After two men took upskirt photos of Gina Martin, she began a campaign to make it a sexual offense. Now she’s teamed up with Eliza Hatch, creator of Cheer up Luv, and Refinery29 UK to tell the stories of women who have been upskirted, and encourage the government to #StopSkirtingTheIssue.
I’m going to change the law. Before I start work each morning, I’m trying to change it, and on the train home I’m working on it. It all started because two guys wouldn’t take no for an answer. Surprise surprise.
My sister and I went to see The Killers play at British Summertime Festival this July. We had wanted to see them together since 2005, and we finally were. We had been having the happiest day in the sun together – it was really special. Then, as we waited for the band, a group of guys started bothering me.
I brushed them off multiple times and asked them to leave me alone but they persisted. Then, to spite me, one of them stuck his hands between my legs and up my skirt – in broad daylight – and took pictures of my crotch. He then sent them to his friends, who were all around me. I saw one of them looking at the picture on his phone, so I snatched it and ran through the crowd to the police. They immediately told me there "wasn’t much they could do" and that "if I hadn’t been wearing underwear, it would be a different story". Then, they made him delete the picture – my evidence.
Before this happened, I felt strongly about sexual assault and victim blaming, so I thought I'd know how I’d react in that situation. But when the police told me to carry on with my night, I felt a sense of shame. I felt like it was partly my fault. When the support system you rely on tells you that what happened to you wasn't a big deal and insinuates it was partly your fault, some part of you believes that.
My case was closed a few days later, and the shame morphed into anger. I asked a friend of mine to help me look into the law, and we found that upskirt photography isn’t a sexual offense in England and Wales, even though, as the police told me, "it happens a lot in public places." Perpetrators don't often get charged with voyeurism, because voyeurism laws only protect victims if they're in a private setting where there's a "reasonable expectation of privacy," like a changing room or at home. I was in one of the most public places you can be — a festival.
Many women don’t report upskirting because without the picture or the perpetrator it’s just their word against his. Even when you do have the evidence you’re still not taken seriously. I wasn’t, and now every time someone asks me why women don’t report assault, I tell them it’s because of how they’re treated when they do.
Right now, some disgusting men I don’t know have pictures of my crotch on their phones. They can crowd around and laugh at my twisted control underwear while swigging beers. Perhaps the images have ended up on one of the sick online forums in which men share upskirt pictures.
After my case was closed I posted a picture of the guys on Facebook, with a caption explaining that what happened to me isn’t recognized as sexual assault and that the police had closed my case. My post went viral straight away. I then enjoyed five days of messages from strangers saying I was whining, a slut, an attention-seeker, and a liar. I didn’t eat or sleep much that week from the stress, and then, in a move of fist-clenching irony, Facebook took my post down for "violating community standards." Apparently it was harassment. Finally, the media came knocking and I started doing interviews. On Good Morning Britain I sat opposite a female ex-police officer who told me that "the police have more important things to deal with, like terrorism." The producers also warned me that her second point was that I should have worn trousers. Thankfully, we ran out of time to have that conversation on air. I think I would have exploded.
Now, I’ve found a campaign partner: Scottish lawyer Ryan Whelan from Gibson Dunn. He’s passionate about access to justice and women’s rights and is a formidable lawyer and strategist. Since Ryan started advising me we’ve achieved so much: we’ve nailed the complex legal argument and had it verified by various experts, we’ve been to parliament, and we’ve secured cross-party support. I know there’ll be much more to come in the weeks ahead, too.
You see, this isn’t about politics, it’s about people. It’s about the law catching up with digital technology. It’s about taking steps that enforce the message that women’s bodies aren’t public property. We need to change the thought process of 'if you don’t give me the reaction I want, I’ll find another way to have your body.' Normalizing assault by labelling it ‘a prank’ or ‘guys being guys’ sets the precedent that sexual assault is a ‘part of life’, and it shouldn’t be. We have to remind people that minor sexual assaults cast a long shadow, and when the law actively chooses not to punish those actions, it’s telling little girls that abuse is something they should expect, just because they’re female.
Since this whole journey started, there’s been one constant: the women who have come forward to thank me, encouraged me to keep going and told me it’s happened to them. There have been so many more messages than I thought there’d be, because upskirting is a secretive assault – 95% of women it happens to don’t even know it’s happened to them – but I’ve received messages from all types of strong women who wanted to share their stories; from 13-year-old girls through to professors.
Now it’s time to tell some of those stories, to put a face to the women the law doesn’t protect, and ask why. As Ryan's and my proposal gets closer to being debated, these women’s stories illustrate why speaking out against abuse is so important, and why we need to push the government to #StopSkirtingTheIssue.
You can sign the Care2 petition calling for upskirt photos to be made illegal under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 here. Refinery29 UK will be publishing more stories by women who have been affected by upskirting in the coming weeks.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).