Gerard Miles is the founder of QV Politics, an organisation dedicated to promoting Compassionate Conservatism at a grassroots level.
The advent of mobile phones has had an unintended side effect of making many women the easy victims of unwanted and deeply unpleasant attention. “Upskirting” is the practice of secretly taking photos (often on mobile phones) up the skirts of women and girls, these images are then potentially shared virally or through the internet. The sense of invasion and harm that these photos can cause their victims is acute, and extraordinarily the law offers virtually no protection.
The recent case of Gina Martin (whose petition to change the law has attracted over 60,000 signatories) is disturbing, but not unusual. She was at a music festival where she caught someone on a mobile phone looking at a photo of which had been taken up her skirt. Despite the fact she caught her assailant red-handed, the police were unable to prosecute as no law sufficiently covers this practice. One victim of upskirting I spoke to is a teacher, and the perpetrator is one of her pupils. Despite a wealth of evidence (the police found several videos, some lasting 20-30 seconds), the police have declined to prosecute, and she is now forced to see the pupil (who has not been expelled) at her place of work. She feels objectified, the incident has deeply damaged her ability to trust her pupils, and she cannot feel entirely safe in her own workplace. She is seeking a judicial review of her case, but this has put the administrative burden on her to obtain the justice that she is owed. On top of the injustice that she feels, the pupil’s behaviour has received no sanction or counselling to avoid repeat behaviour in the future. There are many, many more cases of women left feeling first the victim of a nasty crime, and then second, let down by the legal framework that they assumed would stand on their side.
Clare McGlynn (a Professor at Durham Law School) has been outlining the deficiencies in the current law for a number of years. The law against voyeurism (the Sexual Offences 2003 Act), was brought in to prosecute “Peeping Toms” who were intruding into private spaces (private homes, changing rooms etc), and has been prosecuted as a public nuisance offence, rather than as a victim crime. This law therefore offers no protection to women in public spaces (like a workplace, cafe or on a train), and the seriousness of the legal offence does not reflect the harm that is caused.
Similarly, since 2003 the internet has changed the scope of how easily photos can be shared. Once a digital image or video has been taken, there is no way of knowing where it will end up, it can be potentially shared around schools, workplaces or generally posted on internet websites. Specialised websites in this material are hugely popular, (one gaining 70,000 hits a day in 2015) and can leave victims with a sense that they never really know who is looking at them. This highlights that the harm of the offence can be greatly elongated. There is also a broader dialogue that needs to continue about how women are perceived and treated in an age where even material filmed consensually can be distributed well beyond the intended recipient.
Drafting legislation for its criminalisation is entirely achievable, a number of countries with similar legal histories to our own have already done so (most notably Scotland). Australia, New Zealand and individual states in the US have also brought in changes on the law in this area. In Massachusetts, the law was changed after a public outrage at the failure to prosecute someone who has been taken upskirt photos on a bus, under the premise that the was “no reasonable expectation of privacy”, an example where common sense identifies a failing in the law. The case of Gina Martin, and many others, should provide the impetus, and public will for politicians to look at this issue, and make swift amendment.
Last Friday, the Labour Party took up the call to criminalise “upskirting”. It is therefore something that the Conservatives cannot ignore, or rather, to ignore the issue is to take a side with the status quo. There is a moral case for the law to be changed, and there is also a strategic one for the party. The Conservatives need to continue to signal that they are a modern party, one that is in touch with a rapidly evolving world, and a party that is deeply outraged where the law has failed to protect the reasonable expected rights of the individual. Let us seize the initiative to lead on this issue, to show a compassionate, intelligent response, and to secure a safer environment for all women.