Monthly Archives: December 2011

University of Michigan College of Engineering Dean David Munson on Cyberstalking on Campus

The Robert H. Lurie tower, University of Michigan College of Engineering campus. Photo via Khürt Williams/Flickr/CC.

Following the publication of my last blog post on Gizmodo yesterday, I received a lot of comments from women and men who said they had experienced cyberstalking situations similar to mine, some not as bad and some far worse.

So I decided to email the Dean of my alma mater’s College of Engineering this FYI:

Dear Dean Munson,

I attended the College of Engineering from 2004-2006 and ended up transferring to LS&A. I thought you may be interested as to why. I recently published this article on Gizmodo about an experience with cyber stalking that I unfortunately had my freshman year, and I thought you may be interested to know this kind of thing is happening on your campus, and how it affects the targets. I strongly feel that incidents like this are one cause of the enormous gender disparity that exists within the engineering school. I hope you find some value to this, and please feel free to contact me if you would like advice on ways the college could do more to stop harassment against women.

http://gizmodo.com/5867785/my-first-cyberstalker

Best,

Arikia Millikan

I was surprised to receive the following response about four hours later:

Erika,
  I am sorry to hear about your experience.  Actually, this is the first such experience I’ve heard of in Engineering at U-M.  Although I think that cyberstalking is a really bad thing, I have to disagree with your conclusion that incidents like yours “cause the enormous gender disparity that exists within the engineering school.”  Our problem regarding gender is that not enough women students from high school apply to study engineering in the first place.  This is true nationwide.  At U-M, our retention rates for women and men students in engineering are nearly the same.  So, once a woman enters CoE, she is very likely to stay and complete an engineering degree.
   Thank you for sharing your story.  I meet with undergraduates often in CoE (including lots of women) and I will be on the alert for the type of misbehavior you endured.
–David Munson

Today I sent my reply:

Dean Munson, thank you for your prompt response.

With all due respect though, sir, why would you have heard about such an experience before? When I went to DPS, I was told nothing could be done and was dismissed. With such an “oh well, deal with it” response to my — and any woman in a similar position’s — first impulse in seeking intervention regarding such a matter, why then would a student take the issue up with the dean? When I was a freshman, I never realized that was an appropriate plan of action or even an option. In fact, I never received any kind of notice of a campus resource for addressing instances of harassment in the College Engineering — information that is readily distributed in LS&A. While you are on the alert for this kind of misconduct in the future, I would urge you to also have conversations with the north campus Department of Public Safety in addition to female students. Perhaps they could provide you with statistics about how much this kind of incident is reported so that, rather than citing a lack of anecdotal evidence as evidence that something isn’t occurring, you could cite hard information.

To clarify, I didn’t say incidents like my specific stalking incident cause the gender disparity. I said that incidents like mine (which if you read or even skimmed the essay to the point where I explain why I dropped out you would understand was a reference to the persistent sexual objectification from male students and even once a professor I endured) are *one* of the many reasons I *believe* contribute to the gender disparity. For you to tell me that it’s not is, frankly, offensive. Furthermore, noting that the retention rates are nearly the same for men and women says nothing about the causes of the dropping out. I would be willing to bet that the breakdown of dropout causes are very different for women than what they are for men.

The problem that you cite as being the reason for gender disparity in the College of Engineering — that female high schoolers do not apply to engineering school — is a problem that is often caused by the same factor I cited in my essay that you dismissed: sexism. Unless you think that women are not inherently as good in science and math as men are, in which case I’d urge you to remember the Larry Summers incident, explore and the volumes of research that indicate the contrary, and revisit this hypothesis.

Thank you again for your response. In addition to my own experience in the University of Michigan College of Engineering, I now understand an additional factor that sustains the gender imbalance on your campus: your denialism. Thank you also for making me the most happy I have ever been that I did not pursue a career in engineering.

Regards,

ARIKIA

(not Erika)

I also sent it to Kelley Adams, my college friend I reference briefly in the story who is now a Project Manager at MIT’s Violence Prevention Response Center. She linked me to the CDC’s recently-released findings from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) which contains statistics on many different forms of violence, including stalking.

