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(Editors’ Note: The introduction to the series on #everydaysexualviolence is here. It contains a detailed trigger warning.)
As a blogger who happens to be both feminist and female, I’ve attracted more misogynistic trolls than I care to count. They pop up on occasion, then disappear.
But one troll has been consistent over time. He’s followed me from blog to blog, to various social media accounts, for the sole purpose of harassing me and my community.
It’s a continuation of the work he began twenty years ago, when he was my high school stalker.
Ralph and I worked on the newspaper together at our public high school. He edited the news articles; I edited the features. He seemed nice enough, but it quickly became clear that he wanted more than a friendship—and I wasn’t interested. There was something creepy about his attentions that, at first, I couldn’t put my finger on. I tried to avoid him, but because of our work together on the paper, I couldn’t quite distance myself from him.
Making the matter more complex, Ralph was the type who I knew would be incredibly insulted at the thought that a girl just plain wasn’t interested in him. I needed to maneuver around him.
“I have a boyfriend,” I’d say carefully.
Unsatisfied, he sent me roses through the school’s Valentine fundraiser.
“You’re too old for me,” I ventured cautiously. (I was 15, and he was about to turn 18.)
Undeterred, he made me a series of mix tapes that featured love songs, as well as “classic” songs like “My Sharona” (which is about an older man attracted to an underage girl–ew). He’d foist them upon me. “Really listen to the lyrics this time,” he’d say—as though I was the one being obtuse.
Soon enough, he made a point of being anywhere he knew I was going to be. For example, he showed up at rehearsal for the high school dance recital, where I was dressed in the same costume as all the other dancers: a black leotard with leggings.
He stared at me lasciviously, his eyes going up and down my body until I felt naked in the outfit I needed to wear on a public stage that weekend.
Then he barked, “Put some clothes on, woman!”
I retreated wordlessly in the direction of the dance teacher, and he left eventually.
Sadly, the teachers who witnessed his behavior—for there was plenty of it—did nothing to stop it. If anything, they encouraged it, rooting for the underdog. (The faculty advisor to the newspaper would refer to the publication as “Ralph and Rochelle’s baby” with a gleam in her eye, as though she was some kind of matchmaker. It was sick.)
Meanwhile, I had grown up in a context that is familiar to so many women and girls—one in which the threat of sexual violence was common and recurring—normalized but not normal.
The first threatening male I specifically recall was my Uncle Mark. He was a great misogynist who called his own mother “Old Woman” instead of “Mom.” He would demand that she wait on him when he visited, even though she hobbled along with a walker, housebound largely disabled. “Old Woman! Get me a coffee,” he’d shout, though she was sitting beside him in the living room and he had two good legs of his own. I remember feeling outraged at his treatment of her from my early elementary years, but as a child felt completely helpless.
As my adolescence approached, this relationship became even more unsettling. If I visited when he was there, as soon as everyone else was out of earshot, he’d mutter vague things about how my eleven-year-old presence affected his dick: “Ooh, there it goes again,” or “Yup, it’s going up!” At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but there was something in his voice and demeanor that clued me in that something was wrong.
One day, he became brazen enough that my grandmother overheard. “Mark!” she chided him, “I don’t like it when you talk that way!”
He just chortled: “Get me a cup of coffee, Old Woman.”
By the time I was twelve, he started prank-calling our house in order to jerk off to my voice. If my parents or little brother answered the phone, he’d hang up; but if I answered, he’d breathe heavily and say, “I wanna fuck you.” I recognized his voice, and I’d slam down the phone, furious.
My parents were vexed by all the prank calls and wished they knew who it was. I was afraid to tell them that I knew—afraid they’d never believe me. Indeed, when I finally overcame my fear and told my dad it was Uncle Mark, he was indignant.
“No, no. He would never do that!” my father insisted.
