Rise of the 'upskirt perverts'

He lurked in the aisles of shops with his camera phone ready, waiting to creep up on unsuspecting female shoppers.

Clemence Koh, 18, stalked women at public places like Daiso and Popular Bookstore, putting his phone under their skirts and dresses to take photos or videos.

The polytechnic student was eventually caught - but not before shooting 173 "upskirt" photos and videos. He will be sentenced next month.

A spate of similar cases last month prompted District Judge Low Wee Ping to comment that they are "prevalent" despite sentences meted out by the courts. There have been at least 10 convictions in the past month alone.

Under the law, such acts are lumped under the offence of "insulting a woman's modesty". Police statistics report 629 such offences last year, up from 571 in 2013.

The court heard that Koh had seen upskirt photos online in sex forums and he became curious about how they were obtained.

Indeed, the alarming rise in cases seems to mirror an expansion of an online social upskirt culture.

Like Koh, most recent cases were part of a growing anonymous presence in public Internet forums. Threads date as far back as 2007. Some contain thousands of posts.

One post on a popular forum has had more than 19 million viewers. The same thread had more than 200 pages of content in the last six months alone, with upskirt photos and videos of five to 10 different women on each page.

Only an e-mail address is needed to register at such sites. Like any social media platform, users can post and comment. Some sites even have a "reputation"-based points system to measure popularity.

But these forums serve an even darker purpose. Some use them as an online black market, posting "teasers" - censored upskirt content - demanding cash or points for the uncensored versions.

Associate Professor Gabriel Tan, director of clinical psychology at the National University of Singapore, believes the Internet is not completely at fault.

"Social media is merely the platform," he said. "It is free, anonymous, accessible, and posts have a large audience instantly. It makes it easier to share such photos and videos, but not everyone makes use of it in this way."

Dr Jaydip Sarkar from the department of forensic psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health said it is rare for people to have a major mental disorder that affects their judgment "so significantly".

"Social media has allowed rapid access and capture of sexual material via smartphones which allows swift dissemination of captured material," he added.

The roots of the problem may lie much deeper, said experts.

Mr Chong Ee Jay, manager at Touch Cyber Wellness, which provides online safety education and counselling, said cases he has come across follow a "classic progression pattern" that begins with addiction to pornography and moves onto "thrill-seeking behaviour" in which men act out their fantasies.

"They become desensitised and need more stimulation to satisfy their obsession," he said.

Mr Chong said one boy became addicted to porn at age 12. Within months he began to film his classmates changing, eventually camping at stairwells to take upskirt photos and videos of students and teachers.

Forensic psychiatrist Tommy Tan of Novena Psychiatry Clinic said most clients who compulsively take upskirt shots have depression or other psychiatric conditions.

Prof Tan from NUS highlighted similarities in such behaviour with rape: In both cases, neither sex nor money is the main motivation. "The problem... is aggression and contempt, not against the specific victim, but a general anger against women. It could also be a psychopathic tendency for enjoyment at the expense of others' suffering."

But counsellors and psychiatrists said that for most of their clients, the videos and photos are taken for personal consumption.

Ms Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research, said that upskirting is sexual violence.

"What attracts perpetrators is clearly the idea of women's and girls' non-consent and humiliation - they treat female bodies as trophies to be acquired, then circulated to boost their standing among other misogynists," she added, calling on the authorities to take strong action.

The Sunday Times understands that the police cannot take action against the offending forums or websites unless a report is made.

A spokesman for the Media Development Authority (MDA) said Internet content providers are expected to comply with guidelines and Singapore laws.

"In the event of a breach, the MDA may take action, including issuing a takedown notice, or work with Internet service providers to disable access to the website."

miranday@sph.com.sg

teezhuo@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE A TARGET

Anyone found guilty of insulting the modesty of a woman can be jailed for up to one year, fined or both. Members of the public are advised by the police to be alert to their surroundings.

If you suspect that you are being followed, remain calm and proceed to a more crowded area. Move away if someone stands or sits exceptionally close to you.

Anyone who has experienced upskirting, non-consensual distribution of sexual videos or images, or any other kind of sexual assault or harassment, can contact Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre at sacc@aware.org.sg or 6779-0282. Services are free and confidential. For more information, visit www.sacc.sg

Information from the Singapore Police Force and Association of Women for Action and Research.


Clemence Koh, 18

Polytechnic student Convicted: June 4 this year Dates committed: From last December to January this year

Goh Han Siong, 24

Administrative assistant Convicted: May 25 this year Date committed: Nov 19, 2013

Nantha Kumar Palakrishnan, 34

Part-time tutor Convicted: May 22 this year Dates committed: From June to August 2013

Clarence Chan Yew Keong, 50

Former property agent Convicted: May 20 this year Dates committed: From December 2012 to October 2013


This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.