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Activist Gina Martin: my upskirting campaign exposed differences with my friends that I’d never noticed before

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Activist Gina Martin is the woman who made upskirting illegal, in a tireless campaign following her own assault. But she wasn’t expecting how her newfound profile would impact some of her oldest friendships. In this exclusive extract from Stylist’s new book, Life Lessons On Friendship, Gina explains how her emerging political voice exposed differences with her friends that she’d never noticed before. 

I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of my apartment in London with Rey, one of my closest friends, my partner, Jordy; and good friend Zoe. It’s August 2017 – my 26th birthday – and we’re having a takeaway because I’m not that up for celebrating. ‘So,’ I tell them anxiously, ‘the producer says her angle for tomorrow’s interview is, “If you don’t want photos taken of your vagina, wear trousers.”’

A month before, while I was at a festival in London’s Hyde Park, a group of guys stuck their hands between my legs, took photos of my crotch and shared them around to ‘teach me a lesson’ for rebuffing their advances. After snatching the phone and handing it – along with the guy – into the police, I learned that taking non-consensual upskirt images wasn’t a sexual offence. So, alongside my full-time job, I launched a campaign to change the law, and had been working night and day to raise awareness ever since.

Rey shakes his head and takes a thoughtful sip of beer. ‘Well, if the producer has a problem with that,’ he says calmly, ‘she can bring it up with the police, not a sexual-assault victim. You’ll be fine. Just stick to your guns. And try to forget you’re on live TV.’

As he’s talking, I realize the real reason I’ve invited my friends round isn’t because it’s my birthday, but because I’m terrified. I’m scared of going on live TV to debate why this should be illegal because I’m so frustrated that it’s even a debate. I need guidance from the people who know me best.

Rey really shows up for me in this conversation. He sits and listens and gives great advice. As does Zoe, who hands me a card as she leaves. ‘I always knew you’d do wonderful things,’ she’s written inside. ‘I love you, my friend.’

After the TV interview, I can tell everything is going to change. And I’m right – the next 17 months are like being in a washing machine. I do countless news appearances. I approach law firms, and partner with a young, passionate lawyer called Ryan Whelan. We are in and out of parliament constantly, learning about political procedure and meeting politicians. And I deal with rape threats online for a year. I cry more times than I can count. I barely hold down my job.

As I say, I knew then that everything was going to change. I just didn’t realize that included some of my friendships.

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Before the campaign, I had a core group of friends who were my go-tos, including Rey, who I met at a festival when I was an unsure 20-year-old; Zoe, my most emotionally eloquent friend; Nicole, who suffers no fools; plus, of course, Jordy and my big sister, Stevie. Outside of that were half a dozen mates from uni who I’d catch up with over a drink but saw less often. None of us really talked about politics. Our conversations were built on funny stories from our past or the struggles of trying to carve out a career in London.

But during the start of my campaigning something slowly and steadily developed in me, namely, my understanding of the structural inequalities of society. Every day I met new people – campaigners fighting for human rights, investigative journalists with fascinating stories, NGOs seeking justice. With this came a whole new level of education that I’d never had before. My world grew, my understanding ballooned, and I guess you could say some of my reference points shifted.

I soon noticed that not all my friends were on my new wavelength. This wasn’t a big revelation; there was no dramatic falling-out, no one cried. Instead, I felt an imperceptible shift in certain friendships that crept in over time. We’d be sitting in our local beer garden and something like the refugee crisis would come up – an inescapable news story at the time. I’d share an insight from a campaigner I’d recently worked with, but rather than being met with curiosity or questions, an awkward pause would follow, then a frown, or a sigh, before a very deliberate swerve back to the previous topic. It began to feel like I’d brought along a new friend who some people didn’t want there.

On one particular night, during a critical stage of the campaign, I had exciting news to share. Explaining how much I wanted the government’s official backing, I grinned as I told my friends I’d finally been granted crucial meetings with Conservative MPs. Almost everyone expressed support, but one friend accosted me later. ‘Why on earth are you working with the Tories?’ they demanded, with genuine dismay. I started to explain – changing things meant working with whoever was in power – but rather than listening, they dismissed me by ordering another drink. I felt embarrassed and deflated. How was it that this person, who knew me so well, didn’t have any faith in my decisions? 

Read more about how Gina’s struggle with some of her oldest friendships – and how she learnt to navigate the challenge of different opinions – in Stylist’s new book, along with more frank and moving essays on the life-changing power of friends.

Stylist's new book is an ode to our closest relationships in life

Life Lessons On Friendship: 13 Honest Tales Of The Most Important Relationships Of Our Lives from Stylist magazine is published by Penguin Random House, and comes out on 4 February 2021. Find out more and pre-order your copy here.

Images: Getty, Instagram, Penguin Random House

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