'A selfish desire that hurts others': More offenders of upskirt photography in Hong Kong seeking help to quit addiction, study finds

Upskirting offenders interviewed in the joint study consisted of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, such as married men, university professors and religious figures.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Fifty-year-old Hongkonger K* had taken upskirt photographs for more than a decade, but it was only five years ago when he was arrested for outraging public decency that he realised he had inflicted harm on his victims.

He reached out for help to quit his addiction following the arrest and joined a rehabilitation scheme. It was then that he understood for the first time how traumatised the women were.

“I took those photos because I wanted to get something to quench my desire. I didn’t put them on the internet,” K said, adding he had thought his “selfish desire” would not hurt anyone, but he was wrong.

“The delusion that no harm would be done turns out to be the biggest harm to the victims,” he added.

K is among dozens of people interviewed for a joint study by Lingnan University and the Caritas Specialised Treatment and Prevention Project Against Sexual Violence (Caritas) on upskirt photography offenders seeking help.

It found that of all the perpetrators of sexual crimes seeking counselling with Caritas in 2015, 38 per cent, or 28 cases, involved upskirt photo offenders. The figure rose to 78 per cent, or 86 cases, last year.

According to the project, the total number of sex offenders who sought help from Caritas in 2015 and 2021 were 73 and 111, respectively.

Researchers collected 50 cases of individuals ranging in age from 19 to 67 between October 2019 and August last year, with some being married men, university professors and religious figures.

The researchers found that offenders derived excitement and satisfaction from taking upskirt photos, while looking at pornography could have also encouraged such behaviour and caused some to objectify women.

Most of the interviewees were previously more concerned that their actions would be discovered rather than whether their behaviour was intrinsically wrong, said Annie Chan Hau-nung, an associate professor at the university’s department of sociology and social policy.

A handout photo. Lingnan University’s Annie Chan (left) and Frances Pang of Caritas Specialised Treatment and Prevention Project Against Sexual Violence. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“One interviewee told me he had taken several terabytes of images. Each terabyte can store up to 250,000 pictures,” said Chan, who led the project. “He was aware the acts were illegal. It was a surprise for me to find out how much the men – the so-called perpetrators – suffered because they did not realise the gravity [of the offence].”

Frances Pang Fung-yee, a social worker at Caritas, said the behaviour “must be more common than imagined” and that most of the interviewees lacked an understanding of sexual violence or sexual assault.

“When an individual forcibly takes away other people’s sexual privacy without their consent, it is already sexual violence,” she said. “But the name – upskirt photography – doesn’t reflect the violent nature of such behaviour.”

An anti-voyeurism law came into force last October, covering four offences, including unlawful recording or observation of intimate parts and threatening others to disseminate intimate images without consent. Each of the four offences carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. It is unclear how many people have been arrested under the new legislation.

According to the Social Welfare Department, 674 cases of sexual violence were reported in 2020, with most incidents taking place on the streets (17.1 per cent) and on public transport (10.2 per cent).

Among the cases, 462 were classed as indecent assault, followed by 146 cases of rape and unlawful sexual intercourse.

The 2020 figures represent a decline from the 979 cases reported in 2019 and the 1,020 logged in 2018.

“In the sex education curriculum in Hong Kong, students learn how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, but the curriculum does not [mention the legal repercussions] one might have to bear if they commit such a crime,” Pang said. “It is important for both genders to feel reassured and positive in public spaces.”

In a fresh incident, police arrested a man, 28, at Yau Tong MTR station at around 3pm on Tuesday for unlawful recording or observation of intimate parts after officers caught him taking upskirt pictures of a woman, 58.

*Name changed at interviewee’s request.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.