Last Tuesday I woke up to the smell of incense. Strange that someone was burning that at 6 am, but it wasn’t wholly unpleasant. I might sleep, daydream a little longer. A few minutes later, the smell seems more tobacco; I really should open my eyes, at least take a look. When I do, there’s a face – a man grinning from behind my curtain, which he’s reached through my open window and parted.
I start shouting and run from the room. My first instinct is shame, to cover up my skimpy summer pyjamas and shove on my denim jacket as though to say, I didn’t ask for this. I wake up my flatmates, who come and inspect the scene; but the man has scarpered. I wonder how long he’s been there – smoking, watching me. On the benign end of the scale he’s a Peeping Tom who found an opportunity to get a kick out of watching, taunting a sleeping girl. On the more severe end, he’s a pattern stalker, who has maybe come before and intends to return – possibly one day to do more than just watch.
This is the sort of thing I never see coming – it never occurs to me to be afraid for my safety; that other people are out there to deliberately harm me. While my ancestors who grew up in conflict zones, would sleep with a knife by their bed, a revolver folded under the crease of a pregnant belly, I’ve been lucky enough to not have to live in fear of attacks on my personal space. On hot summer nights I’ve been sleeping with the window open because the outside area is safe and off limits to the general public. Every other night I’ve been undisturbed.
I scribble a note to my neighbours, describing what happened. When I’ve written it, it sounds defensive. As though I’m trying to clear any culpability I have in allowing this to happen. It seemed important to emphasise that I’ve been sleeping with window open and the curtain closed in the hot weather; to reinforce that the back area of the flats is locked. I worry that my description of the man – tanned, brown-eyed, dark crew cut, leather jacket – sounds a bit too much like the proverbial ‘tall dark stranger’ of romance novels and fortune tellers. What if they think I’ve dreamed him up and don’t believe me?
Then, I get angry. Resent the man because I have to behave as though he is a stalker on return. Or as though there will be another just like him. And this limits my freedom. I will have to sleep with my windows closed, even on the most stifling nights. I will have to stop hanging out of Peeping Tom’s window, the only place I can get reception in my room. I will have to reassure myself at night that the drilling I can hear is just my neighbour’s electric toothbrush.
While I’ve never had intrusion on my private space before; I’ve had some pretty extreme interventions, shall we call them? – in public space. Once my red shoes and brisk walk were an invitation for a man to expose himself to me in broad day light. ‘Slut,’ he said, like I was asking for it. The incident made me uneasy; I felt like I’d stepped into a grimy update of The Red Shoes fairytale. But I sensed I wasn’t unsafe, knew that he was unwell and that I could outrun him, even in heels. I vented the incident at the birthday party I was going to; happy and proud that I’d escaped, but also wishing that it had never happened.
The worst thing about these kinds of situations, is that they make women feel hunted. Even if the pest doesn’t get what he wants. The man who calls out in the street or intrudes on a woman’s private space, wants to affirm his masculinity, his power. Nine times out of ten, our street-caller is surrounded by an entourage and shouting out to a girl is a roundabout way of bonding with his buddies. In a society that disapproves displays of affection amongst heterosexual men, ‘Check out that ho,’ is code for ‘I love you bro.’
Interestingly, I also think that in a culture where human-phone interactions are fast replacing the human-human kind, our natural curiosity about each other gets repressed. Not to mention our interpersonal skills. When people are less likely to approach each other in the street at the human level of eye contact and a greeting; reading each other’s cues and respecting each other’s wishes to continue or abandon the interaction, this contributes directly to objectification and stalking. Once a man gets out of the habit of talking to women and loses sight of their humanness, his desire turns voyeuristic and sometimes predatory.*
Where does this leave you as a women? You learn that because your body kinks in and out in desirable places, is weaker than the male, you should feel unsafe and watchful, always watchful. And you’re kind of to blame for the attention you get, just for, you know, being. And men can’t help themselves; it’s instinct. If you don’t want all the attention, you have to make yourself small, discreet. Live on your knees; seek shelter and stay there; be bored and boring.
But what if the solution isn’t to enclose yourself in a fortress, fashionable as walls are these days? What if it’s more about honing the muscle that responds to dangers present? So instead of being afraid, I can be confident that I have all the resources I need to protect myself: fast reflexes, a voice, a support network. The weather cools, making the window-closing habit natural and Peeping Tom doesn’t reappear, so I’m back to using my phone by the window- even a night. I’m feeling more like myself, though I’m left wondering about the whole screwy system. How do we change our culture from one of predator and prey, to one of conviviality and respecting personal space?
*This may also be the case where the protagonist is female and in non-heterosexual interactions, but I’m writing from what I’ve seen and experienced.