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Upskirting: why are we only criminalising it now?

Josh Grundy | Dods Monitoring

4 min read

Criminalising Upskirting is a massive step forward in protecting bodily autonomy and bringing perpetrators to justice, but - asks Dods Monitoring's Josh Grundy - could the proposed bill do more to protect victims?

The act of upskirting has been in the headlines recently as the Government’s Voyeurism (Offences) Bill continues its journey through Parliament, having superseded Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse’s private members bill on the matter. Upskirting is an appalling and obscene act in which someone takes a picture up someone’s skirt and criminalising such an act sends a powerful message about how the law views women’s bodies. This begs the question, why are we only criminalising it now?

Upskirting has been prosecuted in various ways under grounds of outraging public decency or as a one of a variety of voyeurism offences. However, the definition of outraging public decency requires witnesses, which is particularly hard to prove until it is too late - the only evidence is when footage is found online which in turn often causes the victim more distress.

In 2017, a petition was tabled by Gina Martin calling for upskirting to become a sexual offence. It subsequently went viral online and has since gained over 100,000 signatures. This prompted Hobhouse to propose legislation as a private members bill.

The Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill 2017-19 started in the House of Commons and it looks like this will become law relatively quickly. This can be attributed to the Government’s backing of the bill in response to MP Sir Christopher Chope objecting to the private members bill. The objection from the Tory MP led to a lot of media attention being placed on the issue. Chope objected claiming there were not enough MPs sitting in Parliament that day, therefore arguing no proper debate could take place on the issue. He cited that he would be happy for the bill to pass after this had happened. From here on, the Government adopted the bill as a public bill.

The bill coming into force at the earliest possible opportunity ensures that victims gain the protection they need through criminal legislation. However, the bill may not protect all victims in its current form. This is something that has been discussed by the Public Bill Committee on the Voyeurism (Offences) (No.2) Bill. Martin was invited as a witness to the committee to speak to MPs where Ross Thomson MP questioned her as to whether the legislation did enough to protect victims. Martin was quick to agree that this tabled bill must be dealt with as quickly as possible, as no concrete legislation current exists.

One of the key points surrounding the proposals is whether it would enable prosecution of paparazzi who have been guilty of taking ‘upskirt’ images for media publication. During the committee stage, several questions were posed as to whether journalists could be caught by this legislation for taking and posting such photos.

Further questions surrounding ‘sexual gratification’, ‘intention’ and consent are all complex legal issues that have been discussed. As evidenced during committee stage, questions can be raised over some of the issues with this bill. The effectiveness of this new bill can be analysed further when it becomes law. It is now up to the judges to interpret this new piece of legislation in line with the governments intentions. It will be very interesting indeed, to see how often and effectively people can be successfully prosecuted for upskirting.

It is encouraging to see that that English law can do something like Scotland in passing upskirting legislation. There is always a danger that bills that get rushed through the bill making process can suffer from a lack of detail. However, it seems that this is a welcomed piece of legislation that has the capability to stop such acts from going unpunished.

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