In the summer of 2004, when Montrose Avenue was still Bushwick, and George W. Bush was the incumbent president, my best friend, her two pit bulls, and I moved into a duplex on the same block as the L train. It was the nicest apartment I’d ever lived in, cheaply refurbished with parquet floors and shiny fixtures that went wobbly within our first month. My friend took the basement, and my bedroom was on the building’s ground floor, with two big street-facing windows. Every few minutes, the train rumbled underneath us, but despite the stream of commuters that rushed by my windows all day, I kept my curtains open, reveling in the abundance of natural light.
I was nearing the end of a four-year tenure as a professional dominatrix and spent three nights per week at a “dungeon” in Midtown, spanking and changing the diapers of stockbrokers. I was also newly sober. All of which is to say that I spent a lot of time at home reading novels and self-help books instead of drinking and shooting heroin.
One night, after I’d turned off my reading light but not yet sunk into sleep, an uneasy feeling swept up my back. In his story “The Cure,” which tells of a suburban man going through a marital separation who is peeped on by his male neighbor, John Cheever aptly describes the physical response to being watched as a “terrible hardening of the flesh.” I was accustomed to the sweep of shadows along the walls as the train emptied its passengers and they marched by my windows and cars braked at the corner stoplight, but one shadow had stopped, its source blocking the stripe of light at the corner of my closest window.
“Hey, baby,” a voice murmured from outside. “Are you sleeping?”
My face went cold, body stiff. My heart battered inside my chest.
“Pretty girl,” said the voice. “You touching yourself?”
The voice was so close, just a couple of yards away from my bed. I wanted to scream, to flee the room, but was too terrified of indicating my presence to move. Instead, I started to pray—whether to God or the interloper, I didn’t know. Please stop, I pleaded silently. Please let this not be happening. Please go away. After a few more murmurings, he did. The light reappeared at the edge of my curtains and his silhouette slid along the length of the windows, a twin darkness slipping across the wall inside my bedroom.
My pulse thrummed and I remained still for a long time after that, petrified that he would return, but he didn’t that night. When my mind had settled enough to think, I realized that he couldn’t possibly have seen me. The curtains covered the windows, and, anyway, peering into my dark bedroom from the streetlight-bathed sidewalk he would have seen only his own reflection in the glass.
How could he have known that I was even a woman? It seemed wildly unlikely that he would have gambled on any random inhabitant. I might have been a body builder, or an off-duty cop, watching Unsolved Mysteries or the UFC semifinals, tossing raw meat to my monstrous dog. No, I realized, he hadn’t seen me then. He had seen me before. I frantically scrolled through days past to remember if I had noticed anyone lurking, noticed anyone specific outside my windows at all. I hadn’t. Then I skimmed my daytime bedroom activities, imagining the night prowler secretly observing me staring at my computer, reading in bed, carelessly returning from a shower without remembering to close the curtains for a few naked moments as I stared into my closet or the mirror.
This revelation that my privacy had been an illusion made me feel skinless. He could have been stalking me for weeks before mustering the nerve or will to speak. That unknown span of time seethed behind me, a room filling with smoke.
• • •
I grew up in the woods of New England, where we didn’t even have curtains on our bedroom windows, as there was no light pollution, no passersby, and hardly a neighbor within yelling distance. When I moved to New York City, I was shocked by the relentless verbal appraisal of men in public spaces. “Street harassment” wasn’t a common phrase in 1999, but the experience was as common as rats on the subway tracks. By 2004, I was used to it, deft at discerning the likelihood of a catcaller’s retaliation if I ignored him, instinctively knowing whether to smile demurely or stonewall him. In all cases, one had to keep moving and could never argue without threat of physical violence. The constant vigilance out of doors rendered domestic spaces holy in their privacy. Every woman in New York, and perhaps any city, knows her bodily relief after the apartment door is shut and locked behind her. The violation of that sanctity filled me with panic.
