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January 14, 2014

Tell Me When: Real-Life Stalking Isn’t Sexy

Dark tunnel with figure at the end with text: Stalking: Real Life vs. Fiction

I’m going to tell you a story in today’s post, but I first want to provide some context, as the topic is out of the norm for me. This post is part of Stina Lindenblatt’s Tell Me When blog hop. Her debut releases January 20th from Carina Press, and as Stina mentions on her blog, Tell Me When is about “a college freshman who struggles with the aftermath of being stalked and kidnapped during her senior year of high school.”

In light of that premise, Stina’s focusing her release around raising awareness of the issues and dangers of stalking. Stina’s a friend of mine so I knew I wanted to support her debut, but I also support the idea behind her blog-hop focus.

Stalking in Fiction

From Twilight on down, many, many Young Adult, New Adult, and adult stories contain the subtext that stalking behavior (usually from the romance hero) is sexy. In Twilight, Edward breaks into Bella’s room and watches her sleep. In an adult (non-paranormal) romance heavily discussed on Twitter last week, the hero breaks into the heroine’s home and wakes her for sex, and this goes on for almost a year without them even exchanging names.

The pretext of fiction—that we know the author has a plan—can allow us to see such behavior as sexy. Following the heroine around? His obsession shows how much he wants to keep her safe. Tracking her phone? His invasion of privacy shows how much he worries about her. Forcing himself into her life? His controlling behavior shows how much he loves her.

In fiction, we can close the book. Some readers will sigh and think the hero must really love the heroine to do all that stuff. Other readers—readers who have had a real-life stalker—might not see that behavior as sexy at all…

A Story of a Romance Hero Wanna-Be

Once upon a time, a woman was facing trouble at home and a stalker at work, and she wanted nothing more than to escape. When the promise of a better life beckoned from across the country, she took the chance and settled in a place where no one knew her and she could get a fresh start.

At first, all seemed brighter. New apartment, new job, new friends. Then her stalker from her old job tracked her down.

In tears, she poured out her story to one of her new friends at work. The man who shared her friend’s office overheard every word. He came over and introduced himself. “I’m the security supervisor here. I’ll make sure he can’t get to you.”

Grateful, she handed over all the information she had. She didn’t know if the man contacted her old stalker or not, but the stalker didn’t call again. Maybe things would work out after all.

Then flowers showed up at her work. Flowers that weren’t signed except for a bizarre note that struck her as a reference to “Peeping Tom” type behavior.

A mantra started in her head. She wouldn’t freak out. She wouldn’t freak out. She couldn’t afford to lose this new job or move again.

Could that security supervisor do anything? It was just flowers after all. Feeling foolish, she called the security supervisor and expressed her concern.

He confessed that he’d sent the flowers. The signature was supposed to be a pun on his name. He thought he was being charming.

A wave of cold stiffened her muscles, and she stood, silent, the phone hanging loosely in her hand. The flowers and the signature card on her desk mocked her with their innocence, yet it all still felt ominous no matter the explanation.

Over the next few weeks, the calls to her cellphone started. The security supervisor called “just to make sure she was okay.” He’d call when he was in the area to “check if she needed anything.”

All perfectly normal and caring, right? The stuff of romance heroes everywhere. How could she say she didn’t want his attention when he was only keeping an eye out for her?

Then the frequency of calls escalated. He’d call her late at night “so her voice was the last thing he heard before going to bed.” Ditto for the early morning calls.

Maybe he was trying to be sweet. Plenty of women would swoon over such declarations. No matter that she told him she wasn’t interested or that his attention wasn’t wanted, he acted like he thought it was just a matter of time until she changed her mind.

Suspicions grew in her mind that her “protector” from her previous stalker had turned into a stalker himself. Despite her fears, she was reluctant go to his boss. Her job required her to beg favors from his boss on a near-daily basis, and if she caused trouble, his boss might put her requests at the bottom of the pile and then she’d lose her job.

