the act of loitering

by rebecca faulkner

I write this thought-piece from a position of relative privilege, a place of continual questioning and understanding of what this position means. I am a white, middle-class, able-bodied, and cisgender woman. I have, however, lived experiences of gender inequality, violence, and harassment as a female in public space. I have changed my body accordingly; shrinking, expanding, turning back, stepping up my pace, crossing a road, holding a key between my knuckles according to how welcome I feel or the level of threat I perceive. In this sense, I resonate with feminist academic Sally Munt’s depiction of the street being paradoxically an image of freedom and violence.¹

This thought-piece aims to present one fragment of how our public behaviour is dictated by cultural attitudes and societal constructs surrounding power, race, gender, sex, class, sexuality, nationality, and beyond. These relations intersect in the public realm, framing our social and political identity and our perceived sense of space, self, and other city-dwellers.


We live in a world of increasing surveillance of the body politic. Globally, our movements are monitored and our habits tracked. For some, the major or even total restriction on mobility brings to fore discussions surrounding justice; who is considered valuable in society, who has autonomy over their bodies, who has a right to be seen, and who has the right to move on a city and global scale.² This right, I argue, is a social construct that is transcribed into national and international laws and the design of the built environment.

When one steps out onto the street, one has entered a space of law.³ City-wide, we find rules, laws, policies, instructions, and restrictions encoded into the built environment — designed to monitor, manipulate, and govern our movement (often invisibly). These codes racialise and gender bodies and space, making public places accessible to some and inaccessible to others.

The term city is synonymous with “the appropriate body to inhabit it: the behaviour of this body must be hygienic, respectful and standardized.”⁴ Policies shaping urban space have produced white, predominantly-male, and able bodies as appropriate while producing everyone else as other and a supposed anomaly or threat in public space. This is evident both in laws that seek to prohibit convening and in acts of violent, physical extraction. Sadly, our bodies have become disciplined to adhere to codes and social norms around movement with remarkable ubiquity. After all, the design of the built environment is where the body and the city converge. Physical manifestations uphold laws that restrict whilst simultaneously promoting hostility. This problem is cyclical, deeply rooted in discriminatory practices, and unjustly inflicted on those falling outside the standardised body. This must be challenged, especially by those who occupy the normalised typology and the privilege that entails.

Codes, standards, and binaries are part of a system transforming abstraction into something tangible. Loitering is one such code. Loitering is a funny term. It is both passive and active, a construct of space and time. It will mean many things to different people. To some it may summon imagery of soliciting. To others it is synonymous with youths hanging about and causing a nuisance. And for some, it will instill a sense of fear. Most likely, as an action, it will have negative connotations.

The definition and the laws that seek to make loitering criminal are purposefully vague, often relying on discretion. Occupation in the city becomes loitering once policed, whether through personnel, objects that limit or restrict access, or through surveillance technology such as CCTV. Loitering, therefore, cannot be divorced from privilege, permission, and human bias, the effects of which are never felt equally. One person’s being is another person’s loitering; the term feeds on suspicion and fear. Globally, laws which encompass loitering have led to police brutality and bias that has overwhelmingly targeted non-white bodies and disproportionally affected young Black men.

On May 25th, 2020, the unlawful killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by US police prompted the resurgence of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, both on and outside American soil. Not only did the anger and frustration of his murder encourage more than 250,000 people to take to the streets from June 2020 in the UK, but it also prompted conversations surrounding systemic racism within our own institutions. Notably and appropriately, British policing was catapulted into “a race crisis over stop and search and use of force.” In a recent public address, the leader of Britain’s Police Chiefs has promised change to confront “generations of history… between police and [B]lack communities, strained by stop and search and decades of reports finding [B]lack people were being treated differently to white people.”⁵

This uneven policing of urban space has deep roots. As a policeable action, loitering stems from Medieval and Elizabethan England, where rouges, vagabonds and the idle poor were often criminalized.⁶ In 1824, Vagrancy Acts were introduced in the UK, designed to prevent suspected thieves from ‘lingering’ in certain places. These Acts were unjustly imported into British Colonies, the legacy and violence of which are still felt through the laws of many of those countries today.

Historically, loitering has been treated as an inherent preceding offence to other forms of public crime and disorder. Loitering provides a lesser offence that can be used by police to confront and deter suspect individuals from lingering in a high-crime area, especially when criminal intent is suspected, but not observed. 