Why me? I wondered. Had I unknowingly done something to court the midnight lurker? Was it possible that I had masturbated while he was watching some afternoon past? In hindsight, the innocence of my former self seemed irresponsible. Culpable, even. How naïve, how brazenly uncareful I had been to stand naked in my own bedroom. No woman I knew had ever told me of being stalked in her own home. Of course, I had never asked the women I knew if they had been stalked, and it is counterinstinctual to volunteer these stories. The belief in our own culpability encourages our silence, and our silence protects the lie of our culpability.
As a precociously developed eleven-year-old, I never told anyone about the older neighborhood boy who spat on me every day at the bus stop. At fourteen, I never told anyone about the sixty-year-old manager of the tackle shop that employed me and his endless stream of dirty jokes. As a freshman in high school, I never told anyone about the senior who groped my breasts in the hallway between classes, his eyes boring into mine the whole time. At sixteen, I never told anyone about the older male classmate who peeped on me and my first girlfriend. At nineteen, I never told anyone about the man who jerked off onto my back while I was asleep after I refused to have sex with him.
No doubt, my internalization of our victim-blaming culture is largely to blame for this silence. Of course the man outside my window hadn’t seen me masturbating, but while we have no familiar narrative for why men do such things, we all know the ways women invite their victimization by walking after dark, wearing short skirts, or having big breasts. The pathology of victimhood would also claim that self-blaming and shame were my very ordinary attempts to explain what had happened to me, to assert control over it by assuming responsibility.
But also, consider Body Double. In Brian De Palma’s homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo, a woman dances provocatively before her window every night dressed in only lacy panties and a belly chain (proof of the film’s 1984 release date). The performance ends with a stagey roll around on the bed that gestures toward masturbation but is pure performance for the male viewer.
Had I seen Body Double at that point? I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter—this narrative, of the woman self-consciously performing for an invisible male audience has saturated our culture. I’m not saying that it’s never sexy to be watched. Exhibitionism is as real as voyeurism. One of the many friends and acquaintances whom I began interviewing a few months ago about being peeped on claimed of her reclusive neighbor: “I allow him to, as it’s probably the most exciting part of his life. I pretend not to see him until the very end when I turn the shower off. Then, I just look at him briefly. It’s kind of hot.”
There is an everydayness to the eroticism of her story, partly because we’ve all been indoctrinated by the onslaught of messaging that this is hot, partly because it’s hot to be wanted. “Didn’t you like the attention?” asked the boyfriend of a woman I interviewed after she told him about her peeper.
It is also a narrative that exonerates men. The more plausible it seems that women are always performing, the less indictable the watching. If we want it, where is the crime? Better yet, make us seductresses, inverting the men’s role even more extremely: They are our victims! One of the most shared qualities of all predators is their self-conception of victimhood.
The phrase “peeping tom” originates from Lady Godiva’s alleged eleventh-century ride through Coventry nude on horseback, an event still commemorated by Coventry citizens every year by a (clothed) march through the city. Supposedly, the townspeople swore to avert their eyes and all made good on the promise except for one “peeping tom.” It is no cautionary tale. After all, who could blame the original Tom for enjoying the spectacle freely offered?
Women are bombarded not only with suggestions that we are always performing for men but also with prescriptions for doing so, from the moment we are able to take direction. “A man’s presence,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “is dependent on the promise of power he embodies . . . A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.” Conversely, “How a woman appears to a man can determine how she is treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.”
In the days after the stalker’s first appearance, my own attention to the gaze of men felt incriminating. Wasn’t it my job to be desired by them? I had even found a way to get paid for it. In Berger’s words, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at . . . Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
It is through the collaboration of all these factors, of course, that patriarchy is enforced: an elegant machinery whose pistons fire silently inside our minds, and whose gleaming gears we mistake for our own jewelry.
• • •
• • •
The day after his first (known) visit, I taped the curtains to the window frame so there was not even a sliver through which to look. That night, I brought Red, the bigger of my roommate’s dogs, to bed with me. I lay under the covers, his heavy body curled against my legs as he gently snored. Cars hissed by, the curtains glowing with their passing headlights. I was wide awake when he came.
