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Opening up fields of awareness, Part 2
Last week this column talked about the need to become more aware in public, in an effort to avoid being the target of unwelcome interactions with strangers. If we keep in mind that the people around us everyday on public transportation and out on the street could be in any mental state whatsoever, we can more easily pick up signals that something is wrong before we are victimized. But many situations that women in particular face are unavoidable, because the predator has singled us out for one reason: that we are women moving through the world alone. Today we’re going to talk about premeditated violence, in contrast to being “in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” One situation that many Hollaback! readers have experienced is being stalked.
Stalking is defined as “the willful, malicious and repeated following and harassing of another person,” and can occur in public or private spaces, over the phone, or even at work. Today we’re going to isolate our discussion to the kind of stalking that many women experience, which is being stalked by someone who you either don’t know at all, or someone with whom you have only very superficial contact. But first let’s discuss what stalking is, and what it isn’t: stalking is about power and control over the target, and it’s not simply about being fascinated with someone. Think back to a circumstance when either you, or perhaps a friend had been stalked by somebody, male or female, it doesn’t matter ~ you probably felt harassed, and that you were definitely giving the harasser clear signals that you didn’t want that interaction. I can remember being stalked by a security guard in college, and erroneously thinking that I could ignore the unwelcome advances ~ until the night came when that person entered my dorm at around midnight, banged on my door repeatedly, and slipped a picture of a place where that person wanted us to go on vacation together. I remember standing frightened and frozen inside my dorm room, which was locked, thank God, and then going to security the next morning to report the incident. The guard was fired, which I felt badly about, but considering the violation of boundaries involved, I now think it was a good idea. But I digress ~ you too probably have your own stories, and that is just one concrete example of how someone who knows you only in passing can not only get the wrong idea, but can take that idea to the extreme.
As a very young woman, I didn’t really know how to handle it at the time, and “nip it in the bud” so to speak, as I would now. If you have at least a superficial relationship to your harasser, give them a direct and firm rejection, immediately letting them know that no further contact is welcome or even permissible. This is often the safest approach. If they persist in their advances, you can then go to security, human resources, and so on. But what if you are stalked in public, which means that you don’t know your harasser? Many women are followed down the street, while they’re out jogging, or even in the grocery store. This is really the scariest situation, because your harasser is a complete unknown, who conceivably has the power and intention to do you great harm. So how to identify a stalker, and what to do about it: A stalker can look like anybody, but the feeling they give is one of menace, that they are the predator, and you are the prey. You often know when you’re being followed, either just with someone’s eyes, which can be uncomfortable, or if someone is literally going everywhere you are, no matter what your pattern of movement. The best way to determine this is to change direction suddenly, going in the opposite direction, or into different stores if you’re in a shopping district. Usually four to five direction changes would give you an accurate read on the situation.
If you are unable to avoid the person, and they start to catch up to you on foot in a public space, use the power of your voice. Turn around and yell, “I don’t know you! Why are you following me?” Make sure that others are within earshot, and can see that you are in distress. If you call attention to yourself, it will also call attention to the would-be harasser/attacker, which they definitely don’t want. Many victims of stalking would prefer not to have to “make a fuss,” but when someone systematically invades your personal space, you’ve got to assume the worst is yet to come, and get LOUD. If you make a mistake, so what ~ you probably won’t know, because the typical predator reaction is to deny that they were stalking you/harassing you/touching you in the first place. Picture a man’s hands going up in the air, saying, “Hey lady, calm down! Don’t flatter yourself, you crazy b____!” And fortunately it doesn’t happen that often, but wouldn’t you rather be called a crazy b for a moment, so you can get out of the situation safely? I know I would, and as you already know, I’ve already had to make that decision. Many times, standing up for ourselves is not easy at all, which is what a sexual harasser or would/be attacker knows and uses to his advantage. This isn’t a pleasant thought, and I certainly don’t advocate going around paranoid, but as women we’ve got to realize that there are malevolent individuals out that we need to be aware of, and act accordingly for our self-protection.
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