Like many people, I enjoy watching people. There’s a great pleasure in sitting in a café or on a park bench on a sunny afternoon and just watching people pass by. But increasingly, people-watching is becoming suspect, and even criminalised.
The latest and most worrying example is Transport for London’s campaign against what it calls ‘intrusive staring’. Posters all over the Tube now warn us: ‘Intrusive staring is a form of sexual harassment and will not be tolerated.’ Last month a man was sentenced to 22 weeks in prison after a woman reported him for ‘continuously staring’ at her on a train in Berkshire. Sarah White, leader of British Transport Police’s sexual offences team, has urged anyone who feels intrusively stared at to report it.
But what exactly is ‘intrusive staring’? Talking to representatives for both TfL and the British Transport Police, I discovered that there is no clear, objective definition. They say the line is crossed when a man looks at a woman in a sexual way that makes her feel ‘unsafe’ or ‘uncomfortable’. Those who experience intrusive staring – or who witness such acts – are asked to report the incident to the police with the view of an arrest and prosecution under the Public Order Act. But how many seconds or minutes does it take to turn a look of curiosity into an intrusive stare? No one knows. And one woman’s intrusive stare could be another’s welcome invitation to romance.
Of course, everyone must surely support TfL’s current campaign against such sexual acts of harassment as touching, upskirting, catcalling and indecent exposure. Yet the criminalisation of looking at other people in a public space is worrying. Of course nobody wants to defend men who stare at women’s breasts with their tongues hanging out like panting dogs. Or men who deliberately set out to intimidate women with long and menacing stares.