“Hey, baby,” he said, his form darkening the window. “Are you ready for me?” My body tingled with adrenaline and I squeezed Red’s paw with one hand. “Is that pussy wet for me?” the voice asked. Red’s ears jumped, either from the sound, my touch, or the scent of my fear. Red was more interested in snuggling and treats than guarding against intruders, but he was easily disturbed by noises outside and made an imposing figure at seventy pounds of pure muscle. He raised himself up and gave a hearty bark.
The wave of relief I felt at simply having another presence validate the disturbance was so great that I took a heaving breath. Red stood on the bed now, ears trembling, and emitted a low whine. My relief created a tiny breach in the fear and through it rushed a geyser of fury. Under a lifetime of vigilance and fear of bodily harm often lies a bedrock of rage. Who the fuck was this asshole? I was suddenly irate at the thought of having been paralyzed with fear in my own bed.
I pushed back the covers and sat up, my bare feet thudding the floor. Red followed me out of my bedroom and into the hallway, where I slipped into a coat and sneakers and clipped a leash onto his collar. I exited the apartment and the building’s front door. I must have assumed that the culprit would flee at the barking, because I was surprised to find him still standing outside my window. A man in his twenties, brown hair, black puffer jacket. He casually loped toward me.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked, holding Red’s leash close to give the impression that he was bloodthirsty when actually I wanted to prevent him from lunging forward to lick the stranger’s hands in friendly greeting.
“Hey, girl,” he said, looking me up and down. “How’s your night going? You busy?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked.
“You have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“You need to get the fuck out of here and never come back,” I said. “I’ll be calling the cops.” Before he could answer, I spun around and dragged Red back into the building. My pulse pounding in my ears, I wondered if it had been a mistake to let him see my face.
He didn’t come back that night, but I couldn’t sleep. His reaction had confused me. There had been no evidence of shame on his face, no acknowledgment that he had done anything inappropriate, let alone threatening. And there hadn’t been any particular menace in his manner as he propositioned me. He’d acted just like so many men whom I passed in the street every day: as though I were a legitimate sexual interest, or a woman drinking at the same bar, not someone he’d been criminally harassing and stalking. As though these behaviors all fell under the same umbrella of romantic pursuit.
• • •
In Body Double, our protagonist peeps on his dancing neighbor, stalks her for an entire day, watches her in a lingerie store dressing room, eavesdrops at a pay phone on her conversation, and recovers a pair of her newly purchased panties from a trash can. When she finally confronts him, barely a few words shared between them, she falls into his arms and they start madly kissing. Not only is she attracted to him despite his stalking, but it is offered as the only evidence of seduction. His stalking is framed as a courtship. That this makes any narrative sense is owed to the entire first third of the movie being devoted to humanizing the hero. In the opening scene he returns home to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and we go on to witness his tearful recall of childhood bullying, his episodes of crippling claustrophobia, and his trials as a struggling actor.
Had my stalker seen Body Double? Who knows. But he’d had plenty of other opportunities to observe this narrative. The 1984 hit movie Revenge of the Nerds, for instance, in which a group of loveable college outcasts plants a camera in the showers of a women’s dormitory and sells nude photos of one of its inhabitants. After one of the nerds disguises himself as another man and tricks the woman into having sex with him, she unveils his true identity and admits that she is in love with him. That is: peeping, humiliation, and rape constitute the courtship of their romance.
There is also Malicious, Animal House, Stripes, Porky’s, Once Upon a Time in America, American Beauty, The Girl Next Door, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Stranger Things.
I could go on and on and on.
Just as these films encourage men to believe that stalking and peeping are acceptable forms of courtship, likely to resolve in a love match, so do they prescribe to women a desire to be the object of such behavior. I did wonder, as I lay in bed fully clothed after confronting my stalker—had I somehow misread the experience and overreacted? I knew that I hadn’t.
