This post is to serve a few purposes: a love letter to my former favourite Facebook group – now sadly gone, a plea to fellow Londoners to take a (possibly literal) stand on this issue, and perhaps a bit of a general education to a few people, but I won’t make that objective #1 and I want to keep this short enough that people will read to the end.
I want to describe a phenomenon that’s had a bit of press attention lately, why it’s horrible, what could/should be done about it, and hopefully end on a funny.
Tl;dr: if you find yourself defending people who photograph and ridicule women without their knowledge, stop it. And then tell other people who are to shut up.
What is “women who eat on tubes”?
WWEOT (henceforth) is a creepy project set up by a man called Tony Burke that documents instances of him – and now many others – “catching” women eating something on a tube train in London. It’s creepy because the object of this “game” is to capture the moment without her sussing the photographer out.
He started this on his personal facebook page in 2011 but this year the public group and Tumblr have seen a surge in popularity.
The “artists”, as they’ve decided to call themselves, then post these photos to a Facebook group (which I’m not going to link to) with a little description of her – including which train she was on and what time the photo was taken. All without her permission, and without her knowledge – unless someone later alerts her to her image being in public.
Is Burke seriously comparing women to wildlife, and saying every commuter should become a David Attenborough, examining the ‘Female Creature’…?
Yes, he is, because he’s that kind of guy. From what we can see of him online, he comes across as very disturbing. Originally in interviews he insisted the women part was “random”, but if we view his photos, we actually find that he thinks he does nothing annoying on trains ever, and to him it’s always women committing this heinous crime of appetite, which he finds irritating. His friends chip in with fat-shaming, sexual comments and so on.
I have documented some of these in this album.
His film company, called “deadbird” (yeah) have made some telling stuff. He posted with sarcastic sadness about his “sexist films” not being watched on WWEOT (I no longer have access to this due to our group’s removal – see below – and WWEOT being a membership-only-on-request group). He is friends from school or work with many of his fellow WWEOT “artists”, or “digital peeping toms“, more appropriately.
Transport for London has even sent out a statement saying that anyone who feels ‘threatened’ by the pictures should contact British Transport Police.
Some people are genuinely upset by this and feel they now need to modify their behaviour to avoid being treated this way. Surely this is Burke’s goal – to stop women who “irritate” him, to hold and exercise that power. And his friends support it.
What’s your problem?
The comments on WWEOT’s photos tend to be belittling, shaming, and/or of a sexual nature. It’s fair to call it bullying. A more common term, perhaps, is “stranger-shaming“; one of those internet by-products we’re still working out. The most disturbing just now is probably r/creepshots. It’s natural for us to watch people, to make snap judgments, to have fun with it. But to take that moment in time, capture it and then share it with the world online is a step beyond that can cause real harm.
“I also felt hurt and humiliated – especially by the comments mentioning my “gaping orifice” or sarcastically pondering, “I’d like to know the name of her finishing school.” I was the butt of a joke without my knowledge, in front of thousands of strangers.” – Sophie Wilkinson
There are a lot of “defences” people are now using to justify their membership of, posting in, administrating or general ambivalence towards WWEOT. It’s not art. I don’t really want to go through every single one, suffice to say most of them are standard “arguments” one finds on any bingo card for a discussion of sexism (or any type of oppression, really). For example: It’s also not about free speech (or freezepeach as we’re now prone to calling it, given the frequency of this parroted argument) – no, I will not defend to the death your right to be a creep, ignore the necessity of consent and mock people openly against their will. Because that ‘right’ does not exist.
This is free speech – people scrutinising and criticising what you say, in the hope that you will more carefully consider the results and the lives of others. Yes, there are worse things that happen on public transport and no, it’s not illegal – but if your only barometer for good behaviour is “not illegal!”, is that not worrying? It was legal to rape your wife until 1991, for example. Women on trains just want to be left alone – why is it so hard for people to respect this?
[Edit: Telegraph pop-psychologist confirms this kind of behaviour should be cause for concern for friends; suggest they get help before they do end up committing actual crimes; a very real possibility]
Right of reply
In response to this growing popularity, as WWEOT approached 20,000 members on facebook, a journalist named Mimi Kempton-Stewart started a group called Men Who Post On ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes’ (MWPOWWEOT for short). Another protest group, “Women who eat wherever the fuck they want” also sprang into existence.
The aim of MWPOWWEOT was simple. Pick a guy who’s posted some “art” in WWEOT, have a look at his profile, and post one of his publicly-available photos on the group’s wall with a little description of how good an artist he clearly is. I loved this group dearly. I made quite a few friends. We all learned from each other. Maybe we taught some silly boys a little bit about the world (optimism there).
It was a safe space for feminist rage, where the people who were made to shut up were, for once, the harassers and creeps and not us – our anger was the visible thing, and their stupidity shone through in their impotent insults. I will miss it.
MWPOWWEOT, as of 8th May, has been closed by facebook due to a report made by a member of WWEOT about an apparent “credible threat of violence” (which is undoubtedly a lie) and facebook has conceded, deciding that MWPOWWEOT was against “community standards”. This is also questionable, and a read of the terms of service would suggest that WWEOT actually goes against clauses 3.6 and 3.7, with the complaint also breaching clause 4. We might resurrect the group in another form soon.
But aren’t you just as bad?
