Would the New Cyber-Harassment Bill Have Stopped My Stalker?

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Photo: Andrew Cribb

“You are pretty with a little bit of tattoo,” read a Facebook message from a since-deleted account. I froze. Attached to the message was my current profile picture. There was a tattoo Photoshopped onto my upper arm: random Chinese lettering.

As if I would be so cliché.

My heart felt tight as I read the message one more time and then snapped a screengrab as evidence. It was a familiar feeling.

“Him again.”

Online stalking is nothing new. But as the internet has evolved, law enforcement hasn’t kept up. The biggest obstacle to effective legislation is that officials simply don’t understand how to proceed when a crime is reported. That’s what makes Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark’s proposed bill, the Cybercrime Enforcement Training Assistance Act, so refreshing. Announced earlier this month at SXSW, the bill would establish a $20 million annual federal grant for training state and local law enforcement on dealing with online harassment. “We hope to raise awareness and develop local expertise for law enforcement so we are able to prosecute more of these cases,” Clark told BuzzFeed News. That sounds promising. But the biggest issue for me has never been prosecution, it’s been getting law enforcement to take my case seriously to begin with.

For more than a decade, I have had an online stalker. It’s not an uncommon story. According to the Pew Research Center, 8 percent of all internet users have been stalked online. That statistic jumps to 26 percent for women ages 18 to 24.

My stalker started in person when I was a 20-year-old undergrad at Kent State working at a computer lab in the university library. It was the only computer lab with editing software, so the gig was a bit creepy from the start. A few of our “clients” were older men who covered the screen when I walked by. We once caught a guy Photoshopping Britney Spears’s head onto pornographic images. Across from our lab was the May 4th Memorial room, which housed books related to the 1970 Kent State University Massacre. On the wall was a giant, framed photo of the massacre’s most published, most haunting image: a young girl crying for help, kneeling over her friend’s dead body. It loomed over my desk with only two glass walls between us. Under the photo was a single research computer, at which we once caught a young man masturbating. His furiously moving hand was reflected in the back of the dead boy’s head.

Then there was my co-worker Jack. He was strange, but I figured he was just geeky. Jack’s brand of geeky was giant glasses, most easily described as “Jeffrey Dahmer chic,” and a penchant for awkward conversation. He often stopped by during my shifts, stood over me asking questions, then scuttled away when other students came over for assistance. When I mentioned that I played the guitar, he abruptly asked for lessons. Like most college students, I was broke. So I said yes.

At the end of the third lesson, he pulled a picture out of his back pocket and handed it to me. At first I thought it was a landscape photo. Then I noticed he was in it, sitting on a giant rock. He was small but clearly shirtless. I got nervous.

“That’s me when I was stationed in Italy,” he explained.

I had so many questions. He was in the Army? How had he made it through boot camp? Why was he showing me a picture of himself half-nude? But engaging in this strange turn of events felt foolish. Polite follow-up questions felt far beyond my already-worn patience.

I ended our guitar lessons after that, citing my busy schedule, but by then things had spun out of my control. His visits during my shift became more frequent. He criticized my appearance, then brought strange presents to apologize. I tried to remain impersonal but when he emailed to ask me out, I saw my chance to bluntly set things straight. “I’m not interested. I have a boyfriend.”

That’s when his emails took on a more threatening tone. He sent a poem he wrote about a guy watching a girl get ready for bed. In it, the girl says, “I have a boyfriend.” The guy responds, “You’ve done more harm than good. I will move all over you.”

Frightened, I asked him not to contact me anymore. He told me the poem wasn’t about me. He acted offended that I had voiced such a pedestrian interpretation of his art, which made me laugh hysterically. I was beside myself. I wanted to scream. More emails followed.

“There is darkness in my soul.”

“I am darker than you.”

“You’ve been on my mind.”

The messages were vague but incessant. I now know the persistence of these unwanted messages made Jack the definition of a cyberstalker. But at the time, I blamed myself. I was afraid to be alone — on campus or in my apartment. Deciding I needed help, I told our boss what was happening. Much to my surprise, my boss laughed. “Oh, he’s doing that again? I’ll talk to him.”

I forced a chuckle too. After all, what was this if not funny? Was I ready to get someone fired? Was I ready to file a police report and explain to strangers why I’d agreed to give one-on-one guitar lessons to a guy who looked like Jeffrey Dahmer? Studies have found that stalking is the most prevalent form of abuse at work, yet there is no specific pressure — in the eyes of the law or otherwise — to address it.

The messages didn’t stop. Not that semester and not when I moved to New York City a year later. Occasionally they’d let up for a few months at a time, but they always continued. One particularly threatening message came as I sat behind the receptionist desk at my first job. It said that since I hadn’t answered, he was coming to New York to find me. He was already on his way. I felt my breath shorten and my heart begin to race. I had never felt more alone than that first year in the city. I had no close friends to hide with and no gentleman to escort me home. My boss walked by as I gasped for air. Her advice made sense.

Call the police.

The New York police said they could do nothing to protect me against an out-of-state stalker. The Ohio police advised I not make my address public and left it at that.

If passed, Clark’s bill would make it easier to extradite cybercriminals across state lines. But given the dismissive responses I got when I called to report a potential threat, what realistically would have changed for me? It’s hard to imagine updated training would have been enough.

In a desperate attempt to keep my whereabouts private, I emailed everyone I thought Jack might ask about me back in Ohio. Even knowing where I worked could give him my location. I tried to keep my plea vague, so as not to worry people, but concerned emails from old professors and classmates came pouring back. The boss Jack and I shared also replied, “Is this about Jack? He’s harmless!”

Feeling embarrassed and foolish, I decided to write my first response to Jack in more than a year. It was the last reply I’ve ever sent him. I tried to be nice — just in case he was waiting outside my building with a chainsaw. I was also firm.

“You are frightening me.”

“Never contact me again.”

He never showed up in person, but the messages continued. As social media became more prevalent, so did his access to me. He sent messages about my profile pictures and the new friends he noticed I had. He claimed to have naked pictures of me that he would release if I didn’t respond. As a professional writer, I was encouraged to build an online presence. As a woman, I felt exhausted. Women are nearly four times more likely than men to be stalked online.

When I received the Photoshop of my upper-arm tattoo, I didn’t respond; instead I Googled him, feeling sick with nerves. After years of blocking him everywhere I could, I was afraid I’d find more threatening messages. I imagined turning around to find him in my home. As I scrolled through the search results, I did indeed find more messages directed at me. Most incredibly, he claimed I had volunteered my image for a project he was doing to bring attention to violence against women. And it wasn’t just me; I also found messages to other women with tattoos Photoshopped on their arms. I immediately felt guilty over how much better it felt to know I wasn’t alone.

We tell women who are harassed in-person to cover their bodies, and we tell women who are harassed online to stay silent and log off (forever?). But for me, silently enduring a barrage of harassment has been infuriating. Seeing more women open up publicly about their experiences with cyberstalkers has been cathartic — but what now? Maybe Clark’s bill will help. But it will take more than a legislative victory to convince those in charge that unwanted advances are anything but harmless.