As a younger woman, I might have been more able to perform the mental acrobatics necessary to discredit my own instincts, to exile the feeling of profound violation. And maybe my reluctance to squash my own fear is partly due to a narrative as familiar as that of the benevolent love interest peeper: the voyeuristic killer. So prevalent is this depiction that, again, a full catalog isn’t needed. A few years ago, I instituted a personal ban on television shows that feature the violent assaults of women as central plot points. They are too many to count and saturate the spectrum from lowbrow tabloid crime dramas to award-winning paid cable network shows directed by and starring Hollywood royalty but include Prime Suspect, The Fall, The Killing, True Detective, Mindhunter, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the second longest running scripted primetime television show in history. To think of the millions of Americans—men and women—absorbing these images of peeped and stalked and subsequently mutilated women’s bodies chills me. They keep making them because we keep watching them. I didn’t stop watching for political reasons, though. I stopped watching because I couldn’t bear to collect any more of those images, especially as a woman living alone in New York City.
A big difference between the two cultural narratives about peeping—that of the harmless romantic lead and that of the violent—is that one is much truer than the other. Homicide Studies states that eighty-nine percent of murdered women were also stalked within twelve months of their killing, and fifty-four percent of murdered women reported stalking to the police beforehand. Carmen, one of my interviewees, reported spotting a peeper outside her window just a few nights before an intruder broke into her apartment and raped her roommate. He was never caught, though a series of similar crimes in the area was recorded a year or so later. Another woman was reluctant to call the police on her peeping neighbor and later read of his suicide just before a third conviction of pedophilia.
Many of those television narratives boast of being pulled from real headlines, which gives the false impression that women are mostly murdered by sociopathic strangers. In reality, more than half of female victims are murdered by their romantic partners. These real headlines, less cribbed for television, often include phrases like “Romeo and Juliet–style attack” and “murdered for love.”
The documented frequency with which women are murdered by their lovers is why the pop-culture narratives in which the line between danger and romance gets purposefully blurred are most troubling to me. In Body Double, a different stalker is offered as the dangerous one, rendering our hero even more benign in relief. All the while our protagonist is stalking his neighbor, so is a grotesque giant—“The Indian”—who ends up murdering the woman with an electric drill and is later revealed to be a second handsome white man in disguise. Peeping, Body Double insists, is as likely to be a precursor to romance as it is to gruesome murder. When we are supposed to yield to our stalkers and when to run from them is left up to us. It is a compelling plot device, and a timeworn method of gaslighting women out of trusting their instincts. But De Palma far from invented this move.
Body Double is a tribute to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and borrows generously from its plot, in which Scottie, a private eye played by James Stewart who suffers from extreme vertigo, is hired to tail Kim Novak’s Madeleine. As in Body Double, our heroine falls in love with the man on seemingly no basis beyond his stalking her. Hitchcock’s heroine, like De Palma’s, is a stand-in for a murdered wife, and also dies at the film’s conclusion. De Palma’s other inspiration for Body Double, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, similarly features Stewart as a heroic peeper who spies on his comely dancing neighbor and eventually reveals another neighbor who has murdered his own wife.
• • •
My mother had loved Rear Window as a girl, and my whole family watched it during my childhood, laughing together in surprise at every plot twist. Vertigo was also a favorite of mine as a younger woman—I spent a few months in pencil skirts, trying to wrestle my hair into a French twist as sleek as Novak’s. This year, in an effort to understand my own relationship to stalking, I rewatched all of these films. To my surprise, I found it a chore that left me glancing over my shoulder every time I left the apartment, torn between wanting to stay home and wanting to punch every man who walked too close behind me.
The only famous peeping film I hadn’t seen before writing this essay was Peeping Tom. Belatedly hailed as a masterpiece, it is distinct for its abandonment of the dichotomy between the benevolent stalker and the murderous one; its subject embodies both. The handsome blond Mark is a serial killer who makes videotapes of the stricken faces of his female victims at the moment of death and compulsively rewatches them. When his guileless downstairs neighbor, Helen (whom he meets by peering into her window), attempts to draw him out, he reveals to her that his father was a famous psychologist who performed experiments on his son like putting lizards on his bed and filming the boy’s terrified responses. Helen volleys between falling in love with Mark, sympathizing with his trauma, and fearing for her own safety. It is a remarkable amalgamation of so many things that a woman is prescribed to be to a man: the person over whom he exerts power, the one who listens to and sympathizes with him, the object on which to project his romantic fantasies of purity and exceptionalism, and his savior.
