Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Summer 2022January 10, 2023

I was flashed at my local mall and it was no joke

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Summer read: After encountering a flasher at her local mall, Alex Casey investigates Aotearoa’s growing rates of indecent exposure in public and how the crime can escalate.

First published September 12, 2022

I would say about the very last thing on my list of things to do at the mall was “look at a stranger’s penis”. But as I charged round the corner, listening to a spooky Stephen King podcast that didn’t help the approaching moment of unease, there it was. The man was tucked discreetly between a pillar and a large pot plant, out of sight from almost everyone else mooching around the mall. I first noticed his fixed gaze. Then I noticed his penis was hanging out of his jeans. 

My pace picked up but I continued on my path past the penis-yielding stranger. Surely I shouldn’t yell and make a scene. Surely this man has just made some sort of bad toilet mistake. Surely it was just an ill-placed finger. Surely I didn’t just see that. I looked back one more time, riddled with doubt and confusion. My eyes met his once more, and then I looked down. His penis was definitely, definitely out. I was being flashed. Well, less of a flash and more of a dangle.

Now, careful readers may have noticed that I have tried to make the above encounter “funny”, just as the majority of people I tell the story to like to respond with a “funny” trench coat joke. But the truth is, I was terrified. It felt as if the mall floor instantly crumbled away to a portal crawling with all of the monstrous men that have ever scared me in public. All at once, I am 15 and a man is masturbating next to me on the bus. I am 20 and a man is sticking his hand up my skirt at the Queen Street crossing. I am 30 and a man is showing his penis to me at the mall.

After collecting myself on the escalator, I turned around and headed back towards the scene of the crime. The man had already rejoined the bustling crowds of the mall, so I told the nearby security desk and wrote down a description of him. About 10 minutes later, I saw him elsewhere in the mall (sans exposed penis) and called 111, hands and voice shaking, to tell them I was on the trail of my flasher. The woman on the phone took it very seriously (while still gently rebuffing my offer of doing a citizen’s arrest) and said they would send a patrol car out to find him. 

Indecent exposure is considered a form of sexual assault in Aotearoa, relating to anyone who “intentionally and obscenely exposes any part of his or her genitals” in a public place. Perpetrators are liable for imprisonment up to three months, or a fine up to $2000. According to Victim Support NZ, the crime can have serious implications for victims. “You may feel more anxious about going out on your own,” the website reads. “Indecent exposure can make the world around you feel less safe.”

It’s also a crime that is on the rise. In information released to The Spinoff under the Official Information Act, NZ Police revealed that reported incidents of indecent exposure have increased in Aotearoa by more than 85% over the last four years. In 2018, the total number of reported incidents was 126, an average of 10.5 a month. By 2021, that number had ballooned to 235, an average of 19.5 a month. Data for 2022 revealed that 104 instances had already been reported by the end of June, averaging 20.4 a month. 

‘It was just kind of accepted’

In the days that followed my mall incident, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened to me and what it meant. Who was he? Why had he done it? What did he want? I quickly found that almost every woman that I told had a story of her own and, after making a few inquiries around the office and later on a private Facebook group for New Zealand women, I was soon reading through dozens and dozens of stories from around the country. Not only were there many stories of indecent exposure, but of other indecent acts including public masturbation. 

There were stories of runners who had encountered flashers in the early hours of the morning at their local park. There were stories of young women who were flashed by their neighbours on the way home as schoolgirls. There were decades-old stories of creepy old men wearing, indeed, trench coats, and there were stories from just a few months ago. Girls flashed at their local playground by a man on a swing. Men flashing passing trains. A woman trapped in her car at the mall while a man exposed himself and proceeded to masturbate while staring at her. 

The local mall was a recurring location in several stories. Another woman, who worked as the sole charge of a women’s clothing store inside a mall at the age of 19, says indecent exposure (flashing) and indecent acts (such as masturbation) were a “known and frequent occurrence” on the job. “Men would come in during late nights, they would pick up a particular item of clothing off the racks and they would go into the fitting rooms and masturbate into the clothing while you were alone in the shop and then just leave it in there.” 

