What is 'downblousing' as government announce plans to make it a criminal offence?

Watch: Sharing 'downblouse' images and pornographic 'deepfakes' without consent to be made a crime

'Downblousing' will soon be criminalised in England and Wales after the government announced plans to make the sharing of the intimate images an offence.

An amendment to the Online Safety Bill means police and prosecutors will be given more power to bring abusers to justice.

It will mean downblousing, the act of taking photos down a woman's top without consent, would be made illegal in the two countries, a move designed to bring laws on intimate image abuse into the smartphone era.

Under the proposed changes, those who also share “deepfakes” – explicit images or videos which have been manipulated to look like someone without their consent - could also be jailed.

The Ministry of Justice will additionally bring forward laws to tackle the installation of equipment, such as hidden cameras, to take or record images of someone without their consent.

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Stock picture of a woman waiting for a train, after news that downblousing is to be made illegal. (Getty Images)
The government has recently announced the act of downblousing is to be made a criminal offence. (Getty Images)

Commenting on the measure, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “We must do more to protect women and girls, from people who take or manipulate intimate photos in order to hound or humiliate them.

“Our changes will give police and prosecutors the powers they need to bring these cowards to justice and safeguard women and girls from such vile abuse.”

Figures show around one in 14 adults in England and Wales have experienced a threat to share intimate images, with more than 28,000 reports of disclosing private sexual images without consent recorded by police between April 2015 and December 2021.

The Law Commission had previously called for the changes, saying criminal offences had not kept pace with technology and failed to protect all victims, while perpetrators evaded justice.

Professor Penney Lewis, of the Law Commission, said: “Taking or sharing intimate images of a person without their consent can inflict lasting damage.

“We are pleased that the Government will take forward our recommendations to strengthen the law.

“A new set of offences will capture a wider range of abusive behaviours, ensuring that more perpetrators of these deeply harmful acts face prosecution.”

Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said: “I welcome these moves by the government which aim to make victims and survivors safer online, on the streets and in their own homes.

“I am pleased to see this commitment in the Online Safety Bill and hope to see it continue its progression through Parliament at the earliest opportunity.”

Read more: What to do if you're being stalked after victim calls for better legislation

Downblousing is the act of taking photos down a woman's top without consent. (Getty Images)
Downblousing is the act of taking photos down a woman's top without consent. (Getty Images)

What is downblousing?

Downblousing is the act of taking a photograph or image down somebody's shirt, blouse or top without their consent.

While not as widely discussed as upskirting, making the practice illegal highlights it is to be taken seriously as a crime, reflecting the upset the act can cause to victims.

“Sharing intimate images of a person without their consent can be incredibly distressing and harmful for victims, with the experience often scarring them for life," Professor Lewis explained.

“Current laws on taking or sharing sexual or nude images of someone without their consent are inconsistent, based on a narrow set of motivations and do not go far enough to cover disturbing and abusive new behaviours born in the smartphone era.”

A spokesperson from British Transport Police previously told Yahoo UK it would welcome the potential law change.

“British Transport Police take all reports of sexual harassment very seriously, and we welcome any extra help in bringing more offenders to justice," detective chief inspector Nia Mellor said.

“We know that all forms of sexual harassment are under-reported to police and we are working tirelessly to encourage more victims to come forward and tell us about what’s happened to them, knowing they will be taken seriously. You can do this by texting us discreetly on 61016 or downloading the Railway Guardian app.”

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Emily Hunt, a campaigner for victims of sexual offences and an independent adviser to the Ministry of Justice, previously said the reforms on downblousing would be a vital step for securing greater protection for victims.

“Taking or sharing sexual or nude images of someone without their consent can disrupt lives and inflict lasting damage,” she said.

“A change in the law is long overdue and it’s right that under these proposals, all perpetrators of these acts would face prosecution.”

Stock picture of a woman on public transport, after news downblousing is to be made a criminal offence. (Getty Images)
Downblousing is to be made a criminal offence. (Getty Images)

What is upskirting?

In its simplest form upskirting is the invasive practice of taking an image or video up somebody’s clothing in order to see their genitals or underwear.

Essentially, ‘upskirt’ or ‘creep shots’ are photographs of women in public spaces taken by men and sometimes uploaded online without the former knowing or giving consent.

While the vast majority of known cases involve men targeting women, men have also been victims.

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What is the law on upskirting?

Upskirting became a specific criminal offence in England and Wales in 2019 following a high-profile campaign.

The Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 officially came into force on the 12 April 2019, adding two new offences to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to cover the practice of upskirting.

It was already a criminal offence in Scotland.

The breakthrough came following writer Gina Martin's campaign to legislate against the act, after she discovered it was not technically considered a sexual crime.

Martin, was herself a victim of upskirting while at a music festival in 2017, only realising what had happened when she spotted him sharing the photograph of her crotch with his friends.

But after alerting the authorities, she was stunned to discover that, at the time, taking a photograph up a woman’s skirt wasn’t technically a sexual offence.

After a Facebook post detailing her experience went viral, she 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.

In January 2020, it was reported that there had been an upskirting allegation made to police nearly every single day since the law came into force.

Read more: 'Don't be that guy': New anti-sexual violence campaign makes men responsible for women's safety

Upskirting was made a criminal offence in 2019. (Getty Images)
Upskirting was made a criminal offence in 2019. (Getty Images)

What can victims of upskirting or downblousing do?

If you’re a victim of upskirting or downblousing, the police and other organisations are there to help you.

The British Transport Police has put together some advice to follow

  • Get out of the situation quickly if you can.

  • If you're in public, move away.

  • Don't engage directly with the offender.

  • If it's definitely safe to, consider taking a photo of the offender from a safe distance.

  • Report it to us, if you feel you can.

"It takes courage to report something uncomfortable, but if you feel you can talk to us, we'll always take you seriously," the site advises.

"Your report can help us stop it happening to someone else. Sometimes people who commit this type of offence go on to commit more serious offences."

If it feels like the situation could get heated or violent or if you feel in immediate danger or need support right away the British Transport Police recommends calling 999.

If it isn't an emergency, you can report upskirting or other voyeurism: online, by texting on 61016, by calling 0800 40 50 40.

Additional reporting PA.