“Sure,” a friend quipped about the film, “being a woman and getting murdered sucks, but it’s not as bad as having a MEAN DADDY.”
Their deep investment in humanizing the male protagonist is the most common denominator among all of these depictions. The makers of these movies don’t seem to have any particular investment in their female characters as anything beyond props, but still they teach us that fear and seduction are not mutually exclusive. We ought to override our fear impulse to be love objects. We ought to override our instinct for self-preservation to take care of the male ego.
It shouldn’t come as any great surprise, I guess, to find that the creators of these narratives often have a personal investment in this depiction. Tippi Hedren, the star of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie, explains in her 2016 memoir that the auteur sexually assaulted her more than once and retaliated after she rejected him by tormenting her on set and then blackballing her career.
Woody Allen, who portrays peeping in Radio Days and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, has gone unpunished for his crimes, though they are well known by now, as are those of the fugitive rapist Roman Polanski, in whose films peeping and stalking are a hallmark.
While gathering sources for this essay, I immediately thought of James Ellroy, the celebrated crime writer of The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, and My Dark Places, who has featured peeping toms in many of his novels. A cursory search led me to a video interview published in 2012 between Walter Kirn and Ellroy, in which the crime writer describes his own history of peeping on women in LA in the late 1960s and breaking into their homes by way of their pet doors to steal their underwear. Upon first watch, I was aghast, and rewound the video to watch it again.
“Here’s the thing about this, Walter,” says Ellroy about halfway through, clearly enjoying himself. “I broke into houses, in the manner I just described, seventeen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-three times, tops. From late ’66 to the summer of ’69.” Ellroy doesn’t just describe the events; he brags about them. After recounting one such “great night” he slowly intones, “Missy M’s bra . . . It’s indelible.” He tells Kirn, “You take it home with you, brother. You take it home for you.”
“You could’ve put these skills to actual use,” Kirn muses in response. “You could’ve been a reporter. ’Cause, you’re describing a reporter to me!” Kirn may have been horrified. His smile as Ellroy speaks looks unnatural, if bemused. Instead of objecting, however, Kirn characterizes the predatory behavior as journalistic and accepts the other man’s invitation to bond over the violation of those women, thus reinforcing for every viewer the long tradition of men bonding over the dehumanization of women.
Revenge of the Nerds, after all, isn’t a movie about men seducing women by humiliating and assaulting them—that is just a plot device to support the real story about the bonding of a group of underdogs against a group of more powerful men.
The Cheever story is also interested in women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity—though in this case featuring conflict rather than collaboration. When the narrator of “The Cure” spots his peeping neighbor with his daughter on a train platform, the apparent purity of the daughter persuades him not to confront the peeper. Instead, seemingly as consolation, he follows a young woman off the train. “She looked at me once,” he tells the reader, “and she knew that I was following her, but I felt sure she was the kind of woman who would not readily call for help.” He goes on to explain, “It was all I could do to keep from saying to her, very, very softly, ‘Madame, will you please let me put my hand around your ankle? That’s all I want to do, madame. It will save my life.’” We are meant to be impressed by how deeply the protagonist is affected by the neighbor’s violation, and by his impending divorce. Alone in the house he usually shares with his wife, our protagonist’s behavior is weird, but not unsympathetic. Bachelorhood and the intrusion on his privacy seem to have agitated a deep well of aggression whose contents require some receptacle or outlet. He’s not a creep; he is reclaiming the masculine presence that Berger describes as “dependent on the promise of power he embodies,” and passing on the baton of victimhood. The woman’s fear assures him that he is no longer the object, but the subject.
• • •
• • •
Though I threatened it, I hadn’t seriously considered calling the police about my stalker. My instinct was to blame myself and I assumed that they would, too. They would say that I was overreacting, and, on some level, I hoped that I was. I didn’t share the entitlement of the narrator of “The Cure,” who says, “The situation, on the surface, was ridiculous, and I could see that, but the dread of seeing his face in the window again was real and cumulative, and I didn’t see why I should have to endure it, particularly at a time when I was trying to overhaul my whole way of living.” His belief in his right to pursue his better life undisturbed allows him to call the local police, though when he does, the cop “spoke as if I were deliberately trying to damage real estate values” and claims the force is too small to send a guard to his house. Masculinity, as we know, is no cakewalk, but at least he is permitted to address his trauma by paying it forward almost immediately in the disempowerment of the woman on the train.
