Technology now offers so many ways to sexually harass women that the law is failing to keep up, despite new legislation such as the ‘upskirting’ bill, MPs have claimed – arguing that we risk “sleepwalking into a crisis”.
In an exclusive interview with HuffPost UK, Conservative MP Maria Miller and Labour MP Jess Phillips said the true extent of abuse such as cyberflashing is going unrecorded. While they understand why the upskirting legislation was prioritised, “it wasn’t the right bill” because it fails to address the breadth of image-based abuse enabled by new technologies.
“There are so many different ways you can abuse images online, some of which we know about – deep fake, cyberflashing, revenge porn – some of which haven’t even been invented yet,” Miller said, acknowledging that she has been sent unsolicited dick pics via Twitter.
Upskirting will criminalise the taking of photographs underneath a person’s clothes without consent. “What the government needed a year ago, indeed two years ago, was a more comprehensive bill against all image-based abuse. If they don’t do that now, we are sleepwalking into a crisis,” said Miller.
Phillips agreed that she had concerns about the upskirting bill becoming a “box-ticking exercise” on sexual harassment. “I sometimes worry that campaigns like upskirting are quick turnarounds not deep cultural change. That is the bit that worries me. It was knee-jerk,” she said.
The MPs also called for greater financial incentivisation of tech giants and social media through a tax levy, in order to protect their users from abuse. “Regulation of tech is long overdue,” said Miller.
Their comments come a week after the Women and Equalities committee called on the government to criminalise all non-consensual creation and distribution of intimate sexual images. This would cover cyberflashing – sending unsolicited dick pics via AirDrop or social media, which appears to be on the rise.
“The public is moving at a greater pace than we are on this,” said Phillips, adding that inaction was no longer an option. “Pressure from outside does leave the government with very little room to manoeuvre in doing nothing.”
After talking to, and hearing from, hundreds of women and experts on the scale of the problem, the MPs argue current available data on image-based abuse such as cyberflashing does not reflect the reality of women’s experience.
The government does not keep a centralised record of sexual harassment data. “The only organisation who are collecting centralised data year-on-year on sexual harassment is the Girl Guides,” said Miller.
“The only organisation who are collecting centralised data year-on-year on sexual harassment is the Girl Guides...””
In a recent report for HuffPost UK, 10 women shared their experiences of cyberflashing and the reason they hadn’t reported it, and many more got in touch as a result to share their stories.
Most did not know who to report it to, or what would happen if they did so. “If we did have the right laws in place around image-based abuse I think we would see a significant amount of reporting,” said Miller.
She added: “I think there is a significant amount of denial in the crown prosecution service about the scale of online crime – and when it comes to sexual harassment and image-based abuse that denial is clear to see.”
In a separate phone call, Miller argued that we could see a similar pattern of reporting on cyberflashing as with revenge-porn.
The MP claims the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) told her it was a minor problem, concerning a handful of cases, ahead of the 2015 law being introduced; in 2016-17, there were 465 prosecutions for revenge pornography in England and Wales.
A CPS spokesperson said: “It would be wrong to suggest we do not take online crime seriously. We will always prosecute online offences, including sexual offences, wherever there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so.”
It could be the case that we would see a similar rise in reporting if cyberflashing were criminalised, Miller said.
Women tend to diminish things that happen to them as a protective characteristic, argued Phillips, who believes women are having these conversations among themselves, but not in the public sphere. “Women are culturally trained to put up with things until someone tells them they don’t have to,” she said.
Professor Clare McGlynn, who gave evidence to the Women and Equalities committee, previously told HuffPost UK that it was “inevitable” that some of those responsible for image-based abuse would go on to commit contact sexual offences.
“It’s a ‘thin end of the wedge’ type argument,” said Miller. “If some people’s behaviour online goes unnoticed and unchallenged it becomes part of a continuum that will then happen on the street too.”
The government currently defends its position by saying that anything that is currently illegal offline is automatically illegal online too, but Miller and Phillips say that this isn’t working in practice. “That only works so far,” said Miller. “When you have a crime like revenge porn the impact of posting an image online is far greater and long lasting than that image being distributed offline.
“And the even more problematic outcome of cyberflashing online (rather than in the street) is the lack of response from your victim. Your perpetrator can become immune to the response. That’s why online cybercrime is far more emboldening and damaging to both parties,” she said.
The committee is currently waiting for a response from the government on its recommendations – the deadline is late December.
“A lot of the things we are recommending can be done very swiftly – it’s secondary legislation not primary so we could really quickly see things, even in a Brexit parliament,” says Miller.