I Was Followed by a Strange Man at 9 A.M. When Am I Supposed to Feel Safe?

My boyfriend and I just took a weekend trip that I’d been looking forward to for ages. As soon as we got to the hotel, though, I realized I’d forgotten the charger for my camera battery and I immediately started searching for nearby stores where I could buy a new one. We were going to be seeing some really beautiful places and I couldn’t imagine my battery dying in the middle of the weekend. The next morning, on our way to a lake, we stopped in a small town where Google told me I’d find a couple electronics shops.

We parked in the lot beside the first shop and my boyfriend waited in the car while I ran inside to check for chargers. The shopkeeper didn’t have what I needed but recommended another place. I texted my boyfriend to let him know I was trying another shop and would be back in a few minutes.

I started walking toward the pedestrian area like the woman in the shop had said. This town was gorgeous. I almost called my boyfriend and insisted he walk with me just so he didn’t miss out. After a minute, I saw in my peripheral vision that someone was walking beside me; maybe an arm’s length away there was a man keeping my exact pace.

At first, I brushed it off as a coincidence, but when the man was still beside me after what felt like way too long I started to feel uneasy. I pretended to be so focused on my phone that I had to stop walking, and let the man continue past me. After a minute, I continued walking.

Shockingly, my brilliant “pretend to do something on my phone” plan did not succeed. The same man had stopped just ahead of me and was standing outside, looking at some clothes. Again, I thought it was weird but far more likely a coincidence than anything else. Sure, Creepy Guy had clearly not learned the proper sidewalk etiquette for not making women feel uncomfortable in public, but it was surely nothing more than that.

After all, it was 9 a.m. on a beautiful, sunny day in a small, quiet town. My boyfriend was waiting for me a few minutes away. I was safe and just being paranoid, I told myself. If I wasn’t safe under these conditions, when would I be?

Except that I was neither paranoid nor safe. I walked past Creepy Guy and he left the shop and started walking right behind me. I started to panic, gave up on finding the camera shop and turned sharply at the next big street. Once I was far enough away, I turned back and saw the man standing at the intersection watching me walk away. Just to be sure, I picked a few random streets, really weaving myself through this pedestrian zone so he couldn’t find me, which ended up making me a little lost.

At this point, I called my boyfriend and explained what happened. He offered to come pick me up in the car, but I recognized a building and realized I was basically around the corner from him. I’d made a very messy figure eight and ended up almost where I’d started. Finally I felt relieved. I’d definitely lost the guy, found my way back and I was almost to the car.

I came to a busy street and saw the first electronics shop and my boyfriend standing in the parking lot.

There were quite a few cars so I had to wait a while to cross. I don’t know why I turned around, maybe I was still nervous, maybe I heard or felt something, but when I looked behind me there was Creepy Guy.

I have never in my life felt what I did in that moment. I started screaming. Not a single thought or hesitation or anything crossed my mind. I just screamed.

“Stop f****ng following me! Get away from me!”

He looked stunned and tripped backward a few steps, blown away, I’m sure, by the force of my voice.

“I’m not following you; I’m just going over there,” he pointed weakly across the street.

“I don’t believe you! Get the f**k away from me!”

At this point, I was full on panicking. I could hardly breathe; there was a rock in my stomach. I knew with absolute certainty he was not standing there by chance. There was no way he could have happened to also be going in the same place because I’d intentionally gone such a bizarre route only to end up back where I started. I knew he was following me, I knew he’d come looking for me, but I didn’t know why. And the fear of that unknown almost brought me to my knees. What did he want from me?

I looked back at my boyfriend, standing across the street. Safety was so close but it felt so far away. I don’t know if it was even safe to cross the street when I started running, I just had to get away from him. I didn’t stop running until I reached my boyfriend and then I just started sobbing. We saw Creepy Guy a few minutes later, from the car, walking back the way he’d come. I guess “over there” is in fact a relative term.

I explained the whole story, through sobs, to my boyfriend. He was supportive, understanding, and told me he believed me. But then as the day went on he asked me a few times what was wrong and while, to me, it was obvious that I’d still be shaken up by what happened, I could tell that he didn’t understand the extent to which this situation affected me. A few days later, I asked him for his thoughts on what happened and how long, from his point of view, it was reasonable to for me to be upset about this incident. He said a half an hour—and I was not at all surprised. From his perspective, once the threat of danger had passed there was no longer any reason to be scared. Also from his perspective, the danger passed once we were together in the car and Creepy Guy couldn’t reach me.

And therein lies the difference.

From my perspective, the danger never passes, it’s simply paused. Despite all the harassment I’ve faced, my boyfriend still sees these as unrelated incidents. I see them more like seismic waves. If the past decade or so of my life were recorded, smaller events might make very small waves, with truly traumatizing harassment punctuating the graph every so often. Like an earthquake, I don’t think about sexual harassment in terms of if there’s a next time, but when and how bad it might be. What kind of damage will it cause? Will I survive?

I know that this is not an isolated incident because history has shown me that there is always a next time, another creepy guy. There is always the weighing of risks and determining whether someone is a nuisance or a threat.