My stalker returned to the window, sometimes two or three times per week. Each time, I clutched the barking Red and stared at the knife I’d begun keeping beside the bed, but didn’t go outside again. I had already forgotten his face and worried during the days that I might pass him in the street and be recognized. As one of the women I interviewed said after expressing similar fear, “It could have been anyone.”
There were other reasons I didn’t want to go to the police. At the time, I was still a sex worker, which further complicated things, both externally and internally. I wasn’t interested in the police discovering what I did for a living. It was literally my job to perform the erotic fantasies of men. As Berger says, I had made myself an object, a sight. It was impossible for me not to compound what was happening with the idea that my purpose was to perform erotically for men, even if the form that performance usually took was of their own humiliation. The difference between what happened at work and when my stalker came at night felt clear inside of me—labor versus terror—but while I understood the concept of consent when it came to my clients and the world of S&M, it didn’t occur to me in those terms when that man spoke into my window. Today, a writer like Alana Massey can publish an essay (in response to the Louis C.K. scandal) in Self Magazine that asserts, “Sex workers do not exist to save abusive men from themselves, or to save non-sex-working women from abusive men. Every sex worker ought to have the ability to establish her own boundaries, her own rates, and not face intimidation when she does not give consent for any reason.” But at twenty-three, I hadn’t read anything like that.
I was also deeply invested in a nonjudgmental view of kinks and fetishes, among which voyeurism is ordinary. Paraphiliacs were my bread and butter, and my friends. Even now, writing this, I am reluctant to publicize the pathological contexts. I know now, as I did then, that kink can be healthy, that its practitioners are often highly processed persons capable of profound intimacy. I’m well aware of how the pathologization of “atypical” sexual practices has been used to punish, oppress, criminalize, and stigmatize people like me and my former clients for centuries. Because those practices have been marginalized for so long, there still isn’t a familiar enough public discourse on them for the layperson to differentiate between the functional and the dangerous. I worry that the casual reader will conflate them, as our culture has been so long doing. The difference between consensual voyeuristic practices and nonconsensual is analogous to that between sex and rape. By condemning these practices wholesale, we make it that much easier to erase their complexity, the vast spectrum on which they function.
When I was a domme, my voyeuristic clients seemed especially harmless. The men who came into the dungeon with fantasies of peeping seemed a far cry from the ones who wanted us to crush bugs with our bare feet, tell stories of cannibalism, or shit on them. But they were all harmless. The difference between my clients, who had our consent to play out these fantasies, and those who practice voyeurism without their victims’ consent is not only critical but also criminal. Still, the authors of “Varieties of Intrusion: Exhibitionism and Voyeurism” write: “Historically, exhibitionism and voyeurism were often viewed as nuisance crimes which had little impact on the victim and occurred in isolation.” This impression is likely due not only to the representations in popular culture but also because the impulse to peep isn’t so strange.
I like to look in people’s windows, too. As the subway trundles home, I peer into the yellow-lit windows of strangers’ apartments, coveting those glimpses into their dioramic lives. Passing through wealthy neighborhoods, who doesn’t like to spy through the windows of brownstones and ogle the glamorous chandeliers and custom bookshelves? Most of us are curious about each other, enjoy imagining the alternate lives we might be living, the rooms we might inhabit. Also, it can be titillating. A study on voyeurism whose results were published in a 2007 issue of the International Journal of Sexual Health found that eighty-three percent of men and seventy-four percent of women claimed they would watch someone undressing if they would not be caught.
How do we reconcile that number with the thirty-seven percent of voyeurs who are involved in rape, the fifty-two percent in pedophilia? Or that a quarter of all serial murderers exhibit voyeurism? We don’t have to. “Varieties of Intrusion: Exhibitionism and Voyeurism” claims that “the roots of these behaviors are integrated into the normative sexual template; however, individuals engaging in exhibitionism and voyeurism display these normative behaviors in pathological or addictive patterns, rather than in the course of adaptive relationship development.” The argument has long been made that all our harmful actions progress out of a perversion of “natural” instincts, and that the prosecution of thought crimes would find all of us guilty. Despite our acknowledged impulses, however, only a small percentage of the general population practices voyeurism. And a minority of those who practice voyeurism progress to other behaviors. Though my stalker was one of those.
