signal of Chicago PBS affiliate, WTTW, with a strange video of himself dressed to resemble Max Headroom, exposing his buttocks to the camera.
15. According to legaldictionary.net, indecent exposure is “the act of intentionally exposing one’s private body parts in a way that is offensive, or which goes against accepted behavior, in a public place.” Penalties for first-time offenders range from a $1,000 fine to community service. Repeated indecent exposure, however, may result in imprisonment and lifetime membership to the sex-offender registry.
16. Of course, laws on public nudity vary greatly from state to state — and even from county to county. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, for example, wrote in 2006 that “simply hiking in the forest, in the nude, is not a violation of the law.” Whereas an ordinance exists in Bakersfield that states “no vendor shall vend stuffed articles depicting the female breasts (sold as ‘boobie pillows’) within one thousand (1,000) feet of any county highway.”
17. “I am a recovering exhibitionist/flasher,” wrote LikesToFlash in a 2010 Reddit AMA. “I first got into exhibitionism around age 12. This has been something that has literally consumed me for years. It gives me an intense sexual reaction. It’s something ingrained and hard-wired into my brain.”
18. Every flasher does it for some type of arousal or gratification, Jay explains. “It’s considered a mental disorder when the flashing becomes a) harmful to those who don’t want to see it; or b) persistent, meaning it reoccurs over weeks and months.”
19. Reflectoporn, or the act of stripping and taking a picture using an object with a reflective surface and then posting that image in a public forum like eBay. Examples, according to a 2003 Daily Mirror story, include “images of naked men and women reflected in kettles, TVs, toasters and even knives and forks.” One regular eBay user said: “I was totally shocked when I realised what was in the reflection of a kettle I was looking at.”
20. “Some reflectoporn is true fetish,” UrbanDictionary explains, “it gives the exhibitionist the same thrill as flashing strangers in public — but much of it is done as a joke.” The Daily Mail story adds, “Reflectoporn is becoming more and more popular. There’s no easier way to expose your naked body to millions of people worldwide without leaving your room.”
21. A third of men arrested for sexual offenses in America are exhibitionists, Jay says, and up to 50 percent of those men will re-offend.
22. Despite “21st century flashing” rearing its ugly, pixelated head more often these days, old fashioned exhibitionism is still on regular, seedy display as well. Like 34-year-old Edward L. Brown, who flashed attendees at screening of Alvin and the Chipmunks after a woman promised him crack and sex if he sat in the front row of the theater and took off his clothes. (In this case, it’s unclear which one got off on the public nudity more — him or her.) Or an Annapolis man who last month twice gave women unrequested views of his penis at Dunkin’ Donuts. Or bicycle flashers in Delaware and Ohio.
In other words, the purists haven’t been edged out by technology yet.