After this happened, I spoke to some of my friends about the incident and also how, while supportive, I could tell that my boyfriend didn’t fully grasp how heavy this felt to me. They could immediately relate.

One friend told me that she’d been followed around her city early in the morning while walking her dog. She was especially scared because, though it’s a big city, it was very early in the morning and no one else was around. Eventually she called her husband and told him what was happening. He responded, “What do you want me to do about it?” Of course, without being there, he couldn’t actually do anything. But that wasn’t really the point. Sometimes we feel scared and need that to be acknowledged and taken seriously. Thankfully, the guy heard my friend speaking to her husband and ran off.

Another friend shared an incident where she and her husband were walking with another couple. The men were walking a few paces ahead when a car full of men drove slowly past and whistled at the women before driving off. When my friend asked her husband and friend to slow down and walk next to them so something like that wouldn’t happen again, her husband said, “They’re gone. It won’t happen again.” Except it did. The car drove back around and this time the men leaned out the windows yelling at the women. Still, the partners did not seem overly concerned.

What none of the partners in these scenarios seemed to understand is that we can’t ever know if harassment is going to be upsetting or life-threatening. What if the man hadn’t run away when he heard my friend on the phone? What if the men in the car had had weapons? What if my boyfriend wasn’t waiting for me across the street? What if this escalates from a small wave to something off the charts?

As my friend very poignantly put it: “That’s the scary part-not knowing if things will escalate or not. The emotional labor in weighing that out is still hard to bear, and really hard to communicate to someone who has never experienced it.”

They have no idea what it’s like to live in a constant state of high-alert. And of course, we don’t actually want them to. We love them and would never want them to have to live with the same kind of fear we experience on a daily basis. But significantly more empathy? That wouldn’t kill them.

Of course, my friends and I are not the only ones who have experienced street harassment. Women around the world experience it constantly. Cheer Up Luv, a project by Vice, tells women’s stories of street harassment. The women included have told their stories of cat calling, stalking, groping and men masturbating in public. These stories are harrowing and horrific and all too common.

One very brave (and undoubtedly exhausted) young women started documenting her street harassment in a creative and creepy way. For one month, every time she experienced street harassment she took a selfie with her harasser. The men saw absolutely nothing wrong with what they were doing, so they never even asked why she’d want a selfie with them. Little did they know, she was shaming them.


In one month, she documented 27 incidents of street harassment and I have to wonder how women get the strength every day to leave our homes. Street harassment is everywhere. It happens to everyone.

I am so, so tired. Are you?

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Photo Credit: Zach Minor

198 comments

Carla A
Carla A3 days ago

I’m tired of it too.

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson3 days ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson3 days ago

ty

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Ligia M
Ligia M5 days ago

tyy

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Karen H
Karen H5 days ago

A woman I know said she had to explain to explain to a male friend how a woman has to be careful when she's in public. He had no idea. She said, "Are you afraid if you see someone following you? Do you look around before you walk from a store or from work to your car?" Guys have no idea. And sometimes women don't either and will continually ask, "Are you SURE?" Damn straight I'm sure. Keep the phone handy and call 911. Maybe he's not following you. Then again.... Would you rather be a statistic?

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Richard Anonymous

Dot, I like the point that you made. I remember hearing a report from a female reporter who posed as a male for a week. She found it a shockingly cold and isolating experience that she did not enjoy at all. Her life experience as a woman involved being noticed, people being nice to her, and having people reach out to engage and include her. She found that being a man was the exact opposite experience.

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caroline lord
caroline lord10 days ago

in a patriarchal society yr not supposed to , r u

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JT Smith
JT Smith11 days ago

Everyone, regardless f gender or walk of life, needs to always remember that fear is the mind-killer. It is up to each of us to learn how to overcome Should the behaviour be addressed? Of course it should. The same is true of burglars but we lock the doors on our houses and cars and smart people do NOT use those hide-a-key things as the "bad guys" get the same catalogues and shop the same stores/websites that you do.

One thing that I always recommend to women when it comes to this is to take up martial arts (i.e. Aikido, karate, tae kwon do, et al). Check into it and go with the style you feel most comfortable with. This not only helps keep you in shape, it helps you to master and control your fear rather than being controlled by it. A side effect will be an increase in self confidence knowing that you'll be able to take care of yourself without needing a weapon, and this will unconsciously alter the way you carry yourself so that you'll present yourself less as a victim, which will help keep the predators at bay.

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JT Smith
JT Smith11 days ago

I realize that there are many problem men out there. Like so many things, I think that in the minority overall but loud enough to give the rest of us a bad name.

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Dot A
Dot A11 days ago

Nice insight you've offered, Dana, - and I believe as well that in time and with gaining knowledge we absolutely CAN change things from how they are now. The dress in drag experience I did myself as a student in a humanistic class. (female -2- male) I learned a great deal about the sense of isolation and less warm environment that pervades the male's challenging 'image' to portray that masculine energy. I think compassion and understanding goes a long way in making things better for our whole of society. - Yet, we DO have a long way to go,....

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