Originally published on Medium on October 15, 2014. As a result of the overwhelming feedback to this article, I also gave a radio interview to 640 WGST on October 30, 2014.
Several years ago, I had a stalker. It took a while to reconcile what it was. In fact, I probably lived in denial for a year or so before I could really categorize it in such a way. You see, I knew him. Pretty well even. We went to the same coffee shop, a place a friend owned. As a consultant, I did a lot of work from there. He was a regular, the same way many other customers were. I became friendly with him, doing the stray crossword together, chit chatting about music. To me, the boundaries were always clear. I was dating somebody seriously and he knew it. Then it got strange.
He started to ask too-personal questions. If I were not at the shop when he expected me to be, he would question me when I arrived. He started bringing gifts. Then, leaving notes. He never knew where I lived and I took comfort in that. Until one day when I pulled into my driveway with my son. A few minutes later, he did too. He confronted me about why I wasn’t coming around as much to the shop. He told me he loved me. When I asked how he knew where I lived, he confessed he had followed me home once before. And since then, would sit at the gas station across the street in his car and watch me. To know somebody has been watching you, wanting you. It shakes your sense of privacy and safety.
I did what a responsible woman does — I sent my son inside and returned my focus to the stalker. I spoke to him coldly, explaining he was to leave me alone. I stopped going to the coffee shop. I consulted with a friend in law enforcement. And I routinely locked my doors and pulled the blinds closed with the fervor of a woman changed. At least, I thought I was.
Once, months later, distracted on a phone call in a local Home Depot, I walked to my car only to realize when I sat down that a man I’d halfway noticed in the store had followed me all the way to my door. I dropped the phone and locked the car doors. He stood there for a few moments giving an icy stare, saying nothing. Eventually, he walked away. And once again, I adjusted my behavior. No more phone calls in stores, coupled with a heightened awareness while walking to my car. A changed woman was changed a little more.
Years have now passed. I live in a quiet neighborhood with my fiancé and our children. Neighbors are friendly and conscientious, the kind of people you’d leave a house key with when you go out of town. We have a little dog, BBQ on the weekends. I garden.
That is why I was surprised when this week, one of my neighbors asked to speak with me. She was anxious but composed. Carefully she explained that she had some concerns about her husband’s fidelity and that it prompted her to look through his phone. This story didn’t sound uncommon, so far. Then she said softly but seriously that she had found pictures of me. I was gardening in my yard. He caught me in positions where I was bending over; as a result, they were more sexual.
The violation that I had felt years ago has flooded back. I am equal parts angry with him and angry with myself. I feel compromised. And I feel unguarded. I should have known that I am never alone. That I am never safe.
A Rally Cry for Men and Women Alike
This fear is unique to women. And it is hard to explain to men. In fact, telling this photograph story to my fiancé prompted more laughter than anger. And that is not because he doesn’t care for me deeply. It is simply hard for most men to identify with.
It is an issue so difficult that discussion is often heated on both sides. Women say men are ultimately pig-like creatures. Men say that the makeup of men that carry out these acts are not representative of the gender. In fact, a few years ago a hashtag emerged. #notallmen was meant to bolster the notion that not all men are perverts and predators. And while the point was valid, it did little more than fan the feminist fire, because it all but ignored the reality that some men are. For women in fear, that is enough.
To me, the reality is something a little more balanced. Not all men are pigs — but some are to a frightening extent. And as far as misogyny and sexism, women are at times quite complicit. With rabid attention, some women consume (and help create) the media that not-so-quietly promotes it. And some women use their looks and charm for personal and shameless gain. They violate what I call “women code.” That is — stay safe, represent your gender with integrity, and promote values that propel our opportunity for gender equality.
That said, men have to respect that being a man makes them wildly incapable of understanding what sexism means to women. Whether a man defines himself as sexist or not, many are socialized that way and even benefit from it. They enjoy the heavy end of unequal compensation and they don’t generally need to plan their route to their cars because they’re afraid of being raped. A man’s role should not be to dispel the issue of predatory behavior or sexism by claiming it is a minority practice. But rather to openly recognize that it exists and that it hurts women. They can distance themselves from the the worst of the lot by simply speaking out against it. And by being a living and breathing example of how men carry themselves with respect.
And women, boy do we have some work to do. We need to be our own bodyguards. We can exercise some control by being self-aware. And we can boldly tell our stories so that we may help other women. But we can do more than that. We can speak out against the women that have a role in compromising our progress. And we can speak up for the men that are breaking the mold. Because there are many; I am proud to call several of them my friends.
Progress is made through conversation, not accusation. When I see that balance shift, it will be a sign that we can put differences aside and focus on impacting change.