So it was that a few months later, when my neighbor’s grandfather started playing hide-and-seek with us kids in order to grope my budding breasts while hiding with me in the rec room closet, I made a swift, calculated, and enraging decision on my own: Rather than tell my parents—whose involvement I was certain would only make things worse—I just stopped playing at that friend’s house. No explanation given.
The grandfather was infuriated. He took to giving me a cold, sickening, Silence-of-the-Lambs-type smile every time he drove by our house and I was outside. I quickly learned to avoid eye contact with him and avert my eyes as his vehicle approached.
In retaliation, one day, he “pretended” that he was going to hit me with his car—swerving violently in my direction as I rode my bike. He had that sick smile on his face, and his family members in the car laughed uproariously. Oh, that grandpa! What a hilarious way to get back at that 12-year-old brat who had hurt Shayla’s feelings by no longer visiting.
That’s right—in suburban 1980s America, the threat of male violence against a female child was just an amusing middle-class family value.
So perhaps because of all these experiences, when Ralph took his attentions beyond the walls of the high school and began stalking me all over town, I essentially rolled my eyes. I expected it. Grossly inappropriate male behavior had become normalized to me. It was annoying, but not surprising.
The stalking resumed during my visits home from college in the summer. I picked up a job in the software store in the local mall, and within a few weeks, every time I worked until closing, he was there waiting for me outside of the mall entrance in his car. He’d watch me until I got into my car, then peel out noisily, plainly wanting to be seen by me.
One day he turned up inside the software store during my shift. I had been in the stock room, and when I returned to the sales floor, he was browsing the fantasy games. I walked up to him brazenly with who-knows-what kind of look on my face; I was pissed. He paled visibly and gasped, “What are you doing here?”
I narrowed my eyes and spat, “I work here. Can I help you with something?”
Completely baffled, he actually said aloud, “But, your car—it wasn’t in the parking lot.”
Yeah, no shit—my dad had dropped me off that day. Stalker.
Fast forward to 2007, and thanks to the internet—on which social media began letting us keep in touch with people from grade school and high school who wouldn’t otherwise have made the long-term friend cut—we were connected on MySpace via mutual high school friends. He had sought me out several times previously, like the time he sent an email message to every possible permutation of what might have been my username @mycollege.edu – but those had been easy to ignore. So, reluctantly on my part, we “caught up.”
Ralph was now married with children, but he had spent the past decade writing fantasy fiction that he was still developing. It was illustrated by fantasy-style drawings of dubious artistic merit, with the lead female character based on me. He had posted this “novel” and “art” to DeviantArts, and linked to it prominently from his MySpace profile, so I read it. It was clearly a retelling of his high school pursuit of me, and it recast me as a beautiful but heartless bitch who didn’t deserve his undying love—and he as a chivalrous hero. In his version of events, he followed me around town to “protect” me from several ominous people who wished to kill me for the sole purpose of crushing him. In other words, besides being poorly written, it was a dreadfully stereotypical story in which the female is not a character in her own right, but a source of motivation for the male lead character to do heroic things.
Today, no matter how many times I block him, it’s still the same. He pops up whenever I talk about feminism, girls’ rights, or speak out against the MRA movement—always to crow about how little I know, how the MRA movement is terrific, and always with a username that makes it clear who he is.
As with his peeling out of the mall parking lot, he wants me to know he’s watching me—always just barely on the right side of the law, engaged in behaviors that our society does not see as subject to penalty. There’s no legislation protecting women from men who treat them like assholes on blog comments or social media. It’s normalized.
And that’s exactly why the #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen hashtags of recent months have resonated so strongly with me. Men might argue that men like Ralph, Uncle Mark, and Shayla’s grandfather are the exceptions to the rule—that most men are good guys—that we should somehow qualify our discussions about male behavior towards women and girls to make it clear that not all men are that way. But all women have stories like these. The fact that we so often hold them in reserve, in a culture of silence and fear that protects the aggressors incredibly well, doesn’t make them any less real…but it does mean that men don’t know the half of it.
The author of this piece chose to remain anonymous.