The “intrusive stares” on public transport can constitute a form of sexual harassment – and should be reported to the police.
It is the warning of a controversial campaign that can be seen these days in the metro of London.
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The cartels are part of a national effort to stop different types of bullying and unwanted behaviors in the transport network of the British capital that mainly – but not exclusively – affect women.
Stares with sexual connotations are one of them. Others are touching, whistling, or indecent exposure of body parts.
The aim is to “challenge the normalization of these behaviors” says Transport for London (TfL), the local body in charge of managing the transport system.
The campaign has unleashed reactions for and against.
Many praise it for highlighting an issue many women relate to, while others feel it is being too sensitive.
“The criminalization of looking at other people in a public space is worrying,” reads an article recently published in the British magazine The Spectator.
However, people affected by obscene looks from strangers on the subway describe the situation as distressing.
“I could feel the man looking at me”
Bex, from east London, was traveling home on the tube after a night at the theater when a man sitting opposite her began to stare at her.
He stared at her during the 10-minute drive.
“I was on my cell phone, trying to look anywhere else but at him“, she recounts.
By the time she reached her stop, the stranger’s lingering gaze had made her so uncomfortable that she’d waited until the last minute to get up.
When she got out, he followed her. So she waited five minutes in the station hall before getting on the bus she was supposed to catch later.
He stood still, less than a meter away, staring at her.
Then she ran up the stairs. “I turned around and he was there, waving at me,” she remembers.
At first, Bex worried that she “was overreacting,” but says that ironically, one of the anti-peeping campaign posters was placed right above the man looking at her.
“Seeing that made me feel like I have the right to feel comfortable“, he assures.
A similar case is that of Lucy Thorburn, who was traveling in a central London carriage at around 09:00, when she experienced an intrusive stare from another passenger.
She says that during the 25-minute drive the man “didn’t take his eyes off” her.
“After 10 minutes, I started to feel very uncomfortable,” she recalls.
“Staring at someone may not seem ‘so bad’ to some, but could be the start of something else. It has happened to me to have received that type of looks and then they followed me.
In recent weeks, the campaign has been in the spotlight, after a man was jailed for staring at a woman on a train and blocking her exit.
The incident occurred on a journey between Reading and Newbury, in the south of England.
The man was found guilty of intentional stalking and sentenced to 22 weeks in jail.
Staring is not illegal in the UK – or in any other country – but intrusive looks of a sexual nature causing harassment, alarm or distress can be classified as a public order crime.
A TfL investigation revealed that intrusive stares are one of the most common types of unwanted sexual behaviour, mainly towards women.
Fiona Vera-Gray, from London Metropolitan University’s Child and Women’s Abuse Studies Unit, says they are a subtle form of “public sexual harassment”.
“It’s a feeling of being watched, watched, evaluated.”
Afroditi Pina, from the University of Kent, says intrusive looking “can cause anxiety and fear”.
A British Transport Police spokesman said it is a priority to “eradicate” all forms of sexual harassment on the transport network and all reported incidents are recorded to help paint a picture of offensive behaviour.
* With reporting by Sophie Gallagher, BBC News.