In 2019, upskirting became a criminal offence in the UK as part of the Voyeurism (Offences) Act. It was the kind of new legislation that made everyone across the country stop and question why it wasn’t already illegal to take a photograph up someone’s dress or skirt without consent. If it hadn’t been for Gina Martin it might still only mean a slap on the wrist for perpetrators of the misogynistic act.
Two years before the act came into effect, Martin herself had been a victim of upskirting while at a festival in London. After reporting the incident to the police, only to be told there was very little they could do to prosecute the man, Martin, now 31, decided she would take matters into her own hands to change the situation.
“So much of what I was doing was trying to have a cultural conversation about violence and where it was coming from, trying to shift the conversation from talking about the symptoms of a problem,” Martin says. “We talk about sexual violence, harassment, domestic abuse – but we don’t talk about where that harm is coming from and how it is being perpetuated.”
It was her hard work bringing about a change in the law that made Martin a name recognised across the UK. After all, this activist accomplished something in two years that it takes some politicians a lifetime to do. But it wasn’t easy, with people both within the walls of parliament and in the outside world desperate for her to fail.
“I started getting abused online. I got rape threats for two years. I talked to my partner about moving house because I was really scared for my safety. It took a long time for me to allow myself to be scared. I thought, ‘How can I publicly say stand up for yourself, know your rights, do whatever you can,’ and then privately have a home alarm system and be terrified in my own home?’ I couldn’t reconcile those two things as being OK in the same person.”
The online abuse was one thing, but there was also how Martin was regarded by some politicians. Joined by her lawyer but without any political legal experience herself, she worked in Westminster, meeting officials who she says treated her like she didn’t know what she was talking about. “It was incredibly difficult to make politicians recognise me as someone who was competent,” she recalls.
Martin says upskirting is the sneeze and the cough of much deeper, entrenched issues surrounding misogyny, toxic masculinity and gender roles in our society. Making upskirting illegal was a necessary start, but as Martin says, what’s equally important is figuring out why these acts happen in the first place. One way she’s hoping to get to the root of the problem is through schools, by going into classrooms and speaking with pupils, fostering an open and accepting environment for kids.
“It’s been mostly mixed schools or girls’ schools. Sometimes if they bring a girls’ school together with a boys’ school I have to be really careful because they don’t often get to exist together. You have boys come in instantly being like, ‘I’m not listening to her because she’s talking about feminism and it’s a load of bullshit.’ Then you have girls coming in, being like, ‘Finally someone’s talking about this.’ And it creates real tension between the kids.
“Usually I find what they care about and figure out how they can take small, actual steps in changing things in their community. With the girls, it’s almost exclusively about sexual harassment. That’s all they want to talk about, because they receive it at school. It’s where they learn about it. The boys are pressured into doing it and a lot don’t want to do it, and the girls become sexual objects at seven or eight.”
Along with her book for all ages, Be the Change, Martin is supplying the toolkit for kids and young adults to start building harassment-free environments. For her, activism is all about “being active in your community, whether that’s your identity community or your geographical community. To create conditions that allow people to self-determine, allow people choice, and create support systems to make life easier.” It’s a mantra that has already created real, lasting change and will no doubt inspire others to do the same.