There’s this awful story coming out of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where a college junior was shot and killed by a man who apparently had been stalking her. They’d met briefly at a summer program at NYU, after which he began sending her nasty emails and leaving dozens of messages. She spoke to university police, but then he seemed to disappear from the area and her life, so she declined to press charges, presumably hoping he’d gotten over it. Two years later, yesterday, he showed up at her job and killed her.

Stalking is terrifying because it’s surrounded by so much ambiguity. First, there is little that law enforcement can do when a person is being harassed, other than issue a restraining order, which will often only serve to exacerbate the harassment. Stalkers may suffer from what’s known as “erotomania,” in which ANY attention from the victim is taken as encouragement to continue pursuing them. They are very difficult to prosecute until they’ve reached out physically, at which point it may be too late. Stalking seems to cross gender lines–I’ve heard of male celebrities being stalked by female fans, and vice versa.

Another complication is that the victim may be unsure if what they’re experiencing constitutes stalking, if they’re making a big deal out of nothing, if they somehow invited the behavior by being flighty with the person or leading them on in some way. To generalize hugely, I think women do tend to err on the side of politeness–for me, it frequently seems more logical to convince myself, for instance, that I’m overreacting to the odd demeanor of a man sitting next to me on the subway than to just move away and risk insulting him.

I’ve had two instances that began to border on stalking. The first, which I’ll write about here, was with a man I’d worked with over the summer at a community newspaper. He was a reporter and I was an intern, and we were friendly for a bit before I went back to college. He started IMing me one day, saying he thought I’d done good work at the paper and hoped I’d continue pursuing journalism. I was flattered that this man had even noticed me, and eventually we made plans to meet up when I came home over Thanksgiving break.

I liked the idea of going out with a much-older guy, a vaguely glamorous and dangerous experience I’d never had before. I liked the idea of collecting sort of risque experiences, thought they’d fuel my writing. But the moment we met up outside a restaurant in my hometown, I felt I’d made a mistake: he could be my father, we likely had no common ground, and I got a vibe of weirdness coming off him. But to say one gets “vibes,” has a “bad feeling”–it’s too mystical and superstitious for many logical people, and so one pushes the warnings away.

Anyway, I cut the date short by saying I had plans with a friend, he kissed my cheek in the parking lot, and I went home resolved to not repeat the experience. When he emailed asking if I’d like to meet him again, I didn’t respond.

After that, he began sending me angry messages, about how I’d led him on, how I’d been dishonest. He’d IM me whenever I signed on. I became frightened for my family that he’d show up at the house in the middle of the night, but I felt too ashamed to tell them what had happened. I felt that this was a form of justice for my risque behavior, that this was what happened when you toyed around with the idea of being with an older man.

I don’t know how much this reaction was informed by societal expectations of proper female behavior, of a tendency to “blame the victim” whether it’s rape or abuse or stalking, or by my own rather rigid conceptions of right and wrong. I’d always hated to be scolded by authority figures, to feel I’d made a mistake of any kind–when I was little, my parents used to intentionally make mistakes on a computer game we had to show me it was OK, because I’d freak out so extremely at the sad little music that would play when I messed up the game.

But why would I feel like it was such a horrible thing to consider dating an older guy? And why would I feel like it was my fault that he reacted so extremely to my rejection of him? This isn’t something that was imparted to me by my parents. I think maybe it’s something women may absorb over time, that sexual experimentation has major risks, and whatever results you brought on yourself. How many horror movies demonstrate a direct cause-and-effect between sex and death? How many times, upon hearing that someone you know got an STD, have you thought to yourself that that’s what happens to sluts?

I wonder what the initial interactions were like between this Wesleyan student and her stalker. I wonder if she felt sorry for him, felt that she’d behaved callously toward him, deserved his wrath, convinced herself that it would just run its course, go away. I wonder what it will take to enact laws that stop stalking in its terrifying course, before it comes to this.

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