“I made upskirting illegal in the UK, and I’ll keep on fighting for equality”

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Gina Martin made upskirting illegal in the UK – but the fight for equality is far from over. Ahead of International Women’s Day 2020, she explains what we need to do next.

You might know my story by now. I was upskirted at a festival in 2017. After running to the police with the phone, the picture and the one of the men, I was told that nothing could be done. 

I had done everything that we ask victims of sexual assault and harassment to do but apparently, I still couldn’t prosecute. And for the first time in my life, I was angry enough to do something about it. Anything.

I looked into the law and discovered that upskirting wasn’t a sexual offence in England and Wales, even though it had been in Scotland for 10 years. I decided that enough was enough. Throughout my life I’d put up with having obscenities shouted at me from cars and having my bum grabbed in bars. I even had a stalking case against a man from school for two years.

I was angry that every woman I knew had a story of being sexually harassed in some way. I needed somewhere to put my frustration, so I decided to launch a social media campaign that asked the question: ‘Why is upskirting not a sexual offence?’

I’d worked in advertising and social media for years, and if I could make people care about a whisky brand, then surely I could make people care about this? 

upskirt
Upskirting law: “I realised this problem was bigger than me.”

As soon as I launched the campaign my DMs became flooded with stories from young girls telling me about having phones pushed up their skirts on the Tube. Trans women who said people’s obsession with their genitals had led to them being upskirted. Teachers emailed me to say that their male pupils had been working together to get photos. 

At one point, kids started messaging me from the same school in south London, to say that a male teacher had been upskirting the students in his class for years. They had found thousands of photos, yet he wasn’t convicted, because it didn’t constitute a criminal offence. I realised this problem was bigger than me, so I started approaching TV channels to debate the issue.

After a month of running the campaign I realised that publicising it through the media wasn’t going to change the law. I needed to take this all the way, but to do that I would have to get clever and strategic. That meant getting a lawyer. 

After much searching I found Ryan Whelan, a 29-year-old lawyer who was both passionate about human rights and politically astute. We set about creating a strategy, which basically entailed an 18-month legal campaign to change the law. We lobbied the government through 2017 and 2018 and eventually, in April 2019, the law changed. After two years of exhaustive work, we had finally made upskirting illegal.

I’d like to say the conclusion felt as good as it should have, but because the process was so hard, it just felt like a relief. For two years I’d received rape threats and abuse online. I had been scared and uncomfortable in almost every room I was in, and I’d been underestimated by those in power. Months into the campaign I turned up to parliament with Ryan for a meeting and was completely ignored by the receptionist. She looked over my head and asked Ryan who he was seeing. He responded with: “It’s her meeting”. 

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Upskirting law: “I started to see the fractures in the equality movement.”

Being honest about how hard this experience was for me was eye opening, and I kept asking myself one question: if being in these traditional structures of power, being in the public eye and going against the system had felt this hard for me, then how must it feel for other people who don’t have my unearned benefits?

I started to wonder if the words that surrounded the photos of me in newspapers would have been so supportive had I been a black woman from below the poverty line. Would people have made space for my anger as much if I was black? Would I have even been able to gain access to these rooms had I been disabled? Would my pushing for this law to be gender neutral have been as accepted if I was non-binary? 

All these questions gnawed away at me, and I started to see the fractures in the equality movement. It became clear to me, after spending time in women’s rights spaces, that sometimes the underlying opinion is that equality is like a pie. That some for you means less for me. That women have been fighting for ourselves for so long, that we shouldn’t have to fight for anyone else. 

This isn’t right. The intersections of identity are all important, and going forward in this fight we have to make space for everyone. Otherwise we just create the same system, but broken in a new way.

I will always fight for women. And there is so much to fight for. The violence, abuse, political, social and economic exclusion we have dealt with is real. But if we want men to wake up to our struggle and be our allies, then we must be allies to all intersections of society and fight for them too. We have a long way to go, but if we do it together it will be more beautiful and meaningful than we can ever imagine and I know it will happen faster. Legislative change is important but cultural change is even more so, and that’s something we can all push for. Every single day.

Images: Holly McGlynn, Unsplash

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