“This isn’t about me — this is about every woman and girl who has messaged me for the past year”.
Meet Gina Martin: the everyday woman who made upskirting illegal in England and Wales. She also just so happens to be a most unconventional and outspoken activist who is leading the way in what modern, inclusive protest means.
It all started in 2017 when a man took photos up her skirt without permission at a London music festival. Outraged by the police’s decision not to prosecute, she began to campaign for change not just for herself, but for the thousands of other victims of sexual assault, whose voices are often ignored and belittled on a daily basis.
In a cruel twist – and a sign of the struggle women face when they dare to speak up – she was subjected to hundreds of attacks through social media – some as appalling as threats to rape her. She valiantly fought on however and now, seven months later, upskirting is an official gender-inclusive offence.
But true change won’t happen overnight, or as a result of the law; certainly not when one in ten men sadly don’t think upskirting is sexual harassment. According to a GQ and YouGov poll, some men going as far as buying shoe cameras to take non-consensual pictures up women’s skirts.
It’s a huge social issue that she’s determined to confine to the dustbin.
So how does she feel when people play down sexual harassment as a laddish prank and how does she react when women don’t speak up for fear of being seen as ‘boring’?
“I feel like in society we reinforce ideas that make women feel judged, unsupported and blamed for the majority of what happens to them, so it’s not surprising that women don’t feel empowered to stand up for themselves.
“People separate upskirting from the bigger picture and see it as ‘not an important crime’.
“But it is part of systematic and huge problem that, at its worst, results in violence against women and death at an extraordinary rate.
“So when people tell me solving a smaller part of a bigger problem is not important I remind them that it’s only possible to solve something systematic by focusing on each small part.
“Then I ask them what they’ve done to make the world a better place!”
An unlikely hero inspiring other victims and highlighting it can ‘happen to anyone’
Dressed in bright eye-catching clothes Gina, 27, who lives London with her boyfriend, Jordy, and rescue tortoise Gary Tortellini, is an unusually regular-looking colourful campaigner amid the grey of Westminster.
Her ‘ordinariness’ is one of her appeals: in one of her latest Instagram posts she is humbled by the support and affection from her followers, saying: “I have been overwhelmed and I am cried out. 💗 …”
Her normality serves to highlight how an issue like upskirting is so prolific in society. In fact girls as young as 10 are now victims. Two thirds of girls and women ages 14-21 have been sexually harassed in public according to a poll by Plan International UK.
But the social acceptance of the issue is profound.
When Holly Willoughby was upskirted on a red carpet while holding a #TimesUp rose to campaign against sexual harassment in the workplace, she drew attention to the multitude of similar photos taken everyday of celebrity women that mostly go unnoticed as anything untoward.
The question of why the issue is so normalised is one many a commentator has tried to answer. Writing in the Guardian, Hadley Freeman said:
“There is nothing sexy about a blurry camera phone shot of an oblivious stranger’s vagina, unless you find humiliation sexy.
“This is about young women being shamed for going out and having fun, and men wanting to tell them they have power over them.”
The campaign carries on
With the bill through Parliament, is it time for Gina to rest?
Not quite. During her 18 month campaign, Gina received some sickening social media abuse, but sought solace from supporters online.
“My strength came from the hundred of messages I received from young girls and women who have been upskirted and feel lost and humiliated and has no support.
“That kept me going even when I felt completely out of my depth.
Her experience has led her to encourage her many Instagram followers to send messages of support to fellow upskirting victims seeking justice.
Along with these social acts of compassion, an education programme for schools, colleges and universities on social media awaits.
And Gina thinks we all can help get involved.
“We ALL have a role to play.
“We should all be talking to our kids about the reality of the world, social media and the internet. But we should also remember to never make assault the victim’s problem.
“Banning skirts is a straight road to victim blaming, and we must educate in a progressive and positive way.
“We also all need to better bystanders.
“Especially men – who hold a lot of privilege and who other men will listen to more than women – need to be calling out sexist behaviour, and if they see upskirting.
“Because this is not just a problem for cis women. Trans people face a lot of this due to cis people’s morbid fascination with their bodies.
“It’s also a problem with men in kilts (why scotland made it illegal 10 years ago) and we need to stop politicising people’s bodies and ensure more legislation is gender neutral.”
What to do if you’ve been subjected to upskirting
In the first instance, Gina wants you to speak up.
“By speaking up you’re speaking up for every woman who has felt the same way as you and it sends a message to everyone that hears you that this kind of thing is not okay at all.”
That may feel a hard thing to do, but Gina promises messages of support in the form of herself and her Instagram community.
“Sexual harrassment does not have to be part of you life. It’s does not have to be ‘just the way it is’, and if you don’t like something, you can change it. I am living proof of that”, she says.
The next, and most important thing to do, is to report the crime.
You can find details of your local police station on the Police.UK website.
Further advice is available from Victim Support.