Changing the law to protect victims of upskirting

Professor Clare McGlynn of Durham Law School tells how her research has helped to shape a law on upskirting and why more comprehensive legislation is needed to protect victims from all image-based sexual abuse.

Moves to legislate against upskirting - the act of secretly taking a photograph under a victim’s skirt - hit the headlines when a planned law to criminalise the act stalled in Parliament.

The law, which the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, said would be passed soon, is the culmination of a long campaign involving Professor McGlynn and colleagues and campaign groups across the country.

Here, Professor McGlynn explains more about her work.

Q: How important is it to introduce a law against upskirting? Is current legislation ineffective?

A: We all know that taking and sharing photos is now so easy with smartphones and commonaccess to Wi-Fi. While we all enjoy taking and sharing photos, such technology unfortunately also comes with downsides. It has made it easier to perpetrate many crimes and harms, including taking and sharing intimate images without consent. There are thousands of websites now dedicated to sharing images taken without consent, whether upskirting or so-called revenge porn.

Legislation is needed to challenge these forms of abuse as they can have devastating impacts on victims. They often suffer abuse, harassment and fear for their physical safety. Some contemplate suicide.

The current law in England and Wales does not clearly define upskirting. There is an ancient offence of ‘outraging public decency’, which can sometimes be used. But few have ever heard of that Law and it only covers some situations.

Q: How has your research helped to inform the campaign to criminalise upskirting?

A: A few years ago, I first started to realise that while the Government was recognising the problems of ‘revenge porn’, the law was not covering the similar harm of upskirting. Working with my colleague Erika Rackley , from the University of Birmingham , we began to investigate in greater depth the gaps in the law and highlight the problems.

Working with organisations such as the group End Violence Against Women, we’ve worked to raise these issues in policy and public debates.

I have given evidence before the Scottish Parliament when it was debating a new law, and we managed to convince them to strengthen their law to clearly cover the sharing of upskirting images.

Over the past year, following the campaigning of Gina Martin , I’ve given evidence in Parliament about the need for change, and worked with Women’s Aid , The Fawcett Society and the End Violence Against Women Coalition to call for a change in the law.

The issue has also led to high-profile media attention and together with others I have been able to discuss the need for changes in the law on programmes such as BBC Woman’s Hour and in national and international media.

Q: You have said that you hope a law against upskirting could be the first step towards more comprehensive legislation to protect victims of all image-based sexual abuse, including revenge porn. What measures would you like to see introduced?

A: The law needs to be modernisedit currently doesn’t apply to altered or photoshopped images. This is a growing problem as technology develops.

The law needs to be strengthened to cover threats and to ensure the law protects victims whatever the perpetrator’s motives.

We also must extend the right to automatic anonymity to all victims. At the moment, for example, the intimate images of victims can be shared on porn websites without their consent, but only victims of upskirting or voyeurism get anonymity, not victims of revenge porn.

Q: How do you feel knowing that your research has played a part in the wider campaign to improve the law for victims of image-based sexual abuse?

A: My research with Erika Rackley developed the idea of ‘image based sexual abuse’, which better explains the nature, and extent of these harms. We’ve tried to emphasise the connections between different forms of abuse, such as upskirting and revenge porn, so that a comprehensive approach is taken. Victims tell us that this term better reflects their experiences and many MPs, campaigners and policy makers now use this phrase.

My research is just one part of a broader movement bringing together many MPs, campaigners and academics who have been working towards getting these offences recognised and the law changed. I’ve been privileged to talk to many survivors and women’s organisations who’ve been willing to share their experiences and help us argue for change.

I’m now working with colleagues across New Zealand and Australia on a project funded by the Australian research council to better understand victims’ experiences and learn the lessons from different countries.

Media coverage of the campaign to change the law on upskirting and image-based sexual abuse includes, The New York Times ; The Guardian ; The Independent.