Sometimes, as a writer, you have to type words that seem insane to you. Such as: "There is to be a debate in parliament over whether upskirting should be considered a crime." Whether upskirting should be considered a crime. As in: maybe it's actually OK to take pictures up an unconsenting woman's skirt. So, Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope, who derailed the passing of this bill at its first reading, let me tell you from someone who knows: it is not – it is never – OK.
When it happened to me, the first thing I noticed was a strange light. I was in the middle seat of a booth at the pub, after a close friend's wedding, talking to the cousin of the groom on my right. On my left, wedged uncomfortably close beside me, was an ex, my worst ex, the one I had been avoiding for years. He'd been hitting on me all day, refusing to take no for an answer. Now, I had determinedly turned my face away from him, but the light caught my eye all the same, bouncing off the skin of my chest above the low neckline of my dress. I looked down. It was a camera flash. My ex was taking a photo of my tits.
The most successful sex criminals are extremely good at picking their moment. They could give a masterclass in manipulation: making it near-impossible for their target to speak up, creating just enough doubt in the minds of the other people around – did she consent to that? How serious was it really? My ex knew me very well, had calculated the likelihood of me causing trouble at our friend's wedding, blowing things up into a major incident that would risk spoiling the day for the bride and groom. He knew how I would react, which was how I did react. I laughed so that nobody would be alarmed. Then I said to him, please don't do that. I said it firmly but nicely. Move along, everyone, nothing to see here.
I went back to my conversation. My ex playfully took pictures of other people's body parts – somebody's arm, somebody's ear. All just good fun. Then I felt something against my inner thigh. This time, the camera was between my legs. The last words I heard as I squeezed past him to get away: "My girlfriend's going to be masturbating over those pictures later."
I was afraid that people would be staring at my body and that it would be my own fault for wearing such ‘slutty’ clothes. I had to call a friend in tears to say that I couldn't leave the house
In the taxi home, all I felt was anger. But the next day, a sunny summer day, I was trying to get dressed to go to a lunch party and every time I put anything on I thought, "I can't go outside in this – it's too short; it's too low-cut." I was afraid that people would be staring at my body and that it would be my own fault for wearing such “slutty” clothes. In the end, I had to call a friend in tears to say that I couldn't leave the house. Over the days that followed, however, my distress faded until I thought it was gone, although years later, someone sneaking pictures of my date and me, kissing in Trafalgar Square, reduced me to a sobbing mess. And I had nightmares and a panic attack while writing this piece. Still, I felt no real lasting harm had been done to me – though I recognise that others who've undergone similar experiences may have had more enduring traumas.
At the time of the incident, I wasn't certain whether what had happened was against the law, and I discussed with friends whether or not I should call the police. It wouldn't have done any good if I had, as back then what he did was not, in fact, a crime. It was neither a violation of public decency (it would only become so once he showed the pictures to someone else – the girlfriend in question, say) nor was it an act of voyeurism, as it took place in public. But in any case, I decided not to report it. It seemed like an overreaction to something I thought I had recovered from relatively quickly. And, perversely, if I had been aware then that he could have faced the two years in jail mandated by this new bill, I would definitely not have called the police. What happened to me did not, at the time, feel like it was worth two years of his life, no matter how disgusted and angry I felt.
Instead – as I was "lucky" enough to know the person who had done this (many such incidents are committed by strangers in crowded places) – I wrote him an email telling him that I considered his behaviour to be abhorrent and that I had not consented to it. I demanded that he destroy the photos and told him that I never wanted to see him again under any circumstances. He replied with an apology, agreeing that I had clearly said no, that he had ignored it, that he had been drunk (the usual excuse), that the photos had been deleted (I'd have to take his word for that) and that he hoped – unbelievably – that we could be friends again one day. I felt satisfied that he had at least acknowledged his behaviour to have been wrong. And with that, it appeared to be over.
But it wasn't over. A few years after this all took place, that same ex was jailed for sexually abusing underage girls at the school where he was teaching.
Non-contact sex crimes often don't occur in isolation. Until 2003, indecent exposure was also not designated as a specific crime, but was bundled together with vagrancy. Once the stuff of jokes, flashing is now known in many cases to lead to crimes such as assault and rape and, in particular, crimes against children. Similarly, significant numbers of people convicted of violent sex offences have a history of voyeurism, a crime closely related to upskirting. This is why it's vital for victims, if they can, to report their crimes, even if they don't feel they have been particularly traumatised – and for such reports to be listened to empathetically and acted upon. (Some victims may feel, for many reasons, that they cannot report their crimes and this should be respected and understood.)
Quite aside from the important question of the impact on the victims, if non-contact sex offences may also be a gateway to contact crimes, we do need to take them seriously and a custodial sentence is one way of doing that. But it's vital that it also be a way of identifying people at risk of committing more violent offences and working with them to try to prevent these offences from happening. Right now, the treatment programme for sex offenders is in disarray, as existing programmes were shown to actually increase the risk of future offending. We need to keep funding research into proper treatment that will prevent these supposedly minor crimes from escalating. If my ex had been prosecuted and convicted, whether he went to jail or not, he would have been placed on the Sex Offenders Register, lost his job in the school, and those girls would have been protected. But how many more women and girls – and men and boys – might be protected if there were an effective programme in place of treatment, rehabilitation and supervision? For now, though, this bill, recognising the severity of the crime, and preventing, for a time, the perpetrator from acting again, is a step in the right direction.