In this article
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that sexual offences recorded by the police were at the highest level recorded within a 12-month period (170,973 offences) in the year ending September 2021, a 12% increase from the same period in 2020. Rape accounted for 37% of these offences and the year ending September 2021 saw the highest recorded annual number of rape offences to date (63,136 offences). Within these annual figures, the number of recorded sexual and rape offences were lower during periods of lockdown but there have been substantial increases since April 2021.
According to Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) figures, 46 men and one teenage boy were prosecuted for 128 offences under the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019, between 1 April 2020 and 30 June 2021.
Fifteen of the men prosecuted for upskirting since last April were simultaneously charged with other sexual crimes, including child abuse, sexual assault, extreme pornography and wider voyeurism offences. There were 16 offences where victims were identified as teenage girls, including pupils in school uniforms.
The BBC reported that of the 153 reports made to England and Wales police forces in the first year of the Act coming into force, one victim could have been as young as 10, another a 74-year-old in the Avon and Somerset Police area, as well as a 15-year-old boy in the West Midlands and a 14-year-old girl on a bus in Sussex. Hertfordshire Police said one of two upskirting cases in its area involved a 15-year-old boy taking an image of a 15-year-old girl while she was either drunk or asleep, before threatening to circulate the photos on social media.
The 2021 UN Women UK YouGov survey clearly shows that sexual harassment in public places continues to be highly prevalent and concerning; 71% of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space which included having images taken and/or shared without consent. This number rises to 86% among 18- to 24-year-olds and only 3% of 18- to 24-year-olds reported having not experienced any of the types of harassment listed. The two main reasons women of all ages cited for not reporting incidents are: “I didn’t think the incident was serious enough to report” (55%) and “I didn’t think reporting it would help” (45%).
What is upskirting?
Upskirting is a common term for a covert type of sexual voyeurism and abuse. It is when someone uses equipment such as a camera or mobile phone to take photos or videos underneath a person’s clothes, with the intention of viewing their genitals or buttocks, without their permission, and it is often undetected as upskirting often occurs in a public crowded place, making it hard for the victim to know that a photograph or video is being taken.
Anyone of any age or gender can be the victim of upskirting and often the purpose of upskirting is to obtain sexual gratification without that person’s consent, or to cause them humiliation, distress or alarm.
There have been incidents in which people, invariably men, have placed cameras on their shoes and photographed up a woman’s skirt for salacious purposes. Other instances have involved placing cameras under stairs where women in dresses or skirts were likely to pass by.
The broader category of upskirting can also include indecent filming of anyone without their knowledge, including photographing topless female bathers at a public beach, covertly filming women undressing in their bedrooms, or installing a camera in a dressing room, public toilet or a swimming pool changing room.
When did upskirting become a criminal offence?
Whilst not a specific offence in and of itself, upskirting has always been illegal, often prosecuted as Outraging Public Decency under the Criminal Justice Act 2003; however, existing criminal law at the time did not necessarily cover every instance of upskirting. So the specific criminal offence of upskirting was created under the Voyeurism Act 2019 when it received Royal Assent in February 2019 and the Act became law in April 2019 in England and Wales. It had already been illegal in Scotland since 2010.
The Voyeurism Act outlaws upskirting where the purpose is to obtain sexual gratification, or to cause humiliation, distress or alarm. This includes instances where culprits say images were just taken ‘for a laugh’ or when paparazzi are caught taking intrusive images. It creates two new offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to capture this behaviour.
Police and prosecutors have now updated their guidance to ensure the law is properly enforced, with offenders facing up to two years in prison and being placed on the sex offenders register.
Why was the law changed?
There were a number of occurrences that led to the law being changed in 2019. The British Transport Police reported a 178% rise in the number of upskirting incidents from 2013 to 2017 although they were not classified as a specific offence.
Meta, the owner of Facebook, removed a large number of accounts and groups after a BBC investigation found thousands of users sharing obscene material of women and girls obtained by upskirting.
In 2017, Gina Martin was at the British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park with her sister waiting for The Killers to come on stage when she noticed an image of a woman’s thighs and underwear on a man’s phone screen, only to discover in horror that the woman was her.
Once Gina had confirmed her identity in the image, she took the phone to the security guards who promptly called the police. However, when police officers arrived onsite all they did was ask them to delete the photo. A few days later Gina received a phone call telling her that the case had been closed and no criminal charges would be brought against the man who had taken the photo of her. Following the incident, she started a high-profile social media campaign and petition for a change to the law, more precisely for specific legislation to deal with the crime of upskirting. Her petition gathered more than 110,000 signatures.
Many campaigners had previously complained that the lack of a specific legislation left police unsure how to deal with allegations of voyeurism and particularly allegations of upskirting, with many of these crimes subsequently going unreported to the police.
