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Image / Editorial

Glass Ceilings: How cultural and institutional sexism enable upskirting


by Roe McDermott
06th Jul 2018
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Roe McDermott noticed how one Dublin office building’s transparent floor made work more difficult for women, literally building sexism and the violation of women’s bodies into their workplace.


In March, Holly Willoughby and hundreds of other famous women arrived at the Brit Awards, wearing and holding white roses. The river of white blooms moving down the red carpet were to show solidarity with the MeToo and TimesUp movement; a collective sign of support for victims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Except, there was a problem. As women like Willoubhy, Abbey Clancy, Lousie Redknapp and Rita Ora left to get their taxis home, there were photographers waiting. Some holding their cameras at low angles, others literally lying on the ground. These photographers were desperate to get a photo up the women’s skirts, in order to sell the photographs and shame the women.

While the MeToo movement has made great strides in highlighting sexual harassment and sexism, these photographers and their employers hadn’t got the memo.

Disturbingly, this act of taking and sharing “upskirt” photographs of women without their consent is perfectly legal in England and in Ireland – but that may soon change.

In England, Theresa May expressed disappointment last month as a Bill proposing to make upskirting illegal and punishable by up to two years was blocked at the last minute, but it’s due to be revisited this week. In Ireland, Labour TD Brendan Howlin is at the forefront of a landmark new bill that includes provisions to make upskirting illegal, along with cyberstalking and “revenge porn.”

This recognition of upskirting as a violating sexual offence has been a long time coming, and for many women, including celebrities, it feels belated.

Actress and feminist activist Emma Watson has recalled how photographers lay down on the ground to take photographs up her skirt on her 18thbirthday – because they knew had they done it 24 hours previously, it would have been illegal. They literally had a countdown to the moment they could legally photograph her genitals without her consent.

And in 2012 during her Oscar campaign for Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway was forced to apologise when an upskirt photograph of her was published across media outlets worldwide. Let that sink in. A woman had to apologise because she was sexually harassed, and images of her genitals were sold and distributed across the internet and print media without her permission.

When upskirting becomes normalised in such a public way, it also normalises the violation of ordinary women. And with camera phones now ubiquitous, incidents of upskirting are on the rise. The Times has reported that upskirt images of Irish women simply walking around town in skirts and dresses have been uploaded to pornography websites – including one video of a girl walking around Dublin in her school uniform. According to The Times, one poster on a pornography site has uploaded five upskirt videos of different women that have been viewed 47,000 times in total.

While upskirting is most commonly committed by men against women, women have been complicit in normalising this violating, victim-blaming culture, too.

During the early noughties, when celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan were at the height of their fame, women’s magazines often bought and published upskirt photographs of the stars. The photographs were often accompanied by sneering headlines, blaming the women for not wearing underwear, or being drunk, or for simply having bodies. That women and women’s publications actively participated in this form of shaming is an example of internalised misogyny, where women enact sexism on each other. It also transformed victims of sexual harassment into commodities, where images of their privacy and consent being violated earned photographers and media outlets huge sums.

But what about when the threat of being upskirted isn’t about being famous, or being violated by a stranger, but becomes a daily and institutionalised part of women’s lives?

Last week, I tweeted about being in an office building where the reception had a transparent, glass-like floor which acted as the ceiling to the floor below – so that anyone on the lower floor could gaze directly up the skirts and dresses of anyone entering the reception area. I was contacted both privately and publicly by many women who had also been in the building and had heard men laughing about this literal glass ceiling that made their female colleagues feel uncomfortable, unsafe and violated on a daily basis. One woman was told “careful” as she entered reception in a skirt – as if it was her responsibility to ensure she didn’t get upskirted, while being forced to stand on a glass floor.

Due to this design that ignores the lived realities of women and prioritises aesthetics over women’s safety, women in the building have to be constantly aware of their clothes, their body and how they move through a workplace that is supposed to value them for their brains and abilities. Instead, these women are aware that their male co-workers who laugh at this design feature (and the building managers who decide every day to not correct this problem by simply putting down a rug) do not care that sexism and the violation of women’s bodies has literally been built into their workplace.

Upskirting is a form of sexual harassment and violation, one that thrives on the normalisation of sexism in the law, media, the workplace, design and culture. Ireland’s proposed law against upskirting will be an important step, but we need to start addressing how sexism affects women in their daily lives, and tackling it, head-on.

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