Emily Hill

Is it really a crime to stare?

Is it really a crime to stare?
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‘A sky full of stars and he was staring at her’ is a love poem by a dead Roman but on the London Underground, all a man will find if he looks skyward is a TFL advert warning him if he stares at me in an Attican fashion I’m to call the police.

‘Staring’ (Sadiq Khan’s bright red public safety warning reads – with ominous eyeballs popping out of the ‘a’ and the ‘g’) that may be construed as ‘intense’ and of ‘sexual nature’ is now ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘not tolerated’. Should anyone ‘see it or experience it’ they are to text the British Transport Police or dial an 0800 sexual harassment hotline if they want to remain anonymous. Silence is violence, so staring is a sex crime.

TFL's new poster

Assessed purely on the grounds of common sense this is a strange poster to erect because the overwhelming majority of Londoners take no interest in each other whatsoever so causing them to fear that they are, in fact, being stared at, and should report such stares, seems likely to increase incidences of staring. Its impact on sexual perverts will prove negligible considering the Bible contains a set of explicit instructions from God including ‘Thou shalt not kill’ yet murder has been constant. Sadiq Khan’s reign as mayor of London thus far has coincided with a violent crime wave so expect a boom in sexual harassment rates this summer.

When Covid came along and the State banned basic human mating behaviour (including hugging, kissing or sleeping with anyone outside your home) I did worry they were ushering in a Handmaid’s Tale style public health dystopia in which ‘freedom to’ live was replaced with ‘freedom from’. ‘Love is like a virus,’ Maya Angelou said – and it transmits between humans, often infecting the eyes first. TFL’s warning tube passengers against staring transports us all straight into chapter four of the Margaret Atwood novel. ‘He looks at me,’ says Offred. ‘He begins to whistle. Then he winks… He's just taken a risk, but for what? What if I were to report him?’ In a sense, a Handmaid wearing a red sack with wings on her head is freer to flirt than a Covid era girl since – at all times – her face is naked.

But in the Covid context the new poster is also confusing. It feels like only yesterday we were all forced to stare at photographs of dying Covid-19 patients so we could ‘look her in the eyes and tell her’ we ‘never bend the rules',  while anyone out, standing on a tube platform staring at it, was in defiance of a strict stay at home order. Between April 2020 and October 2021, TFL lavished £435,039.89 on its own advertising when the tube was all but empty even though 70 per cent of its pre-Covid operating budget was derived from fares. That is a criminal waste of money – so perhaps the Mayor could save us all a lecture on the subject of what is and is not appropriate behaviour.

I suspect the real consequence of this poster will be to strike fear into the hearts of men who aren’t sexual perverts at all and keep men and women as lonely and isolated as possible.

The likelihood of strangers falling in love after locking eyes on a tube train was near to non-existent before the Mayor started warning men they could be had up for sexual harassment for showing intense and sudden interest in a woman. Ask a single Millennial female what her problem is and she won’t tell you it’s the wrong kind of man staring at her on tube trains; it’s the kind of man she could stare at all day not staring at her, ever. Increasing numbers of women who want babies are having to resort to the most invasive, painful and expensive stratagems (such as sperm basting, egg harvesting, and embryo freezing) to do something that used to be very simple and if the government cares about the future production of babies, it ought to stop demoralising our species by forcing us to believe sexual attraction between strangers is weird and wrong. Actually, it’s poetry in motion.