Law adopted from 1860 Indian Penal Code

A district judge yesterday explained why the law referring to "insulting modesty'' is applied only to women.

District Judge Kenneth Yap said that Parliament had adopted the relevant section on "insulting modesty" from the Indian Penal Code of 1860 in its original form, which referred specifically to women.

It was in this context that he rejected a prosecution call for a six-month jail term for Teo Han Jern, 27, who had stealthily taken videos of men, some in sexual positions.

He said the disparity in the treatment of men was intentional as there is a separate Penal Code provision on outrage of modesty which applies to both men and women.

"There is no evidence that the omission to protect males under Section 509 of the Penal Code was accidental or unintentional," he said.

Legal sources believe the divide in such a gender-specific offence is less pronounced in other countries where laws were updated.

Professor A. Kumaralingam of the National University of Singapore's law school said that the majority of other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australian states and territories, have enacted laws criminalising voyeurism.


"Voyeurism is generally defined as viewing or recording another person without their consent for sexual gratification or motivation in situations where there is an expectation of privacy.

"The laws are gender neutral and protect men and women equally,'' he said.

But when the Indian Penal Code was amended in 2013 to include voyeurism, it was gender specific, that is, against women only, he added.

Prof Kumaralingam also said the notion of insult to modesty is archaic, and it would be better to adopt modern terminology and protect both men and women equally.

Similarly, women's group Aware argues that the law on insult to modesty should be "modernised" and gender-neutral.

Its spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday that its 2014 position paper on sexual assault law had argued that "men as well as women deserve protection against offensive sexual speech, gestures and intrusions into privacy".

Hence, Section 509 should not be limited to female victims, it said.

It suggested that instead of defining the offence in terms of modesty, a gender-neutral phrase such as "word or gesture of a sexual nature intended to offend" could be used.

Aware said this would bring Section509 in line with more recent legislation such as the Protection from Harassment Act.

K. C. Vijayan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Law adopted from 1860 Indian Penal Code'. Print Edition | Subscribe