It was something the female workers discussed, but never formally raised with management. “I never reported it, it was just kind of accepted as part of the job,” she says. “We paid for the clothes to be drycleaned but I’ll just say this: never buy clothing from an outlet mall.” 

Although encountering “creeps” became a running joke in the store, one night things took a much more serious turn. While trying on a dress for a male customer, who had said he was buying it for his wife, the woman had to lock herself in a changing room after he put his hand up the back of her dress. She reported the indecent assault to police soon after, and ultimately the perpetrator was charged, but the impact of the incident lingered long after. 

“I remember going home in the dark every night and just feeling really scared because I thought the people on the street might be him,” she says. The store brought in new rules about having no-one on sole charge at night, but the woman had to cut down her hours. “I kept working there because that is what you have to do to pay the bills, but it definitely affected my ability to take as many shifts as I would have.” 

When I reported my flasher incident to the mall security desk, the guard remarked that they had been having a “crazy” day of bad behaviour towards women throughout the mall. In 2020, journalist Veronica Schmidt wrote about her own experience in St Luke’s mall, where a man filmed her changing in the Kmart dressing room. When she approached staff members for assistance in calling the police, she says they dismissed it as a “civil matter” that was “up to the two of you to sort it out between yourselves”.

The former retail worker wasn’t surprised to hear of other distressing instances that have happened to women in shopping centres, including my own. “I think malls in particular are a real melting pot of people who are very willing to push the boundaries of what they are allowed to do,” she said. 

‘Your world changes’

Wherever their public encounters occurred, everyone who shared their experiences described the same feelings of shame and fear. “It is just really confronting,” said a woman who saw a man exposing himself on an Auckland bus. “I felt like I was five years old again and scared of everything.” Another woman who witnessed a man masturbating across from her hotel room in Wellington said she was shaken long after the event. “I just kept thinking, is he still watching me? Is he going to pass me on the street? Once it all sunk in I felt very, very uncomfortable.”

Kathryn McPhillips, executive director of sexual abuse support network HELP, says all of these reactions are normal. “It can cause a trauma response which pervades through the rest of your life,” she explains. “Your world changes because it feels like that threat is now possible anywhere.” I tell her that I now think of the flasher every time I go to my lovely mall, which she says is normal too. “If something bad happens to you somewhere, that place forever becomes associated with it. The memory can often come back in an intrusive way – it’s not like a memory that you can let go of, it can take hold of you.” 

The author waits to give a statement at the police station

A few days after the incident, I got a call from a police officer in Newmarket. They had found the flasher on the mall CCTV footage and wanted to know if I could come in and give a formal statement. I visited the station on a dreary weekday morning and sat in a strangely pleasant room lined with historic photos of the suburb and station. I recounted the incident in granular detail, ignoring the feelings of doubt and an instinctual urge to “not make a fuss”. Once I had given the statement, the officer said I could watch the CCTV footage if I wanted. 

I sat there agape in front of his laptop as I watched the man approach the pillar and pull his penis out from his jeans in the blurry CCTV high angle. Seconds before I was scheduled to come careening around the corner in a flurry of cat jumpers and leggings, I noticed a crucial detail I would have otherwise never known – the man flashed someone else before he flashed me. An elderly woman passes in front of him and stops, startled, raising her hands momentarily in fear. She quickly moves on, before I come around the corner and take the flasher’s focus. 

‘People generally think it is funny’

Part of the reason that indecent exposure is not taken as seriously is that popular culture has turned it into a punchline. Nate Gaunt, a psychologist who specialises in treating harmful sexual behaviours, says depictions of flashing in old Benny Hill sketches, postcards and movie posters have sanctioned the behaviour for decades. “People generally think it is funny, because we have this flasher-in-the-raincoat idea and the streakers at the rugby, but it really does cause harm,” he says. “It is definitely a crime, but it is also something you’ll find on a greeting card.”

