I used to be less paranoid than most women about revealing personal information. My phone number, for instance, has always been listed, although editors trying to reach me never seem to realize this. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have given my 16-year-old daughter a different first name– to use for credit cards and such when she’s an adult– and made the one that people know her by her middle name. I’ve also told her never to subscribe to magazines under her real name: use some variant that will still let the mailman know he’s got the right person– like Jeannette Browning instead of Jean Brown, for instance.
I’ve begun that precaution with my own subscriptions. Because with online peoplefinder services now, all you need know about someone in the United States is her first and last name and you can find out exactly where she lives with just a few mouse clicks. A new one, Zabasearch, even offers this for free (instead of the usual $10 or $12), as a loss leader for their more expensive background searches. (You can also use these databases to find out how old your friends and aquaintances really are– a fairly entertaining pastime.)
Think this is a problem only for celebrities? One in 12 women has been stalked at some point in her life. As I wrote last month in my National Review Online column about the subject:
A few years ago in New Hampshire, a man obsessed with a former high-school classmate named Amy Boyer bought her address from a company called Docusearch, tracked her down, and killed her.
Deranged stalkers and Gladys-Kravitz-type busybodies used to have to actually leave the house and trek downtown to government record offices if they wanted to snoop. Not any more. I keep waiting for some creative marketing type at one of these online databases to start throwing in a copy of “Catcher In the Rye” free with every purchase.
But celebrities, of course, are what gives the topic star power. L.A. prosecutor Rhonda Saunders, who helped write the nation’s first anti-stalking law, is best known for convicting the stalkers of Madonna, Steven Spielberg and Gwyneth Paltrow, among others. But, as she noted at a press conference for her new Court TV special (“Stalkers in the Shadows,” premiering Sept. 8), most of the cases she handles involve ordinary women stalked at home, work or school.
Online databases have made the situation worse, she said when I asked about it: “We had a victim, and her stalker was about to get out of prison, and we wanted to know how much info was out there, so we actually paid the $25 fee to go on one of these search engines. She had changed her name, changed her address, changed her job, and this search engine turned up her new name, Social Security number, unlisted phone number, where she lived, the names of her neighbors and the names of her family members. So these search engines are extremely dangerous and stalkers are beginning to learn about them.”
“There was some effort, federally, to make these types of things illegal and it just didn’t go through because of constitutional issues,” Saunders added. “It’s something we have to deal with. If you have a magazine subscription, if you have property, if you own a car– all this information winds up on the Internet.”
Celebrity stalking is what usually gets the most attention, and the four actresses with Saunders at the Court TV press conference all had dramatic tales to tell. Tori Spelling, who’s had such problems with obsessed fans that she still lives in an apartment with a doorman even though she’d love to have a house, once came home to find a stalker had gotten himself hired at her building. Model Rachel Hunter found boxes of pictures of herself with “Lucifer” written over them. Ali Landry, of UPN’s “Eve,” got letters from a prisoner about to be released describing how he wanted to kill someone in his family– and tell her all about it– as soon as he got out. Lisa Rinna kept getting violent letters from a fan when she was on “Days of Our Lives.”
Rinna and Landry added that they both called security expert Gavin de Becker, well known for his work with celebrity stalkers, to handle their situations. As it happens, I’ve interviewed de Becker, author of the bestseller “The Gift of Fear” and other books, and have noticed he’s refreshingly impatient with men who pooh-pooh women’s experience of being bothered by strangers. Reading in his books about how to keep teenage girls safe from unwanted attention, I thought of things I hadn’t in years. How my sister and I used to be regularly asked by strange men if we were twins, for instance, which of course insulted both of us.
De Becker told me that at one group he addressed, a man complained that he was in an ice-cream shop, “and there were these two teenage girls who looked like sisters, but I wasn’t sure, and because I read your book I didn’t feel I could ask them if they were sisters.” Perhaps the man was expecting to be assured that friendly small-talk was OK. Instead, de Becker told me, he responded sharply: “Why should a 50-year-old man be asking teenage girls these personal questions? Do they have some duty to reveal their lineage to you?”
Although many of his views — that battered women do have a choice to leave, that murderers are created by abusive or neglectful parents — go against the grain of our Don’t Blame the Victim society, none, de Becker says, has been more controversial than his simple insistance that women do not have to be nice – that they have, in fact, the right to be rude.
Reader’s Digest infuriated de Becker a few years ago by suggesting changes to make an excerpt from “The Gift of Fear” nicer. De Becker’s big point that a woman being pressured to accept unasked for help (such as a stranger who offers to carry her groceries) should say, loud and clear, “No!” made them uneasy. “We asked a lot of psychologists,” the Digest editor said, “and they said, ‘Soften it, accept a little help.”
I wish the feminist establishment would make protecting women from stalkers one of their pet causes (and be as realistic as Gavin de Becker), especially now that the Internet has made stalking so much easier. But they sometimes dislike acknowledging that young attractive women are the main targets. “Eight-month-old babies and 80-year-old women get raped,” is the approved feminist line. This is true, they do; but these situations are freakishly horrible rather than horribly common.
Once I found myself at lunch with a couple of women journalists my age who kept insisting that (a) rape is purely a crime of violence, NOT sex, and (b) since I’d written for Penthouse, I was part of the problem, because pornography contributes to a rape culture by sexually objectifying women. (My Penthouse articles, for the record, were strictly about non-porn Hollywood topics and could have run in any PG-rated publication.) The logical retort– that if rape is only a crime of violence, not sex, then what does sexually objectifying women have to do with rape?– only occurred to me once I was driving home.
I don’t think that all unwanted attention, even stalking, is a form of rape. But this stuff exists on a continuum, and just as hoots and catcalls taper off, it makes sense that rape and stalking do too. That’s why I’m more concerned now about people finding out where my daughter lives than me. I’ve gone to some trouble removing myself from the databases, but I’d prefer she never gets on them.
I used to resent the unwritten law, made clear to me practically every time I left the house, that nubile young women are not allowed to walk down the street without displaying a cheerfully vapid, “And Windy Has Wings to Fly” expression of sexual availability. “Smile!” men would demand if I dared appear lost in thought. “It can’t be that bad.” I don’t hear that anymore. I guess they figure it is that bad.