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Upskirting: 7 lessons activist Gina Martin learned during her campaign to make it a criminal offence

‘I actually Googled ‘how to change the law’ when I started!’

Katie O'Malley
Sunday 14 April 2019 11:54 BST
What is upskirting and why is it now illegal?

Aside from influencer culture and personal memories, social media has become a crucial tool, helping activists to mobilise communities and bring about change.

In recent years, some of the most fearless, pioneering and inspiring activists have used online platforms to raise awareness of issues from body confidence and racism to gender-based violence and sexual misconduct.

Women including Tarana Burke and Laura Bates, who made waves around the world after launching the MeToo movement and the Everyday Sexism Project, respectively, on platforms such as Myspace and Twitter, encouraging women to share their stories of sexual misconduct, harassment, and sexism.

The power of social media activism, or “hashtivism” as it’s often referred to, has the ability to spread meaningful messages around the world in an instant – and has hit the headlines again this week as upskirting has been made a criminal offence following a 20-month-long social media campaign by activist Gina Martin.

The Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 comes into force on Friday 12 April, making anyone caught upskirting – the act of taking a sexually intrusive photograph up someone’s skirt without their permission – at risk of facing up to two years in prison.

“I’ve learned more in the past 20 months than I have in my entire life,” Martin tells The Independent, almost two years after launching a campaign after becoming a victim of upskirting at a festival.

Following the incident, which occurred in summer 2017, Martin informed the police and learned that upskirting was not a criminal offence in UK law.

After a Facebook post detailing her experience went viral, the activist launched an online petition to get her case reopened with the police and called for upskirting to be made part of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Within days, her petition received 50,000 signatures and went onto receive cross-party support from MPs and the UK government.

We spoke to the activist to find out what she’s learned over the last 20 months during her journey to becoming an activist and changing the law.

1) Social media is an incredible tool to galvanise and motivate people

“I work in digital marketing so I understand, probably more than most people, the power social media has and how to use it. But I don’t think I fully understood what an incredible tool it is to galvanise and motivate people before. I’ve learned a lot about community and, while we criticise social media a lot for being negative, it can be a powerful channel for good.

“You can get a huge amount of public interest and support from social media. It has given us the push to enter into spaces, such as parliament, to show politicians how many people cared about this issue and wanted something to be done.

“To have a law come into effect in 18 months after launching a campaign is amazing and I don’t think it would’ve been possible to have done it so quickly without social media. If I had tried to launch this campaign 20 years ago, the outcome would have been quite different.

“Previous campaigners have done amazing work to change the status quo and had to rely on canvassing, meetings, and discussions with focus groups. Rallies and marches continue to be a great tool but an online petition now functions as a digital rally.”

I don’t think I fully understood what an incredible tool it is to galvanise and motivate people before

2) Anyone can get into politics

“Over the last two years, it has become apparent how much I didn’t know about law and politics. Legislation is incredibly detailed and specific, which is a good thing, because it’s a massive thing to change the law.

“I’ve learned that there are some good people working in the government. I can see why a lot of people distrust some people working in politics and why the relationship between the two has broken down. Saying that, there are people working there who will push things for you if you go about things the right way.

“At first, I didn’t think I could help make upskirting a criminal offence and thought it was a crazy thing to achieve given that I had no experience in politics. But if you are strategic about what you want to achieve when it comes to the law, set out a watertight plan and do your research on processes, anyone can succeed. The experience has given me a lot of hope.”

3) Representation is still a massive issue

“Previous to the campaign, I’d already developed an interest in gender and human rights but the last 20 months has cemented the beliefs I already thought to be true.

“However, I’ve become painfully aware of the unearned benefits I hold and how representation is still a massive problem. As a white woman walking into parliament, I was expected to be there; I’m not an anomaly. That said, I struggled a lot at first in the male dominated environment. I was lucky to have a 6ft 7in lawyer, Ryan Whelan, who looks like a rugby player and made it easier for me to walk into that space in a red suit. I’ve definitely seen how it can be difficult to walk into a powerful place when there are so few people who look like me – and I’m a white woman!

