When reading feminist blogs, I often come across clips of women and men talking about what they do to prevent an assault. The women say they have a buddy, walk with their keys in their hands, and stay in well-lit areas. The men are usually stony-faced, illustrating the point that men don’t think about it as much as women. It always made me feel strange that my methods to prevent an assault matched more closely to the men’s than the women’s, ie, I hadn’t been thinking about it.
I do remember being stalked or followed when I was visiting Austin, Texas. I was walking down Sixth Street alone and saw a man on the other side of the street matching my pace and glancing over at me. I changed direction, he changed direction. I got to a cross street and waited even though I had the walk sign. So did he. So I ducked into the first restaurant I saw and had dinner. Luckily, that was the end of it. It was sneaky and weird. He kept his distance and tried to look like he wasn’t looking at me. And up until today, it was the only time I’ve ever been so freaked out.
Earlier today I was in Target with my 4 year old. We crossed a large aisle from the sporting goods section to the groceries, and there was a man in our path that we kind of danced around. I probably said “excuse me,” like I normally do when I’m traveling with a 4 year old who cuts people off or runs into people. He doesn’t always watch where he’s walking. But I’ve found that’s actually common for a lot of adults in stores too.
We wanted to buy Goldfish, so, after the dance, we went to the end of the cracker aisle. The man rushed ahead of us like, he too wanted Goldfish, but just stood there at the end of the aisle. He didn’t have a cart or a basket or items to buy. At first I thought he was trying to make a point about how rude we were for cutting us off, so I ignored him. I grabbed our Goldfish and left the cracker aisle. So did he, quickly passing us, then stopping at the head of the aisle.
I told my kid I’m going to put him in the cart instead of letting him walk around. Because if this man wanted to do something to my kid, hoping for the one second when my head was turned, he wouldn’t be able to lure my kid away if he was in the cart. He fussed, and all the while the man stared at both of us, licking his lips.
I thought he might be mentally ill in some way. I figured he was with someone in the store who would be looking for him, because he didn’t look like he could function well on his own. So I went to the other side of the store to look at toddler hats, taking a short cut through the toys.
And of course, he followed us. He was right there in front of our cart still licking his lips as I tried hats on my kid’s head. I tried to ignore him and just talk to my son about the merits of the different hats. But I realized I had to check out soon and then he’d be following me to my car.
So I went to the checkout. As I did, the man followed me, not to my cashier, but a few checkouts over, keeping an eye on me and moving ahead to position himself so that he would be outside as I was leaving. I told the cashier that I was being followed. She got a woman from security to walk me to my car.
And I felt so stupid. This guy was probably just mentally ill and weird. Because no one with sinister motives would be that obvious about it, would they? He wasn’t stealthy like the guy in Austin. He made eye contact with me. But why else would he have wanted to be waiting for me outside the store? And I started wondering, would I have acted the same way if my kid weren’t with me? If it had just been me, would I have asked for an escort to my car?
Maybe 15 years ago, I took a brief self-defense class. It was really incredible, and one of the bits of wisdom that I remember from the class was the instructor talking about the self-sacrificing nature of women. She said that in courses, she would ask women what they would do to defend themselves, and her students were all passive and said things like “please don’t hurt me.” But when asked what they would do if someone wanted to hurt their kids, they went into angry bear mode.
So, what just happened? Did my kid just save my life? Are would-be assailants really that obvious about it? Should I have said to the guy “stop following me!”? What would you have done? Would your answer change if your kid was with you?