She couldn’t go to anyone else at work either. After all, he was Security.

It was easier to tell herself that he was harmless. That he did fancy himself a hero out to protect her. Even though she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested. Even though she’d made him repeat her protests back to ensure he was listening to her. And even though she wasn’t reporting him only because she was intimidated and scared of the repercussions.

One evening a severe illness left her dead asleep in her apartment. She didn’t answer when he called that night.

She woke in the middle of night with him at her bedside, “checking on her.” He’d talked her apartment’s security office into letting him into her apartment. And now she was too sick to make him leave.

A caring friend? Or a stalker who used every excuse to go over the line?

Real-Life vs. Fiction

I won’t tell you how the story ends because I’m making a point. If we were to read that story as fiction, we could easily see the man as a romance hero: caring, protective, willing to do anything for the object of his obsession. We’d trust the author would make everything work out in the end.

Maybe the heroine would have it out with him for freaking her out so badly. He’d grovel his apologies and declare his love once more. And then she’d see him for the great guy he was and they’d live happily ever after. The End.

But real life isn’t fiction. If we read that story as a real-life event, we see a man who purposely made someone uncomfortable, became demanding of her time and attention, manipulated his way into the apartment of a helpless woman—and there’s no promise of a happy ending.

It feels threatening because it is threatening. And her vulnerability at the end of the story only makes the situation worse.

Overcoming the “Stalking Is Sexy” Myth

As an author, I feel I have a responsibility to ensure that when the heroes I write about engage in questionable behavior, I make it very clear how the heroine feels about it. I don’t want to perpetuate the “stalking is sexy” myth.

If the heroine doesn’t want (on a conscious or subtextual subconscious level) the attention, the hero is a stalker, and some readers will be turned off or triggered. On the other hand, if the heroine is fine with the behavior, or if the reader can tell the heroine is into him and the heroine calls him out on the behavior at some point, the reader can trust in that happy ending without feeling squicky.

In real life, we have to pay attention to that wanted vs. unwanted line even closer. Yet popular culture encourages us to “go for what we want,” too often regardless of whether our actions infringe on what others want. No doubt this can be a tricky issue to navigate, especially when young and inexperienced.

So when the opportunity presents itself, like with this blog hop, I bring up the difference between fiction and real life. Just as much as real-life “bad boys” aren’t waiting to be “redeemed by the right woman’s love,” real-life stalkers aren’t romantic. They’re creepy. What’s acceptable behavior in stories does not match what’s acceptable in real life.

In the words of the heroine from my story Pure Sacrifice, “Unwanted or obsessive attention is stalking. It’s harassment and intimidation.” Raising awareness of these truths online and in real-life conversations might help.

And yes, we should have these conversations about acceptable behavior and the differences between fiction and real life with males and females. Unwanted attention can go either way, and either way is wrong. And definitely not sexy.

P.S. That story wasn’t fiction.

P.P.S. Be sure to check out the other posts on Stina Lindenblatt’s blog hop for her debut release Tell Me When. Participants are sharing not only their stories, but also tips and advice for dealing with stalkers.

P.P.P.S. If you haven’t answered my poll questions about your ebook buying and reading habits, please check out that post.

Have you read books that perpetuate the “stalking is sexy” myth? Do they bother you or are you able to read them as pure fiction? Do you think authors should be careful of the impression they give readers in this regard? What else could authors do to prevent continuing that myth? Do you have a stalking story or advice you’d like to share?

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Angela Ackerman

Holy cow–how awful that he used job title and access to personal information to thrust himself into another’s life like that. And showing up at the bedside. OMG, I would be freaking out. Once I was well I would be having a serious discussion with the apartment manager. So very sorry this happened–thank you for sharing this Jami. I really like how you illustrate how often stalking is sexy is used in fiction, and how wrong it is to do so.

