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Wera Hobhouse: Making downblousing a criminal offence is long overdue

Wera Hobhouse: Making downblousing a criminal offence is long overdue
3 min read

Downblousing is the latest manifestation of misogyny enabled by the smartphone era. The law must catch up with the times.

Somehow downblousing is not covered by existing legislation – voyeurism nor revenge porn laws. Downblousing is where someone’s chest is photographed without their consent. An obviously intrusive, disgusting and frankly wrong act that currently carries no consequences. 

It is another manifestation of misogyny and violence against women and girls that the law overlooks. It is time that the law caught up with the 21st century. Recently, the Law Commission proposed that new offences are made in England and Wales, following the lead of Northern Irish law. This law would cover all acts of intentionally taking or sharing a sexual, nude or intimate photo or video without consent. 

Revenge porn and voyeurism laws have not kept pace with how technology is evolving

Others have drawn attention to newer phenomena, such as the use of hidden cameras and the creation of deep fakes. Both horrible acts. 

Deep fakes is the practice of superimposing someone’s face onto a sexual image or video, for which there are currently no legal repercussions. Although no victim is physically violated the emotional toll can be horrific. 

Reforming the law to cover these barbaric acts would send a clear message that these behaviours are not acceptable in 2022. It would also help to restore some much-needed confidence in the legal system after the APPG for UN Women found that the two main reasons for not reporting incidents were that they were not “serious enough” (55 per cent) or that reporting would not help (45 per cent). 

Shockingly, most agreed that having more confidence in the consequences of reporting would encourage them to report. We must listen to these women. 

Harassment via indecent photographs has been enabled by the digital society and a law that so desperately needs to catch up. Eighty one per cent of women and girls have experience sexual harassment in public spaces, according to a report from Plan International on What Works for Ending Public Sexual Harassment. Experiences varied from wolf-whistling, physical assault and indecent photographs. 

Every century invites new manifestations of misogyny. Cyberflashing, revenge porn, upskirting, and downblousing. All new manifestations of misogyny enabled by the digital age. The law must align with the technological innovation and development. 

In February 2019, my Upskirting Bill became law. This made it illegal to photograph someone from under their skirt without consent. I could not believe that this wasn’t already banned, and the British public strongly agreed. An ITV poll at the time suggested that 96 per cent of the British public supported the criminalisation of upskirting. In the year of its adoption, 153 reports of upskirting were made – some victims being as young as 10 years old.

Cyberflashing was criminalised months ago by the government. Some 76 percent of girls aged 12 to 18 have received an unsolicited penis image. It is a form of sexual harassment from which even the physical boundaries of a home offer no respite. I had long encouraged the government to criminalise the abhorrent act.

However, revenge porn and voyeurism laws have not kept pace with how technology is evolving. Nor do they consider the scope of an offenders' motivations. For instance, although revenge porn is illegal, victims have reported feeling “unsupported and unvalidated” when unable to prove the content was shared with the intent to cause distress. 

So long as these perverse practices go unchallenged, new forms of sexual harassment will manifest and effect women and girls across the country. 

The law must keep pace with the rising capabilities of technology. This government was slow to act on upskirting and cyberflashing, and now they must look to tackling downblousing.

 

Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath.

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