How to deal with stalker fans that make you feel uncomfortable

My schooling succeeded, academically, in preparing me for life “outside” …

But there are fewer things that make me more frustrated than recalling how dismally my generation of school girls’ Life Orientation syllabus failed to do so. Let me back this statement up, so you get the picture:

We were taught S.M.A.R.T. goal setting – for five years. With an acronym like S.M.A.R.T., you pretty much remember how to make Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely goals in a few months. Five years is ludicrous.

Our sex ed classes consisted of annotated cartoon strips indicating a (heterosexual) scenario in which a male was verbally sexually grooming a girl into having sex with him. She did and fell pregnant. One of the questions we were asked to comment on was “What did this girl do to put herself in this situation?” That’s a direct quote. The explicit message was: You deal with sexual grooming by not putting yourself in harm’s way by being alone with a guy you like who you are unaware is (read: have never been equipped with the life skills necessary to identify as) sexually predatory.

If we had discussions about the LGBTQIA+ community (which I would remember, and so highly doubt), they were not part of the textbook coursework, but rather an informal 5-second chat, just before the bell rang.

When applying to be on a leadership panel in Matric, we were asked about any life skills courses we felt we needed to be taught. With the prompt of a fellow interviewee, I recalled how I would like to be taught how to change a tire so that I wouldn’t ever be a damsel in distress vulnerable to sexually predatory men posing as knights. I lacked the vocabulary to suggest anything else – all I knew was that several major somethings were missing.

I was asked by an older human a year ago why I felt it was the job of a school to educate pupils about consent. I replied that if a school is going to have a course like Life Orientation, then it needs to prepare us for what it suggests it should – life and orientation.

This includes a full, non-homophobic discussion about the spectrum of sexualities that exist, and that it’s okay to fit on it wherever you do; it includes using the word ‘consent’, and specifying in no uncertain terms what the ‘red flags’ of a toxic relationship are while removing survivor/victim-shaming from the picture; and it includes teaching young girls what ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’ looks like, that young women also have sex drives, so that one day, when they say ‘yes’, their decision is guaranteed to be confusion and guilt-free.

Teaching young people about protection and abstinence has been given ample space in the syllabus. It is a dangerous, harmful thing that room has not also been made to talk to young women about what “yes” looks like. This is evident in newspaper stories like the one where a bride, raised with the notion that sex was “dirty” had to go to therapy following her honeymoon night, because she was so traumatized by something that was meant to be beautiful and loving.

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This is something that should be keeping institutions, be they educational, religious or household, up at night, and working towards remedying. Sexual grooming and predatory culture come into play when important information is withheld from us when we do not also know what “Yes” looks like. Some of us get hurt by someone, or narrowly escape, as a direct result of their inadequately preparing us. Perpetrators take advantage of this ill-preparedness. Frankly, it’s time we get over our awkwardness and have a real sex ed talk with our contemporaries, and the younger generations. Rape and sexual violence are a lot more uncomfortable than your feeling awkward.

Now, how does this affect women in the music industry?

A lack of consent education makes us ill-equipped from the get-go on how to handle sexism and predatory behavior in the music industry / work-place. So, in a meagre attempt to bridge the information gap, I’m going to give some big sister advice on how I handled a scenario that fits the description. In this episode of what I intend will become a series, I’ll be discussing how I dealt with the (however unintentional) uncomfortable behavior of a S.T.A.N.: A stalker fan.

Whether you’re in the music industry, corporate world, or a niche industry, you are bound to encounter fans/colleagues/bosses who make you feel uncomfortable. I wish it were not so, but we still live in a (albeit improving) patriarchal, gender-violent society.

Gone are the days, however, where people in positions of privilege and/or authority can make you uncomfortable and ensure your silence because they think you will fear for your job. If we can take anything from the out-ting of Harvey Weinstein, it’s this. They may temporarily sabotage you / your career, but once their behavior becomes public knowledge, heaven help them.

