Tech advances see sexual offences take on digital wings
Digital tools have made voyeurism more widespread and more traumatic for victims as images can spread easily and are hard to remove online. New laws will deal with this more effectively.
Until specific laws were introduced earlier this year, taking upskirt images or videos was not a criminal offence in England and Wales.
In Western Australia, revenge porn - explicit photos or videos posted online without the consent of the party caught on camera - became a crime only last month.
In South Korea, voyeurism has reached epidemic levels, with spycam crimes surging from about 1,100 in 2010 to 6,800 last year.
And this is barely scraping the surface. "Sextortion" - attempts to extort or coerce using nude images - online grooming and online child exploitation are more examples of technology-facilitated sexual crimes that have hit Singapore as well.
In one of the worst cases here, an undergraduate was caught with nearly 2,000 voyeuristic videos.
Last year, two boys from a secondary school in Ang Mo Kio were convicted after they were caught with over 60 upskirt videos and clips they had taken of girls. Some of the victims included their schoolmates and teachers.
The pair had taken the videos in school and at other places such as AMK Hub shopping mall, Ang Mo Kio Public Library and Popular bookstore in Junction 8 mall.
Earlier this month, another student, now 17, was dealt with in court for filming voyeuristic videos of two of his teachers and his sister's friend. His crime spree started when he uploaded onto Instagram photographs of a 15-year-old student clad in undergarments.
He had threatened to post the photos on the Internet if she did not send him her nude pictures.
The law is now playing catch-up.
In a sweeping overhaul of the Penal Code here, which Parliament passed on May 6, voyeurism offences, including upskirt photos, will now be addressed directly. Offenders risk a maximum jail term of two years, with caning as an option.
Previously, such offences were treated as insulting a woman's modesty, which carries a maximum jail term of one year.
For revenge porn, offenders who distribute or threaten to distribute intimate recordings of the victim can be jailed for up to five years. There is also the option of a fine and caning. Imprisonment is mandatory if the offence is committed against anyone aged under 14 years.
VOYEURISM IN A DIGITAL AGE
These changes are fitting in the digital age, which has made online abuse more dangerous than ever with the virality and accessibility of compromising pictures and videos.
Lawyer Josephus Tan, founder of Invictus Law Corporation, said: "If the video footage or images are uploaded online, it's perpetual - there are few ways to retrieve or remove the contents, so the damage is potentially long-lasting."
Ms Anisha Joseph, head of the Sexual Assault Care Centre at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), said voyeurism has dramatically changed since the advent of the Internet, smartphones and social media, allowing "voyeurs not just to spy on their victims, but to record footage and, importantly, disseminate said footage practically instantaneously".
"Because of this ability, voyeurism has become much more dangerous and potentially damaging to victims," she added.
In a graphic demonstration of the damage it does, a 31-year-old woman in Italy took her own life in 2016 after a sex video of her was shared online without her permission.
Clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet said that while voyeurism may not be as grave as sexual assault, both offences are serious and can have lasting repercussions on victims.
"Voyeurism is impactful because in a bathroom, you're supposed to be in your private space. When someone takes a picture of you there, it is intruding into your intimate space.
"That is a traumatic experience that could trigger you emotionally and mentally, making you hypersensitive to the experience.
"You would be asking yourself, 'Is someone watching me now?' a lot. So for victims, it could take an emotional or mental toll on them," she added.
LAW CATCHING UP
Online predatorial instincts predate mobile phones.
In the late 1990s, adults trawled Internet relay chatrooms for young victims whom they groomed to send explicit photos and, in some cases, to have sex.
While carnal connection with a person under 16 years old was already a criminal offence, sexual grooming became a crime in Singapore only from 2008.
Under the recent amendments passed, the law on sexual grooming will be enhanced with the required number of instances of prior contact between a suspect and victim reduced from two to one.
Other changes introduced also criminalise the sharing of unsolicited pictures of genitalia, as well as unlawful access to databases or recordings that contain intimate images.
But do the laws go far enough?
Lawyer Mr Tan said caning would serve as a good deterrent and is a step in the right direction.
"Categorising voyeurism as a separate offence is just a cosmetic change. What is more pertinent is the enhancement of the penalties - that they are introducing caning, for one. That's a good deterrent," he said.
Caning, he added, may be appropriate for recalcitrant offenders or offenders facing multiple charges.
"But if it's a one-off offence, we can leave the discretion to the judge," he said.
The big question is, what approach will the police and the courts take in handling such cases, in light of the increased penalties?
It seems that moving forward, such crimes will be taken more seriously - but with harsher punishment comes greater stakes. Might this encourage leniency, especially for cases deemed "less serious"?
From a victim's perspective, no sexual offence would warrant leniency, regardless of whether 10 upskirt photos were taken or 100. And when these victims muster up the courage to make a police report, it is admirable, for the trauma they have to relive in the process is no laughing matter.
If all that pain ends with the perpetrators simply being let off with a conditional warning, what message does that send to these victims? Are they better off not making a report then?
HOW SHOULD CASES BE HANDLED?
Although the two are not connected, the new laws were passed soon after an undergraduate's experience of being filmed while in the shower in a National University of Singapore hall of residence sparked a national debate on whether the perpetrator, also a student, was let off too lightly.
Mr Nicholas Lim, who had filmed Ms Monica Baey, was given a 12-month conditional warning by police. He was also suspended from school for a semester, banned from the hall, and made to attend counselling and write an apology to Ms Baey.
In Parliament later, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam revealed how 56 cases of sexual misconduct in the six autonomous universities over the past three years were handled.
Police reports were made in 37 cases; of these, there was insufficient evidence to make out offences in two, and investigations are ongoing in another four.
Of the remaining 31 police cases, 16 were prosecuted in court; conditional warnings were given in another 13 cases and stern warnings given in the last two.
Mr Shanmugam stressed that a conditional warning is serious, and does bear weight.
But victims may think otherwise.
As long as the offenders do not reoffend within the stipulated period, they will, essentially, be given a second chance.
One victim of molestation phrased it this way: "Do we, as females who have been violated, get a second chance to clear the trauma, the way perpetrators get a second chance to live their lives?"
Mr Tan is making the call for all cases to be brought to court.
"Considering the long-lasting damage that such an offence might cause to the victim, vis-a-vis the prevalence of social media, it would be good for all Section 509 (insulting the modesty) cases to be prosecuted in court and to let the offender go through the rigours of our judicial process, as compared with giving a conditional warning from the get-go," said the lawyer.
TECH CAN HELP VICTIMS TOO
Technology has been an enabler of intrusion, but it can also serve as a tool to help victims who are seeking support through anonymous and confidential reporting mobile apps and sites for sexual offences.
Free smartphone websites and apps such as Sexual Assault Report Anonymously in Australia, and Callisto in the United States provide information, support and anonymous reporting options for victims of sexual violence.
Callisto is a third-party college sexual assault recording and reporting system that tracks complaints and then flags those that involve a repeat offender, alerting victims and school officials in the process. It aims to remove psychological barriers and let victims know that they are not alone.
Ms Joseph from Aware said she hoped more victims here would speak up.
"We think (Ms Baey's case) could encourage more survivors to speak up about sexual assault in Singapore, and call for positive systemic change at the institutional and cultural levels," she added.
At the end of the day, the phone is just a tool, said head of Reach Youth Services Joe Chan.
"It goes back to addressing character and values. Besides instilling regulations and discipline, educational institutions need to start with teaching values.
"They need to focus on raising awareness of how to treat one another as human beings with respect."
ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.