Loitering, at its core, is stillness — an occupation of space —. But our inability to challenge its discriminatory underpinnings enables anyone deemed out of place or dwelling too long to be moved along, or worse, criminalised. Simultaneously, swathes of the city are being policed and reconfigured in the name of regeneration, perpetuating systemic injustices — we only have to look at the increasing number of privately owned public spaces in the UK to see how this is being played out.

Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) was a UK court order, obtained by local authorities, to restrict the behaviour of a person “likely to cause harm or distress to the public.”⁷ ASBOs, famously used by Camden Council to ‘remove’ sex workers in their Kings Cross ‘clean-up’ campaign, could be worded to effectively banish targeted people from any given area.⁸ Despite ASBOs, eradication in 2014 by the then-Coalition Government, the legacy is still felt within its replacement, Public Spaces Protection Orders,⁹ which are aimed at tackling ‘anti-social behaviour.’¹⁰

I first came to loitering through my writing, Sex Work and The City, an anti-pocket guide directly rebutting Harris’s Lists.¹¹ Through the 1800s, the aforementioned Vagrancy Acts controlled female urban movement in a complex, yet codified manner; yet for suspected sex workers, this regulation was amplified. Female magazines at the time simultaneously encouraged women to walk as suitable exercise, whilst regulating their movements, advising to walk only “in certain ways, at certain times and with a companion.”¹²

The Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, and 1869) made it the law for women suspected of prostitution to register with the police and submit to an invasive medical examination. Despite Parliament suspending the Acts in 1883 and repealing them in 1886, the history of the Acts has set the precedent for how sex workers and women are viewed, and how laws and movements to ‘end sex work’ have since been constructed.

In the Street Offences Act of 1959, loitering is used as a term to define being “for purposes of prostitution” in a street,¹³ which, counter to the Oxford English Dictionarys definition, is arguably a very apparent purpose. In 2009, the Policing and Crime Act made it easier to prosecute street-based sex workers by creating a new crime for “persistently loitering for prostitution.”¹⁴ Conduct is persistent “if it takes place on two or more occasions in any period of three months.”¹⁵ In their book, Revolting Prostitutes, activists and sex workers Molly Smith and Juno Mac point out that most people in any workforce need to turn up to their job on two or more occasions in three months, making it almost impossible to not break the law.¹⁶

Even the language surrounding female sex workers has negative connotations for all women in public space today. Terms synonymous with prostitution, such as street-walkers, women of the streets, women on the town, and public women,¹⁷ suggest that our presence in the public realm is read in relation to solicitation. Contrastingly, man about town is a fairly positive term. In Rebecca Solnit’s book, Wanderlust, she remarks that “the law makes it virtually impossible to be a respected public female figure, and ever since, women’s sexuality has been public business.”¹⁸

Occupation in the city is a privilege not felt equally. So, how can we resist the policing of our movement and presence in the city?

One form of resistance is through collaboration and performance. These are tools to hack, critique, and challenge, to expose how meanings and values are produced, and to transform us from bystanders into active citizens. For me, performance is crucial to the fabric of urban life, a mechanism for collective identity to be played out in the public realm, where people, objects, animals, insects, and land connect in a shared moment. In my practice, I use performance as a tool to provoke.

The Act of Loitering, a City Awakening, sought to celebrate the quieter spectrum of movement; stillness. It was performed on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2020. Sandbags (a fascination of mine), sculptures that litter and loiter in the city, were reimagined as performative props. Giant, wearable versions were fabricated to both constrain and liberate, their heavy nature restraining their female handlers’ bodies, momentarily gifting loitering. This performance gave meaning to a highly-deterred act, momentarily offering a new vision for protecting and celebrating stillness across the city. Incidentally, it was one of the last performances I staged and collaborated on before this moment of enforced global stillness, giving it a renewed focus in my research.

In the UK, emergency legislation introduced in light of COVID-19 has given police more power and more discretion over what qualifies as purposeful motion in the city, i.e., what actions are regarded as exercise or necessary, and what and who is active or inactive.¹⁹ Alarmingly, at the time of writing, the government is attempting to rush the 307-page Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill through the UK Parliament, giving police more power to crack down on our civil liberties and rights to protest — a scenario not limited to the UK.²⁰ Globally, our rights to convene and to be present are being stifled.

