What It's Like to Be Stalked on a College Campus
"He's going to come in and kill us all one day," a coworker at my college newspaper told me.
Art by Michelle Thompson
Every year, women in the UK are killed 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.
Ten years ago, I was stalked by a student at the university where I worked for several months—and nobody did anything to help.
It started when I was elected to a full-time job running my university's student paper. We’d had been left with zero budget, meaning it was up to me to try and find some advertising money so I could actually get it printed.
When I held an event to sign up student volunteers, I didn't think much of it when John, came up to me and offered to try and sell some adverts in the paper. (I’ve changed his name so he can’t be identified.) I was grateful for the offer of help, and he seemed pretty genuine.
Watch: Unfollow Me: The Story of Alice Ruggles
We decided to meet in the student bar a few weeks later. I was expecting him to come back with advertising money from a student club night or a mobile phone insurance company. John’s idea was to fill newspaper advertising space by approaching the people who place sex worker flyers inside telephone boxes. I'm not anti-sex work—but I felt, at best, that it wasn't really appropriate for a student publication.
When I raised my concerns, John started arguing with me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I ended up telling him it would be better if we just left it and I found somebody else to help. I chalked my meeting with John up to having to deal with yet another male creep in my life, and didn’t think it’d amount to much beyond a weird anecdote.
A month later, after the first issue came out, John came to my office asking for me and if we could have a private chat. I was wary, but felt he was possibly going to apologize, as he initially seemed friendly.
We went into a meeting room, and he flung an annotated copy of my newspaper at me, saying we needed to discuss it—and that's when his demeanor changed.
Immediately, he started to lay into me about how a journalist friend had read it with him, and how they both thought myself and the student team had done a terrible job. There were illegible notes scrawled all over the paper. John told me that I could forget ever becoming a reporter, as his friend, who was very high up in the industry, would ensure I'd never get hired anywhere.
I sat there, unable to defend myself, as he ranted over me when I tried to speak and told me how much of an embarrassment and “terrible manager” I was. I was so angry and shocked that I burst into tears. That only fueled him further. When I tried to leave the room, he told me I was pathetic then blocked the door to stop me from leaving. I was terrified.
When he finally finished and left, I tried to pull myself back together. I told my colleagues what happened, fully expecting their support. The overriding consensus was that I was being a bit oversensitive; that I should maybe take his criticism on board, or that it was best to ignore him. So I tried to do that. Maybe they were right?
But this was the beginning of John’s stalking campaign. Our union office was open so students could come and get advice whenever they needed. He'd come in asking for me several times a week—I'd often hide until he was gone.
Sometimes he was unavoidable. He got a place on our student council, and I had to attend monthly meetings as part of my job. Whenever I got up to speak, he’d try and argue with me or belittle me in front of everybody. Other times, he’d sit and stare at me all through meetings.
It got to the stage where I would be so nervous I’d stumble over words. He fed off this weakness and would stare more intently or argue even more aggressively. A couple of times, other students had to intervene to stop picking on me during meetings. I stopped going to the bar afterwards—something I previously loved doing— in case he was there, preferring to lock myself in the office of the student paper with friends until I was sure he had gone home.
One day, I was walking on my own down the busy street outside campus when I heard John screaming my name over and over again—and that he "loved me." I walked as quickly as I could, worrying about what would happen if I ran. Would that make me look more afraid of him? Would he use that against me later on?
He caught up with me, grabbing my arm and trying to pull me to one side, repeatedly telling me that he loved me. I ended up shouting at him to leave me alone, pushing him off and running away. Even though it was on a busy city street, nobody intervened.
Again, I tried to complain to my colleagues, but everyone said they didn’t know how to help, and I should just ignore him until he stopped. As a recent graduate elected to a university position, I was in gray area of employment. The university didn’t have the same obligation of welfare towards me as they did with actual students, and I didn’t have a manager I could speak to about John’s behavior.
"He's going to come in and kill us all one day," one of my co-workers said after John turned up at the office for the umpteenth time.
I genuinely began to fear it would happen. Every time I saw him he’d scream “I love you” at me, then follow it with a chilling laugh. I made sure I was never alone on campus.
Then, a few weeks before the end of that university year, John suddenly went quiet. He stopped coming to our union offices, and he no longer turned up at council meetings.
I heard rumors that he'd been expelled after trying to physically attack a female lecturer. I felt like I was one step away from that happening to me. I also felt guilty—that it could have been prevented if I'd been more forceful with trying to get people to listen. I tried to put in a complaint to the university, but I was told that nothing would come of it since he was already expelled.
Three years ago, I logged on to Facebook to see a message request from John. I left it for a few days, but curiosity eventually got the better of me, and heart pounding, I opened it.
He'd sent me a long apology, and he blamed his behavior on his mental health at the time.
As somebody who has experienced mental health issues myself and has never gone on to engage in stalking or harassment, I couldn't accept his apology. I wasn't sure what to say, so I ignored it. One friend I confided in said I should have given him the benefit of the doubt and forgiven him, but how could I? I was also afraid that replying would invite him back into my life, when I'd kept him locked in a little box in my head for such a long time.
In the past 10 years, I think a lot has changed for women—though not far enough, of course. I do feel if this happened now, it would be taken far more seriously by everyone around me. At least, I hope it would.
For a while, I did regret not speaking to the police about John, but I didn’t think they’d do anything. I wasn’t even sure if it was stalking that I’d experienced—I had always thought stalking and harassment was something worse than this. Now I see my experience with John for what it was.
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.