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Exposed — For several months, a man called Anne up and shared his sexual fantasies about what he and Anne's male colleagues at the University of Copenhagen would do to her. And it did not stop there.
»I have always insisted on being professional. I am a person before I am a woman. If I come forward with this, it will stick to my name, and I am afraid that it will bring on more calamities.«
This is what the woman in front of me says. I have asked her to tell her story, and she will, but I must not write her name. I am not allowed to write where she is working at the University of Copenhagen. I am not allowed to describe how she looks.
So here is a name that is not hers: Anne. We give her this name in this article.
Anne works at the University of Copenhagen, including teaching work, and she wrote me an email before the summer break. I had just written a brief news item on the University Post website about how 86 employees had reported that they had been subjected to sexual harassment in the past year on the latest tri-annual workplace assessment. Anne writes to me that she was one of the 86. That in the five years she has worked at the university, she has experienced three cases of what the report calls ‘unwanted sexual attention’.
I was allowed to write this, but »preferably without my name, because I find it embarrassing, even though none of it is my fault,« she wrote in her email.
The stalker frequents the campus
In December 2014 Anne had just started her new job at the University of Copenhagen. On a – for her at least – completely random day, she received some text messages from a number that she did not know.
»The messages are intensely sexual from the beginning,« she says, »and I respond: No thanks, please do not contact me.«
But it just continued. She kept on rejecting the messages. The number started calling her. She was not able to recognise the male voice at the other end. He called when she was preparing breakfast for her children, he called when she lay in bed with her husband in the evening, he called when she was in the shower.
I don’t know who the man is, I can’t recognise his voice on the phone. I start to listen for this voice on the corridors at work. I listen to my colleagues’ voices, to the students’ voices.
»It’s everywhere, and in the situations where I normally felt safe, I no longer felt safe. Finally, I start shaking as soon as I received a text message.«
In the beginning, Anne did not know that there was a connection to the University of Copenhagen, but at some point, the man began to include Anne’s place of work in the sexual fantasies. He wrote what he imagined her male colleagues did to her.
»I don’t know who the man is, I can’t recognise his voice on the phone. I start to listen for this voice on the corridors at work. I listen to my colleagues’ voices, to the students’ voices, and I hope that it has nothing to do with my work, because I like my job a lot.«
On her birthday in September 2015, she lost all hope that the stalker was someone on the outside. She had some big round earrings on, which he described in a sexual fantasy that he sent to her that day. She had not been to the supermarket or stopped at the petrol station on the way in.
»He is letting me know that he has seen me on that day. I get a feeling that he is closer than I have imagined, and I cannot take it. My birthday is destroyed, and I sit, crying at my desk, and feel that I have broken down completely.«
Anne had already talked to her staff representative about the stalking, and now she also went to her manager. It was affecting her efforts on the job. Then she contacted the Danish Stalking Centre and the police.
100,000 people are stalked annually
The Ministry of Justice conducted a survey in 2018 which concluded that up to 100,000 Danes experience stalking every year. Stalkers can be divided up into three different categories. About one third of them are people who have been in a previous close relationship, say, a former partner or family member, about one third are an acquaintance like a neighbour or a colleague, and about one third are strangers.
Helle Hundahl is a psychologist and deputy head of the Danish Stalking Centre, which offers advice to people who have been exposed to stalking, and treatment of active stalkers.
She says that the particular thing about stalking is that it is often a weird mix of something ordinary, like an enquiry by text message, phone calls, flowers sent to you, or constantly meeting the person regardless of where you go – and something threatening because there are so many interactions that it starts to get uncomfortable. The ordinary nature of the interactions make it difficult for those exposed to it to meet understanding from others.
Stalking leads to reactions like in people who have been at war, like post-traumatic stress.
»People think: How bad can it be to get a few text messages? It is bad. Being stalked is the cause of a more comprehensive sense of insecurity than you think,« says Helle Hundahl:
»It takes place in all areas of life, partly because of the internet and mobile phones which mean that there is no place where you can find peace. You can never feel safe. Stalking leads to reactions seen in people who have been at war – post-traumatic stress.«
When Anne talked to the Danish Stalking Centre, she found out that she should not have replied to her stalker, and that she should not have rejected the messages again and again.
»I have always been told that as a woman I should stand up for myself, and state clearly what I wanted. And what I didn’t want. So I thought it was about stating things clearly. But it was not,« she says.
Anne switched her phone number, the same number for 15 years, to a secret one. She was given a secret address, she was deleted from the university’s internal phone system Lync and from the University of Copenhagen’s other databases. The stalking stopped, but »I get the feeling that he has won,« says Anne.
Ignore the stalker, but save the messages
2016 was the first time Anne ticked off the box for ‘unwanted sexual attention’ in the workplace assessment. This year, she ticked it off again.
09.31: Hi inspiring lecture the other day!!!
09.37: I want more
09.49: I know what a nymph you are in bed…
09.52: Your breasts are gorgeous
09.56: You are such a tease when you teach
One Wednesday morning in the autumn of 2018, Anne got this series of messages on WhatsApp. She had held an open lecture a few days beforehand at the university. She reckons that there were 60-70 people at the lecture, and she thinks that she saw everyone’s faces. There was a picture of a man on the WhatsApp profile, but she didn’t think she saw him at the lecture, so she doesn’t think the person who wrote this was the man in the picture. There was also a phone number associated with the profile, but it was for a prepaid card.
