About three days ago, most of us wouldn’t have had much notion what upskirting was; now we are, I think, all very alive to the reality that there are creeps, pervs and predators who like to put their mobile phones up women’s skirts or dresses and take pictures of their crotch. And I think we are all at one in considering this is an outrageous thing to do. Nem con, so far, I’d say. Mrs May, for her part, has made clear that she’s very down on this sort of thing too, which is always nice to know.
The question is not whether upskirting is gross; it’s whether it requires an entirely new criminal offence, potentially punishable by two years’ imprisonment and/or a place on the Sex Offenders register, or whether the existing laws will cover it. And if it does call for an entirely new offence, as in Scotland, whether this should go through on the nod, without debate, in a private member’s bill, or whether the Commons should, you know, do its job and have a look at it.
There is, besides, another question altogether, which is whether the purpose of the law is as an exercise in moral grandstanding – sort of public virtue ventilating - or whether it is something altogether more sober.
Today I had an encounter on the radio with another journalist; she’d been upskirted, and she was very emphatic that we needed a new law against it, on the basis we have to show that this kind of behaviour to women is completely unacceptable. Well, quite. But that purpose could be equally well served by implementing the laws we’ve got and if they’re not good enough, considering whether they can be amended. It’s not to say that contemporary mores don’t change and that the law sometimes needs to change with it – sexting and cyber bullying are instances of immoral behaviour aggravated by new technology – but reactive legislation may not be the way to go.
Yesterday, Sir Christopher Chope got it in the nuts from his colleagues, especially the more high minded among them (see Mr Steerpike) when he blocked the passage of a private member’s bill from LibDem MP, Vera Hobhouse, making upskirting a criminal offence. She had been hoping to get the measure through as a quickie, without taking up parliamentary time, had it not been for his intervention. Sir Christopher has, understandably, gone to ground, but it’s not unreasonable to surmise that he thought the measure either redundant or deserving parliamentary scrutiny. Fair enough.
So what laws are applicable in the circumstances? The obvious one for voyeurism is the sexual offences act 2003, which already covers it, and it’s an aggravating circumstance in sentencing offenders if it involved sharing images of victims. That act also recognises that it’s an offence to touch someone sexually without their consent and I’d have thought putting a phone up someone’s skirt would fall squarely into that category. The tariff for that goes from a fine up to two years in prison. As for doing it in a public place, there’s also the common law offence of outraging public decency – already punishable by an unlimited fine or an unlimited imprisonment – supposing it happens in front of two or more people, which seems to be the entire point of upskirting, by way of humiliating the victim.
In other words, it’s at least possible that the law as it stands covers taking pictures up people’s skirts – and yes, yes, we’ve all taken on board, thank you, that kilts count as skirts too, ha ha. And if the police aren’t taking action – one victim apparently said they wouldn’t do so in her case because she was wearing underwear when she was photographed – then it may be a case for clarifying the guidelines for them and the CPS.
But all that presupposes that this exercise is a rational one. If it is, rather, a bid by aggrieved young women to establish that they’ve been perved on, or by self-regarding Tories to make clear how very woke they are, or by the PM, to find some, any, issue that’ll make her look popular, then we need to think again. Sir Christopher was right.