Angela

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Jami,
I think it’s brilliant that you’re posting on this subject. Stalking is NOT sexy. I’ve never been stalked and don’t know anyone personally that has been and I find the myth, “Stalking is Sexy” to be squicky, as you put it. Love that word, by the way!
I think women, teenage girls particularly, need to be aware of the dangers of stalking. Some women were raised to be polite and not to hurt people’s feelings, so they feel bad refusing their ‘stalker’s’ advances. I’ve tuaght my daughter that if she feels uncomfortable in the someone else’s presence (a man or even another teenage boy) she shouldn’t feel badly about letting them know they should back off. I’d rather her be curt than in danger.
I’m so glad you posted this.
Best wishes on a bright and happy new year!!!
Hugs,
Tamara

Alison
Alison

The thing is, sometimes people in real life interpret that kind of behavior as sweet or romantic, too. My sophomore year of college, I gave a vague smile and hello to a guy who was at the mailboxes of our dorm at the same time I was there. The next day, I received flowers from him–he’d obviously noticed from which mailbox I’d retrieved my mail. I was flattered, but unnerved and not interested. When he called a little while later, I tried to “let him down gently.” Big mistake. For the next three months, he called and approached me in person repeatedly. He memorized my class schedule and would wait outside my classes for me. His roommate was my RA’s boyfriend, and she repeatedly nagged me to go out with him, telling me he was “a nice guy.” I repeatedly told her I wasn’t interested. I repeatedly told HIM I wasn’t interested (after I got over the belief that I needed to let him down gently). He harassed me for my home address and telephone number so he could contact me over break. I told him no. I’d been at home for winter break for a few days when the first card and gift arrived. He’d gotten my home address from my RA, who had parent contact information for all the residents on her floor. Fortunately for me, my parents had moved just after the fall semester started, so the information was outdated. He had my address but not my…  — Read More »

Carradee

*shudders* If I woke up to find someone in my room like that… My brother’s in the apartment below me, so screaming bloody murder would probably result in something beyond neighbors calling the cops. (My brother has a nice collection of guns, and he’s a good shot. And my natural response in an emergency is calm, logical pragmatism.) That “stalking is sexy” meme bothers me, too. I’ve had a guy hover around me constantly when we were at the same place and assume I was his fiancée, even after I told him point-blank, “You should go talk to them.” He went to the same church I did. He meant well, too, and was entirely oblivious about how he was coming across, but I ultimately had to get some church authorities involved to ban him from speaking to me altogether. On my eventual to-do list is a story that inverts the stalker theme—where the guy thinks he’s being sexy, but the girl ignores his harassment because he’s not worth her time and she doesn’t want to accidentally kill him. She even ignores him getting handsy…until she ultimately snaps and puts him in the hospital. I have a WiP where the hero engages in stalker behavior, but there are a variety of factors involved that make it a satire of the meme even as it embodies it. (Guy shows up at her job, at her lunch, at her apartment, in her bedroom; makes assumptions about what she feels for him that don’t…  — Read More »

Carradee

I finished that WiP with the stalker-ish hero, and to clarify—he assumes the heroine likes him less than she actually does, and the girl actually does freak out about some of his behavior. Most of it’s excused by her being in danger, though, which she finds out about before he shows up and he explains to her as soon as he gets a chance. He isn’t human, though, so while she—and a human coworker—go “Creepy!” over some things he does, the guy’s own mother goes “How sweet!”

Jami's Tech Guy (Jay)

*shudders*
Wow Jami, that was powerful.

Stalking is no joke and should not be taken as lightly. Unfortunately, we help clients deal with online stalking all the time. That’s one service I’d be happy to not have to offer.

I know you’re aware, but for everyone else, one of the reasons my avatar is the back of my head is because I’ve had a couple of multi-year stalkers (a gal who wouldn’t get the hint & a guy who didn’t like being fired for cause) and don’t need the personal drama.

All the personal info available online is great for stalkers. People are way too lax about protecting their privacy. I see public stuff on Facebook that would be so easy for someone malicious to exploit.

