Creeps with cameras: 'Upskirting' ought to be grounds for prosecution
Laws need updated to protect women from opportunistic perpetrators, says Fionola Meredith
What kind of grubby little creep sticks his camera phone under an unsuspecting woman's skirt, in the hope of a blurred snap of her private parts?
The practice - if that's what you could call such a sick, pathetic and exploitative act - is becoming increasingly common. Buses and trains, or anywhere crowded, are the prime hunting grounds. Apparently there are entire websites dedicated to these stolen images, the spoils of sexual harassment.
Probably the perverted impulse was always there, in the small, sad, beady-eyed subsection of the male population that gets off on this kind of thing. Now mobile technology has put it, quite literally, within their reach.
And you know what the sickest thing of all is? These sneaky creeps are getting away with it.
In every part of the UK, except Scotland, where 'upskirting' is already an offence, the law simply isn't up to the job. There is currently no legislation which specifically bans people from secretly taking photographs underneath a person's clothing without their consent.
This glaring omission was highlighted by a young woman called Gina Martin, who was targeted at a music festival in London. She noticed the phone screen of a man standing close to her and saw a picture of a woman's thighs and underwear on it - which she immediately recognised as her own.
You can only imagine the jolt of disgust and outrage that she must have felt. And then the anger when it transpired that the police weren't actually able to do much about it. They might have been able to act, Martin said she was told, if she hadn't been wearing knickers.
There is a terrible absurdity, and indignity, in being informed that your perfectly normal decision to wear a pair of pants that day is what prevented you having a hope of bringing some upskirting pervert to justice.
Subsequently Martin started an online campaign, which has attracted more than 63,000 signatures, to get the practice criminalised. Now it seems that MPs at Westminster are listening. Justice secretary David Lidington is currently examining the need for legislation in England and Wales.
Not a hope of action in Northern Ireland, of course. In case you haven't noticed, we lack a functioning legislative Assembly, and our political leaders are engaged in the latest unedifying bout of an ancient sectarian stand-off. They have no time for the pressing concerns of the modern world.
But it's happening here too. A teenage pupil at Enniskillen Royal Grammar School was suspended for a total of 17 days over "inappropriate images" of two female members of staff. The PSNI investigated and the case went to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) but it decided not to prosecute the pupil.
Why not? The PPS said that the activities reported to them by police as having been committed did not constitute an offence in criminal law.
The PPS added that the women teachers involved "were not observed doing a private act and therefore the evidential test in respect of the offence of voyeurism" was not met.
This also chimes with Gina Martin's nasty experience, and presumably that of many others. "Perpetrators don't often get charged with voyeurism," she said. "Voyeurism laws only protect victims if they're in a private place like a changing room or at home. But I was at a festival - a public place."
More details of the Enniskillen Royal incident emerged in a letter sent last week from the teaching union NASUWT to its members in the school. The two teachers underwent a "horrendous ordeal", the letter claims. They "described how the pupil allegedly took the footage - he hid his phone among school bags and slid it under the teachers' skirts with his foot while they were helping other students."
It sounds disgusting. Quite rightly, the union has voted to refuse to teach the individual in question.
You might also ask why 17 days suspension, rather than full and immediate expulsion, was considered appropriate in this case. Apparently the governors decided not to expel after taking legal advice. It leaves you wondering: what exactly does a pupil have to do to get kicked out of school these days?
Women must be free to attend music festivals, or travel on public transport, or teach classes, or anything else they choose to do, without fear that someone is secretly trying to film or photograph private parts of their bodies.
They need to know that they are protected by law from these outrageous violations of their privacy and indefensible assaults on their bodily autonomy. Wherever they happen to live and work.