Editor’s Note: Trigger warning for stalking.
I’ve always been a fan of Aziz Ansari. His comedy specials make me laugh, but I never expected to take one of his jokes and apply it to a real world scenario.
In Ansari’s one-man special Live at Madison Square Garden, he talks about the prevalence of sexual harassment and asks if women have ever been followed by a “creepy guy.” When a large portion of the female audience responded with an emphatic “yes!” he explained how guys are consistently surprised by this information.
Ansari goes on to suggest that if a woman ever approached him and said, “this guy is following me, can I sit with you?” his answer would be yes.
His special had me in stitches, but I didn’t give it much thought. Until I was followed.
It was a regular day. I write about retail, so I was out doing research. I was in front of a independent boutique, writing down some information when I felt someone’s gaze on me. I turned around, and a guy was hanging behind me — close enough for me to notice, but far away for me to second guess myself.
In my gut I felt as if he had zeroed in on me, but the distance between us made me think, maybe he’s just hanging out.
He walked by me. And, walked by me again. I was on my phone taking notes, but also tracking what was going on. I opened the door to the boutique. He was a few short steps behind me. I headed for the racks, trying to think through what to do. Should I notify the store manager? He had a right to be in the store, too. What would I say? “This guy is acting creepy, and I think he is following me.”
I was less concerned about me sounding overly cautious and weird than I was worried about being wrong. I was second guessing my gut. Haven’t I learned by now to always trust that gut feeling? He leaned against the wall toward the front of the store. He was next to a store fixture — a very smart place to hide. From the side I could only see his feet.
Two smart store employees saw him and asked him to leave. Whew. I was in the clear. I stayed in the store.
I tried to focus on why I was there: to do research. In reality, I was trying to calm down and have enough time pass for him to get away from the store. I left after twenty minutes.
But guess who was waiting for me?
I didn’t see him at first, but soon realized he was trailing half a block behind me. It was the middle of the day. What was the best thing to do? The best place to go? I saw a guy in his mid 20’s ahead of me on the other side of the street. I quickened my pace, crossed the road and ended up next to him, with Aziz’s advice swirling in my head.
Me: “Hey, there’s a guy following me, can I walk with you for a little bit?”
Guy: “Wait, what?”
Me: “There is a man who is following me. Can I walk with you?”
Guy: “Where is he?” (Turns around)
Me: “He’s behind us. Can we keep walking? I don’t want to stop.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes. We exchanged names. His was Mike. He was clearly confused about what was going on and why I was walking with him.
Mike: “How do you know that I’m a safe person?”
Me: “I don’t. I’m guessing.”
Mike: “I get it. This type of stuff happens to me all of the time.”
Me: “Wait, it does?”
Me: “This stuff happens all of the time to women.”
Mike: “Really? I’ve never heard any of my girl friends talk about getting followed.”
Me: “It probably happens so often they don’t think to talk about it.”
We walked together for a few more blocks. I turned around and didn’t see the person who was following me. The danger passed, so I turned to Mike and said thank you.
And that’s the end of the story. I wish it was more definitive. I wish when I approached Mike he would have said without hesitation that of course I could walk with him and that he understood. But, that wasn’t the person who helped me. I’m thankful that he was there and that he was agreeable, but his statements were odd. I don’t think he was coming from a bad place. Rather, the idea of being followed was so far-fetched he truly didn’t understand my predicament.
Mike can walk freely down the street. He never hesitates before walking out of the door, wondering if he should take mace with him. He doesn’t worry if he should avoid eye contact with a group of men. His outfit choice won’t cause strangers to call him a whore. Because people don’t yell at him or tell him to smile or tail him when he is trying to work.
Next time, though, I will still use Ansari’s advice. I will go up to a stranger — someone I’ve made a split second decision on and declared “safe” — and ask if I can sit down or walk with them. I will also be that person for someone else in return. Because there will be a next time. There is always a next time.
Do you have a personal experience with gender-based public sexual harassment or assault? Share your story to help raise awareness about the pervasiveness and harmful effects of street harassment. All submissions are posted anonymously unless otherwise specified.
If you experience or have experienced sexual harassment on the DC Metro system: Whether the event is happening at the moment or occurred months ago, we strongly encourage you to report to Metro Transit Police (MTP): www.wmata.com/