I was stalked on public transport
‘He told my boyfriend he had been watching me’
There are places where women feel unsafe.
For example, at night, when there are more shadows and fewer witnesses, when there is no background noise to muffle the startling sound of unexpected footsteps, your neighbourhood feels strange and unfriendly. You cannot trust its corners; you are jumpy. Everyone is an enemy. On the Tube late at night, rattling across the city in almost empty carriages, you stop listening to music. You are more alert and you train your eyes on the floor so as not to ‘encourage’ attention.
On the other hand, by daytime, in public, there is a sense of safety by collective. You are exposed, but so are any potential perpetrators. You don’t let your guard down, but you think less. You aren’t tense. And then every so often, you experience the sort of harassment that reminds you that daylight doesn’t buy liberation.
Yesterday early evening, Sophie was on a train to London to visit her boyfriend Nick. About half an hour before the train pulled in, she got a message from him, saying “something really creepy” had just happened.
“Then he sent me a screenshot of a message from this guy,” Sophie explains. In the message, the guy ‘congratulated’ Nick on Sophie’s appearance.
“[It] talked about me and how he’d seen me on the train,” she continues. “But as I hadn’t received any messages and nobody had spoken to me on the train, I thought it was a virus of some sort that I’d picked up from using the train’s public WiFi network.” They laughed about it over text for a few minutes – assuming it was spam. “Neither of us are particularly tech savvy”.
Shortly afterwards though, Nick received another message about Sophie from a second, separate guy about five minutes later, with a very similar message. At this point, she was still on the train.
She still wasn’t entirely sure what to think. “I [still] thought it was a virus,” she says. “I was a bit creeped out, but didn’t feel threatened or anything since I assumed it was spam made possible by the fact that my relationship status is public on Facebook.”
Shortly after this, the second guy messaged Sophie directly – and still she gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming this must be something to do with the open WiFi network. She couldn’t work out how he’d have got her name, or found out how to contact her on Facebook. “It was so strange that I just assumed it couldn’t be real.”
She got off the train and met Nick. They both thought it was a bit weird, but nothing more.
However later, the pair recounted the story to Nick’s housemates. They were more suspicious. “It started playing on my mind,” Sophie continues. “So this morning I sent a reply to the second guy, to test whether it had been a virus. I thought maybe he hadn’t noticed that his account had been used and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
“I honestly did not expect him to reply or to confirm that he’d sent the messages. I think I’d convinced myself it had to be spam because there was no way that anyone could have known my name without striking up a conversation.”
It transpired, though, that the guy had looked at her railcard which she’d had on the table next to her when she’d gone to the loo, in order to find out her name. “It only has my first initial on it, so he was pretty dedicated in his stalking,” she says, wryly.
Something changed in her. “I felt sick. I don’t understand why someone would think about sending messages like this, never mind actually following through with the plan. I was really upset.
She was upset for several reasons. “Not only because it’s creepy to be contacted by a stranger with a suggestive message,” she says, “but because two men had gone on to my Facebook only to contact my boyfriend and make comments about me. One of the men didn’t even message me himself, he just let my boyfriend know that he had been watching me.”
Sophie hoped that sending messages to call them up on their behaviour would make her feel better, and that she might get some sort of explanation. She did, of sorts, but it was an unsatisfactory one: the man simply confirmed a regressive, and pernicious position on women. Using the defence it’s “just a few casual glances and dreaming thoughts” invokes the refrain of men everywhere who believe that women should feel “flattered” by male attention. It’s condescending, it’s sexist, and it’s unpleasant.
Furthermore, ‘congratulating’ a stranger’s boyfriend suggests that women are luxury items that men can possess. It made Sophie feel like she had no agency: “it was almost like I hadn’t been directly involved”. It made her feel like an object.
“It’s an enormous invasion of privacy,” observes Nick. “I was really creeped out when I got the first message because I wondered if they were still on the train with Sophie, and what they might do, like as she was getting off. Ultimately that’s why I told her before she arrived – in case they were still about. Otherwise, I might have sat on it.”
The exposure of public transport does not guarantee safety – and it’s best you hide all identifying papers, just in case.
*Names have been changed