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Payton Iheme’s wide-ranging career has taken her from collecting intelligence in the Army to advising the White House on science and technology. Working for a dating app wasn’t the most obvious next move.
But as Bumble’s head of public policy for the Americas, Ms. Iheme, 43, has found a cause that synthesizes her past experiences, varied as they are. She is leading an effort across several states to pass legislation that penalizes “cyberflashing.”
The term refers to the act of sending unwanted sexual images to another person through digital means — on a dating app or social media platform, but also via text or another file-sharing service, such as AirDrop. (Apple, the maker of AirDrop, did not respond to requests for comment.) For many people of a certain age, particularly women, cyberflashing has become yet another cost of existing on the internet.
This winter, while walking through a speculative Smithsonian exhibit called “Futures,” Ms. Iheme said that the point of her work is to challenge the norms of online interaction.
“How do we want people interacting on the internet?” she said. “Should you have one segment of the population whose experience is this kind of vile harassment?” About a third of women under 35 in the United States have experienced sexual harassment online, according to a Pew Research Center survey. This legislative work, Ms. Iheme said, “is us drawing a line in the sand, and being able to stand up and push back against all of the negativity and harassment.”
Viktorya Vilk, the program director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America, said that cyberflashing and other online abuse tactics “are part of a deliberate effort to push women and marginalized voices off the internet, and to make people feel unsafe in public, at home, on their phone, on their laptops.”
A YouGov poll in Britain found that 40 percent of millennial women have received an unsolicited photo of male genitalia. For girls aged 12 to 18, that share is even higher, according to an academic report funded by several universities and organizations in Britain. Three-quarters of the girls surveyed said they had received lewd photos from men, and the majority described them as unwanted.
“Everyone understands how inappropriate it would be if I were out in public and someone dropped their pants in front of me,” said Carrie Coyner, a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates. “But for some reason, we have failed to recognize that the same behavior is no different if it’s sent to you on your device.” Working with Bumble, Virginia recently passed a law that entitles a recipient of an unwanted lewd image to $500 in damages.
Ms. Iheme said that in terms of privacy and safety, digital spaces are similar to public spaces in the physical world, especially for people who have been engaging with the internet since childhood.
“The harm that’s happening online is just as real as offline,” Ms. Iheme said. “Older people go on the internet for a couple of things. For the younger generation the internet is ‘the things.’”
In Wisconsin, State Senator Melissa Agard, a Democrat, worked with Bumble to introduce an anti-cyberflashing bill in January. It was not voted on in this session, but she said she will push the bill again in January. Bills like these are not just about punishing perpetrators, she said. “They provide an opportunity for people to talk about consent,” she said.
Ms. Vilk, of PEN America, said that the legislation against cyberflashing is important, but it should not be used as an excuse by tech companies to deflect responsibility for users’ safety. She noted that Bumble has coupled its policy work with other efforts, including the installation of artificial intelligence software that detects and blurs lewd photos. (Those who share such photos without consent can be blocked from the app.)
Bumble, a dating app where women have to make the first move, began pushing for anti-cyberflashing legislation in 2019 in Texas, where the company’s efforts helped pass a bill that made sending lewd photos without the consent of the recipient a class-C misdemeanor.
“The lesson that was learned is that it’s no easy task to get these types of things passed,” said Ms. Iheme, who joined Bumble in 2021. Since then, Bumble has teamed with politicians in California, New York and Pennsylvania, who are writing their own bills that are at different stages of the legislative process.
Gaining support for anti-cyberflashing legislation has been an uphill battle. With each state that Bumble enters, Ms. Iheme and her team have to reintroduce the concept of cyberflashing, explain what it means, find stakeholders to partner with and figure out how to frame the legislation for the local voters.
Nima Elmi, who oversees public policy for Bumble in Europe, said that the United States poses particular challenges to getting laws passed. “The personalities of policymakers, the political affiliations, all of that means that they might as well be separate countries in and of themselves,” she said about the different states. Negotiating those differences, she said, requires a person who is sensitive to nuance, and is tenacious and nimble.
Over lunch at Old Ebbitt Grill, one of her favorite restaurants in Washington and a watering hole for the city’s power brokers, Ms. Iheme explained how working for the military had helped her hone those skills.
“Military personnel have certain cues and signs of someone’s seniority, what their placement is in the environment, whether they’re friend or foe,” she said. “If you walk into a room or drive into a place, you better be able to immediately assess what that situation is. Now it’s people in blazers and suits, but it’s the same exercise.”
Ms. Iheme — whose given name is Nkechi; Payton is her middle name — enlisted in the Army at 17 and remained there for two years before enrolling at the University of Texas at Arlington. Not long before her expected graduation, the United States invaded Iraq.
“They were getting my boot size and my uniform size while I was still in college,” she said. “It was something no one could really help you through. Only certain generations have gone to war. It wasn’t something that we could look at our parents and other people in the community to really have answers for us.”
As an intelligence officer, Ms. Iheme was put in charge of dozens of people, and managed millions of dollars worth of equipment and budgets. She’d completed two combat tours by the time she was 29.
She stayed with the Department of Defense for 21 years, and went on to work in humanitarian assistance in Guyana and was part of the relief effort in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. Eventually, she joined America’s corridors of power as a Congressional fellow.
For two years, she worked on Capitol Hill while earning her master’s degree in legislative affairs from George Washington University. Later, she joined the Pentagon, then moved on to President Barack Obama’s White House, where she was a senior policy adviser on science and technology. A highlight of her time there was meeting Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who inspired the film “Hidden Figures,” and escorting her around the White House. Ms. Iheme’s last job before Bumble was in public policy at Facebook.
Throughout her career, she has often been the only Black woman in the room. “I have to be in many, many organizations where people don’t look like me,” she said. “A lot of time you can internalize it and second-guess yourself.” Being in those spaces, she would sometimes “shape shift,” she said.
“Where I am now as a leader, I don’t shift form anymore,” she said.
And she is doing everything she can to champion others who may not feel able to speak up for themselves.
“The internet that I want to see in the future is the same as the kind of world I want to see in the future,” Ms. Iheme said. “And that’s one where people will have freedom and be able to exercise their own rights in a way that doesn’t harm someone else’s.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.