For my post this week, I was asked by a friend of mine if she could write a guest blog about her experience being followed home from school earlier this year. This story was also posted on the breeze (JMU’s newspaper), but I think it’s such an important story to share, so we’re posting it on ShoutOut as well. The author, Aislin, is a Senior Political Science major at JMU. I’ll be back to posting after Thanksgiving! -MustBeAMermaid
Harrisonburg has recently experienced a concerning spike in reports of sexual violence and stalking allegations—among them, separate reports of individuals seen following women home from Campus. Six separate individuals have notified police of incidents that have taken place in the past two months alone, ranging from the mildly disturbing—a glance over the shoulder and an uncomfortable following distance—to the downright dangerous, such as an incident involving an individual rattling the doorknobs of a locked house.
I am one of these six.
In early October, I found myself walking home from campus to my apartment at about 4 PM on a Thursday. It’s a quick walk; maybe fifteen minutes tops, if you’re casual about it. It was a sunny, mild day like any early Autumnal afternoon in Harrisonburg, and I’d left my earbuds at home on accident, so I was walking without music for the first time in several weeks.
This turned out to be a really good thing.
It was daylight. I was on a crowded street, in public, passing shops, residences, and gas stations—all within eyesight and earshot of other people. Despite this being an atypical and even contrarian day for it (at least in the public lexicon), I was followed home, chased after, and stalked to my front door.
There is nothing quite like noticing that someone is running after you. It is another altogether to realize their intent is not a good one.
My first thought? That I was paranoid. That this man behind me, so unassuming in his posture, was simply walking home in the same direction I was, no big deal. It was only after I took a slight detour to test that theory that I found out how wrong I’d been. By diverting into a different complex, I’d hoped he’d go on his merry way and I’d be done with the whole thing. Unfortunately, when I ducked out of my temporary resting place, I glimpsed this man peeling out from behind a minivan that he’d been quite blatantly hiding behind, waiting to see if I’d reemerge.
I had to race him to my door.
I’m not sure I’ve ever run harder in my life.
When I got inside, I slammed and locked the door.
I looked out the peephole, and watched him pace back and forth in front of the door, panting, glancing around; he pressed his face almost up to the peephole itself; I imagined I could hear him breathing heavily, just inches from my face.
I called the Harrisonburg Police Department non-emergency number (found here: 540-434-4436) and reported the incident to three very serious and very helpful officers, who mentioned that multiple other incidents had occurred prior to my own experience. Then they left, saying that I should keep an eye out for other suspicious activity.
I thought it was over, so imagine my horror and surprise when, three weeks later, I read the beginning sentences of an HDPT dispatch Right to Know email: that a man of the same description had been reported chasing two other women back to their home and rattling the doorknobs of their residence. Oh my God, I thought, it’s the same guy.
And here I reach my point.
When I was done speaking to police, I posted on anonymous social media app Yik Yak about my experience, including a description of the man and the non-emergency number in an effort to anonymously warn my fellow Dukes.
The first comment I received said: “chill out, it’s 4pm, he was probably just walking home like you”. The second: “if this had really happened, you’d have called the police, not posted about it on Yik Yak”.
Why can’t I do both?
The culture of shame and silence perpetuated upon suffers of sexual violence—because yes, stalking is a form of sexual violence—creates a culture of fear in which people who have been affected by these actions are discouraged from talking about them. In this sense, we have our agency removed in more ways than one. The first is obvious: by being followed to our residences, the place where we are supposed to feel possessively safe and secure, our right to privacy has been dashed.
The other is more insidious. If the first reaction to someone spreading awareness about a sexual offender in the area is one of disbelief, and involves blaming the victim involved for being paranoid or overreacting, then the entire community is perpetuating the same sort of sexual violence that this person experienced more directly at the hands of an anonymous street harasser.
So as a community, it is our duty to take this seriously. We must work to understand that even when “nothing bad happens” something bad already has. It should not take the rape or death of another woman to convince us that her fears were well-founded, and we should not require the Hannah Grahams of the world to convince us that we should take action, once it is already too late.
My experience is neither small, nor unique. But perhaps through the engagement of our University community we can work to change the world from one which ignores microaggressions to one that understands how they lead to macroaggressions—and one that works, above all else, towards a future in which everyone, no matter their personal differences, can walk home at 4 PM on a sunny afternoon.