From the report’s Executive Summary:

Stalking Victimization by Any Perpetrator

  • One in 6 women (16.2%) and 1 in 19 men (5.2%) in the United States have experienced stalking victimization at some point during their lifetime in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
  • Two-thirds (66.2%) of female victims of stalking were stalked by a current or former intimate partner; men were primarily stalked by an intimate partner or an acquaintance, 41.4% and 40.0%, respectively.
  • Repeatedly receiving unwanted telephone calls, voice, or text messages was the most commonly experienced stalking tactic for both female and male victims of stalking (78.8% for women and 75.9% for men).
  • More than half of female victims and more than one-third of male victims of stalking indicated that they were stalked before the age of 25; about 1 in 5 female victims and 1 in 14 male victims experienced stalking between the ages of 11 and 17.

Thanks for the stats, Kelley. Hopefully when the University’s PR team finds this via Google Alert, they’ll be nice enough to forward this to Dean Munson so he can consider it while he is on the alert.

My First Cyber Stalker

I was cyber stalked my freshman year of college.

It was 2004 and I’d just started engineering school at the University of Michigan. I’ve never been limited by social conventions in terms of who I befriend, and I would go out to parties, flirt with guys, and carry on. It was the first time in life I had a chance to date, since I wasn’t allowed to growing up with my mom, and it was the first time I had my own computer and free reign over the internet, since I wasn’t allowed to use it outside of school research all through high school. It was my first taste of freedom.

So when I walked into the first day of biomedical engineering class and saw Andy, my little heart went aflutter. He was everything I ever wanted in a guy. He had spiky black hair and facial hair and was wearing a t-shirt featuring some band I’d never heard of. And he spoke, the first day of class. He answered a question that our professor, the ever-intimidating inventor of the multi-channel MRI RF coil and the corresponding fast imaging SENSE algorithm, asked us all, and he got it right. I was in awe.

Then one day, I was smoking a cigarette after a chemistry exam, and I struck up a conversation with these two guys, bonding over the intensity of it all. We all lived on North Campus, where the university exiles the engineers to slave away in silence, so we rode the bus back together, discussing the exam. I had never taken a harder exam, but they weren’t even doubtful. They were perfect study buddies, I decided, and the deal was sealed when I ran into them smoking outside the cafeteria a few days later. From then on Billy, Aman and I were friends.

Much to my surprise did I discover that Aman shared a room with Andy, and Billy lived across the hall. It was the trifecta of intense boys. I would go over to do homework with Billy and Aman, or pretend to do homework and drink Johnny Walker and play video games instead. We got to be rivalrous comrades, especially when Kelley, an emerging feminist from Bangkok who listened to hardcore music and lived upstairs, was involved in the discussions. But Andy remained a mysterious wall. I would try to make conversation, and he would shy away from me in a polite but gruff manner and go off to study alone. For someone so manly-looking and smart, I was baffled to find he was a total introvert outside of class. Combined with how nervous and awkward I probably acted around him, Andy and I were always outside of the realm of meaningful communication.

Once we may have connected over politics though. He was a total lefty and was always watching the Daily Show with John Stewart. In November, we all gathered there to watch the election that sealed another four years of this country’s decline. We were all devastated after, Andy the most, I think. I remember him going on a rant afterwards about how the government would drill all of the oil out of Alaska leaving a big hole, then take all the minorities in the country, push them in, bury them, and put an American flag on top. This was more than I’d ever heard him say. I was in a state of repulsed shock as well, which probably enabled me to snap out of my Andy-fog and say something intelligent around him for a change. I went home and furiously wrote in my journal about all the signs I thought I could tell he might be giving me, and how in love with him I was.

The next day, I got an instant message from someone with the screen name HowCouldBushWin. It was the point in history when AIM was just about to cease being the go-to service for instant messaging, before g-talk came along. If you had your screenname posted on MySpace, you might occasionally get random IMs from lonely guys in their parents basements, who you could quickly weed out. But the facebook had just launched that summer, providing new access for college students curious about their peers.

HowCouldBushWin began chatting me up about the election, and what bullshit it was. I responded at first, waiting for them to reveal who they were. I asked, and they asked me back another question, changing the subject and engaging me. Drawing me into conversation. Whatever, I have to go, I typed, and went on with my plans that night.

That evening when I came back online, I had a message waiting. A link to a funny picture. I smiled and went to sleep.

The next day after class, another message. I replied, assuming it was one of my friends, Billy or Aman, or maybe both, assuming they would reveal their identity momentarily. But the conversation drew on and on. He flattered me with attention asking me endless questions and attempting to intellectually engage me. It was obviously someone who wanted to know me more, who was too shy to approach me in real life. Or maybe they did approach me, daily even, but wanted to know a different side of me. I liked the attention.

