Sexual desire and abuse have become networked and hashtag-able. Mobile devices have made women’s bodies more public, often without consent, and in ways that mark them as sexual objects. This takes place alongside a visual culture that expects women to be concerned about their appearance and reinforces a culturally problematic relation between women’s bodies, well-being, and health.
In April this year, Women Who Eat on Tubes caused controversy for posting photographs of women, which were unsolicited, derogatory and shamed women for eating in public: one image, of three women eating side-by-side on the tube, is captioned ‘three little pigs’. As Joan Smith, in The Independent, has pointed out, it doesn’t take long to track historic associations made between the mouth and the vagina, and so the sexual implications of non-consented, non-negotiated images that vilify women eating in public are examples of the way the internet has facilitated sexist voyeurism, misogyny, and instances of public sexual harassment.
Other online spaces have also raised questions about privacy and consent. The practice of ‘upskirting’ (secretly photographing a woman’s underwear) has rehearsed historical tropes of revealing women’s apparent bodily ‘lack’, and the sexualisation of female body parts and clothing. And Spotted sites have exposed what was already widely known about lad culture on University campuses: that it is often a breeding-ground for sexual harassment and objectification, with a growing normalisation of ‘rape culture’ that makes women’s newly found entry into education all the more risky.
The reason for women’s move to public space is complex – was it feminism, or was it market needs and the spending power of a female workforce? And these developments are not equally shared or experienced in the same way by all women. The above examples of sexual shaming, abuse, harassment and violence are evidence of a regressive, patriarchal backlash that women’s new found public visibility seems to have provoked. But women’s entry into public space has also ushered in the visibility of (specifically heterosexual) women’s desires, alongside those of gay men whose entry into public space has been marked (again) by the gay liberation movement, alongside the strength of the ‘pink pound’ and gay culture’s assimilation to ‘mainstream’ society values. In this context, what should we make of TubeCrush?
Feminism and gay rights, alongside a sizable consumer culture, seem to have set the scene for Tubecrush: a new social networking site that features unsolicited images of men on the London Underground. TubeCrush works multi-platform across Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and through its own webpage, tubecrush.net. The company is international, with affiliated sites in Boston and New York. TubeCrushis therefore an urban phenomenon, used mostly by the up-and-coming city office worker, on drudgery of their daily commute, finding light entertainment and recreation by photographing unsuspecting attractive men on the underground/subway.
The TubeCrushbrand has been widely discussed as evidence of the sexualisation and objectification of men, which may weaken men’s self-esteem in the context of a ‘crisis of masculinity’. It has also been used as evidence of a sexual double standard and as a means to denounce feminist critiques of sexism: critics argue that, in an age of gender equality, if men are unalarmed by such objectification, what right do women have to feel offended?
But TubeCrush is more complicated than both critiques. Questions of male objectification and/or gender equality ignore history. They fall short of addressing a longer story of submissiveness, passivity and weakness in the image of women (and those men associated with femininity); and they ignore the way men have always occupied public space relatively easily, without risk of sexual violence. Critiques also overlook the visualisation of men as the purveyors of sexual power. The men on TubeCrush are held-up as examples of exceptionally healthy and wealthy masculine attractiveness: often muscled, young, white, on the way to the gym or, very often, in suits.
TubeCrush makes public straight women and gay men’s previously marginal sexual attractions. But it does so at the risk of foregrounding metropolitan masculine power (in money and muscle), and in ways that redeploy the market for particular workplace and out-of-office intimacies.
While TubeCrush has been likened to the same practices that objectify women’s bodies through unconsented photographs, the comparison is weak and the impact on emotional health, well-being and appearance related concerns is different. A more believable critique of TubeCrush that falls outside either male objectification or equality arguments – both, in their own way, sexist – would be to unpack the idealisation of hegemonic business masculinity: the orientation of desires that encourage us to consume the body of the good male entrepreneurial citizen-worker. Women Who Eat on the Tube, upskirting, Spotted et al also deserve critique: but let’s not conflate the issues.
About the author: Adrienne Evans is Senior Lecturer in Media at Coventry University. She is author of Technologies of Sexiness: Sex, Identity and Consumer Culture, Oxford University Press (with Sarah Riely). Twitter: @AdrienneEvans_