Stalking is illegal in all 50 states, and yet one in every six women has been the victim of stalking in her lifetime. Here, two young women candidly recount their respective experiences being followed, both physically and online, and discuss how that harassment has impacted their everyday lives.
Shelley*: I was a sophomore in high school and we hooked up once—we didn't have sex, just third base. It was whatever, and he left. I was like Eh I'm not even interested in him. We didn't speak after that. But then, several months later, I went to this event for this rap group where they were doing a signing and I'm standing in line with my friend. He comes up to me out of nowhere and is like "Oh you're not talking to me anymore, is that how you really feel?"
Mara*: Obviously that's how you feel—you stopped talking to him.
S: Right! I was like, "Sorry," but didn't think anything of it. Then he started Facebook messaging me all the time like "Hey, hey how are you?" And for the longest time I didn't respond. I don't know why I didn't go ahead and block him—I feel like blocking is such an extreme measure.
M: Yeah, me too.
S: I always feel like I don't want to block someone—and I know I shouldn't be that way because if you're harassing me or making me feel uncomfortable I should block you! At this point it had been two or three years and I was getting frustrated with his constant messaging. So I said, "What do you want from me?" He said, "Oh I'm going through names in my phone and I came across yours and I just want to connect with you again. There's a lot of things going on in my life" and blah blah. I was like, I just really don't care.
M: Did you say that?
S: In a nicer way. He was just like, "Oh just give me a chance. Can I set up a time to talk to you?" At this point, I realized he doesn't get it. So I just deleted him as a friend so he couldn't message me. This was before Facebook allowed you to message people you weren't friends with. But he was relentless. He found all of my social media profiles: my Instagram, my tumblr. I have three different email accounts for different purposes and he found all of them and would send me creepy weird emails: He would use capital and lowercase letters like a ransom note spelling out "Can we meet? Can we talk?" I ignored them.
M: Then what happened?
S: Years later, I had moved. I'm walking down the street and I see someone coming down my neighbor's doorstep and going to my house. And I'm thinking maybe it's someone selling candy or a girl scout. I was ready to be like *snap* "Don't solicit in front of my house!" So I walked up with all this authority like, can I help you? And then I see that it's him—I froze. He seemed nervous so I was nervous. All I could say was, "It's been six years. How do you even know where I live?" I was so scared—the one thing that I do remember so clearly was him saying, "You're the only person who I connect with."
M: Connect where, how?!
S: Right. We knew each other for one week—in high school. And here he was six years later. He had been ringing doorbells asking for me—it was very unlucky that I was coming home right when he was walking up. At that point, I had confirmed for him that I lived there. I really didn't know what to do. So I'm just there, awkwardly smiling.
M: Yeah, the uncomfortable smile.
S: Yeah, the smile that's like, I don't want to anger you but I'm also not okay with this situation. So then he asks, "Can I get your number?" And I literally didn't know what to say or do. I didn't want to upset him, so I said, "Well it's not really a good time." And he just kept pushing—he was like, "Well we can talk later and you can tell me a good time?" He had this flip phone with the number taped to the back and he just gives me the number. I did type it down because I was like, I'm giving this to the police. He kept talking to me but I just backed slowly into the house and closed the door.
I was really shaken up. I started crying. I called the police and they took a statement and said they couldn't even really help me because he hadn't physically threatened me. The next day, I had an appointment with my therapist and she confirmed that he had definitely crossed a line—which I needed to hear from someone.
When I got home from therapy, my brother told me that my stalker was sitting on the porch. Waiting for me.
M: That's really scary.
S: Then my brother blamed me. He told me I should have been more forceful and that I was too nice. But that's so easy for him to say as a man. Women are taught that they have to be nice.
M: Right. That's the first thing that happens when you refuse to talk to a street harasser—all of a sudden you're a "bitch" or "you could just smile." We're always supposed to be nice, but then you aren't "doing enough."
S: And then sometimes when you're not nice and you are forceful, you get killed. Or shot or stabbed or kidnapped. Men's egos are so fragile that getting rejected is the equivalent to justifying taking your life or severely hurting you.
M: So how did it end? Better question: Did it end?
S: My brother stepped in, and my stalker hasn't contacted me since. I still hope that it's completely over. But I hate that my brother says "Go away!" and then he does—when I'd been telling him I wasn't interested for years. Either men and boys really don't give a f*ck because they think even when you say "no" you really men "yes," or he's not gone unless another man steps in. And both of those situations are hard pills to swallow.
M: But that's the reality. When I was stalked, it was also a long, drawn out, years situation. It was my first boyfriend—we dated for maybe a year and change. Horrible relationship. He cheated but I didn't have the self-esteem at the time to cut him loose. So it went on much longer than it should have. I broke up with him, deleted his number from my phone, and deleted most social media. I made my Facebook page private. But he would message me every day, multiple times a day, and I just wouldn't respond. He lived in the next town over but I would see him hanging around my town—I would see him on my way home from school.
S: He would wait for you?
M: Sort of. He wouldn't say anything—but he would walk parallel to me.
S: Would he look at you? The man who stalked me would do that.
M: Yeah, he would look at me but it was one of those things where you don't want to engage but you can tell that you're being followed. So I just tried to put it out of my head. Eventually, he stopped following me and the messages also stopped—so I was relieved.
A couple of years later, I graduated and went to college. But then when I came back home for my first break, he started popping up. I saw him on my block maybe once or twice.