Gone are the days where “But I didn’t mean to make you feel XYZ” is permissible. This is the Twenty First Century, Time’s Up, and we’re fiercely taking the reins; because we owe it to ourselves, and to the generation that comes after us, to disrupt a culture of sexual and psychological violence where and as it occurs.

I hope the Life Orientation syllabus has changed for the better since I left. I’ve heard it’s been done away with entirely in my country, which I don’t think a solution at all. I appreciate, however, that not all of the women of my generation were therefore equipped with the necessary life skills to handle situations like these. So here’s how I came out on top when handling an instance of harassment.

Troubling ‘the scenario’:

So a fan comes up to you / a member of your team, asking for your number so that they can arrange a meeting time to drop off something they’re giving / lending you. Rule Number One: Give them an email address. Whatsapp limits your control, because it is way too personal and makes it all too easy to be spammed on a daily basis by texts, videos, GIFs, links and photos.

But let’s say that doesn’t happen. Let’s say they are given your number. You arrange a meeting point.

I don’t want to sound like I’m putting the onus on womxn / non-binary folk to protect themselves, because men / anyone should have an equal respect and drive for making us feel safe.

But in a crooked society, the second rule is important: Wherever possible, meet them in a space that is yours, with another person present. This ensures that if someone says / does something inappropriate, you can react in whatever way you deem fit, say it like it is with a witness present, and then have them escorted out of your space. Depending on the severity of the transgression of course, you then have the option to report the incident, with a witness to back you up. If you don’t feel it is something that needs reporting (or you don’t feel the reporting system works), you will still have that card up your sleeve and can pull it out should they give you any further cause to do so.

But let’s say that doesn’t happen. Let’s say you’re alone when you meet them.

It’s a good idea to record private meetings. This way, if everything is above board, you simply delete the recording, but if it’s not, you have proof. Always disclose the fact that you are recording conversations with people, for professional practice reasons. That way, no-one’s rights are infringed upon, and people will be on their best behavior. Which is how it should be. We shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe / harassed in our work and personal spaces. We are no longer going to put up with it.

I really would recommend, though, that if you aren’t going to report it through the counselling / police / harassment office avenue, confide in a trusted authority-figure. Better yet, write it down on paper, and date it, in their trusted presence, which they can keep safe and ready for you. Scenarios like this can shake you, and you shouldn’t have to carry them alone. Additionally, don’t write off all counsellors because one of them wasn’t a good fit for you. You’ll need to process this – and sooner is better than later.

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Bad advice:

I had the unfortunate experience of attending an artist seminar where the speaker generalized that some Stalker Fans (STANs) can be converted into brand-ambassadors. Be very wary of taking advice like this, because with STANs, it is very hard to identify where on the spectrum they sit. The speaker argued that “STANs are often wanting to promote you, become involved in making you bigger than you already are in their eyes”. I would add “But some are obsessive, and want to know your hourly goings on, schedules, and want to share every intimate detail of their lives with you”.

After months, no amount of blue-ticking, “I’m busy” statuses, or ambassadorial tasks dissuaded mine from incessant communication. I received hundreds of garden, house, and airport lounge selfies, Happy Wednesday GIFs, hourly messages, and continuous requests for me to update the person on what I was doing. Then I got the odd message which really made my hair stand on end: “What massage would you get if you were in Y country?”, “Use this for your XYZ professional scenario … It’s quite (female genetalia) in shape, so it’ll suit the scenario”. But the thing that really freaked me out, and was the straw that broke the camel’s back, was a photo of the person, on a trip, either wearing swimwear / boxers.

Understand that all of these communications, whether from a stranger, STAN, boss or colleague are completely overly-familiar, harassing in quantity, and inappropriate!

