‘Women Who Eat on Tubes’ isn’t high art. It’s harassment

Independent on Sunday,13 April 2014

Women should be able to use public transport – and eat – without having to worry about weirdos with camera phones

Some men are funny about watching women eat. Lord Byron couldn’t stand the sight because (according to his first biographer) it might disturb his notion of their “perfection and almost divine nature”. A century later, Sigmund Freud identified a “cannibalistic” phase of infant development in which “sexual activity has not yet been separated from the ingestion of food”. He also wrote about the “vagina dentata”, a malign fantasy in which the female sexual organ is transformed into a hungry mouth, crammed with sharp teeth.

A confusion of mouths and vaginas may be one of the reasons why some religious societies, such as Saudi Arabia, expect men and women to eat separately. Evidently the act of eating, when it’s done by women, inspires a whole range of negative reactions – fear, mockery, disgust – even in the 21st century. Let me offer one more piece of evidence, in the shape of a photograph posted on Facebook a couple of years ago: it shows three women eating on a London underground train and the caption reads “Three little pigs”.

The man behind this Facebook group – it’s called Women Who Eat on Tubes – has all sorts of grandiose things to say about it. He’s called Tony Burke and you may have heard him on Friday’s Today programme on Radio 4, demonstrating his commitment to equality by talking over a woman who was trying to explain why she finds the project objectionable. Burke claimed that the group’s pages had been taken down by Facebook but it still operates as a members-only site; other versions exist as well, displaying masses of unflattering pictures of women cramming food into their mouths. According to Burke in various interviews, the site is either “high art” or the equivalent of wildlife photography. (Yes, it’s that old cliché: women as exotic animals.)

In fact, Burke is a self-confessed voyeur, summing up the group’s raison d’être like this on Facebook: “Everywhere I go I see women eating on Tubes… Slowly, secretly, guiltily raising each bite-sized morsel to their salty lips in the hope that no one’s watching. Well, I’m watching. And I’m photographing…”

This is pure projection: he has no idea whether the women concerned are feeling guilty or just in a hurry, grabbing a sandwich on their way to a meeting or to pick the kids up from school. The idea that they’re behaving secretively isn’t borne out by the photos, but it’s that phrase “salty lips” which really sounds a klaxon. An apple isn’t salty but semen is, revealing a classic conflation of sexual and alimentary appetite.

Burke made the link again in an interview while supposedly disavowing it: “I don’t want to have a picture of someone eating a banana and a load of people talking about blowjobs.” So who is talking about blowjobs? Then there’s this response on the group’s Facebook pages to a picture of a woman putting crisps in her mouth: “Tight! Tight! Tight!!!! It’s as if someone else is feeding her. Nice one, Tony!”

I don’t know about feeding women but the group certainly seems to be feeding sexual fantasies. If the pictures were of children, it would have been shut down in no time at all, but the objections to photographing women covertly are just as compelling. The images posted by the Facebook group, showing bulging cheeks and distorted mouths, are clearly intended to shame and ridicule women. The subjects of this unwanted attention have no control over how the pictures will be used; several women who objected when their photographs appeared without their permission have been abused online. The site has been accused of bullying and stranger-shaming, but the most profound objection is that it adds yet another gender-specific hazard to everyday life.

Most women have experienced harassment on public transport; I’ve been accosted by drunks on buses and followed off a Tube train late at night. More recently, the widespread ownership of camera phones has produced the phenomenon known as “up-skirting”, in which a man follows a woman on to an escalator to take photos of her crotch. Last year, British Transport Police secured the first convictions in London for this practice, sending a message that needs to be spread more widely. In the 21st century, women should be able to use trains and buses without having to worry about sexist comments, unwanted attention or outrageous invasions of privacy.

For some men, I suspect, half the fun in taking a woman’s photograph covertly on public transport lies in wondering whether she’ll notice and make a fuss; not every woman dares to challenge a stranger who is bigger than her and might become aggressive. If she doesn’t, it confirms a power imbalance in which men control public space and women have to live by their rules. What’s “artistic” about that? And in case someone asks the time-honoured question – “Don’t you have a sense of humour, love?” – my answer is simple. Yes, but I’ve never been amused by any form of harassment.

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