'Upskirting' to become criminal offense in England, Wales

  1. The campaign to make the practice illegal has received national and international attention
  2. While revenge porn was outlawed in 2015, police charge only around seven percent of suspects

The intrusive act of taking a photo or filming underneath someone’s clothes without their consent is to be outlawed in England and Wales, as the British government introduces a bill to make ‘upskirting’ a sexual offense.

The bill, brought through parliament on June 21, aims to insert a new offense into the Sexual Offences Act to make upskirting punishable by up to two years in prison.

Campaigners and experts highlighting sexual harassment issues believe taking photos underneath a person’s clothing should be made a criminal sexual offense because the act is exploitative and degrading just like other sexual crimes.

If the bill is passed, the new Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2018 would outlaw the non-consensual operation of equipment or the recording of an image beneath a victim’s clothing in order to “observe [their] genitals or buttocks whether exposed or covered with underwear … in circumstances where the genitals, buttocks or underwear would not otherwise be visible.”

A second reading of the bill, when it will be debated by members of parliament, could take place as early as July 2 and a new law could be in place within months.

Gina Martin, whose petition to criminalize the act sparked a campaign and drew political support to outlaw upskirting, told WikiTribune: “It makes you feel completely humiliated and invaded. There’s something incredibly invasive about a strange hand being in between your legs taking pictures of your crotch without you knowing.”

“I felt like I’d lost control of my own body,” she said, referring to a photo taken underneath her skirt at a music festival in London in July 2017.

“I was angry, looked into the law and thought someone had to do something. I then realised, that person could be me.”

The campaign to make the practice illegal has received national and international attention, with politicians and women’s groups such as Women’s AidThe Fawcett Society and the End Violence Against Women Coalition working to change the law.

Ministry of Justice on Twitter

🎥 How would you describe ‘upskirting’? That’s what we asked @beaniegigi & members of the public ahead of today’s #UpskirtingBill being introduced in Parliament. Here’s what they said ⬇️ https://t.co/p5EA5D5Xae

A Conservative Party MP initially blocked a Private Members Bill from MP Wera Hobhouse to outlaw the act, preventing it passing to the next stage of debate. The bill needed only one objection to be dropped.

But British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said upskirting is “degrading” and a “hideous invasion of privacy” (FT), supported a Government Bill to carry the law forward. Government Bills travel through parliament faster and can’t be objected to in the same way a private bill can.

Bill just ‘first step’ to comprehensive protection

Professor Clare McGlynn, an expert on image-based sexual abuse who has been working with the government to shape the law, says she will be “glad” when upskirting is made illegal.

But the government legislation is only the “first step,” she said.

The bill must be extended to cover all forms of upskirting, she said. At present, the bill would only outlaw instances of where offenders take images for sexual gratification or for causing distress.

Financially-motivated upskirting – where offenders sells pictures to media organisations – is not covered in the new bill.

“This is a problem, because often with upskirting images being taken, the perpetrators don’t really care who the victims are,” said McGlynn.

The law also needs to be modernized to outlaw fake pornographic images of real people, said McGlynn. “It’s very easy to take and alter images these days with Photoshopping technology and apps to help make what’s called, ‘fake porn.'”

Catherine Knibbs is a psychotherapist and researcher, who helps victims of revenge porn, cyber-bullying and other types of cyber-trauma. She said upskirting is a violation of trust and personal boundaries just like other forms of sex abuse and should be treated as seriously by the law.

“When any person is violated, there’s feelings of betrayal, mistrust, shame, embarrassment, guilt, internal victim-blaming…Touching of another person is a sexual offense, this is a version of that, it [just] happens to be a virtual version.”

Knibbs said more police training to deal with instances of upskirting is also required for cases to be prosecuted and for victims to come forward. Feelings of shame can prevent victims of sexual abuse from telling the police, she added.

Police force figures show that many victims of “revenge porn,” the sexual offense of sharing or posting online without the consent of people engaged in sexual activity, withdraw complaints. While revenge porn was outlawed in 2015, police charge only around seven percent of suspects.

Filling in gaps in the law

Campaigner Gina Martin is confident the new law is robust enough to protect most victims. She said she is working with lawmakers to strengthen its oversights.

“It follows the Scottish legislation which has been really successful. It ensures upskirting isn’t only categorised as a behaviour for ‘sexual gratification’ but recognises it’s used to ‘harass, distress or alarm’.”

Over the past two years, 78 incidents of upskirting were reported in Britain but only 11 suspects were charged under current laws (New York Times).

Upskirting has been a criminal offense in Scotland since 2009. But it’s harder to bring an offense in the rest of the United Kingdom under existing laws. Upskirting can be prosecuted as voyeurism or as an offense “outraging public decency” (OPD), a common law offense, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The government points out recent examples of successful prosecutions for ‘upskirting’ under OPD: “Someone who was convicted in January for taking photos up women’s skirts on trains and on a beach, and a student who was convicted in March for taking photos up women’s skirts in Oxford.”

But present voyeurism laws only protect victims if they’re in a private place and ministers have acted over concerns that only few instances of upskirting are covered in current criminal law.

A "watch out for upskirting" sign in Akihabara Station in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo, Japan. Photo by: Guilhem Vellut via Flickr
A “watch out for upskirting” sign in Akihabara Station in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo, Japan. Photo by: Guilhem Vellut via Flickr

England follows U.S., Australia, Japan

Elsewhere in the world, steps have already been taken to criminalize the practice.

Australian law criminalizes the non-consensual creation and/or distribution of intimate sexual images, including threats to do so and edited or altered images.

In the United States, the act is banned in just a handful of states. Massachusetts, Texas and New Jersey have enacted upskirting laws (New York Times).

Specific measures have also been introduced to tackle the practice in China and Japan.

Buildings in Hong Kong covered up glass walkways (SCMP) after complaints about “peeping Toms” and upskirters in Kyoto, Japan, face up to a year in prison or a ¥1 million fine.

A male teacher at a Kyoto high school was caught taking pictures under girls’ skirts in 2012, prompting local interest in expanding laws to ban taking illicit photos of people under their clothing (Japan Times).

In early June, thousands of women in South Korea protested against “spycam” porn after it emerged a number of women had been secretly filmed in public places, including toilets, on public transport and in schools.

Upskirting issue not new but technology aids it

The ease with which intimate photos can be taken with modern technology has spurred concerns about upskirting.

A study by the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Washington State University and published in 2017 said that upskirting has become more common as smartphones become everyday objects.

Cyber-trauma specialist Catherine Knibbs said, “I think you’ll see more and more of these instances and that’s because the technology allows for it to occur.”

“Technology is advancing and people are using it to harass women,” said Gina Martin. “It’s an intrusive, vile abuse of power and we need to set a precedent that there’s no place for it in society.”

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