(CNN) — Massachusetts lawmakers Thursday passed a bill banning “upskirting” in response to a ruling by the state’s highest court that said a law aimed at criminalizing voyeurism did not apply to the snapping of secret photos up a woman’s skirt.
The bill now goes to the governor for signing.
“The House took action today to bring Massachusetts laws up-to-date with technology and the predatory practice of ‘upskirting.’ We must make sure that the law protects women from these kind of frightening and degrading acts,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement.
States — and victims — grapple with ‘upskirt’ laws against voyeurism
Ilse Knecht has worked with victims of disturbing voyeuristic trends such as “upskirting” and “downblousing.”
One woman showered for years in a swimsuit after a peeping incident involving her landlord, Knecht said. Others stopped wearing skirts entirely.
“Victims say people don’t understand the impact of this crime,” said Knecht, a policy expert at the Washington-based National Center for Victims of Crime. “It feels like a combination of a kind a sexual assault and stalking. It is very harmful.”
The subject of modern-day peeping Toms made national headlines this week when Massachusetts’ highest court ruled that a man who snapped cell phone photos up the skirt of women on the Boston subway did not violate state law because the women were not nude or partially nude, as stipulated by a state law against secretive photography.
The controversial decision overruled a lower court that upheld charges against Michael Robertson, who was arrested in August 2010, after police set up a sting following reports that he was using his cell phone to take “upskirt” photos and videos of women without their knowledge.
“A female passenger on a MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) trolley who is wearing a skirt, dress, or the like covering these parts of her body is not a person who is ‘partially nude,’ no matter what is or is not underneath the skirt by way of underwear or other clothing,” wrote Justice Margot Botsford of the state Supreme Judicial Court.
In Massachusetts, prosecutors and state lawmakers called for a revision of the law. After state House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the legislature would seek to close the loophole in the law quickly, the House and state Senate on Thursday passed a bill making “upskirting” illegal, with the measure going to the governor for signing.
Armed with smartphones, iPads or other high-tech gadgetry, peeping Toms are snapping pictures of unsuspecting women in public places and sharing the images on the Web. Keyword searches on web browsers and social media sites such as Facebook and Instragram turn up multiple hits for “upskirting” and “downblousing” sites displaying surreptitious images of women’s private body areas.
“There’s an epidemic around street harassment broadly, but also we’ve received tons of ‘upskirt’ reports as well,” said Emily May, executive director of ihollaback.org, a Web site that encourages women to share their stories and cell phone photographs of harassers and peeping Toms. “I think there’s a fear among people that you could have an ‘upskirt’ photo taken of you and never realize it. Your crotch could be on the Internet and you may never know about it.”
Knecht said some states have taken steps to deal with high-tech peeping, but many others have failed to update antiquated voyeurism laws that are on the books.
In Florida, for instance, video voyeurism is a felony. Washington state changed its law to add language noting that people have an expectation of privacy in public as well as private spaces.
Knecht said states such as Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wisconsin have not updated laws to make the distribution of such images or videos on the Web a crime.
In 2004, Congress passed a federal law making it a crime to photograph people’s “private area(s)” on federal properties, including national parks and military bases or to broadcast such images. But states are responsible for making high-tech peeping a crime elsewhere.
“We don’t know how many (incidents) happen and victims don’t know about it,” Knecht said. “But when the cases do come, I think that we need laws that cover them. What we know about these cases is, it’s not only one picture taken for somebody’s personal gratification. That happens sometimes. But other times people are taking the pictures and putting them on the Internet and they’re going even international. It’s not just one instance of victimization, it’s many.”
Susan Gallagher, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell whose specialty is gender, privacy and politics, said that stricter “upskirting” laws could make the practice more tantalizing to voyeurs.
“It’s only because it’s creepy that people do this,” she said. “You could see obviously a lot more of women’s bodies in other places. ‘Upskirting’ doesn’t really reveal much of women’s bodies. You could see way more on the Internet if you just wanted to.”
She added, “I think the only thrill is the surreptitiousness of it. She doesn’t know. She’s sort of turned into, like, this passive object.”
Gallagher said that snapping pictures of perpetrators and making them public is more of a deterrent.
“That’s much more effective,” she said. “The picture takers don’t want to be outed. You’re shaming them.”
When Gallagher lived in New York City, she said, men exposed themselves to her on two occasions.
“The way I got back was I didn’t react,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh, hello,’ as if there was nothing going on. He was crestfallen. He wanted me to be shocked. I think the picture taking is the same sort of defense. You’re going against the expectations of the perpetrator.”
But May said the hollaback! site — backed by activists in 71 cities and 24 countries — is not about revenge. In fact, the group prefers educating harassers than penalizing them, she said: “We’re really trying to bring awareness.”
Still, May said there is value in the digital stories and pictures from victims.
“What’s amazing about it is your ability to turn the lens on them right when you’re being harassed,” she said. “It’s certainly a very empowering thing.”
By Lawrence Crook III and Ray Sanchez
CNN’s Haimy Assefa contributed to this report.