Every year, women in the UK are murdered by stalkers and domestic abusers—despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of our coverage here.
Every year, thousands of people experience some form of stalking, whether online or in-person. According to statistics from the Office for National Statistics, 20 percent of women and 9.7 percent of men aged 16 or over in England and Wales have experienced stalking at some point in their lifetime. One in 20 women will have experienced stalking in England and Wales in the last year alone. Without even knowing it, someone in your life—a co-worker, family member, or friend—could be being stalked right now.
Despite its prevalence in society, misconceptions about stalking abound. Films that position stalkers are deranged loners, or suggest that stalking is a crime that affects only celebrities, only serve to compound these myths.
Stalking can affect anyone, at any point in their lives—and it can be a frightening and life-alteringly horrible experience. Broadly spoke to six young women to learn about what it really feels like to have a stalker. Some names have been changed by request to protect individuals' privacy.
Watch: Unfollow Me: The Alice Ruggles Story
It started off as a relationship. I felt like we were in a fairy-tale; like it was love at first sight. I’d just come out of a relationship and was quite vulnerable. Within a few weeks we were practically dating and he was obsessed with me. Some friends told me that they thought it was too much.
I tried to break up with him multiple times, and we actually got back together once, because he convinced me that something was going to change. After I broke up with him the final time, he was not OK with that. He couldn’t take no for an answer. I’d block him on everything and he’d make new Facebook accounts to try and message me, or use a different phone number. Then he started sending me flowers and trying to get into my house to see me.
Receiving a single rose on your doorstep every day for two weeks is intense. To me, it felt like a message saying that he was never going to leave. He sent me a pot plant of roses once, and made a new Facebook account and messaged me saying, “I sent you some roses in a plant pot instead of cut flowers, so I can have it forever and it won’t die, so I'll always be a part of your life.” Obviously, the plant died. I didn’t water it once.
The final straw for me was when he tried to get into my flat. He’d managed to get into the building without having to dial up, and when I heard a knock at my door I instinctively thought it was him. But then I thought, Maybe I'm being paranoid... He said he had a delivery, and for some reason I didn’t recognize his voice. I thought, I’m not going to be paranoid, I can’t live like this forever, so I opened the door. And then, of course, it was him.
I tried to close the door, but he was on crutches at the time, and he used a crutch to prop the door open. I wasn’t strong enough to shut the door on my own, but my flatmate helped me close the door. Once he realized he wasn’t going to get in, he left.
I felt like a trapped animal in a cage. At that point, I felt like he was never going to stop trying to get back with me. He tried to come back to the flat a week later, and then he messaged me a couple of months later and that was the last I ever heard of him.
I feel lucky, in one sense. A lot of people experience stalking, and it doesn’t normally end well. Looking back at the relationship, when you’re in those early stages of a controlling relationship, you can’t see what other people may be seeing. You just think other people are trying to take your happiness away from you. Looking back at it, there were weird things he did from the very beginning. I remember that he wanted to drop me off at university on my first day of second year—so all the boys could see I was with someone.
Beth Rylance, 27
I suddenly started noticing that I was getting a lot of Twitter notifications from this one guy. I’d never met him in person, but he was in his late 50s. He’d respond to every single tweet I posted in quite an over-familiar way, as if he actually knew me. Eventually I muted him, but one day he sent me a link to a blog saying, “a message for you,” and when I opened it he’d posted a letter to me on there. The letter basically said, “I feel like I need to meet you, here’s my number and email, please get in touch.”
My boyfriend said “you need to block him,” but I accidentally clicked the follow button when I tried to block him. I panicked for a second, but then blocked him. He kept tweeting in response to things I was doing, saying things like “wow,” or “miss you.” Then he started posting links to videos he’d made of me, calling me his woman. It was scary. I felt so powerless because every time I reported him to Twitter, he’d just delete all his tweets.
I would imagine these scenarios like, What if I saw him in the street? My boyfriend would say, “Look, the one comfort you can take in all this is that he doesn’t know where you live, so he’ll never turn up at your door.”
And then one day he actually did. It was like a nightmare coming true.
It was just before Christmas. The doorbell rang and I opened it and he was there on my doorstep. I screamed and shut the door and ran upstairs and called the police. I was terrified that he would leave and they wouldn’t be able to arrest him. But when the police arrived he was still sat on my doorstep, waiting for me to come down.
The police told me that they could make him sign an order saying he wouldn’t come near me again, or that they could arrest him. I said, “arrest him" because he had come all this way, he’d been walking around my neighborhood looking for me for days, and the police officer had let slip he’d done this to other women.
He denied stalking and harassment, so we had to go to court. There was a trial five months after he’d turned up at my doorstep. His defence team said we were in a relationship, and used the time I’d accidentally followed him on Twitter as evidence for this. I had to explain Twitter to the court.
He was found guilty of stalking and harassment and had a two-year restraining order placed upon him, and he had to pay me a fine of £200 and do 36 hours of community work. I’ve never heard from him again, thank god, but I was scared for a long time.
