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.

June 7, 2007

Surreal Life

Posted in real life, women's issues at 5:35 pm by nevavegan

This post is just kind of something that’s on my mind that I need to write out and get out of my system before I can tackle any more complex topics.

Yesterday I was walking my dogs and a man pulled up alongside me in a beat up white van, leaned out his window and started telling me how beautiful I am and how pretty my dogs are and how he had this feeling we were supposed to meet. And when I said I wasn’t interested he kept talking, and I tried to walk away and he followed. This is of course the point where Kyra decided to put on her scary dog act. It’s funny because Kyra growls and snaps and barks, and Nikita just stands there staring fixedly at the potential threat. But I think Nikita is probably the dog to worry about. She might not give any warning, but if someone was coming toward us she’d probably do something.

Finally the guy in the van gave up because he couldn’t speak over Kyra anyway and she does have big sharp teeth. At that point a guy came out of some underbrush, zipping up his pants and shouted over to me “That’s a good dog, protecting you like that!” Kyra redirected her barking at him. “That’s right!” he exclaimed “Good dog! Keep growling!”

My life. Always weird.

But as much as I’d like to say that this is an isolated incident, it really isn’t. I think I mentioned before that there are times when men will bother me throughout an entire trip to the store, following me aisle to aisle, repeatedly asking me out even after I’ve made it clear I want to be left alone. Sometimes when I’m walking my dogs men honk and yell at me. Sometimes the men honking and yelling things like “Ooooh baby, lookin’ good” are actually cops in siren cars. Yeah, reflect on how safe that makes me feel in my own neighborhood.

For what it’s worth, not that women ever bring harassment on themselves, but I’m not exactly wearing attention-grabbing clothing here. I wear huge t-shirts and sweat pants to walk the dogs.

I’ve had friends suggest that I need to get a large wedding ring and start wearing it. But of course there are reasons why I don’t wear a ring. Besides I should have a right to not be harassed all the time, even if I don’t “belong” to someone else. Funny, there’s this guy at the gym who harasses all the women, but not me, because I always go in with Sean. Being with a guy is a legitimate reason to be left alone, but just preferring to be left alone is not.

Sometimes when faced with this stuff I wonder what these men hope to accomplish. Do they think a woman should not be out walking her dogs and so try to intimidate me into staying inside, or does some part of them honestly expect me to say “Wow, nobody ever called me pretty before” and jump into their shady looking van with them.

There have been times when this unwanted attention has taken on sinister proportions, with men following me in their cars over long distances, or getting out of their cars and coming toward me on foot. And here I’m just talking about the people I’m giving the benefit of the doubt and leaving out the obvious abduction attempt.

It also reminds me how dysfunctional attitudes cut in all directions. The man who judges his manliness on shouting things at women from his car no doubt has trouble relating to women at all in any circumstance. Women feel intimidated and reluctant to do normal things. After all of this, I would not be outside walking if it weren’t that dogs need walking and also discourage people from approaching me. Men who have trouble relating to women as fellow human beings might wonder why none of their relationships work out. They might be lonely and angry or even depressed, but they are likely also unwilling to examine how their own behavior and attitudes might be contributing to those problems.

I think a typical response from people when they’re told they have to change is “Why do I have to change?” For a man who harasses women who are unlucky enough to walk where he’s driving, he’s likely thinking “I’ve always done this. It’s normal.” But the answer to why people have to change is “because it’s hurtful to others.” There’s the added answer of “it clearly isn’t doing you any favors either.”

I started more recently to think of behavior more in terms of reinforcement or withholding reinforcement. So when I think of things that way, I wonder if bothering random women out walking or at the grocery store is self-reinforcing behavior. Do they not care what our response is, because it is the act of harassing women that makes them feel manly and powerful. What gives?

May 31, 2007

Interesting conversations and offensive posts

Posted in abuse, recovery, violence, women's issues at 12:18 pm by nevavegan

Some thoughts here might be controversial, hence the title: offensive posts. I’m trying to honestly look at issues that affect my life and probably affect the lives of many others as well.

