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Chope's ignorant objection to the upskirting bill shows how little female consent matters to a lot of men in power

The Tory MP didn't stand up to bravely fight for fellow man’s right to shove a camera phone up my skirt, he just doesn't care either way – and he's not alone

Harriet Marsden
Saturday 16 June 2018 19:49 BST
Commons bill to make 'upskirting' criminal offence halted by Peter Chope objection

I’m not here to explain to you what upskirting is, or to argue why it’s a national disgrace that shoving a camera phone up a woman’s skirt and taking a non-consensual photo of her lady parts isn’t illegal in England and Wales. I think we can all agree that this is a sorry state of affairs.

All except Sir Christopher Chope, the 71-year-old Tory MP, who with two little words managed to set the fight for women’s bodily autonomy back, undercutting the work of activist Gina Martin, justice minister Lucy Frazer and Liberal Democrat Wera Hobhouse, who managed to introduce a private member’s bill into parliament to add upskirting to the definition of voyeurism in England and Wales, making it punishable by up to two years in prison.

But parliamentary rules dictate that a bill’s progress can be blocked by just one MP standing up and shouting: “I object!” And that, of course, is exactly what Chope, who was given a knighthood for political and public service, did.

This private member’s bill was symbolic at best: urging the government to take a public stand against something so obviously exploitative and indefensible. The reality is that it would almost never be enforced. God knows, it’s hard enough to get a conviction on crimes ranging from invasion of privacy and misogynistic harassment all the way through to assault and rape. And it can happen in an instant – how are we even supposed to report upskirting, let alone prosecute it? This is the sexual objectification equivalent of the smash-and-grab.

I don’t believe that Chope stood up – to Game of Thronesian cries of “Shame! Shame” from his fellow MPs – to bravely fight for fellow man’s right to shove a camera phone up my skirt.

According to Martin, he objected on principle because it “wasn’t debated”. Chope, like many of his fellow backbench Conservatives, makes a point of objecting to legislation that isn’t backed up and could be passed quickly, insisting on more scrutiny. Just moments after, he blocked plans to award more protection to police dogs and horses.

But, she says, he also told her he wasn’t really sure what upskirting was. So he blocked the bill because he hadn’t taken the short amount of time to educate himself on what it was proposing to ban. And he’s objecting to lazy legislation.

The public – and by public, I mean the Twittersphere – are, not unexpectedly, outraged. This is also a cross-party issue that drew cross-party ire. Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon called it outrageous and said he was disgusted. And, my personal favourite, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton, called him an “unrepentant thundertwat”.

In an unusual look for the Tory party, the response there has been fairly uniform. They are collectively embarrassed.

East Renfrewshire MP Paul Masterson warned: “This kind of thing does far more damage to the public’s view of our party than endless debates about customs arrangements. Do not underestimate just how furious many Tory MPs are about this.”

And the head of his own party, Theresa May, said she was disappointed, insisting the bill will become law eventually – and she’s undoubtedly right. The data shows that girls as young as 10 have been victims of upskirting – those who hesitate to protect women may be more charitable towards children.

Clearly there’s a procedural issue that needs to be re-examined if one rogue MP can block bills with a single sentence. George Freeman, former leader of May’s policy unit, was right when he said it was “an affront to parliamentary democracy”.

This is not the first time Chope has used his power to halt social change. He has voted against same-sex marriage, amnesty for men convicted of homosexuality, the minimum wage, criminalising revenge evictions and free hospital parking for carers.

This man is not stupid nor inexperienced – he must have known what the response to his objection would be. He just didn’t think upskirting was an important enough issue. And he’s not alone.

There are still a lot of people who have never heard of upskirting, or don’t see it as a big problem. Like other seemingly small acts of objectification and micro-aggression, such as cat-calling, groping, persistent come-ons, unsolicited dick pics and inappropriate “locker-room” banter, many see it as something that pales into insignificance compared to wider social ills.

There are so many more issues affecting women’s rights in the UK alone, not to mention the wider world. We’re battling for legal access to abortion, equal pay, better conviction rates for rape and protection against domestic abuse. It’s easy to dismiss a camera up a skirt as infantile, silly behaviour at best, and mildly sexist at worst.

But all the above struggles were once dismissed as unimportant by some man in power. And that’s why we’re still fighting for them today. And they’re all variants on a sliding scale – from cavemen to Freud to Jacob Rees-Mogg – that objectifies women as inferior. Upskirting is on the same scale as rape and femicide, and just another example of how for centuries women’s experiences of exploitation have been disregarded as silly or irrelevant.

Say what you like about us, but I’ve never seen a woman forcibly acquire a picture of strangers’ genitals in public. And why should we? We’re sent them, unwanted, way too often. But maybe that’s a matter for another day – hopefully one in the not-too-distant future, though, when Chope and his archaic stubborn ilk have retired and parliament behaves like an institution guided not by pedantic procedure but by principle, as it should.

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