I was 16 years old when my best friend and I went to the mall. It was the first time in my youth that I was allowed anywhere on my own, and I was thrilled. I curled my hair, put on my favorite pair of jeans, and grabbed my best friend to look at all the makeup stores the mall had to offer. The day was full of laughter and joy, but soon enough it was time to go. As we passed the food court on our way out, two young men began to follow us.
The first was short and catty, nagging us like a pup nipping at one’s heels. I was confused, wondering why a stranger would approach us so boldly. His friend followed silently a few feet behind. The catty one continued to flirt and my friend told him to buzz off. He persisted, not taking no for an answer, until his friend said, “Let’s head back.” Reluctantly, they left.
At 18 years old, a friend accompanied me to the city’s only outdoor mall for a quick shopping spree and a late breakfast. Renovations were being done along a sidewalk, forcing us to squeeze close least we bump into anyone. Although the space was small, a man with a large bicycle insisted on passing through. We moved closer to the wall, and I smiled apologetically, hoping he wouldn’t be mad that we couldn’t give him more room.
He had been going in the opposite direction to us, but stopped suddenly, turned around and began following us all the way to the diner. The diner was so small that the tables stood only four feet away from each other — clearly a safety hazard. But with no one in the area, we happily took our seats by the window.
The man who had been following us paced outside the diner until he spotted us. He leaned in towards the window and put both hands against the glass, staring at us for the better part of five minutes.
“Just ignore him,” my friend said. “He’ll go away.”
Instead, a commotion sounded towards the front of the diner as the man wheeled his bicycle through the place and stopped at the booth next to ours. He sat down and faced us with all his body, staring us down as we ate our food meekly. No words were said as we speed-walked back to the car.
I was filled with nostalgia as my mother and I walked into the last K-Mart in the area. I was 24 years old, and the store which had been my childhood favorite was now closing shop around the nation. The “everything must go” sale had attracted a lot of people and, at first, I didn’t notice the old man staring at me from across the clothes racks.
I am a restless shopper who always wants to see the whole store before I leave. So I left my mother by the blouses and wandered through all the aisles.
I thought it was a coincidence when the old man who had stood next to me in the clothing section appeared again in the kitchen appliances. I thought it was strange when I looked at shoes and saw him standing a few feet away. I knew it was creepy when I was looking at underwear and caught him staring at me seven feet away.
The weirdest part was that he was clearly trying to blend in. He would hold an item from an area until I left that area. Then, he would follow me, grab something else, and leave that, too. He stayed in an area only so long as I was there. Every time I caught his gaze, he would quickly turn away. I thought he was creepy, but by that point, I had gotten used to creepy men doing creepy things around me.
But eventually, I grew tired of watching my back and resorted to my secret weapon.
“Mama!” I yelled.
“I’m over here!” She called back.
I followed the sound of her voice towards the far end of the store, where not a single sales associate worked and the shelves were barely stocked. Clearly, the outdoor furniture, tools and sporting equipment had been the first to go when the store filed for bankruptcy. It was like a graveyard. But as I looked around, I was happy to see that no one else was in the area with my mother and I.
I hugged her and gave her a kiss, then told her about the creep. She made a joke and we laughed, but my laughter stuck in my throat when I looked up and saw him standing by the few tools that were left an aisle away. He was holding a wrench and looked at me much longer than he had before. I turned to tell my mom, but when we looked back, he was gone.
My mother said he probably found what he was looking for. Happy to finally have an answer, I allowed myself to look through the empty aisles in the area. I had grown distracted by a random knick-knack when I suddenly realized I couldn’t hear my mom anymore. Still filled with the heebie-jeebies, I decided to walk back.
That was when I heard the footsteps.
I stopped walking and they stopped, too. I started again, and they followed. Anxiously, I looked over my shoulder and saw the same old man from before following me closer than I expected. Turning back around, I began to pick up my pace. He matched my speed, footsteps growing louder until I was almost jogging back to my mom. I shouted when I saw her let him know I wasn’t alone. My mother was taller than either of us and younger than him by about 20 years, though it was true that she did not have a wrench as he did.
We hurried to the registers and were just about to check out when I saw the man surveilling the area. His eyes stopped on mine, and I pulled on my mom’s arm and pointed him out to her. We hurried back to the car and locked the doors.
These are only three situations where a man I have never met followed me around in public, but they are far from the only times such things have happened. When discussing these situations with fellow women, the consensus is the same; these things happen, they are terrifying and they are unwanted.
It goes without saying that not every man who does creepy things means to be creepy, but this is exactly the issue. Even when done unintentionally, many men invade women’s spaces to get what they want because society has conditioned them to believe if they persist, the women will cave in. They are told that we are playing hard to get, and that to have a fulfilling, happy relationship, they can’t give up. Their desires end up meaning more than women’s comfort.
As a result, women are conditioned to follow a set of rules. We know not to look men in the eyes, not to smile and not to carry on a conversation. We are told, whether directly or indirectly, that it is our responsibility not to encourage the man.
These men argue that women should be flattered by the attention since it means they are beautiful. They say no harm was done, and ask why it upsets us without really wanting to hear the answer. If harm was done, they deny it or ask, “What did you do to make it happen?” And, if we still choose to speak about our experiences, we are told, “Not all men do that,” as if we ever accused all men.
By refusing to listen to women and respect a woman’s right to privacy, these men undermine the essence of what it means to be a good man and an ally. Too many experiences are discredited and unheard because men, who claim to love women, do not want to believe their brothers, uncles, fathers, and friends could act in this way — but they can, and they do. If we are to be a better society, men need to be better allies and stand with women when they are being mistreated, disrespected, abused, and unheard.
Public stalking is only one way that women are oppressed and threatened, but it is a serious part of a much larger systemic issue that imagines women as objects for men to conquer. It is past time for a change.
If you or someone you know is in danger, contact your local authorities or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.