I’m very cautious now. I careful about my social media; about what I’m posting. I see people doing Instagram stories on the roads they live on, giving away their location, and I literally think, If you had a stalker, they could turn up at that location within minutes.
After my boyfriend and I broke up, there was a month we were living together, but separated. He’d suspected I was dating other people, so he got into my laptop and logged into my iTunes. I think he installed the Find My Friends app on it, because he’d turn up at places I was at, or text people who’d been in contact with me and send them intimidating messages.
He’d do things like make fake Facebook accounts and add people that he thought I might be dating. Or he’d message their girlfriends and say, “Your boyfriend is cheating on you.” He’d also read my messages when I was asleep. Another time he turned up when I was with somebody at a bar.
At one point, I was on a date, and he actually texted the guy I was with and the guy told me, “This is fucking weird.” That helped me to work out what was going on. I confronted him about it, and he admitted it.
When I found out what he was doing, I changed all of my passwords on everything. After we moved out of the place we were sharing, there was this relapse where I got a security email saying that someone had logged onto my Facebook. I knew instantly that it was him. He apologized and said he couldn’t help himself, and sent some flowers to my office which I thought was a shitty thing to do, as it’s quite showy. Everyone was like, “who are those flowers from?” and I had to explain.
I’m much more hot on phone security now. I don’t leave my stuff out around people. Don’t assume someone won’t go into your emails or your Facebook. I never thought someone would do it to me, but they did.
This guy contacted me out of the blue and basically outed himself as someone who’d been harassing me on various platforms and at various workplaces over the course of six years. The email said, “I’m really sorry for my harassment, I’ve been the one sending you explicit messages on Tumblr and calling your office. I had a crush on you and I let my obsession go beyond the respect I had for you.”
The whole time, I’d thought it was just random. I thought the harassment was part and parcel of being a woman online or having a semi-public job—I worked in radio. But I’d never put the pieces together before then.
I would get anonymous messages about my body that were really sexually explicit, and he’d call radio stations I worked at and it would be clear someone was masturbating. But my other female coworkers would have stories of similar behavior, so I just thought that was par for the course in terms of being in a semi-public facing role.
It turned out that we’d been at university together, although I had no memory of him. I felt disgusted when I received the email, and angry, because I wasn’t sure if it was some sort of twisted power-play: Is he just trying to get a reaction from me? Is this another way for him to get off?
I went to the police, but it was pretty low on their priority list. I asked them to go and knock on his door and talk to him.
The experience has completely changed the way I use the Internet. It’s only recently that I’ve changed my Instagram account back to public, and I’d never upload to my Stories with a location geotag showing exactly where I am at that point. And when I visit the city I know he lives in, I never mention it on my social media.
I was living with three girls in a ground floor flat, and around 3AM one evening my housemate went to the bathroom. She heard something and turned around and realized that there was a guy with his face to the window, watching her. So she panicked and ran into my room and explained what had happened. Then another one of my housemates came in and said, “There’s a guy outside my bedroom window.”
We started noticing the same guy appearing at our windows at night. The police said it was probably a peeping Tom, and left it at that. Someone contacted us saying that every time he walked to work in the mornings, he’d walk past our house and see this guy standing at our windows. This made us extremely scared for our safety.
His behavior seemed to grow bolder all the time. So he’d be there in the mornings, or get onto our balcony. Every time we got hold of the police, he’d disappear. It kept going on for months, and we became scared to come home late at night, or to leave the house at certain times. We’d have to keep our windows closed, even in summer. It was traumatizing, and it affected our freedom. You couldn’t just be comfortable in your own house without worrying that someone was constantly watching you.
The police told us we should try and get photos of him, but that was really difficult because at night you can’t see anything on a camera, or the flash would just bounce off the window, or he’d see we’d picked up our phones and back away immediately.
I reacted to the situation worse than some of my housemates, because it triggered the PTSD I’d experienced as a result of some stuff that had happened in my childhood. I had to move away, to a different borough, to get away from the situation.
It started when I was 17. I’d just joined Twitter because I wanted to be a journalist. I was building up a following and I’d followed this guy at some point, and he followed me back. He started replying to a lot of my tweets, but it was initially just pop culture stuff so I didn’t think there was anything particularly untoward at that stage.
I recorded a podcast, and he kept messaging me saying, “I really like the sound of your voice,” which I found quite creepy. But I thought, I don’t want to be rude and alienate this potential contact. I was so young I didn’t realize it was a bit weird.
He’d message me really inappropriate stuff about my physical appearance, and then follow up by saying “I don’t want to be a weird pervert.” He’d ask me whether I was looking forward to having sex with people at uni, and called me hot. I don’t remember exactly what tipped me over the edge, but eventually I blocked him, although I still didn’t think of it as anything serious.
When I got older, I realized that he was actually trying to groom me. He added me on LinkedIn at some point, which I found really weird. I was going through my old blog recently and I found comments from him being like: “I really liked this blog post.”
Looking back at it, I feel a bit uneasy. I think, What if I had met up with him? I could have put myself in a dangerous situation with someone I don’t know.
If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.