Upgrading Up-Skirt Laws: Advocates Call for Stronger Action Against Video Voyeurism

Lawmakers are changing the rules to keep up with hi-tech creeps

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Today’s peeping Toms have slick tools to capture and share their “up-skirting” or “down-blousing.” On Thursday, prominent women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred held a press conference in Los Angeles with a client who had photos taken up her skirt by a man using an iPad and lamented what she calls a “disturbing trend.”

The client, 24-year-old model Brittanie Weaver, had been visiting a pet shop when a man leaned down as if to pet her dog and filmed between her legs with a tablet placed on his knee. After Weaver tracked him down through social media, authorities charged him with misdemeanors and gave him suspended sentence with community service.

Allred argues that court reporter Julio Mario Medal should have been charged with a more serious crime—that states like California should follow in the footsteps of Florida, where legislators made “video voyeurism” a felony last year. Advocates in Oregon are also pushing to make penalties more severe, trying to propel their movement against the crime with a Facebook group that now has 2,000 members. The majority of states have laws that designate at least some form of video voyeurism as a felony.

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As the nature of peeping has evolved and gadgets have made it easier to take photos and videos while undetected, lawmakers have tried to keep pace. But some states are still lagging. Beyond pushing for tougher punishments, policy experts say states need to update the language of outdated voyeurism laws that are more attuned to eavesdropping than punishing people who snap inappropriate images with their smartphones. “Obviously the law has not kept up with advances in the tech world,” Allred says, “and the law needs to be changed.” States such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York considered but did not pass updated voyeurism-related bills this year.

Peeping has, of course, been a problem since there were keyholes, and before there were palm-sized smartphones, sleazy spies had other electronic equipment at their disposal. More compact gadgets with more robust recording apps have been part of hundreds of unsavory cases in recent years–from Florida, where a school janitor hid his smartphone in the girls locker room, to Boston University, where campus police dealt with a rash of peeping incidents involving showers and iPhones. “With all the technology we have, it happens more frequently that we know,” says Ilse Knecht, a policy expert at the National Center for Victims of Crime. “Often these cases don’t get to law enforcement because the victim is unknowing.”

In 2004, Congress passed a federal law that made it a crime to capture or broadcast images of people’s “private area[s]” with any kind of gadgetry on federal property, including national parks and military bases. But much of the responsibility falls to states when it comes to criminalizing high-tech peeping everywhere. States like Washington have changed their laws by adding language specifying that people have an expectation of privacy in public spaces as well as private, so the woman wearing a dress to a carnival is protected as much as the man in his shower at home.

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The Internet has amplified the potential impact of modern voyeurism, allowing illicit images to be quickly seen by thousands of people rather than just one. “Really the big issue about this is the dissemination,” Knecht says of modern peeping. “Photographs can go nationwide or international. You just don’t know how far they go.” Though all states have some statute related to voyeurism, Knecht says that states like Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and New Mexico need to update their laws to criminalize the distribution of images or videos on the Web.

Knecht argues that people don’t appreciate the lasting effects that voyeurism can have on victims who do become aware of the crime. She has worked with women who showered for years in a swimsuit after a peeping incident or who stopped wearing skirts entirely. “Everyday Americans think ‘Really, what’s the big deal?” she says. “But [the victims] always have a sense of not being alone and not being private.” Weaver, Allred’s client, described feeling disconcerted and distrustful of those around her at the press conference on Thursday, saying that even when models wear skimpy clothes, they are cognizant of pictures being taken and are treated professionally. “I felt sexually assaulted believing that the defendant had photos of my private parts,” she said. “Every day I worry about what he has done with it.”

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