real life

'A man stalked my workplace for a week. When I reported it, I was laughed at.'

Content warning: This post discusses intimidation and stalking and may be triggering for some readers. 

It wasn’t until we’d finished work for the day and my colleague and I were walking through the nearby park to our cars, that she looked over her shoulder in the darkness and noticed a figure trailing a small distance behind us on the path.

“Oh my God, there’s someone behind us,” she said. I could hear panic in her voice, where only moments before we’d been laughing about Mulan and our obsession with Disney music.

Women And Violence: The Hidden Numbers. Post continues after video. 

I looked back but it was too dark to see much much. Yes, there was someone walking behind us. They appeared to be a male wearing tracksuit pants and a baseball cap. I noticed a distinct fluorescent stripe across his chest. It was hard to see much else: we were deep in the park, far away from any street lights.

I turned back to my friend and smiled, leveraging against her fear because at this stage, I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. It wasn’t unusual to share this pathway with other workers cutting through the sports fields to the neighbouring streets. Staff-parking inside the centre is limited and often full before the bulk of employees arrive for work; forcing people to prolific the nearby suburbs that have all-day parking.

“That man was in the centre today,” she whispered to me. “He walked past the shop five times. And don’t you remember, we just passed him in the bin room?” The detour through the bin room had been my fault. Paranoia makes me check the store room every night before we leave just to make sure the door is locked. To get to the store room, you have to walk through a staff-only bin room sectioned off from the general public, filled with giant rubbish compactors. I hadn’t even noticed him in there.

By this stage my friend had stopped and was frantically ruffling through her purse. “Where are my keys?” she was saying, and her panic had become infectious. I looked across and saw the man only a couple of metres away. “You must have left them in the drawer. I’ll drop you back.” I said, and I made to keep walking. My friend grabbed my arm.

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“Wait.”

It was only 6pm but it felt like midnight. The park was dark and deserted; there was a cold, still echo in the air. The presence of the man approaching suddenly felt terrifying; panic escalating from one to one hundred in a matter of seconds. We were alone. It was dark. We had nothing to defend ourselves with. The response in my body was visceral; my heart accelerated, the muscles in my legs tensed.

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At last he reached us, then passed beside us, and we finally had a clear look at his face. He was an older man. Pale skin. Blond hair. His eyes darted over to us as he walked past.

We waited and watched as his figure dwindled into the distance. Every now and then he’d stop and look back across his shoulder, then keep going. When he reached the end of the street he stopped one last time, looked back in our direction, then rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.

“You know about fight or flight?” asked my colleague, “that’s why I was looking for my keys.”

The next morning we requested a meeting with security, and a management representative showed up an hour later. After my colleague told him what had happened: the stalking of the shop, the sighting in the bin room, the following through the park: he spread his hands and laughed.

“It’s good,” he said, “it means you’re pretty.”

Acceptance of male intimidation as an expression of affection is taught to women from a young age.

When I was at a co-education primary school I remember playing duck, duck, goose in the playground at lunch. There was a boy leading the game. He circled the group while we sat buzzing with anticipation; our eyes clamped shut, nervously poised and ready to leap into action if we heard goose. Duck. Duck. He made his way around us. When he came to me, he shoved me in the shoulder, hard. “Duck,” he said, and kept going. I remember opening my eyes, wondering why he was hurting everyone; then realising with a flush of shame it was only me. No one else had seen or felt a thing.

In the car ride home I had told my mum. Her voice softened with understanding. “It’s probably because he likes you.”

This dissembling from my mum may not have been correct, but there was pretext embedded in her conclusion from her own experiences.

Growing up, women are told constantly that a man should not hit you. What women are also told is that suggestions of aggression, if exacted with restraint, are an accepted expression of a man’s desire. He can yell at you from the car window if he continues past. He can incite a physical altercation with another patron in a pub, if both men desire your company. These situations may be scaled as two extremes, but they are not unrelated when, in the case of spousal abuse, one is a precursor to the other.

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Women are not told enough how to recognise the subtle nuance of intimidation, of manipulative persuasion, that is much harder to recognise. This predatory behaviour is often bundled into the same category as flirtation, dangerously skewing a woman’s perception of her circumstances. When we undermine the significance of suggestive behaviour, it undermines the potential for harm and in doing so, leaves women ill-equipped to defend themselves when harm arises.

That man had passed by our shop several times that day, each time looking in and meeting the eyes of my co-worker. That was not an accident. It was unusual behaviour, but also not uncommon. Cat-calls. Undressing eyes. Invasion of personal space. These are all accepted in our society as ways of men communicating that they approve of what they see. Somewhere along those lines, have women been forced to accept these as validation, or have we simply desensitised ourselves? Surely, by blunting the edges of our experiences, we leave ourselves vulnerable to a closer attack.

For five days this man has returned, around closing time, to walk back and forth in front of our workplace. We call security. They cannot locate him. And the man disappears into the night. The management of our building has offered to provide security to escort us through the park should we call them, and that we should do so if we “continue to feel scared.”

Why is there such scepticism around the expression of fear?

In 2016, I went through the process of obtaining a restraining order against a previous partner. At the time of finally going to court, he had strangled me, broken into my home and left knives sticking out of my kitchen counter, and continually lurked outside both mine and my parents houses at night.

At the time of going to court, I felt terrified that my experiences had not been enough.

Was it because I was responsible for allowing myself to remain in a relationship that was abusive? Or was it because so many of my attempts to reach out for help had been systematically devalued because they were predominantly fear-based? I remember many times in the lead-up to our court date, lying in bed at night, aware that he was outside my house. When I called the police I would be asked the same things: do you have an AVO already? No. Has he done anything? No. I would be told they would send a car to the area.

One night, I remember my Dad drove twenty minutes to my house and drank tea with me on the end of my bed, before we noticed the flashing lights of a police patrol car driving slowly past my window. I wonder now, as I often wondered then, how valuable that would have been to me if he was already inside my home.

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How valuable is a woman’s fear? Why is there hesitation to act proactively to her expression of fear, when it may be the only currency she has against a man who is stronger than her, and manipulating her, with the intention of doing her harm? Does it hold any currency at all, when it has already been vastly devalued by a society that desensitises her against possible warning signs?

We are continually told a response must be reactive and yet in Australia, one woman is killed every week by her present or previous partner; a preemptive response could mean the difference of her life. One in six women will experience stalking in her lifetime. In my recent experience, fear of being stalked was met with devaluing assumptions, subverted to masculine prerogative: I should feel validated.

All instances of violence have the same origin: a single look.

As a community, we can attempt to raise the bar for sexual expression, so that men don’t recognise themselves, and manifest their own innocence, in the predatory behaviour of others. We can listen to a woman’s expression of fear and instead of devaluing it, we can act on it.

As a society we can highlight the misconception that everyone has a voice. As a society, we can call out the false claim that if you ask for help, you will receive it.

The truth is that, within our community, women are still being stalked in parks, many are being murdered by their partners, and not enough is being done to stop it. The truth is that if you only fear you may be in danger, you will be asked to call back when you are.

When I return to work this week, it will be with the knowledge that I have been watched every day by the same man, who appears outside my workplace around closing time; long after the sun has set and the surrounding area is covered in darkness. It will be with the memory of being followed, and the knowledge that he recognises myself and my car. It will be with the understanding that, unless he physically assaults me, he has just as many rights to be there as I have. I’ll be carrying a can of hair spray in my bag to defend myself: a gift from a family friend “just in case”.

To the institutions responsible for change, and those I reached out to for help: is this enough?

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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