Watching porn on a train isn’t just antisocial – it’s an act of aggression
Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

Watching porn on a train isn’t just antisocial – it’s an act of aggression

Making the act of watching porn on public transport illegal is both welcome and needed, says Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

One ordinary morning at the end of July, while eating a samosa on a half-empty train carriage travelling from Brighton to London, a very weird thing happened to me. The 30-ish-year-old suited man sitting alone in the adjacent bank of seats – the exact same man who had earlier tutted as he’d seen me put on my face – was now on his iPad watching a porno. His body language was relaxed, his face was impassive. He could have been watching an episode of Bargain Hunt. In fact, he was watching a close-up of a penis thrusting into what I think was a woman’s anus.  

What he did that morning will, if the Commons’ cross-party Women and Equalities committee has its way, be illegal by 2030. Their newly published report on harassment describes “routine and sometimes relentless” targeting of women and girls in public spaces, including public transport. MPs stated that the public harassment of women and girls was “deeply ingrained” in British culture, and called for train companies to block the viewing of pornography through their passenger wi-fi, as well as individual customer internet connections. They’re also suggesting bus companies should prohibit the viewing of pornography on their networks, for the sake of passenger safety.

To any right-thinking person, this seems much like making it against the law to shag in the aisle or do a poo in the luggage rack. Watching pornography in a public place is about as antisocial an act as many of us can imagine, surely? But public reaction to the story reminds us we can never assume that decent, respectful behaviour – particularly towards women in public spaces – goes without saying.

A shout-out to the listeners of Woman’s Hour on Tuesday resulted in a flood of similar stories to mine. One woman said she had taken her two-year-old to the library and found a man watching porn in a nearby seat. She dialled 111, but was told by the operator that nothing could be done, as his actions weren’t illegal and that she was perhaps being “too prudish” (ironic, given that my local library is hardline on its “no food and drink” policy, that this makes a sandwich more punishable than a cum-shot). Another listener described sitting opposite a large group of men on a train, all of them huddled around an iPad, leering loudly at porn. Another described how she’d sat next to a young man on the bus, who had apologised politely for nudging past her accidentally, but not for the explicit porn he watched on his phone for the entire journey.

Many more women talked about reporting similar incidents to guards, only to be told there was nothing they could do and they were best off moving or trying to ignore it. Many women nonetheless persevere, since a Transport for London spokesperson conceded on BBC Radio 4’s World At One that reports of unwanted sexual behaviours (including the viewing of pornography) on its network had doubled in the past year, to 2,000. On public consumption of pornography, she said the network “Want to see this behaviour eliminated”. The British Transport Police, who would like bylaws to be updated to give them greater tools in tackling these behaviours, encourage reporting and promise to investigate every report.

To any right-thinking person, this seems much like making it against the law to shag in the aisle or do a poo in the luggage rack

Given the direct experiences of female friends and tweeters, and with the best will in the world, I’m not sure I believe them. I did not report the behaviour inflicted on me. There was no guard, I was in a rush to get to an event and, besides, it took me a day or two to feel the full force of my anger. My initial reaction had been of sheer incredulity. “Who the hell does that?” I thought, momentarily doubting what I’d seen. Without a travelling companion to share the horror, and too shocked to confront him and risk a heated argument in such a sparsely populated carriage, I took my fury to the internet and, without identifying him, posted what had happened. Most friends and followers were reassuringly aghast, many said they had experienced something similar. It was only when I – a sturdy, rarely shockable grown woman – got on the train home and found myself consciously scanning the carriage for men staring at screens so I could avoid them that I realised it’d had an instant effect on my own behaviour and confidence.

I wondered, when my fellow passenger seemingly thought nothing of watching porn in my close proximity, how much scarier and more upsetting things could have got. What if, say, I’d been on a train at 1am? What if the carriage had been empty? What if he’d had a friend with him? Would I still feel indignant and cross, or utterly terrified and in fear of my safety? What if I’d had my children with me? How would I have explained to them what the hell was happening, and why? How would I reverse the inevitable mental shift imposed on them? The one that normalises graphic sexual images in shared, everyday spaces? And I knew that these hypotheticals are no such thing. Women and girls are already experiencing all of the above. I felt wronged, intimidated and wholly disrespected and yet, still, I understood I’d got off comparatively lightly.

Watching pornography in a public space is an act of either deliberate or ingrained aggression towards women and children (and, no, not girls only. I have boys and exposing them to pornography would be as abusive. Children should not be sexualised, regardless of gender). According to the committee, it is a non-consensual sexual advance. It is ghastly whether an unthinking or deliberate one, but the latter is particularly violating. I feel disgusted that a man may have forced me into his own sexual-fantasy narrative. Given that we can broadly agree people watch porn predominantly as a tool in masturbation and sex, we must conclude that men watching porn in public places where they can’t possibly see things through to their natural physical conclusion, are storing the experience, and its unwilling and unwitting cast of characters, for later when it’s private. In other words, I wondered for weeks if my deeply uncomfortable presence on the train was a titillating enhancement of, and deliberate addition to, the fantasy. I’m now part of the story, when all I did was catch a train to work. My even having to mull this over feels like an outrageous imposition.

The most charitable reading of these behaviours is that they are rude, embarrassing, inappropriate, degrading, humiliating and inflicted on others without consent. They are also a deeply unfair abuse of power, as they drive women and girls off the essential, more affordable and convenient public-transport network to avoid the behaviours of others. Woman and Equalities minister Maria Miller said on the report’s publication: “[women and girls] choose to walk by a different route, budget for a cab instead of a late train, avoid certain bars or clubs, or wear sunglasses or headphones as a kind of shield. These kinds of limitations help to keep women and girls unequal in our society, and have gone unchallenged for too long.”

Initiatives to outlaw public consumption of porn is consequently, says the committee, a matter of public health comparable to the smoking ban. The analogy is a good one, since it takes into account that the voluntary act of one person can have instant, permanent and negative ramifications for involuntary bystanders, who are doing no more than living their lives. If we don’t act to prohibit them, many more women and girls will be needlessly affected and many more men and boys will begin to read their behaviour as permissible. They are not, in any civilised society. Watch it at home, and leave us to travel in peace

@salihughes

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Photo: Getty Images
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