• • •
“I was sitting by the window of my Portland apartment one night,” explained Hallie, “and this man slid a ripped-out page from a porn magazine through the cracked window. It was a woman giving a blow job.” She laughed. “As if I was going to be like, ‘Oh, that looks really fun.’” When I asked her how she responded, she said, “I just waved a gun around, like, ‘Hey baby, where are you?’ and heard this mad crashing in the bushes outside as he ran away.” Hallie was an outlier among my interviewees, most of whom didn’t have a boyfriend at the time who was “the type to keep a lot of guns around.”
Jill, for instance, was working as a stripper and had just moved out of an apartment she’d shared with an abusive boyfriend. “I felt free and safe,” she said of living alone. Until a note appeared on her front door that read: “My friends and I love watching you work out. We have been watching you for over a week now. We particularly like it when you bend over and we can see your pussy in your underwear from behind. We talk about how we’re going to fuck you from behind. We will make you cum and feel really good.” Terrified and furious, she resolved to get blackout shades, but that same night, another note appeared, this time taped to her bedroom window: “We are looking into your bedroom window. We can’t wait to bend you every way over the bed. We are going to fuck you till you bleed and scream. I hope you don’t mind, we find you very sexy. Signed, your secret admirers.”
“What the ever-loving fuck?” she commented. “‘We hope you don’t mind’? That was the scariest part. The nice handwriting, the good grammar, the faux-gentlemanly interest in my feelings and pleasure.” She called friends to come stay over that night, but still couldn’t sleep. Three days later there was a third letter: “We hope you have considered our offer. You are very sexy. We look forward to fucking you in all three holes while you scream and cry. Signed, your secret admirers.” She didn’t trust the police, but still called them. “That’s how scared I was.”
“What do you want us to do?” the police officer asked.
“What can you do?”
“We can drive by your house a couple of times. But we can’t sit outside and watch.”
“Do you think this will get worse? Do you think they’ll actually do something?” she asked.
“My guess is that they will.”
“What would you do if you were me?”
“Lady,” the cop sighed. “I hate to tell you this, but if I were you, I would move.”
So she did.
• • •
Jill’s story horrified me more than most. Likely, because it was the closest to my own. Because I suspected that the voyeur who graduated to interaction might be the kind who would progress to other actions. And so, despite my reservations, I walked the half mile to the nearest police station.
I wore a collared shirt with long sleeves to cover my tattoos and it quickly dampened with sweat in the summer heat. The counter rose almost to my chin and I peered over it on tiptoes as I shivered in the chilly air-conditioned precinct. I explained my situation to an officer who listened with a patience that seemed overperformed. When I finished speaking, he squinted at me.
“Now, do you know this man?”
“No,” I said. “I told you, I only saw him the one time, when I confronted him. I’d never seen him before.”
He grimaced slightly. “You’re sure? You never went out with him? This isn’t some boyfriend of yours?”
I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been.
“What I want to know is what you can do about it,” I said after a pause.
“Well, since you don’t know him, you can’t file a restraining order.”
“Can you send someone to watch for him?”
The cop didn’t laugh, but almost. “The best thing you can do is call when he’s there, and we can send someone over.”
I wrote down the number to call with shaking hands, knowing I probably wouldn’t ever dial it. The last thing I wanted to do was speak when my stalker was outside the window. I had called the police before, most recently when a man was attempting to rape a woman outside my previous apartment, and been amazed by how long they took to arrive. They ended up finding him, that time, a man convicted of previous rapes, and I served as a witness in the hearing.