One thing that I try to keep in mind as I wander through my life is the concept of equality. Not that all of us are the same, because that’s patently ridiculous, but the idea that the differences between us don’t automatically rank us on some kind of hierarchy. Instead we all bring different things to the table and in an ideal world our different viewpoints and different skills could fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and we’d all be able to contribute and participate.

Then the cold hard world shows her face and I know that all around me I’m surrounded by people who in one way or another are cut off from participating in our common culture. The sense of powerlessness became palpable in some communities. In other situations, people with all the trappings of being important may in fact feel very shut out. They keep their ideas to themselves, potential contributions are never made.

Clearly the “isms” can shut people out of participating in society: racism, sexism, ageism, and the not-an-ism, homophobia. Some people struggle against these forces and insist that their voices matter, others get discouraged and retreat to the quietness of family, chosen family, or small communities where they can feel accepted.

There also comes with this the strange phenomenon where people start to think that prejudice is acceptable, if it’s good prejudice. Yet in any case, to assume that we know something about someone based on external factors, like race, gender, age, or socio-economic status is always prejudice. Because quite literally we pre-judge them. We think we know who they are and their capabilities before we ever actually get to know them.

This leads me to another point. I have been thinking lately about the topic of how women hurt each other and hurt children, and yes, even hurt men. Which is a no brainer, because women are human beings, and all human beings probably hurt someone else at some time, and there are some human beings who practically make careers out of hurting other people, and then there’s the whole spectrum in between.

But when I’ve talked to some of my friends in the past about female on female abuse, or child abuse perpetuated by mothers, I often run into this wall. Many of my female friends will insist that women are natural nurturers, that we are automatically filled with compassion and love. So if a woman turns violent or abusive, it is only because she herself has been abused to the breaking point.

I rankle at this because 1) I do think most abusers were abused themselves, but this applies to men as well, and we don’t tend to excuse their behavior because of that. Instead we ask that they act like adults, get help, and take some kind of responsibility for their actions, and 2) Women can be pretty awful sometimes even in the absence of abuse (again with that being human part).

This lead me to a fascinating exchange with Angie Reed Garner, and I just have to quote her, because she said it perfectly:
“I have always thought that one of the primary ways that women are stunted and deformed by sexism is that there is a lack of literature and general awareness in the culture about the ethical issues pertaining to women’s behavior. There is more about how women go crazy, but not much about how women fight against each other and children for power, control and resources.”

How very, very true. We decry sexism and yet at the same time we allow certain damaging behavior to go totally unchecked because we are attached to the myth of the perfect mother, the madonna and child, the female angel of mercy. So we cannot accept the idea that women also fight for power and prestige, and that they may backstab, slander, or shun other women to achieve those goals. We don’t like the idea that a mother might look over the limited resources of her family, and put herself first and her children last. We give a resigned sigh when a father spends his money on alcohol and doesn’t pay child support, but we neglect the whole concept that women might make similar decisions.

I want to explore this topic more over the next couple weeks, well not just this exact topic, but aspects of sexism, aspects of abuse, and just the general lack of research and documentation on issues within female culture in this country.

I also got some information from the moderator of the Survivors forum, though I’ll leave her anonymous for the time being. As expected, she said, most members when they sign up for access report abuse or attacks perpetrated by men. But it was not so lopsided as you might expect. She told me the split is about 60/40 in favor of men as the abusers. Further she said that about 25% of the community is actually male, which was a surprise to me as most males in the forum are very, very quiet. I expect though that rates of abuse for men, especially men abused as children, are probably fairly high, but just going on anecdotal evidence from my own experience, men are less likely to seek therapy, and less likely to join support groups or forums.

I’m not sure where all of that fits into my thinking other than a kind of general “wow, our culture can be violent.” But hopefully I’ll be able to form more thoughts on the topic as time goes on.