Good advice:

Enter Rule number three: Address this behavior as soon as you are made uncomfortable, but talk to an industry-professional first. In vac, I confided in my parents about what I’d been trying to handle. My dad’s first instinct was to go after the person. As admirable as his defense-reflex was, I insisted that I was a grown womxn capable of defending myself – I just needed help with wording my cease-and-desist communication.

You see, this person was retired from a sector within my industry, so my fear was that, if the harassment had been intentional, the person would react to my cease-and-desist message by attempting to sabotage my brand. It sucks that I was ensnared by this fear, but I live in a society that un/intentionally silences attempts at speaking out against minor and major infringements to our safety and dignity. So it’s no wonder that I had unwittingly absorbed this mindset.

I made an appointment to speak with a trusted elder upon my return to my town of study who, by the way, is a man. I highlight this because, as Sheryl Sandberg says in Lean In, male mentors are a special breed of human. They work against their gender privilege and, I believe, are setting a precedent for the rest of mankind to follow. I applaud him because his first words to me, having viewed these communications were:

“These are bizarrely over-familiar. No-one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable. Has [the person] not been watching the #MeToo movement!? Whether [the person]’s from an overseas culture where they may / may not have different ideas about what is appropriate, [they’ve] been living in this country for a while now. [They] must adhere to our codes of conduct. I will help you to stop this”.

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A solution:

We drafted a communication which is as follows. Feel free to use this as a template, for any scenario relating to harassing communication. It’d also be beneficial if you constructed a harassment report guide, for those employees who work under you, or who interact with your fans / clients directly.

“Good afternoon

Unfortunately, there is an issue pertaining to your communications, that needs addressing.

The quantity and content of your correspondence with me have made me uncomfortable. As I am still a university student / minor / a junior employee / an intern, and not equipped to deal with this issue on my own, I have sought counsel from my teachers and other patrons. They also agree that the frequency with which you message me, and the content of the photos you send me are too familiar. We particularly object to the photo you sent me, on your trip to Y country, where you weren’t entirely clothed.

The only conversation appropriate for further correspondence is one discussing my product – my singing at a function, for example.

I hope that our stance is clear and that any further communication will remain strictly professional.

Regards”

What is key is that you get to the point, with as little emotive language as possible. This suggests that, while uncomfortable, you are not going to be manipulated into silence.

If your problem-person is in any position of power in your industry, then telling them that several industry professionals know and disapprove of the transgressions is a sure-fire way of letting them know they try sabotaging your career at their peril.

Finally, you leave the door open for correspondence pertaining to professional opportunities. The reason for this is because the offender may have been unintentional in his / her/ their offending. They would be mortified to think their behavior had been inappropriate and try to fix the professional relationship by sending an opportunity your way.

As a business woman, this statement will reaffirm your strength of character and position you as someone on top / above the discomfort, who desires to move forward.

To end off, the next thing it is important to do is screen shot all communications (date & time stamped). This is proof, which you may bring to trial, should the person not cease-and-desist in their inappropriate behavior.

Harassment is a very uncomfortable thing to deal with, and it is even more upsetting if you feel ill-equipped to deal with it. I hope that you feel you have a big sister to turn to, because that is why I write so openly about things i’m expected to whisper about.

Let me know in the comments what topics you’d like advice on and I’ll do my best to answer them, or find someone who can. Let’s break the cycle of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment, so that it’s not an issue the generation after us has to encounter in their personal and professional spaces.

About the Author

Emma Farquharson

Emma has staged two successful shows at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival: “Opera Found” (2017 – Standard Bank Encore Ovation Award) and “A Feather on the Breath of God” (2018 – Arena Production). “Opera Found” has subsequently toured in Port Alfred and KZN. The latter is a concert she considers to be the most important of her young career, having showcased ten female composers, spanning 700 years. She was honored to work with American-born Cellist, Caleb Vaughn-Jones, as well as local pianist Nina van Schoor. This “electric performer” (Bullis & Ross) can be booked to perform for most occasions.

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