The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, more conveniently known as the DAB, has a women’s wing. This is known as the Women’s Affairs Committee. For most of the year it labours unseen and those of us who are not DAB members, or not women, are undisturbed by its activities, whatever they may be. Do the DAB ladies do the usual Women’s Institute stuff – knitting patterns, recipes, flower arranging?  Do they have guest speakers, film shows, study tours? Do they laboriously pen earnest analyses of policy issues affecting women, to be passed to – and ignored by – their male party comrades? Alas we do not know.

The WAC emerges once a year to give a press conference, presided over by its chairwoman, Elizabeth Quat. To the best of my recollection this has been going on for at least five years. The press conference is always about the same topic. The WAC objects to various architectural quirks, usually involving the use of glass as a barrier, which allow observant males to look up the skirts of ladies and, if so minded, to photograph what they see there.

Elizabeth Quat. File photo: Wikicommons.

This annual festival is open to a number of objections, and indeed they have been made over the years. Mr Alex Lo is not the first person to point out, as he did in a recent column, that if you are opposed to upskirt peeping and picturing then it is not terribly logical to publish an annual list of the best places to do it. The publication of the annual list continues; Hysan Place’s food court is apparently the current hot spot. It also appears to some women of my acquaintance that there are perhaps more pressing issues to which the DAB ladies could devote their annual 15 minutes of fame, like the virtual slavery of some domestic helpers, the plight of sex workers, the shortage of help and facilities for working mothers, or the glass ceiling which results in Hong Kong’s business leadership being overwhelmingly male.

This point has also been made before, in vain. This year there was a small innovation. Miss Quat announced the discovery that as well as places where careless architects had provided opportunities for upskirt photography, there were also places where similar carelessness allowed vertical views more or less downwards. As ladies leaned forward to eat this meant that lubricious male eyes – or presumably, though Ms Quat did not make this point, lubricious Lesbian ones – could behold… well they could behold as much of a scantily dressed bosom as you can see on any public beach.

Photo: HKFP.

Clearly it is not what is seen or photographed that is the problem, but the possibility that someone is getting illicit pleasure out of it. Ms Quat conceded that the number of cases recorded by the police was dropping. There were 274 last year. But she said this was only the tip of an iceberg, because most victims did not realise they had been snapped. But if the victim of the fell deed is not aware that it has taken place, where is the harm, one wonders? There are of course good public order reasons for discouraging men from hovering round glass escalators in the hope of taking pictures of underwear, but the possible harm to the victim is not one of them.

A personal note here: I am an enthusiastic and regular dancer in the Scottish Country tradition. Mostly we dance in private but occasionally we do public demonstrations. After one of these I discovered an interesting snippet in the video recorded by a member of the audience. I dance, of course, in a kilt, which if you are not Scottish is difficult to distinguish from a skirt. There is a move called a “polite turn” which is basically a twirl on the spot. I noticed that when done quickly this twirl results in the kilt flying up in the air and providing an instant answer to that perennial question: what do you wear under the kilt? The answer in my case is underwear. So I can testify from personal experience that having your knickers snapped has no deleterious effects at all. There is no trauma, no danger of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. In fact it appears from the few cases which are actually reported in the newspapers that in the vast majority of indecent photography cases the offence is spotted by a bystander, not by the star of the picture.

DAB held a press conference to announce the results of its study on upskirt peeping hotspots. Photo:

Ms Quat’s annual smutfest does not bring out the best in Hong Kong newspapers. The Standard’s story, written with admirable straight face by a female reporter, was headlined “Perv alert: upskirt black spots”. The SCMP went for “Peeping Tom alert”, which is not much of an improvement. Unconventional sexual tastes are known as paraphilias, and an urge to look at or picture the underwear of unaware ladies is one of them. It used to be thought that there was a list, which would eventually succumb to the usual scientific approach: they all got Latin names, then symptoms would be enumerated, causes discovered and eventually, perhaps, a cure. The arrival of the internet has enormously expanded the list, to the point where this enterprise has more or less been abandoned.

The relevant Wikipedia entry quotes an authority as saying that “Like allergies, sexual arousal may occur from anything under the sun, including the sun.” It is at least agreed, though, that these things are not chosen by the person concerned, and also that they cannot be changed by any currently known medical intervention. The help which is offered is concerned with helping the patient to lead a normal life and avoid manifestations of his taste which will lead to trouble with the law. Clearly there is a lot of luck, good and bad, involved here. For some people their kink is merely another float in life’s rich pageant; they enjoy conventional sex as well, they can take or leave a bit of extra interest on the side. Others may have desires which are difficult to fulfill, despite the large industry now catering for what the relevant producers calls “fetishes”. And some would be highly objectionable and illegal if acted out, notably pedophilia but also rape, cannibalism and so on.

A society which has managed to achieve a level of tolerance for homosexuals should be able to manage a similar level of sympathy for other people who did not get the conventional kit when sexual preferences were being handed out. Indeed to be fair, the media (at least in English) were admirably restrained in their reporting of a recent case involving a man who was caught in an advanced state of public sexual excitement over a pair of ladies’ shoes. A person who feels drawn to photographing ladies underwear is a problem. He is also a person with a problem. Jovial headlines about peepers and pervs are not helpful. An annual tirade against glass escalators is also not constructive. Do these people get the help they need?

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.