Hong Kong outlaws upskirt photos and deepfake pornography

Society & Culture

Perpetrators of upskirt photography in Hong Kong’s public places have long been able to escape the law because there was not a suitable criminal charge victims or police could press. That has changed with the passage of a new law that criminalizes all non consensual intimate photography as well as deepfake porn.

Image from Tencent News

Hong Kong has criminalized upskirting, the practice of surreptitiously taking photos up women’s skirts. Offenders could face up to five years in jail. 

The news has fueled voices calling for a similar move in mainland China, where upskirting is not considered a sexual offense, despite being a common concern among women. 

The legislation, passed (in Chinese) by local lawmakers on September 30, is intended to close loopholes in Hong Kong’s crime ordinance. In addition to outlawing the behavior of “photographing, videotaping or electronically surveilling” the intimate parts of others without their knowledge or consent, the new law also makes it illegal for people to “covertly film others engaging in intimate acts where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy” and to “share the secretly filmed videos or photos to the public.” 

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To keep up with the rapidly evolving artificial intelligence technology, the legislation also bans the creation and distribution of “deepfake” videos where victim’s faces are realistically superimposed on pornographic videos. 

All of the above-mentioned crimes are punishable with a sentence of up to five years. The law went into effect immediately.

Prior to the new rules, there was no law specifically prohibiting upskirting in Hong Kong. People caught doing it usually faced charges such as “outraging public decency” or “obtaining access to a computer with dishonest intent.” But when offenders photographed women in private settings or used their own electronic devices to take lewd pictures, none of the charges could be applied.

Driven in large part by new technologies that can make filming hard to detect, upskirting has been a growing problem in Hong Kong. According to data from the city’s police department (in Chinese), there were roughly 300 reported incidents of upskirting in 2018, up from the 78 reports in 2011 and 101 reports in 2012. A survey conducted in 2019 found (in Chinese) that nearly 75 percent of the 206 respondents had been photographed against their will. 

Upskirting has been a problem in Hong Kong for years 

There have been public efforts against upskirting, including some buildings in the city installing (in Chinese) opaque panels and stickers on glass walls and staircases following complaints. However, on the legal front, things were moving slowly. In 2017, after seven years of discussion, Hong Kong’s Law Reform Commission put forward an earnest proposal to the local government to enact laws specifically targeting voyeurism and upskirt photography. But it wasn’t until this year — when two men were arrested (in Chinese) for allowing more than 50,000 people to sell and trade upskirt photos on their website — that the suggestion acquired a sense of urgency at the city’s Legislative Council. 

Linda S.Y. Wong (王秀容 Wáng Xiùróng), the executive director of the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women (ACSVAW), a Hong Kong-based organization working to promote gender equality, told AFP that she hoped the new law would evelate the discussion around image-based sexual violence and help “frontline law enforcement officers to understand the irreversible harm” done by it. 

With the new legislation, Hong Kong has joined a small but growing group of countries and regions that has outlawed upskirting, including New Zealand, Britain, and several states in the U.S., such as Massachusetts and Texas. 

But mainland China — where incidents of upskirting regularly make headlines, especially in the summertime — is not one of them. To date, most of the measures against such activities, usually conducted in crowded public spaces like subway cars, have involved outing or shaming alleged perpetrators. In cases where police are involved, short-term administrative detention appears to be the most severe punishment that can be applied, even if the perpetrator is a repeat offender.  

To complicate the problem, there’s still a collective belief in Chinese culture that in instances of public sexual harassment, those who grope women, snap upskirt photos of them, or make crude remarks about them, are only partly at fault because it’s the victims’ responsibilty to avoid unwanted attention or sexual advances. This notion has allowed many offenders to be punished lightly in the court of public opinion, but also pushed women to police each other, slut-shaming or mocking those who wear clothing that is considered too revealing. 

On Chinese social media, Hong Kong’s passage of the upskirt ban has sparked renewed calls for a similar law in mainland China. “I hope our government will follow!” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).