Our bodily, social, and personal movement has shifted forever; the limits on our civil liberties are for the first time being felt more collectively. Despite this, evidence suggests that lock-down measures have, once again, disproportionately targeted the Black community. In May 2020, the Metropolitan Police conducted 43,000 stop and search operations in London, double that of May 2019. “According to the force’s own published data, Black people were 3.7 times more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped and searched in the year to the end of November 2020. For May, the figure rose to 4.25 times.”²¹

We must collectively and individually examine how we can better consider the mobility of individuals and collective bodies to actively challenge existing power structures. We must fight so that the lasting legacy on mobility in the city (and the globe) does not continue to discriminate against the non-standardised body.

To do this, we must become contingent. Being contingent asks us to consider how city-making could be conceived as a means of speculating about possible futures. It asks us to actively practice how ‘what if’ questions can be used to open debate and discussion about the kind of future people want and do not want. 

In an ideal world, this would be a call to action to get out into the street, to claim back and occupy space, to awaken the city. However, such a call that cannot be heeded by everyone; our race, gender, sexuality, economic status, etc. will contribute to how safe or viable of an option this is. At the same time, simply occupying space in the city is not enough to radically undo deeply-embedded spatial codes and legacies.

To loiter is to linger, to stay, to belong to a moment. The act of loitering, the presence of our bodies, should be celebrated and protected, and not just the privilege of the select few.

This piece is adapted from “The Act Of Loitering – Being Contingent,” commissioned by Theatrum Mundi and published in Theatrum Mundi’s Edition: Embodying Otherness.

¹ Munt, S. 2001. The Lesbian Flâneur, Published in: Borden, Kerr, Rendell, Pilvar et al, 2002, The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space, Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT, p.256.
² Sheller, M. 2018. Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes, London: Verso, p.38.
³ Cidell, J. and Prytherch, D. 2015. Transport, Mobility, and the Production of Urban Space, New York: Routledge, p.49.
⁴ Pujals, B. 2016. “Bodily cartographies.” The Funambulist [online], p.138.
⁵ Dodd, V., 2021, “Race crisis damages our legitimacy and effectiveness, says top police chief.” The Guardian [online].
⁶ Aberg-Riger, A. 2018. “What is loitering, really?” Bloomberg [online].
⁷ See UK Parliament. 1997. Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
⁸ Summers, C. 2002. “Cleaning up King’s Cross.” BBC News [online].
⁹ See UK Parliament. 2014. Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
¹⁰ See the Crime Prevention Injunction, the Criminal Behaviour Order, the Community Protection Notice, Dispersal Orders and Section Thirty-Fives.
¹¹ Harris’s Lists were annual directories of prostitutes published between 1757 to 1795. These guides were derogatory lists objectifying sex workers in Georgian London for the male consumer.
¹² Rendell, J. 2002. The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space, and Architecture in Regency London. London: Athlone, p. 21-55.
¹³ “Street” includes any bridge, road, lane, footway, subway, square, court, alley or passage, open to the public; and the doorways and entrances of premises abutting on a street and any ground adjoining and open to a street, shall be treated as part of the street or public space.
¹⁴ See UK Parliament. 2009. Policing and Crime Act 2009.
¹⁵ See UK Parliament. 1959. Street Offences Act 1959.
¹⁶ Smith, M. and Mac, J. 2018. Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, London: Verso, p.181-235.
¹⁷ The Vagrancy Act 1822 contains the first instance of “night walkers” equating to prostitutes, defined as “wandering in public streets as idle and disorderly persons.” 1824 amendments shifted the definition of disorderly behaviour to riotous or indecent, expanding the public realm to any place of public resort.
¹⁸ Solnit, R. 2001. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, New York: Viking, p.235.
¹⁹ See UK Parliament. 2020. Coronavirus Act 2020.
²⁰ Allegretti, A. and Wolfe-Robinson, M. 2021. “New anti-protest bill raises profound concern and alarm, human rights groups say,” The Guardian, Article [online].
²¹ Wright, R. 2021. “Race relations: the police battle to regain trust among black Britons.” The Financial Times [online].

Rebecca Faulkner is a self-proclaimed researcher, writer, and architectural Master’s student currently situated at Central Saint Martins, London. Her self-defined practise intersects an emerging field of performative-thinking and urbanism. Built on the rich foundation of critical feminist research and activism, she explores the gendering and the governing of public space. She is interested in themes of permission, privilege, surveillance, and the technological gaze. Her work explores how these conditions affect our understanding of self and the city. Using the embodied knowledge of movement, she uses her body as a tool to contemplate space through performative interventions as a means to understand, hack, critique and challenge.