• • •
One of the most common denominators in the stories I heard from women was of other men dismissing the peeping, as has long been done with so many forms of abuse. Freud himself considered the incest reports of his female patients to be fantasies. A high school friend of one of my interviewees admitted to her years later that he, and many of her other male friends, had used binoculars to spy on her getting undressed. “He seemed to think it was a compliment,” she told me. Another woman managed to get video footage and the license plate number of her peeper, and still the police did nothing. One woman didn’t ever call the police on her peeping mail carrier because she feared being judged for walking naked in her own home. We have all fielded this kind of response to one thing or another. We are exaggerating. We are overreacting. We are villainizing hapless men. And besides, it’s flattering. After all, in the hit sitcom Married with Children, when a peeping tom targets neighborhood women, Peggy Bundy is miffed that she hasn’t been victimized and begs her husband, Al, to peep on her.
It is why I cringe when the topic of sexual harassment comes up—as it does so frequently these days—in the company of men. I fear what they might say, what they might reveal about themselves. Most of them have never experienced it, never even had to think about it before, and their responses reveal the assumptions that line their ignorance.
I thought of this the other night when a friend told me an anecdote over dinner. The school she attends is equipped with an enormous adjacent parking structure—a place, she and I agreed, that all women consider a potential site of assault. Like most of the women I know, when returning to her car, she moves speedily with her keys in hand, constantly scanning for potential attackers. One day, a man followed behind her, closer than normal, until she finally spun around and shouted, “Where are you going?!” He simply pointed to his nearby car.
When she recounted this to her boyfriend—a man everyone remarks upon as a consummate sweetheart—he said, “Well, how do you think it made him feel that you were so afraid of him?”
Not all men! cry the good ones. They don’t want to be feared, so it is our job to fix our fear. That is, sure, being a woman who gets assaulted and fears it at every turn sucks, but it’s not as bad as getting your feelings hurt. It is the job of women to caretake the feelings of good men. We are trained from birth to accommodate them and their uncontrollable urges. Take, for example, the interviewee who caught her onsite landlord peeping on her multiple times. When she went to his wife to complain, the wife bought her a pair of blackout curtains.
• • •
At the conclusion of “The Cure,” Cheever’s protagonist reunites with his estranged wife. “We’ve been happy ever since,” he writes. As the title suggests, the hero’s experience was a foray into his own darkness, a route back to wholesomeness. For a moment, he occupied the violent space of man alone in the world, subject to both victimization by other men and the violence of his own instincts. In the end, as the final line of the story states, “Everyone here is well.”
The harm, however, bleeds far into the futures of all the women I interviewed, most of whom struggle to feel at ease in their own homes. “Am I still affected?” asked one woman. “‘Paranoid’ is probably the best term for it.” Though “paranoid” implies that her vigilance is unwarranted. It points to another lasting effect on many of my interviewees: the worry of their own culpability.
• • •
Unlike the women I interviewed, I wasn’t conscious of how deeply the experience had affected me until recently. Just before I began writing this essay, I told my girlfriend the story of my peeper.
“I never think about it anymore,” I explained. “It was terrifying when it happened, but I don’t think it stuck with me much after that.”
She gave me a quizzical look. “Really? How about the way you keep your curtains closed with double-sided tape?”
“Oh,” I said. “I guess I do.”
“Or how you won’t walk through any windowed room without first putting clothes on, even in the middle of the night?”
“Especially in the middle of the night,” I added.
I had never considered how that violation disciplines the way I inhabit my own home, nearly fifteen years later. How much I have since feared being seen as sexually available to any man passing by. I took for granted that it was always so, because for most of my life, it has been.
• • •
My story could have ended any number of ways, and none of them include a romance with my stalker. Like most of the women I interviewed, I moved, and rarely thought about this terrifying series of months because it was but one in an endless series of terrors against which I felt impotent to protect myself, except retroactively, in my own words, from many years’ distance.
I am lucky that it ended that way, because unlike Lady Godiva, I did not choose to be a spectacle. I cannot make any man promise to look away. Eventually, he stopped coming. But I could never sleep easy after that. I was always listening for some breach in the quiet, some shadow stilled across my bed. And though I moved a few months later, and have many times since, I am still waiting.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart, the essay collection Abandon Me, and the forthcoming second essay collection, Girlhood.
With illustrations by Forsyth Harmon.