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Delaying the upskirting bill lets down women and girls everywhere

Thanks to the objections and filibustering of Chope and Davies, men who wish to shame and harass women have scored a win

By Sian Norris  

Women should be able to wear what they like without being harassed.

A woman is looking at groceries on a supermarket shelf. As she browses the different types of products, a man behind her leans down and takes a photo up her skirt.

A girl is waiting for a bus to take her to college. A man comes and sits beside her. When she moves away, she realises he has been filming up her dress.

A young woman named Gina Martin is at a music festival, and spots a man in the crowd next to her. He’s looking at photos of a woman’s crotch. It’s her own.

This is the reality of “upskirting,” a modern phenomena where (mostly) men and boys use their camera phones to take photos of (mostly) women’s crotches without their consent. The content is then often shared online.

Indeed, when, while researching this article, I googled “upskirting and schools”—only for pornographic content to be offered on the first page of results.

Today, after a dedicated campaign ran by Martin and the Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, the act was due to become a criminal offence with a two-year prison sentence.

That was until Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope blocked the attempt by shouting ‘object’ during the reading of the Private Members Bill. He was assisted in his efforts by Philip Davies, who attempted to filibuster the Bill with a speech lasting 148 minutes.

In a statement, Gina Martin has expressed her disappointment in Chope’s decision to object to the law-change. (He has agreed to meet her to discuss the Bill’s progress, and there is some suggestion he will claim the objection is procedural.)

Sir Christopher Chope speaking in the House of Commons. Photo: PA

By delaying the Bill to outlaw upskirting, Chope, Davies, and the Parliamentary System has badly let down women and girls all over the UK, who are particularly vulnerable now that so many people carry a cameraphone.

Criminalising this practice would have sent a clear signal that the government understands how new technologies are outpacing the law, and are used to abuse and intimidate women.

Many people express surprise that upskirting is not already illegal, or that it is not covered in existing harassment or sexual misconduct laws.

A legal loophole

The reason is a loophole in the current laws governing similar behaviour.

The first is voyeurism. Taking a photo up a woman’s skirt may seem like a voyeuristic act.

However, in legal terms voyeurism requires the person being photographed to be engaging in a private act, or be in a private place. Wearing knickers and a skirt in a public setting isn’t a private act, and therefore upskirting is not covered by this law.

The second is an outrage of public decency. In order to qualify for this law, the offence must be witnessed by two people, which is rarely the case for upskirting incidents. Further, the outrage must be against the public.

Because upskirting is an offence against one person—the victim—this law rarely applies.

Ultimately, the laws have failed to catch up with the fact that these days everyone has a camera in their pocket.

As a result, women and girls as young as ten are being left in a legal limbo without any hope of getting justice for this gross invasion of their privacy and act of sexual harassment.

It’s not about modest clothes

In the debate around criminalising upskirting, some men have suggested women and girls can solve the problem themselves by dressing more modestly. They say women and girls should swap their thongs for big pants, and stop putting themselves in a “vulnerable position” by wearing short skirts.

As well as being a classic victim-blaming tactic—she was wearing a short skirt so was asking for it—these comments fundamentally ignore how upskirting is intended as an act of intimidation. It aims to harass, shame and frighten women and girls. As with any form of harassment, upskirting is designed to assert male dominance over public space.

Women should not be forced to change our behaviour in order to stop men from harassing and abusing us. We should be able to wear whatever length skirt we want, with whatever pair of knickers we want, and not have abusive men take photos of our crotches.

Should this happen, we deserve legal protection, without being accused of inviting or encouraging the violation.

To say otherwise is to demand that women and girls take responsibility for abusive men’s actions, and curtail our own freedoms to ‘prevent’ the violence committed against us.

Today, Parliament could have sent a message in solidarity with women and girls. It had an opportunity to assert that women and girls are not to blame for these acts, and the law will back us up if we are treated this way.

Thanks to the objections and filibustering of Chope and Davies, instead it’s been a day where men who wish to shame and harass women have scored a win.

Meanwhile, girls continue to go to school wearing shorts under their uniform.

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