I tried to get him to tell me where he knew me from, but he would evade everything while comforting me at the same time. I could tell he was having fun as I made gambles about who it was. Really funny, Billy. Are we still studying later? He let me believe I’d solved the mystery as I went through the list of likely pranksters, but only momentarily. Then he’d taunt me while, at the same time, flattering me with more attention and assurance that I’d be happy when I found out.

This was stupid, I decided. I didn’t have time for it, I had to study. In what I hoped was a last ditch effort, I bargained with him that I would invite him to my birthday party if he would come and reveal himself. I went to my party that night hoping to meet the man of my dreams, who was smart and political and shy despite a tough exterior. And most of all, I was hoping it would be Andy.

Andy never came, and nobody ever revealed themselves to me. But the next afternoon as soon as I got online, an IM window popped up. It was HowCouldBushWin telling me how great I looked at the party last night. I told him he was lying, that he didn’t go, and that he was nobody I knew — that he was probably just some internet weirdo who found me on MySpace and didn’t even really know me.

Then how could I know what you were wearing last night?  he asked. It was like that scene in Scream where Drew Barrymore thinks the phone stalker is fucking around, but then he says he’s on her front porch and the screen pans out around her shocked face.

I told him to go away, that I was hoping it was someone who I wanted it to be, and it clearly wasn’t, so I was done with this game. No wait, I’ll tell you who I am, he pleaded. That’s what drove everything that happened subsequently. I needed to know. The promise of finding out if I just engaged in conversation for a little bit longer outweighed the logic telling me to sign off.

And I didn’t want to sign off. It was my internet. My playground and work space. I needed to be on there. But every time I signed on, he would message me, saying he was finally ready to tell me who he was.

Eventually he let a detail escape him that allowed me to conclude that he was in Engineering school with me. He told me he liked my Radiohead shirt, but it was a shirt I borrowed from my roommate and only wore to class once, no where else.

In lectures, I examined every male skeptically. I tried to concentrate while I was discretely surveying the room, watching to catch anyone who stared at me a bit too long or looked at me funny. HowCouldBushWin told me he was going to give me a signal in class that day, so I would know for sure. Of course, I never saw a signal, and I was left feeling frustrated and unnerved that someone was watching me and I had no idea who. Later, he told me he did it when he thought I was looking. It was right in front of my face, and I must not have seen him.

I blocked HowCouldBushWin. I’d had enough. Game over. I was able to feel relief for a night, thinking that I could start putting this behind me, accepting that I may never know.

The next night, HowDidBushWin messaged me.

HowDidBushWin: TALK TO ME AND I’LL TELL YOU WHO I AM

Me: ok

HowDidBushWin: SEE I KNEW I COULD GET YOU TO TALK TO ME

Me: who are you?

HowDidBushWin: IT DOESN’T COME THAT SIMPLE

The conversation went on for hours and involved me breaking down into desperation. Eventually I blocked that screen name too. He made more.

HowdBushyDoIt

Blocked.

Conan4Pres

Andy liked Conan. Was there any way? No. I had to ignore his bait. He was feeding me hope that he was the person I wanted him to be, because he wanted to be someone I wanted.

It wasn’t, but it had to be someone I knew. Was it the man trifecta’s guy groupie who I didn’t get along with? The acid head serial gamer next door who was always playing an MMORPG with massive headphones? Their other roommate, the famously cool midget who rode around campus on a scooter? The senior in CS downstairs who taught me the meaning of trolling and tried to get me into S&M porn? The super shy, geeky guy in my chemistry class who kept inviting me to participate in clubs and stuff but I never went? The guy I met at a Halloween party and had a moment with who now was trying to date me?

It could have been any of them. Or, it could have been a completely random person who I’d never even spoken with before, who found my screen name on the facebook. I had no way of knowing for sure. Meanwhile, my stalker did not relent.

icanmakemoreforu: You’ll be sad that you never know who I am

Blocked.

talktomearikia: Please. Come on, I’ll be nice.

Blocked.

pleasearikia: I’d give you what you wanted eventually.

pleasearikia: talk to me :(

pleasearikia: I’ll write you a haiku, about you, if you talk.

pleasearikia: I’ll do anything. Right now. One time offer. 5 mins.

pleasearikia: you’re making me crazy

pleasearikia: i’m spazzing out

pleasearikia: are you happy now?

I got sucked into the debate once again. He told me now after how inappropriate his messaging had been, he was afraid to tell me because I would hate him forever, whereas if he didn’t tell me, he might be able to still interact with me in person without me knowing. I tried to convince him otherwise, because I needed to know. But he didn’t give in, so I blocked him again.