Which reminds me, I need to list my Online Privacy class again soon.

-Jay
@jaytechdad

Stina Lindenblatt

This post is brilliant, Jami.

Thanks to fiction (especially romances), too many people consider stalking to be romantic–until it happens to them. There’s nothing romantic about being stalked. As authors, we have the responsibility to show that there is definitely a line. Because if we don’t, a victim’s life is at risk. Because if we don’t, the victim and her friends and family will disregard what the stalker is doing as a harmless crush, and that could be a fatal mistake.

Jacinta
Jacinta

That was great!!!!! I’ve never thought of stalking as “sexy” but then I’ve read a lot of Mary Higgins Clark’s books 🙂
It’s great that you’re bringing this up though. It can be easy to confuse real life with fiction.

Amanda Martin (writermummy)

I was briefly stalked in university by an ex boyfriend (to be fair I was cowardly and dumped him by letter, but that’s because he was obsessive and 6ft 4″) and I didn’t find it anything other than terrifying. He got a friend to work out what computer room I was in by my IP address and waited outside for me, and followed me home a couple of times. I told him to sod off and thankfully he did, but I can’t imagine thinking of stalking as anything but icky. (That said, I did read Twitter and not think Edward’s behaviour odd. Maybe it was the suspension of disbelief required for the novel.)
Great post, thank you

Sam
Sam

It isn’t cowardly to dump a guy by e-mail/text/letter if you have a reason to be afraid of him, and obsessive partners should be at least worrisome even if they aren’t 6’4″. If anything, the fact that he then stalked you justifies your concern. Don’t feel bad for listening to your instinct and don’t let others make you feel bad either. A guy I dated blew up (by phone since he lived an hour away) over the fact I cancelled on a date and he was being verbally abusive (yelling, insults, no-one-will-even-be-your-FRIEND-if-you’re-this-horrible type statements) and resorting to emotional blackmail (he actually threatened to break up with me because he wasn’t going to stand for a flaky girlfriend who couldn’t put him first (you probably think I’m kidding, but it was ONE date I cancelled on, and I only cancelled because a family thing came up)). I broke up with him by text because I wasn’t about to call him back and let him attempt to belittle and guilt me again (I hung up after getting sick of being expected to just listen to his relentless tirade). My sister thought I was overreacting (up until then he had been really sweet – not stalker “sweet” but just kind and thoughtful it was unnerving when he turned out to be a psycho), but I wasn’t about to stick around to see if he’s physically abusive when mad in person. He never stalked me, luckily. Sure it is an unacceptable way to break…  — Read More »

Robyn LaRue

My own experience assures that I am never thinking “sexy” if the heroine sees any man watching her. I want to scream at her to run. When My male MC showed up at a second event the female MC was attending, I made sure he had a damn good reason for being there that had nothing to do with her (and that he was too busy to say more than hello). Otherwise, I couldn’t write it.

I am, however, okay with characters watching for other characters if they have a good and innocent reason. 🙂

Pirkko Rytkonen

I was planning to include stalking in my novel, but now that I know what it really is in real life or in fiction, I don’t think it fits the characterization. It would involve a son who was given away for adoption looking for his birth mother and when he thinks he may have found her, he begins to ‘stalk’ her before he gets enough courage to meet her in person. Oh well, maybe it will work…he could send her cards or flowers?

Carradee

That is a completely different scenario. You’re not trying to make the stalking sexy or appealing—from the mother’s side, it’ll still be creepy or odd if she notices it.

