July 3, 2007

How do we get serious about stalking?

Posted in human issues, real life, recovery, violence, women's issues at 6:31 pm by nevavegan

Recently the Washington Post did an article in the health section about a woman who felt she was being stalked at the gym. I really felt for her situation. It’s hard for women to get out and be active and get into shape without feeling threatened. You start to appreciate the concept of someplace like Curves where men aren’t allowed, though that’s just not a good workout and if you want to use free weights or design your own fitness program, you’re back to mixing in with the opposite sex at the regular gym.

I blogged a little while ago about how often I get harassed when I’m walking my dogs or just going to the grocery store. Because I go to the gym with my husband I don’t really get bothered except very occasionally at the gym. Also sometimes if Sean sees someone talking to me for what seems to be an extended period of time he’ll come over. It’s not threatening or anything, but it’s enough to get the way too persistent males to back off.

But I feel terrible for other women at the gym. Recently one woman had headphones on and was lifting some free weights. A man kept trying to talk to her and she kept ignoring him and lifting her weights, so then he grabbed her arm in the middle of a lift to force her to look at him and speak to him. First, that’s not safe with weights, and secondly if a woman doesn’t want to speak to a guy at the gym, that’s her right, and thirdly can you imagine the explosive reaction if a guy grabbed the arm another guy while he was lifting and interrupted his set for any other reason than that the gym was on fire… Yeah, you would never try that with a guy, so why would anyone think it’s ok to try that with a woman?

I read Hugo Schwyzer’s blog from time to time and he touched on the issue of women not wanting male attention from both sides. He said men are offended that women just won’t be friendly, but when they feel that way they aren’t really considering how the women feel and they aren’t considering how they might contribute to a world where women don’t feel safe.

Maybe it’s the rotten mood I’m in today (very tired) but I have to say it goes beyond that. I’ve had men make a lot of accusations against me when I wouldn’t stop to talk to them, and they kept persisting. I’ve been accused of being racist because I didn’t want to have a conversation with a large man (who just happened to be African American) who was standing between me and my front door after dark when I came home. I came up to the house to find this strange man inside my fenced yard peering in my front window and when I told him he had to leave he accused me of being racist (because had it been a white man peering in my windows after dark I would have given him a hug and invited him in, had some tea and scones and watched PBS..). I’ve had men follow me telling me that I don’t need to be scared of them because they’re really nice guys. Um, you just disproved that by chasing me in your truck after I told you to leave me alone and tried to walk away from you. I’ve had guys tell me I have something wrong with me to be so unfriendly…

And what’s the common theme here: I wasn’t a person to any of them. I wasn’t a human being who had a right to feel frightened and want to protect myself. I was an object and to a person like that it’s really annoying when an object tries to stick up for itself and get away from them.

I have to add that this kind of stuff doesn’t really happen when you’re in groups. These men decide to pick on you if you’re jogging by yourself. If you’re in a large group of women, or a small group that includes another male, they really don’t run up to you saying you shouldn’t be scared of them. So that just says something to me.

At the same time there probably is an aspect where a nice guy might feel like he had a moment of connection with a woman he doesn’t know, like their coffee orders got mixed up and they laughed about it or she dropped her water bottle and he handed it back, or whatever. And it probably is frustrating to the nice guy that he might want to continue the conversation but the woman is afraid of him and so won’t talk to him. Of course, in that instance, see above, if he really is a nice guy he does not leap into his truck and chase her.

It probably is true that most males have no concept of just how frightening and intimidating they can be to women. But the main emotion I see expressed isn’t empathy: “Wow, I feel terrible that she’s so scared, that must feel terrible” but merely frustration that the other person, this woman isn’t giving them what they want.

I’m not sure anyone can understand this unless they’ve been there. I was stalked when I was younger in a really terrible incident, and seemingly throughout my adult life I seem to pick up stalkers from time to time. I’m not sure why, my dad thinks I give off push-over vibes that attract bad people. I think it’s maybe that I’m short and therefore seem less intimidating. I have long-ish hair… I don’t know. I wonder if I’m just more attuned to it at this point, maybe tons of women are stalked all the time without even knowing it. The first time I had no idea until someone confronted me with details of my life he couldn’t have known except by making following me around his chief hobby. But a person who hasn’t been through this just doesn’t get the kind of terror it invokes.