In her #stopskirtingtheissue campaign, Gina fought for a specific upskirting law, as the old charge of outraging public decency was proving to be ineffective. During the campaign Gina was flooded with thousands of messages from upskirting victims. In March 2018 Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse presented a private member’s bill to the House of Commons in support of Ms Martin’s campaign.
It was recognised that by creating a specific upskirting offence, this would strengthen the law in this area, as it wouldn’t have the same limitations as the existing offences had at that time. The Voyeurism Act allows this intrusive behaviour to be treated as a sexual offence and ensure that the most serious offenders are made subject to notification requirement. These are commonly referred to as the ‘sex offenders register’.
In the six months after the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 came into force, 158 upskirting offences had been recorded by the Metropolitan Police. During that period, 11 people had been proceeded against for this offence, 2 received an adult caution, 4 received a postal charge acquisition and 5 received a charge/further charge.
Where can upskirting happen?
Upskirting often occurs in a public crowded place. Shops, particularly supermarkets, remain by far the most common location for upskirting to take place, accounting for 36% of offences since last spring (2021). Streets, parks and public transport or connected areas made up the majority of the remaining locations where crimes occurred.
There are numerous reports from schools and colleges that upskirting is taking place in their environments too. Despite the sexual nature behind upskirting, this type of behaviour can start when children are very young. An example is young boys who try to pull up girls’ skirts on the playground.
As previously mentioned, instances of upskirting have also taken place in store, gym or swimming pool changing rooms, public toilets, and on stairs. Other crowded places such as festivals or nightclubs can also attract upskirters. At one time, paparazzi used the technique to gain inappropriate photos of female celebrities getting out of cars; hopefully this is now a thing of the past.
What effects can upskirting have on a victim?
Upskirting is a harmful and humiliating form of abuse and often has a devastating impact on all aspects of the victim’s life. Victims’ experiences include a fundamental breach of their autonomy, trust, sexual integrity and privacy.
Many victims fear for their physical safety, and the psychological impact can be devastating, with some victims suffering from PTSD following the upskirting incident.
Many victims wonder if the images will be shared, and if more people will be able to view pictures or videos of them. They also wonder if they are going to be subject to more abuse and harassment. Victims have a very real fear that the images will always be out in public on social media and that anyone at any time may come across them.
The trauma of an upskirting incident can cause victims to:
The response that someone has to an experience of being upskirted will vary; however, all victims should seek support as the effects may not emerge immediately and can be harmful in the long term.
What to do if you are a victim of upskirting
There is no right or wrong way to feel if you realise that you have been upskirted. Some people might feel anxiety, fear and feelings of distrust and violation, others might not feel alarmed or distressed at all, and some may be angry. If upskirting has happened to you:
- Get out of the situation quickly if you can.
- If you’re in public, move away.
- Don’t engage directly with the offender.
- If it’s definitely safe to, consider taking a photo of them from a safe distance.
- Report it to the police, if you feel you can.
Once you’ve reported an upskirting incident, the police will begin to collect evidence to begin their investigation. As part of this process they will ask you to provide as much detail as possible, so they can write a statement. They should also give you the chance to make another statement called a Victim Personal Statement, which gives you a chance to explain how the crime has affected you. This can be taken into account if the crime goes to trial.
It takes courage to report something uncomfortable; however, the police will take the report seriously as upskirting is a criminal offence. By reporting the offence, you can help the police to stop it happening to someone else. Sometimes people who commit this type of offence go on to commit more serious sexual offences. Anyone who has been a witness to upskirting should immediately report it to the police.
The CPS have emphasised the importance of reporting this crime by highlighting examples of sexual predator convictions involving upskirting:
“School bus driver Robert Woolner, 55, was jailed for 30 months last year (2021) after being caught in an undercover police child grooming operation. Officers subsequently found up-skirt videos on his phone of schoolgirls leaving the bus he was employed to drive in Hertfordshire.”
“Sean Correlli Toscanni, 52, was reported to police after a staff member at a Samsung store spotted disturbing images on a phone he had taken in with a query and recognised him as a security guard at a nearby H&M branch. A police examination of the device in July 2019 found he had been up-skirting customers in the Newcastle store’s changing rooms and uncovered evidence of child sexual abuse. He was jailed for 38 months.”
Upskirting is a despicable crime against predominately women and girls. If you have been the victim of upskirting or know someone who has, you can contact Victim Support on 08 08 16 89 111. They help anyone affected by crime, not only those who experience it directly, but also their friends, family and any other people involved. They provide free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for people affected by crime and traumatic events, regardless of whether you have reported the crime to the police.