Upskirting is the taking of surreptitious, sexually intrusive photographs. This is now a specific criminal offence in England and Wales punishable by up to two years in prison after a campaign was started by a woman who was targeted at a music festival.
Ms Martin was at a music festival in London in July 2017 when a man put his phone between her legs and took pictures. She informed the police about what had happened and was shocked to discover that upskirting was not a specific criminal offence. She was told that because she was wearing underwear, the photograph was not deemed to be illegal and the case was subsequently closed.
Ms Martin posted on her Facebook page about what had happened. Her post went viral and many other women shared similar experiences. Ms Martin’s story gathered so much attention that an online petition was set up, receiving thousands of signatures.
It wasn’t long before the campaign was picked up by MP Wera Hobhouse, who brought a private members’ bill backing the creation of a specific upskirting offence.
The bill, however, was initially blocked by a Tory backbench MP, in a move which was widely criticised. Teresa May said she was ‘disappointed’ in the objection and vowed that the government would push the law change through parliament. The campaign finally secured government backing and the Upskirting Bill was approved in the House of Lords and finally received Royal Assent to become law.
Was there no law before?
Until April 2019, such invasive behaviour could only be prosecuted under either the offence of outraging public decency or as a crime of voyeurism under the Sexual Offences Act. But outraging public decency usually requires a witness – which is rare as upskirting often goes unobserved while voyeurism only applies to filming in ‘private’.
What is the new law?
The new offences apply in instances when:
- Without consent, a person takes pictures beneath a person’s clothing to observe their genitals or buttocks, whether covered or uncovered by underwear.
- The offender has a motive of either gaining sexual gratification or causing humiliation, distress or alarm to the victim.
The Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 also ensures that the most serious offenders, where the purpose of the offence is for sexual gratification, are made subject to notification requirements (often referred to as being placed on the sex offenders’ register).
The Ministry of Justice said the new law, ‘bans the degrading practice to deter perpetrators, better protect victims, and bring more offenders to justice’.