McPhillips at HELP says she has witnessed a “general minimisation” of indecent exposure in society that stops people from seeking the support they might need. “People tend not to call us when it happens because the people around them are feeding back that it was nothing because they weren’t physically hurt,” she says. Where indecent exposure does often arise is during counselling sessions for survivors of other forms of abuse. “That’s when we hear how damaging those experiences really were for people.” 

‘Funny’ flashing in popular culture

Most of the women who shared their stories with me did not report what happened. The woman who witnessed a man masturbating from her Wellington hotel room told reception, but they “didn’t seem too bothered”. Another woman who encountered a man exposing himself on the bus in Auckland said she was “too scared” to do anything in the moment, and later felt conflicted about reporting it. “I was worried that it was something to do with mental illness, or that the person might have been homeless and maybe it is more complex than I think.”

At any given time, Gaunt has multiple people with these sorts of compulsions on his case load. The motivations behind the crime are varied, but he is quick to point out that they aren’t always related to sex, “just as we know that rape is actually about power and fear and control and aggression”.  He says this type of behaviour tends to be related to high levels of anxiety and stress, poor coping skills and poor self-regulation. “Put it this way,” he says, “I’ve never met a person with this problem who would have a high or even average self-esteem.” 

The risk with these sexual problems going unreported and untreated is that they can escalate. “There is a process of desensitisation, needing to do more and more risky things to get the same level of buzz or reward,” explains Gaunt. “Sometimes the offending can become a lot worse, more aggressive, more careless.” Indecent exposure came into renewed focus in the UK in 2021 following the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by officer Wayne Couzens, just days after he was reported to have exposed himself to staff at a McDonald’s drive-thru

‘You can stop it happening’

I was back at the station again a few weeks later, staring at photos of various possible perpetrators. Once again, the doubt crept in. How long was his hair? Maybe his eyes were different? How much can you really remember about someone you see in one terrifying moment? After covering each face and using the process of elimination, I settled on who I was reasonably sure was the perpetrator. I fretted for several days about the choice, even getting the officer to assure me over the phone that they wouldn’t charge an innocent man if I was wrong.

Aside from giving a victim impact statement for the judge, this was the last interaction I had with police. The officer said he would be in touch with any developments, but my part in the process was over. I’ve come out of it relatively unscathed, but every time I go to that mall now I am forced to remember that unsettling afternoon. I remember the man’s gaze. I remember the big fright. I remember all the other men from the past, always threatening to ruin my present. Unfortunately that’s quite an annoying feeling when you just want to go and do $2 karaoke

McPhillips says the key to moving forward from indecent exposure is to talk about it. “The way that we recover from this sort of thing is to share it, to be validated, to be understood,” she says. And as technology evolves, Gaunt says it is essential that we consider the impact of new forms of digital indecent exposure. “If someone sends you something on your phone and you open it, is that not exposure as well?” McPhillips agrees that digital incidents should “absolutely” be taken as seriously. “The act is still the same and the dynamic is still the same.” 

Gaunt’s advice to anyone who experiences indecent exposure in any form is to report to police as soon as possible. Of course, there are myriad of reasons why people might not feel empowered to report these crimes. In Aotearoa, it is estimated that only 10 out of 100 sex crimes committed are ever reported to police, and only three of those ever get to court. Of those that make it to court, only one is likely to get a conviction. Despite this, Gaunt says reporting can be a key step to “direct someone’s compass” in the right behavioral direction.

“It gets people help and it lets people know that certain things are not acceptable,” he explains. Even if it doesn’t have a lasting impact on you, Gaunt says the next victim might not be so lucky. “You can stop it happening for another person. The next person the offender comes across might be a child, or they might not be able to get out in a hurry.” He says that taking this crime seriously benefits the perpetrator as well as their victim, and that he has “great reason” to feel optimistic about the chances of rehabilitation. 

“I have seen many, many people who have made really positive changes and can stop this behaviour and get back into a good life.” 

If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:


Safe to Talk

ACC’s Find Support

Women’s Refuge

Rape Crisis


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