»I feel the anxiety, my body reacts like this: Damn, now it is all starting again.«
After her contact with the Danish Stalking Centre in 2015, Anne knew that she should not respond to the messages, and it worked – the messages stopped after a week.
Helle Hundahl from the Danish Stalking Centre confirms that it is important to avoid contact. If it is a stranger, you should refrain from answering at all, or clearly reject their approach once. If it is someone you know, you should respond once.
»You should say: I don’t want any contact with you. And only once,« says Helle Hundahl.
»There are several reasons why you should not continue. From a legal perspective, it is not stalking, if a dialogue continues back and forth, regardless of what it contains. But we also know something about what it is that motivates stalking, and it may be a desire for contact, even if this is negative contact. ‘Now you must stop’ and ‘leave me alone’ can feel like contact, and can encourage the stalker’s obsession.«
Helle Hundahl also says that it is important to document all contact from the stalker, even though it can be difficult to have to archive unwanted messages. If, at some point, you need to report the stalking to the police, you need to be able to display a pattern of repeated approaches.
A fake dating profile
In December, Anne’s ex-husband and father of their children logged on to the dating website Scor.dk. A profile with a picture of Anne and with details of her leisure interests appeared. The ex-husband knows that Anne is married, and as the profile text was also full of spelling mistakes (Anne spells correctly), he contacted Scor.dk and reported the profile as fake.
The profile text included »I’m looking for a cute young guy for fun and games. I am not into poop, SM and that kind of stuff, but just good old sex.«
»I have no idea how long the profile has been there, and I don’t know what it has been used for,« says Anne.
The profile photo of her was from the side, and she didn’t look into the camera. The picture wasn’t one of Anne’s, it wasn’t an old Facebook picture, or her staff profile picture on the university website. The picture was taken at the University of Copenhagen. She could recognise the room in the background, a room that is both used for meetings with colleagues and for teaching. She could see that the person must have been standing a few metres away from her at the most when it was taken.
»The person who did the profile must have been less than two metres away from me,« says Anne. »If it was only just some kind of nutcase. But it’s someone who has been this close to me, and it’s at my place of work, again. This really stresses me out. I don’t know whether it is a student who is angry after an exam, or a colleague.«
The profile was removed from Scor.dk, but Anne does not know whether a new one will be set up, or whether more fake profiles with her name and picture are elsewhere on the internet. She tried to make a series of searches to see if she showed up in more unwanted places. She also considered posting on Facebook that she had been victimised on the internet, but she did not want to »become her that had been harassed. I don’t want that story.« She also contacted the police.
»I feel like I have become a laughingstock. That I have been outed with no chance to explain myself. I have adult children. Imagine if they find me on a page like that. It was hard enough to go home to my husband and explain to him that I was now on this site.«
Anne is ashamed. She finds it embarrassing that she is experiencing these things. She does not feel that she is succeeding as a teacher when, for somebody, her gender overshadows her professional skills. This is despite the fact that she, as she puts it, »turned down the button that women can turn up and down.« She wears a lot of large sweaters, and she says she’s constantly taking this into account, even though she doesn’t think it should be necessary.
Victims of stalking feel shame
»Almost everyone begins to blame themselves,« says Helle Hundahl from the Danish Stalking Centre. She finds the shame in all of those who have been the victim of stalking.
»Stalking is still a very taboo subject, and the lack of understanding from the outside world – a comment like: you ought to feel flattered, or: maybe you need to dress down a bit – helps put the blame on the person exposed to it. It is victim blaming, just like we have often seen in rape cases.«
It is crazy what we as female teaching staff have to be exposed to. How vulnerable you are. I need people to know what is going on.
Helle Hundahl says that this causes many of the victims of stalking to not want to talk about the stalking. Some isolate themselves because they are embarrassed, but also because they are afraid that the stalking will spread to their network. Others find that their circle disappears by itself, because people are afraid, and in the end they are alone.
»It is really important that you get advice so that you know that your reaction is normal, and that you can act,« says Helle Hundahl, »as some of the things that lead to the most extreme PTSD are when you feel paralysed. This is very harmful to people.«
Anne still does not know who it is that is behind her three instances of ‘unwanted sexual attention’. Neither the stalking in 2015, the messages last autumn, nor the fake dating profile. She thinks herself that three different men are involved. She does not know, in principle, whether the last two are men at all. »I feel I have been blindfolded,« she says.
»I’ve thought about why I wrote to you,« she says to me. She has been upset while she told her story, in the way where you get tears in your eyes, but stop them. »And I think it’s because it is crazy what we as female teaching staff have to be exposed to. How vulnerable you are. I need people to know what is going on.«
The newsroom is acquainted with Anne’s real identity and place of employment at the University of Copenhagen. Anne’s story has been confirmed by the two staff representatives who were informed in Anne’s case, and we have seen screen shots of WhatsApp messages and the dating profile on Scor.dk.
Read more: 86 employees of the University of Copenhagen have experienced inappropriate sexual advances in the past year