“Because of the kind of person I am, who I was born to and what I look like I had the access and resources to get in there. People would often put me on the front of newspapers because I was a white woman who wanted to change the law, but I wonder if the narrative would’ve been different if I wasn’t who I was?

“I’ve also learned a lot about inequality, in general, during this process and that a lot of work still needed to be done. From the numerous talks and workshops I’ve taken part in, to the articles I’ve written for the media, I’ve been exposed to a very complex and rich narrative of inequality which I didn’t fully realise the extent of previous to the campaign.”

Why did it take so long to be made illegal?

Upskirting has a complicated legislative history in England and Wales

Despite support for Liberal Democrat MP Vera Hobhouse’s bill from fellow government ministers, Conservative MP for Christchurch Sir Christopher Chope single-handedly blocked the bill in the House of Commons in June 2018.

Chope’s intervention was met with shouts of ‘shame’ from other MPs and a few days later an anonymous protester showed a more visible sign of dissent by hanging four pairs of knickers across the MP’s office door at the Commons.

Despite the setback, Theresa May said she was ‘disappointed’ in the objection and vowed that the government would push the law change through parliament.

May described upskirting as a ‘hideous invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed’.

4) Campaigning requires dedication

“I had to fit campaigning around my full-time job which has seen me working on it from 5am before work and sitting up until 4am. As a result, I’ve learned it’s necessary to prioritise a work/life balance. I now put my mobile phone on airplane mode at night because otherwise I’ll be sitting in bed responding to emails until 3am.

“There have been a million times when I’ve wanted to give up but somehow, because of the people around me and the passion I have for the campaign, I managed to see it through. I’ve realised how much I care about people – far more than I thought I did. I can’t stop doing this work now, even though it’s incredibly hard. I’ll keep doing this for the rest of my life.”

5) A thick skin is key

“It takes a lot to wear me down and think badly of people but I’ve definitely become more resilient during the campaign.

“I’ve received unrivalled support from women but the online abuse has largely come from men. I wish I could say it hadn’t been, but that’s the truth. The worst bit is realising how normalised it becomes over time.

“Threats are a symptom of using your voice. I don’t think we’re used to seeing women rattle the cage and society has a very narrow idea of what power looks like. If someone doesn’t look like what we think power is and steps out, we struggle to listen to them.

The process has taught me a lot about gender in general.

“Safety is a big concern for me, especially given that this campaign grew from a scary situation. I constantly worry about my safety so I have to put boundaries in place to protect myself.

“When it comes to social media, for example, I never post immediately on Instagram because I don’t want people knowing what I’m doing or where I am. On Instagram Stories, I’m careful about what I show at that time.”

6) It’s important to exploit your strengths

“I’ve learned how important it is to know your limits, strengths and weaknesses. I’m good at social media marketing and I have friends who are illustrators, painters, rappers who have helped on the campaign. The last two years have shown me the importance of attaching a talent to a social media cause, because you have the passion and the tools to raise awareness to it.

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“Likewise, I knew nothing about the law so I recruited a lawyer for the campaign. If I’d tried to get the law changed without any experience in the industry, it would never have happened. It’s important to get people involved, ask for help and receive support – you can’t do it all on your own.”

The online abuse has largely come from men

7) Passion is the only quality you need

“The word activist is so nebulous and terrifying – I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to making change. I’m like a two-year-old activist baby! That said, I’ve learned so much in the past two years, whether it’s how to do a press release or use social media properly – no one tells you these things when you’re trying to make a change in the law happen. I remember Googling ‘how to change the law’ when I first start started! I want to teach people and make them realise that everyone can do what I’ve done.

“It’s both daunting and exciting to think my campaign will change people’s lives forever. I’ve set the bar quite high but I’m motivated because my work is about inspiring people to make change, whatever the level. However, my passion to do this work and make society better for people is so much bigger than my fears of losing.”

Gina Martin’s book Be The Change: A Toolkit for the Activist in You is out in paperback on 13 June

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