Is sending unsolicited images illegal?

Written 3rd May 2020 by Laura Baumanis

It is almost always a criminal offence to possess, distribute or make indecent images of anyone under the age of 18.  The law is very clear on this.  But what if you send sexual images of adults?

Can this also be an offence?

As the law stands, there are very few sexual offences that can be committed by the taking or sharing of intimate photographs of adults. In recent years ‘upskirting’ (the taking of a sexually intrusive photograph up someone’s clothing without their permission) and ‘revenge porn’ (the sharing of sexual images of another person without their consent with the intention to cause embarrassment or distress) have become offences in their own right.   These are, however, quite specific offences and don’t cover the situation where a person sends sexual images to someone who, quite simply, did not want to receive them.

Clearly the consensual sharing of images is not an offence, assuming the images themselves are legal.  It is becoming increasingly common in modern times for adults to engage in ‘sexting’, or to share pornographic images with friends and it would be bizarre for any of these acts to constitute a criminal offence.  In general people are free to express their sexuality however they wish to do so. But what about a situation where images are sent without prior request?  In the UK 41% of women aged between 18 and 36 have reportedly received non-consensual sexual images.  With more people using dating sites and chatrooms to make contact with people they don’t know, the opportunities for unsolicited interactions has increased massively.

Updated legislation required

There have been numerous calls to the government to review the law and ensure that it moves with the times and there are consultations ongoing to look at how the legislation needs to evolve.  After all, it is an offence of ‘indecent exposure’ to flash someone in public.  There are also offences of outraging public decency that cover the situation where someone is behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner again, when in public.  But instances of ‘cyber-flashing’ or ‘surprise dick pics’, sent online (where these pictures are taken in private rather than in public) do not currently constitute an offence in their own right.

Could this constitute other offences?

That is not to say that you are not committing a criminal offence if you send, or repeatedly send unsolicited images.  If there were two or more images sent and the recipient claims to have been caused fear or distress as a result, then you could be investigated and possibly charged with an offence of harassment.  Under the Malicious Communications Act it can be an offence to send a message which is ‘grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’.   There is an argument to say that unsolicited sexual images could be seen as being ‘obscene’ and therefore charges could be pursued under this legislation.

What to do if you think you are being investigated for sending images?

It is really important that you obtain proper legal advice at the outset.   Even if the matter is unlikely to go any further, being arrested for an offence of this nature can still have future implications for you.  At Olliers we have experienced solicitors who can assist you at every stage of the investigation and fight hard to get the possible outcome.  Our lawyers can:

  • Engage with the police to try and arrange a voluntary interview, rather than them placing a suspect under arrest;
  • Offer advice and assistance before, during and after any interview under caution;
  • Obtain evidence and investigate the allegations independently of the police;
  • Make representations against charge to the Crown Prosecution Service;
  • Provide confident and experienced representation if the matter does proceed to Court;
  • Rigorously defend not guilty pleas;
  • Take every step possible to obtain the best possible result at court, whether this be an acquittal after trial or a lenient sentence after a conviction.
Laura Baumanis

Laura Baumanis



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