Last summer, I was standing in a crowd of 60,000, on a hot summer's day in London, waiting for The Killers to come on stage, when a man – whose advances I’d rejected – took pictures of my crotch by putting his phone between my legs as I chatted to my sister blissfully unaware.
A few minutes later, I saw one of his friends looking at an intrusive picture of a woman’s crotch covered by a thin strip of fabric. I knew it was me. I grabbed the phone off him and checked. Tears filled my eyes and I began drawing attention to him: "You guys have been taking pictures of my vagina! What is wrong with you!?" He grabbed me and pushed his face in front of mine, bellowing that I give him his phone back. I didn’t. Some guys in the crowd pushed him back and told me to run. I pushed through the crowd as fast as I could, pleading with people to let me through. I heard him chasing after me, screaming for me to stop and give him back his phone. But I eventually made it to security. They surrounded me and ensured my protection while he tried to jump over them and swiped at me. I put the phone in a security guard's pocket and the police were called.
The police arrived and were lovely. I was, understandably, a mess and they patiently calmed me down. What the police then did was ask him to delete the images – my evidence – and then, they told me they couldn’t do anything. "We had to look at the image, and although it showed far more than you’d want anyone to see, it’s not technically a graphic image. There’s not much we can do. If you weren’t wearing knickers it would be a different story." I was completely humiliated and devastated. I felt like a child and spent the rest of the night trying to act like I was okay. I wasn’t.
A few days later, the police called and told me the case had been closed almost immediately. I mumbled something in acceptance and put down the phone – which is when the anger started to bubble. That couldn’t be right – could it? Was there really nothing they could do? I threw myself into research and almost immediately realised that there was a gaping hole in English & Welsh law. Upskirting can be prosecuted effectively (under ‘voyeurism’) only if you are in a private place. If you are in public, it is a different story entirely: you can only prosecute with a public nuisance order called Outraging Public Decency, which is used for prosecuting acts like urinating in public. Prosecuting upskirters with outraging public decency is inappropriate: it completely fails to recognise that upskirting is a crime with a victim, and it also means that offenders are not/cannot be prosecuted as sex offenders. It’s not fit for purpose at all.
'A bigger fight than my own'
Soon after I recognised this need for reform, I posted about what had happened to me – and the reaction of the police – on Facebook. The public were amazed that upskirting wasn’t a sexual offence so it went viral almost immediately. Suddenly, the media came calling and women and children – some as young as 13 – were reaching out to me to tell me that they too had been upskirted and that the police hadn’t followed it up. I immediately realised there was a bigger fight to fight than just my own case; I’d stumbled upon something that was very wrong with our legal system.
Fast forward 6 months, and my campaign has come on leaps and bounds. Backed by Ryan Whelan, a lawyer with global law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, I’ve professionalised my campaign. We’ve been to parliament to explain and discuss the reform that is required; we’ve provided input on a bill; we have secured the support of police commissioners, MPs from all major political parties, numerous academic lawyers in the field, and 95,000 people who signed a petition encouraging the government to close the gap in the law. What we’re asking the government to do is not controversial: the evidence is clear and all that’s needed is a simple amendment.
I have also helped work on an investigation with the Press Association, who talked to police forces across the country to get the first ever official numbers on upskirting. Even that wasn’t easy. Police officers admitted upskirting was a problem, but said they couldn’t properly quantify it due to the simple fact that the words ‘upskirting/upskirt’ don’t exist in law – there isn’t a category to fit prosecutions in, apart from public nuisance. You can't find the real numbers that reflect the scale of the problem if there's no specific legislation listing cases. So, the figures that came out are only the tip of the iceberg: hundreds of victims have confided in me since I launched the campaign and every day more women come forward. This is a real problem.
Upskirting is a cultural problem
In the age of #MeToo, it’s absolutely integral that we use our voices to highlight specific problems and band together to find solutions. Upskirting is just one part of a culture that perpetuates the concept that the main purpose of a woman’s body is male pleasure – that sexualising it and doing what you want with it is acceptable. It isn’t. My main goal is to change the law, obviously, but it’s just as important to me that I've started a global conversation that has, hopefully, made people re-consider how they might perpetuate a damaging culture where consent is a consideration, not a given. We are all responsible for deconstructing the idea that women’s bodies are objects. Now, more than ever, taking things into our own hands and changing things for the better is essential.
In a society that cares so much about image and status, leveraging your privilege and influence is absolutely key in making the world better for everybody. Would the media be as ready to plaster me all over newspapers and TV channels if I wasn’t a middle class white woman? I hope so, but maybe not. I use my social channels and networks to shout about issues because I’m lucky to have a platform and be someone that people are open to listening to. But I couldn’t – and wouldn’t want – to do this alone or only with women around me.
When dealing with issues like upskirting, where men are primarily the perpetrators, it’s easy to forget that men, in general, are not the enemy – there are many great men out there who are allies to women. How could I veer into misandry, when men are central to my campaign and my broader #metoo journey?
I have been inspired and shaped by my father, who brought me up to march to my own beat and live as a strong, principled woman. In terms of my ability to live that life, I am each day supported by a loving, supportive boyfriend who shows me daily that real men respect and support women. In terms of driving forward my campaign, I have been tirelessly supported by a male lawyer who is one of the most committed, passionate champions of women that I have ever come across in any field. He helps me to understand, speak up and be heard, rather than mansplaining me into deference as so many others attempt to do.
My experience of activism has taught me a lot about who I am, but it has also taught me a lot about others and politics. The lesson I have learned is simple: if you are brave enough to speak up then you will be heard and good people will support you. The hard bit is mustering the courage to speak up, but in a time of social media it is vital that we do so, because the ability to bring people together over a single cause is in our hands and it’s incredibly powerful. Plus, when it comes to making change happen there are only three things we need: a voice, each other and government ministers willing to do the right thing.