Your scenario actually reminds me of The Time Traveler’s Wife—their daughter inherited her father’s time-hopping ability, so she jumped back to observe some major meetings of her parents, to see her father, before they even knew she would exist. If I recall correctly, she only observed them in public, and she was discreet about it, but it’s been a while since I read the book or saw the movie. 🙂

Taurean Watkins

First, THANKS for the warning this time! (Really) While I agree fiction can give dangerously mixed messages here, I also feel we’re not considering it goes both ways. This happens to boys and men, too. Not all abuse is either sex-driven or man-driven! (I know no one said that. I’m saying that for my personal sanity!) Also, stalking isn’t just a “Girls/Women” problem, boys/men face this, too. But (Despite issues like eating disorders for boys and men being on the rise, and occurring even YOUNGER than their girls and women counterparts) there are frankly more open and safe places to talk about it that are just for girls and women, and I truly believe if they were more places for boys and men to go to get sound advice and solace, there would be less confusion and real-life horror stories we hear about over and over. Society is not catching up to reality even close to fast enough in this regard, IMHO. At least in the U.S., I can’t speak to other countries. Also, on the subject of how stalking has varying degrees, there’s also something to be said for boys and men being stalked or unjustly assumed to being the monsters we hear about on the news. Regardless of creed and color, this is a PROBLEM. I don’t want to sound insensitive to girls and women in general, or parents in particular, but I do feel we too often categorize men as the “stalkers” like women are INCAPABLE of…  — Read More »

copper
copper

Okay, just adding this to my playlist of things to talk to my tweenage daughter about on the way to school in the morning. I like one poster’s words that bring curt could spare her from future danger.

I’ve hated the idea that stalking is sexy in fiction. It’s awful and really set the whole feminism movement into retrograde. It’s like, this is it? We’ve come this far? We’ve got nothing better to offer women than this worn-out, sick, fairy-tale fantasy? And yes, I am troubled to see it so much in YA novels (if not outright in the plot, then implied through either the hero or the villain). It spurs me to take greater care with my female leads and how I build the plot around them (and not strapping tropes like that to their ankles and weighing them down).

Gry Ranfelt

You should add Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” to that playlist 😉 The book is about a young girl who keeps imagening things about people to make life as exciting as in books and how she learns the differences between fiction and real life.

Sinistra Inksteyne

Are you thinking of “Northanger Abbey” perhaps? As I recall, there’s a guy in that who doesn’t respect the heroine’s boundaries – needless to say, he is a Dirty Rotten Scoundrel.

Gry Ranfelt

Writers are powerful. When people read our stuff they interpret it, no matter if we meant it just to be silly.
Authors have a responsibility to think about the signals they’re sending. I’m so glad you took the time to write this post as I think it is much overdue and I’ll have to figure out how to reblog it because this is so important. Assholes, stalkers, overprotective guys and control freaks are NOT sexy. A no is a no and you can be persistent in your pursuit of love without crossing the line.
I’ll totally have to check out your friends book – it sounds like it’s going to be one hell of an interesting read!
Just like with stalkers I think authors should think about the way they use stereotypes and token characters. There’s not a lot of colored heroes out there, though I think actors like Will Smith are doing a great job of changing that.

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Willow
Willow

I wish I knew how that story ended. 🙁 So many stories like that end with rape or murder. I hope nothing worse than him being creepy and coming over happened. I hope he left and she was able to finally get him out of her life. That is just awful.

I’ve been stalked before. It’s scary.

It’s scary to have a guy friend tell you “Hey, did you know that X followed you home yesterday? I saw him following you so I followed him to make sure nothing happened and after you went in the house I let him know that I caught him I’m gonna call the cops if he ever does it again.” It’s scary to have someone blow your phone up with call after call after text after text no matter how much you tell them you aren’t interested and would like them to stop contacting you.

I hate books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray (I like to call them Twatlight and 50 Shades of Wrong) because they glorify abusive relationships and questionable behavior. They convince impressionable young girls that behavior that shows how likely a guy is to murder you somehow ACTUALLY shows how likely it is that he loves you. Sorry, but no. Nothing good ever came of that level of obsession. Those kind of behaviors are dangerous and I think the books that advocate that kind of behavior as romantic and desirable are dangerous too.

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