Is Talking About Flashing Criminal? Queer Theory for the Morning Commute

Posted on December 2nd, 2010 by Katherine Franke

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a reporter for Metro (one of those free papers they distribute at the top of the subway stairs every morning).  Seems she was doing a story about a website she’d stumbled upon,  “It’s where people can go online and brag about their experiences exposing themselves,” the reporter wrote in the e-mail.  “How can a site like this be legally allowed to stay open? These men are bragging about misdemeanor crimes they have committed?  Can’t prosecutors track their IP addresses and arrest them?”

I called her back and told her that there’s a difference between talking about doing something criminal and doing something criminal.  The former is speech protected by the First Amendment, while the latter is conduct potentially prohibited and punishable by law.  At best, the statements on the website might be used as evidence of a crime, but they aren’t a crime in and of themselves.

She was shocked.  Shocked.  “But they’re helping each other commit a crime, they’re bragging about exposing themselves to unsuspecting women.  Isn’t that a crime?”

I suggested that she think of the site not as an appendage to actual criminal exposure but more as a kind of pornographic chat room for men whose sexual preference was for exposing themselves.  I spoke to her as I was preparing for my Gay Marriage class in which we were reading Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal, so I had Warner on the brain.

What these guys are doing is creating what Warner would call “a sexual public” of men (or people who said on the internet that they were men) who got off on the idea of exposure – not literal exposure of bodies, but exposure of a fantasy or desire to expose their bodies.  “I’d venture that many of these guys haven’t actually exposed themselves, rather they got off talking about having done it,” I told her.  “All of us have desires, often sexual desires, to do things which are otherwise shameful, taboo, disgusting, or criminal.  If we indulge those desires by fantasizing about them, even talking about them in a chat room, that’s something different from actually doing them.”  I knew I’d lost her at this point, but I soldiered on: “Sexuality isn’t amenable to the kind of sanitizing that can purge it of forbidden desires.  In fact prohibition is generative of desire.”

I spared her an explicit turn to Eve Sedgwick’s work on perversion (if you want to know more, the Harvard Journal of Gender and Law published a lovely symposium honoring her work here, including my contribution, Eve Sedgwick, Civil Rights and Perversion).

“We tend to think of sexuality in very narrow terms – straight, gay, bi, that’s about all we have to say about it.  But what if we thought of sexual orientation more broadly,” I urged her.  “Some people have a sexual preference for talking about exposing themselves, others for picking up people they barely know in bars, others for cold and withholding men who remind them of their father.”

Of course, the reporter wasn’t looking for a mini-course in queer theory, she wanted a quote about whether these “creeps” as she called them could be arrested based on their posts to the website.  I told her they couldn’t, and the interview ended with her disappointment.  The story was published this morning, pretty boring.  New Yorkers were spared their early-morning lesson in queer theory.  Oh well:


It’s not just flash & dash

01 December 2010 09:50

This is not a laughing matter.

Men are helping other men flash women on the streets and in the subways of New York City — and there’s nothing the NYPD can do about it.

Yes, a website called actually exists. Its nearly 30,000 members sign on each day and brag about the various public places where they’ve exposed themselves, from parks to Grand Central Station.

“Richard Flash,” a self-described “conservative, normal” family man who founded the site, said he likes to flash “because of the sexual thrill and turn-on. I suspect I have some underlying issues with the objectification of women.”

Every flasher is unique. “Dick” gets his kicks by “bulge flashing,” wearing tight pants or shorts. “Think Speedos or tight running shorts,” he said.

All of this online talk of — and advice on — public indecency is protected by the First Amendment, say legal experts. “It’s not a crime itself to say you did something,” said Katherine Franke, a Columbia Law School professor and director of its Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

Men exposing their junk has reached “epidemic” levels in New York, according to Emily May, a spokeswoman for Hollaback NYC — a group that encourages women to fight back against street harassment.

Said Det. Cheryl Crispin of the NYPD: “No, we do not troll that site looking for people. We can’t arrest them based on what they put on the site — we have to see them do it. But we do go on the subway and look for infractions.”



  1. New Blog Post: Is Talking About Flashing Criminal? Queer Theory for the Morning Commute

  2. Is bragging about breaking the law a crime? –> Is Talking About Flashing Criminal?

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