S: That's just the scariest feeling—when that happens and you feel like you can't tell anyone because they'll think you're freaking out over nothing, but you feel unsafe.
M: All my social media accounts were private, but as I started to get older and applied for internships and jobs, I ended up making them public for my employers. As soon as I did, boom, he followed me.
S: The social media lurking can really grab you sometimes. It's just another reminder that they are constantly watching.
M: Right! Not long after, I was up late in my room and I hear something being thrown at my window. So I look through my window and I see him standing in my neighbor's driveway. It's one of those things where you're aware of what's happening but it takes you a little while to really process it.
S: I had so many moments like that—time slows down and you just can't believe it but it's still happening in front of you.
M: He kept coming back to my window at all hours of the night. It got to the point where I wouldn't go downstairs past a certain hour—after it got dark—because we have a big glass deck door in my kitchen. After two or three times, I told my mom and called the police.
S: Why didn't you tell her earlier?
M: At first I didn't say anything to her because she was never a fan of his. It took me way longer than it should have to break up with him and it put a strain on our relationship as a family. So I didn't want to worry her or further damage our relationship as a mother and daughter by admitting what was happening to me. I was scared, but I was also scared of "I told you so."
S: Fair. Did the police offer you anything?
M: They came and swept the area, but they didn't find anyone. And as you said, they asked if he had made physical contact or threats, and because he hadn't, they said there was nothing they could do.
S: Did their presence make you feel any better?
M: Not really. Not long after, my mom kept telling me that the car smelled funny—it didn't stink, it just smelled different. We shared the car so we were both pretty familiar with how it smelled inside. And then one morning, she opened the car door and he was sleeping in the passenger seat. We put it together that he had been sleeping in my mother's car for weeks but I guess this one particular morning he didn't wake up in time before she left so she caught him. She didn't even know what to say because she hadn't seen him in three years. This is someone her daughter dated as a teenager—and now I'm 21.
S: Did you call the police? Again?
M: No—we didn't think there was anything they could do. He never made a single physical threat to us, but that doesn't mean it's not stalking.
S: So he just got up and left?
M: Basically. Some time later, I received a letter from him—from jail. He detailed how much I meant to him. My mom advised me not to say anything. I haven't heard from him in years, thankfully. Truly though, the aftermath has been a lot worse. A lot of me is still trying to decide if I was being irrational, even though I felt unsafe. I struggled with whether I was overreacting a lot.
S: Yeah. That's definitely how I felt throughout the years. I kept having to ask myself, Is he really stalking me? Or am I being dramatic? You just feel it in your heart and your gut—you know something is not right about this. And I feel like that's something a lot of women have to deal with—the second-guessing over the severity of the situation. Obviously the police don't always help. It's like, Okay, so you want to wait until he slits my throat?
M: I never understood that. I get that they can't just file restraining orders against every single person for breathing the wrong way, but it seems like there should be an in-between before it gets to actual physical contact.
S: Yeah. Especially when it comes to like sleeping in your mom's car or showing up at someone's house.
M: I remember I joked with my friend one time and said, "if I end up on a milk carton, you know who did it!" type of thing. And then I thought about it and it's one of those jokes that you do believe—you laugh to make light of a situation in which you feel powerless and scared because it's all you can do. It's like a half-truth—you're actually halfway afraid that it's going to happen.
S: Women are just so accustomed to this kind of harassment on so many different levels. What else can you do but laugh? We're basically taught that it's normal.
M: But that's the really difficult part: There's no fool-proof way to stop it. If a guy wants your attention, unfortunately they feel they are entitled to it. Because you're told that you're supposed to smile, that you're supposed to be nice, that you're not supposed to make other people uncomfortable—even when you're uncomfortable.
S: They're entitled to your body, your smile, anything. There was this one time I was just not having a good day and this guy said something like, "Damn, girl, that ass"—which happens pretty regularly. But this one day, I wasn't having it, so I said, "F*ck off" to his face. He shot up from where he was sitting—clearly angry—and started following me down the street. There was a guy walking ahead of me and I just went right next to him and said, "I'm sorry. This guy is following me me back there. I feel really uncomfortable. Will you just walk with me?" And he was like, "Yeah, that's totally fine." That's happened on multiple occasions where I basically had to recruit a stranger to be my bodyguard because some guy is following me. I shouldn't have to seek protection from a stranger because some guy thinks that it's okay to talk about my ass.
M: It's amazing to me that some guys don't understand why street harassment has become an important topic. I still find so much resistance from guys like, "Why don't you smile? It's not that serious." I feel like most men are just not raised in this hostility as an everyday reality.
S: Almost never.
M: If a man goes into an elevator, nobody expects him to dutifully entertain the random woman who's talking to him—at the risk of his safety. But somehow, we're supposed to ward off any unwanted advances without offending, without irritating, and also while trying to get where we're going.
S: And it's not like, oh, occasionally this happens. It's everyday.
M: Everyday, yeah. I rarely walk anywhere without getting unsolicited attention from men. I've developed so many strategies just to cope. At night, I'll have my headphones in to try and dissuade men from trying to talk to me. But I won't have any music playing because I want to hear if someone is following me.
S: Sometimes I consider it a good commute if there's no man who whistles at me. Sometimes, it's a good day just because no man has harassed me that day.
*Names have been changed.
If you or someone you know is being stalked, please go here for resources.