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Upskirting: A new criminal offence but will the legislation do the job?

blog 08-18

Upskirting for anyone who has not come across the term is the act of taking unauthorised pictures under a skirt or kilt to capture images of the crotch area and sometimes genitalia. It tends to happen in crowded public places making it difficult to spot when it is happening. The resulting images are often distributed on the internet, usually interlinked with pornographic or fetish sites and present a multitude of moral and legal issues surrounding privacy, decency and consent. In some instances, the victim is identifiable from the image but in many they are not and are often unaware that such images even exist. This type of behaviour is not new but the development of technology, most notably camera phones has facilitated the practice as has the ability to share these images online. In England and Wales there is currently no specific legislation banning such action because voyeurism only covers private spaces and outraging public decency requires a witness. As such, when victims of upskirting come forward there is currently little scope for prosecution although some successful prosecutions have occurred under the offence of outraging public decency.

Gina Martin, a freelance writer and victim of upskirting launched a campaign to get upskirting recognised as a specific crime and punishable under the Sexual Offences Act. This campaign has gained considerable momentum both publicly and politically and in March 2018 the Voyeurism (Offence) Bill was presented to the House of Commons. The bill was blocked by the objections of one MP on the grounds that there had been a ‘lack of debate’ and thus a breach of parliamentary procedure. The backlash to this objection was interesting, rather than acknowledging that this is a serious issue worthy of parliamentary debate a humiliating and somewhat bullying approach was taken in the form of ‘pants bunting’ being hung outside of his Commons office. While I might not agree with some of the past actions of this MP his argument that new laws need to be debated if we (the UK) are to stand up for freedom and democracy is an important one. Upskirting is a serious breach of privacy and decency and therefore needs proper debate if the resulting legislation is going to be more than a knee-jerk reaction to public outrage. Such legislation often results in the need for multiple revisions in order for it to efficiency and effectively tackle such behaviour. For example, the proposed burden of proof in the original bill alongside the limited scope of the bill[1] would likely have limited prosecutions rather than facilitating them. Unfortunately, with just three months between the original bill and the revised Voyeurism (Offences) (No.2)) Bill, which was successfully introduced to the House of Commons in June 2018, the extent to which sufficient informed debate has occurred remains questionable.

[1] See the comments by Clare McGlynn (professor at Durham University) in Sabbagh and Ankel (2018) Call for upskirting bill to include ‘deepfake’ pornography ban. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/21/call-for-upskirting-bill-to-include-deepfake-pornography-ban. [Accessed: 17 August 2018].

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