In the last place I lived I was stalked by my neighbor. I was scared so much of the time, and while Sean is definitely on my side, he just didn’t get how deep my fears were. He laughed it off and said “Wow, he sure has a crush on you.” My response was “laugh it up now because one day you’ll come home and find me cut up in little pieces in the living room.” Whenever I bring up this story Sean points out that in fact this neighbor didn’t physically attack me and my dead body was not found in little bits in the living room. So maybe I misjudged the level of the threat. But does anyone deserve to spend time fearing that outcome? Is it right that I altered my schedule and my dog walking route to avoid a person who was always showing up wherever I happened to be.

Anyway, perhaps I should tell the story of the stalking so you can draw your own conclusions on how badly I misjudged.

Shortly after we moved in I went in the backyard to clean up. The yard had been taken over by vines and underbrush, and beneath those were several years of trash. Apparently at some point the trash service had stopped in that neighborhood, so the previous residents had simply dumped all their trash in the back yard. From the smell and the suspicious mounds back there I joked that I was afraid of discovering a body. Anyway, it was the middle of summer, very hot, and I was doing all this hard work. My neighbor would watch me over the fence and remarked several times that I worked very hard. Then he said he wanted to marry a woman like me who would work so hard. I told him I was married, he talked to Sean a few times. I figured that was that, but it wasn’t.

He kept talking to me, insisting that I was the perfect woman for him, asking me what I liked to do for fun. If Sean was around he’d wax very eloquent on how lucky Sean was to have a wife like me, pretty and hard-working, and the way he went on and on made me very uncomfortable.

I finished the back yard and moved on to working on the front lawn, which involved pulling out a lot of dead and dying bushes. In one single day of working on the front lawn he drove back and forth in front of our house at least ten times, each time slowing way down for a really long stare. Some of the drive-bys were only minutes apart giving me the impression he hadn’t gone anywhere except around the block.

Then he started coming over to ask about things or saying he needed to talk to Sean, but he’d grab my hands and arms when trying to talk to me. Then we adopted the first dog, Kyra. He followed me in his car while I walked her.

Sean built a tall privacy fence all around our yard for Kyra. Then our neighbor decided to have a party, he kept inviting me and I kept making excuses. Then he went to Sean and said he’d be offended if we didn’t come to his party. So Sean said we’d better just stop by. We went to his party and aside from his grabbing my arms and hands, there was something else that made me uncomfortable. He’d built a raised deck, not attached to his house like a normal person, but right next to our privacy fence. When I sat down on the built in bench on his deck I realized that I was looking directly into our bedroom window. We’d built a privacy fence—he built a viewing platform.

After that I really had no peace of mind until we moved. I’d come home from work and rush around closing all the curtains and shades. Then I’d get paranoid that maybe even with the curtains shut he could still see my shadow, so I wouldn’t change in the bedroom, I’d go change in the bathroom. I started walking my dog on a long course that avoided going near his house or the places where I’d encountered him driving before.

Then we moved and that was it. Nothing happened. He never hurt me. He never kicked in my door. He never threatened me with a weapon. I just lived in constant fear of those things. That’s the insidious thing about it—it can destroy your feeling of safety without the other person doing anything really *all that bad.* If confronted they’d just claim they were friendly. “After all, I didn’t hurt her.”

What can we do to move away from a culture where this kind of stuff is allowed to continue? I went to the magistrate’s office to try to press charges in the hit and run and ahead of me was a young woman. She was crying. She explained that her ex had abused her and threatened her and she’d moved away and tried to hide her location from him. Now she was getting threatening emails where he told her he knew where she lived, he knew where she worked. She held out a sheaf of email messages to the magistrate. The magistrate said “We’ll do something if he shows up in person and threatens you.” “I want a protective order now,” she insisted. “But this is just email. Dial 911 if he comes to your house.” the magistrate replied. “But don’t you see,” she said, her voice starting to fail, he must be following me to know where I live and where I work.” No protective order. She left in tears, her face buried in her friend’s shoulder.

EDIT: Oooops I wrote all of this out from my point of view and only afterwards did I happen to think that not just women are victims of stalkers. Some men have stalkers too, and children do as well. I think it’s more women than men that experience this, but we need to stop all stalking obviously.