You know what? No. There’s good evidence that lifting the mask of anonymity, removing the shield of unaccountability and pointing the finger of ridicule are good ways to address anti-social and hurtful behaviours. Accosted by a flasher? Point and laugh. Their goal is humiliation, exerting power and control over their target, and taking the piss undermines them.
This woman has nailed it – and with art, no less. This guy got his own back on a train. So, taking images that these creepers have publicly uploaded of their own volition and turning them into a joke is the same or worse? No, taking someone’s image without their knowledge or consent and mocking it surely is not. It’s a similar tactic deliberately. If they’re hurt by it, should they not then realise why people are protesting their actions to begin with?
If you really think calling out bullies is as bad as being the bully in the first place, I’m not sure where to go from there. There are other stranger-shaming sites that I don’t like. People often say “but Tubecrush!” – where people take pictures of cute men on trains and upload them. It’s not, however, derogatory or indeed shaming at all. It doesn’t perpetuate negative ideas about men. It does encourage participants to speak to their subject and obtain consent for the photo. It doesn’t suggest male behaviour should be altered.
One that does is “men who take up too much space on trains” – a problem many of us are no doubt familiar with. I’d rather see these also disappear or at least be anonymised. However, pretending there is no difference between pictures of men and women in public is willful ignorance. If men did not want these groups to exist, they wouldn’t. They don’t care because it genuinely does not affect them. They have the luxury of it genuinely meaning nothing.
To understand the effects of actions on already-disadvantaged groups, you have to first accept the disadvantage exists. Then you have to consider the action in that context. Women face all kinds of judgement and discrimination throughout their lives, not least diet and weight policing. Women’s bodies are made public property in a way that men’s are not, and WWEOT underlines that. Eating disorders are far more common in women.
The same type of action has different effects on different people, depending on where they start in society – to borrow an analogy from a chat with a friend, think of hit points. The more you have, the less the same kind of attack actually hurts. Start of with less, harm is greater and more frequent. Some people are fond of pretending that things are “just as bad” for the Straight White Man, but they are deluded. Here’s a succinct comedic expression of that.
This train will terminate at the next station
It’s important for people expressing divisive sentiments and acting in discriminatory ways to be called out. If we don’t question and criticise them, their views are validated. This is why the calls for people not to laugh along to, but call out, things like rape jokes are increasing.
The kinds of people who think misogyny, racism, homophobia etc. are funny are likely harbouring real unsavoury views. By laughing instead of challenging, you make them think this is normal and acceptable.
A pertinent example is Jeremy Clarkson. Again given a free pass despite clearly being an odious man, because he’s a famous dude who makes people money. People in a less privileged position than him would not be given the same leeway for being nearly as offensive.
“Lighten up and take a joke/get a sense of humour” should not be an acceptable smoke screen for this kind of behaviour. I’ve discussed before how actual decent comedy punches up, not down. Tony Burke is clearly a disturbing individual, as I went over at the start. His irritation at women living life means he can shame them for doing so. Because art. Makes sense – but it’s seriously worrying.
People run with it, “If you don’t want to be photographed eating on the train, don’t eat on the train” – classic victim blaming. Don’t want to be assaulted? Don’t wear that dress then. Don’t want to be taken advantage of? Don’t get so drunk. Women’s behaviour is policed in so many arenas and here’s yet another one.
I’m not going to stand for it. Please join me.
Next stop: humanity
What can we do about any of this? Friend-of-a-friend who had a horrible experience sums up:
I don’t want taking pictures in public spaces to become illegal, I just want people to be nice and respectful. And I don’t think this is too much to ask.
Sadly, many members of WWEOT seem to think it is too much, and that, to me, is a red flag. People who think a request of respect is just too great a demand, who do not understand the concept and importance of consent and the sinister nature of watching women Big Brother style – I highly doubt covert photography would be the end of their transgressions against decency. To put it lightly.
if it was called “black people laughing on the bus” there’d be a national outcry and the creators would be dragged around town so we could all throw rotten tomatoes at them.
Indeed I expect we might see similar with “gays being all queer on the street”. There’s so much more to say on this but I must wrap it up – please do add your thoughts and links in the comments.
I win the internet
Hilariously, last week a male member of WWEOT came to MWPOWWEOT to tell everyone how he thought I was one of the worst people on the entire internet because of the anger and rudeness I express in my comments in the group. Full comment here.
Lots of people found this as funny as I did and a friend has made me a special Interwebz Award (you can submit your own nominations – click on the image to visit the blog!). If I can annoy creepers that much with my comments (that aren’t even in their own group, I’ll add), then I figure I’m probably doing something right.
- TechDigest: James O’Malley covers the group’s closure today, comments from me and Mimi within and comments from WWEOT fans underneath.
- Imgur album of mole-shots from WWEOT.
- Imgur album demonstrating some comments on Tony’s original album and an album of some of the visitors we had in MWPOWWEOT
- MWPOWWEOT has relocated to GooglePlus for now. Click through to see new examples of creepiness.
- “But women are in WWEOT as well!” Internalised sexism, google it. And read Sarah Ditum.
- Daily Beast: Tauriq Moosa also covered the creepy stalker-like WWEOT haven
- Telegraph: The creeps shot TWitter trend: how creeps just got creepier
- Independent covers the protest picnic of April 14th, which I sadly couldn’t make
- “Straight White Male – the lowest difficulty setting there is” – a nerd-friendly explanation of the idea of “privilege”
- New Satesman: Why do misogynists deserve the “privacy” the women they abuse are denied?