My class attendance declined. I couldn’t concentrate, so there was no point.

By that time I’d told some of my friends about it. Some were concerned, and tried IMing the stalker themselves to pull his identity out of him. It didn’t work, and he just got mad at me. He began to become verbally abusive in his messages. Following it up with an apology, and please don’t block me again, I’ll tell you. I would try new tactics of interrogation with him. Everything I could think of. I offered to meet him anywhere. He entertained the idea but refused. So I blocked him again, but he would spawn back up with a new screen name the next day.

stalkerdearest: why did you ignore me and make me go through all those names?

He told me what kind of late night sandwich I would always order.

That’s when I went to the police. I printed out all the conversations I’d been saving since my Drew Barrymore moment, took them to campus security, and told them I was being harassed and to do something to make it stop. I think they thought it was funny. Since he hadn’t actually threatened to physically harm me, they couldn’t do anything. They certainly couldn’t track his IP, though they said it was because they didn’t know how, which I believed.

I couldn’t sign online without a new message box popping up. I was furious. I needed to be there. I needed to talk to my friends and to virtually study. I was becoming a nervous wreck. I hadn’t been to class in weeks because I would distract myself by going out drinking with friends, to escape my computer and my stalker.

My friends were worried. I stopped entertaining the idea of dating, because I was skeptical that anyone who wanted to get to know me was this person.

My stalker told me he would admit it was him if I asked him in person. So I confronted people who I thought it might be, which is of course a really offensive thing to be confronted with. “Am I cyber stalking you? Are you serious?” Desperate to cover all bases and resolve the mystery for good, I  asked Andy about it after class one day. I explained what had been going on. “That sucks,” he said sympathetically. Finally I blurted out that if it was him, he could tell me, because I understood why he would do that. He practically laughed in my face. No, of course it wasn’t him. Then I backpedaled by saying I thought it might be his roommate, the midget, and he got really pissed off that I would think that. That was me officially blowing it with him. It was probably the most embarrassment I’d ever felt in my life at the time.

I went home to another message from a new user on my screen.

The stalker wanted to make a deal. If I told him who I thought he was, he would tell me who he was. I wouldn’t. You’re just being stubborn because you’re afraid of being wrong, he accused.

Blocked.

onemorestubborn

Blocked.

In the end he made 18 total screen names and I blocked them all. I changed the settings on my AIM account so that nobody who wasn’t pre-approved on my list could contact me. I felt defeated. I hated it that I had to sacrifice potential approaches from decent human beings and close myself off online because some lame guy couldn’t control his impulses online.

I eventually ended up dropping out of engineering school and matriculating to the Literature, Science & Arts college. It wasn’t just because of the stalker, but that happened so early in my college career that it set the tone for my whole experience there, and the tone of my GPA. I was in the 20% female minority there, surrounded by guys who were always giving me unwanted attention. I was skeptical of them all. Then I got it from one of my professors too, and I just decided that engineering wasn’t where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be in an environment where the few women were objectified by the sex-starved majority of men. And all that locking myself away studying wasn’t really my thing anyway. I’m a social animal.

I never found out who it was, but I still idly run the possibilities in my head sometimes, coming up with nothing again every time.

It was like being mentally raped. It marred the start of my college experience. I bounced back, obviously. Because that’s what I do. But even now, when someone contacts me anonymously and carries the joke on for longer than a minute, I start to panic.

That’s why when someone messaged me anonymously four days ago by posting this via formspring, I felt like Julie in I Know What You Did Last Summer when she got that note. Mine read:

I think you were in love with me, but never admitted it for obvious reasons – the first being that I had a girlfriend. But, I’m single now.

I initially got the same hopeful excitement that I did with my first college stalker. I wanted badly for it to be someone who I did fall in love with. I’ve been lonely lately, and I’ve encountered some people along my post-college journey that I’ve been holding out hope for. At the same time I worried it would be another stalker who would never admit his identity, especially after a few exchanges that were unsuccessful in figuring it out. I decided I wasn’t going to make the same mistake in confronting people who I thought it was. I entertained this person’s anonymous messages strategically for four days. I was going to smoke this person out by being smarter this time.

And I did. And it turned out to be a really sick joke.

I hope who did that realizes how hurtful what they did was to me, and that anyone else who may be reading this thinks twice about engaging in anonymous stalking behaviors.