What To Do When Followed by an Unwelcomed Stranger?

The Little Black Dress Society - What to Do When Followed

Photo by Caleb George, CC via Unsplash


I lived in New York City for years without being attacked, but such a city requires women to sharpen their instincts—and to overcome any polite defaults when confronted by an act of injustice.

In my case, that meant developing a talent for firmly “talking down” aggressive strangers before their irrational tempers escalated to violence.

What a newbie New York resident quickly realizes is that someone who adheres to all the “right” safety precautions can still sometimes fall into intense situations. In my case, some of my most harrowing experiences—being robbed on a subway, for instance, or that time friends and I were cornered by an aggressive drunkard—occurred on the way to church.

At the same time, many scare-your-mother-but-not-necessarily-dangerous situations which cause any rational person to ask “Is it worth the risk?” actually are. When a friend going through hard times invites you to share a weekly meal at their apartment in upper Harlem, how can it be morally right to say, “No, I won’t join you because you live in a dangerous neighborhood”?

We, as women, are not called to live lives of fear. We are called to maintain the awareness of those fears which are integral to courageous living. I will never take back the memories of attending late-night potlucks at my friend’s house in upper Harlem. However, even though I encountered no threatening situations, I never should have adopted the habit of returning to the subway in the dark, alone. In such instances, the question transforms from “Is it worth the risk?” to “Will it always be worth the risk every time?”

For better or for worse, I have been followed by unwelcomed men on a number of occasions, but always somehow came out on top. Read onward to learn what to do when followed by a possible stalker.

Don’t wait for danger before brainstorming escape routes. Drill yourself when 100% safe.

You’ve probably completed regular fire drills, tornado drills, and burglary drills for as long as you can remember. But when was the last time you drilled yourself for a situation in which a stranger is threatening your personal safety?

I am not saying you should adopt a spirit of paranoia or fear. Instead, I’m advocating a spirit of preparation. While walking down a sidewalk, drill yourself. If someone started following you that moment, what would you do? How much evidence would you need in order to do it? Could that point of decision arrive too late? How would you stay calm should an uncomfortable situation later that same day?

Remember that your main objective is NOT to beat up a bad guy. It’s to escape.

This is, by far, the most significant key to averting a crisis. Whether you just notice the sound of footsteps behind you at a distance, someone is growing uncomfortably close, or you just feel a prickling on the back of your neck, you have at any given moment three weapons at your disposal—your feet, to create distance; your voice, to attract attention; and above all, your brain.

Don’t waste time trying to evaluate whether a follower is a threat. If you are being followed,  go on alert as if the follower was undeniably a threat.

It doesn’t matter whether a follower strikes you as a harmless heckler or an obvious menace. Good people don’t follow.

If you are in a secluded area, immediately make way for an area with more people.

If you are being tailed while driving, don’t park anywhere before you reach a police station, fire house, or other location where you can park directly beside a police car.

The second you feel nervous, sing at the top of your lungs.

Or start twitching.

Or both.

The singing trick aided me in countless situations. It was simple. At any hour, on any sidewalk, I would sing on the top of my lungs. Annoying or not, this practice 1) calmed me, 2) drew enough attention from other pedestrians that it seemed to make me a less appealing target than when I was quiet, and 3) my volcacords were primed to scream.

Alternatively, you could follow a trick advocated by several of savviest New York native friends. Ready? Here you go: start twitching.

You heard that right. The moment you sense trouble, start twitching as visibly and bizarrely as possible. It apparently creeps out would-be followers, causing one to seem intimidating without any actual fighting at all.

If you are in a public location, don’t underestimate the goodness of the people around you.

When I lived next door to a soup kitchen, a homeless man stood up for me, forcing an unsavory individual to back down.

When a menacing individual ordered my friend to give up one of her children, she claimed that her husband was up ahead, swiftly walked over to the first man she saw, summed up the situation, and asked if he would be willing to pass off as her husband until police could arrive. He agreed.

Don’t let the question “Am I overreacting?” keep you from reaching out to someone standing or walking near you. Knights in shining armor might belong in fairy tales, but when given the smallest opportunity, most men and women will try to help you, displaying acts of courage worthy of any knight.

Don’t be distracted by your phone.

A cell phone can feel like a lifeline, but that sense of safety is often an illusion. The fact that you are speaking with a loved one might make some pursuers hesitate, but many more will take their chances. If you are not too far from others, prioritize finding an ally in person.

If you are in an isolated location, do not under any condition stop for small talk. Keep walking, start twitching, (and in this case, DO find your phone).

But what if you are in a location that is truly isolated—a place where no one could possibly help?

Do not talk with your follower. That just provides an opportunity for him to invade your space.

Do not slow down. In this instance, you need space.

Twitch. Remember the technique mentioned earlier? Twitching can make you appear threatening and discourage your pursuer, but still focus on speed. You need to reach a public area ASAP.

Also, this is a scenario in which 9-1-1 is the best possible option. If you can access your phone without breaking stride, do so.

But what if . . . ?

There is no way to either mentally or physically prepare for every scenario. However, mentally rehearsing escape plans is a strong way to start.

The Little Black Dress Society

The Little Black Dress Society seeks to serve women and children who are victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Abusive relationships can be far, far more sinister than the sound of footsteps behind you on a deserted road, because many forms of abuse are not easy to recognize. Don’t hesitate to review these resources regarding sexual abuse and domestic violence, or contact the Little Black Dress Society with any questions you may have.

Today’s post focused on escaping a follower—essentially, utilizing your “flight” response. For situations in which you have no choice but to fight, take a look at the post here.

Together, may we remove the masks of abuse.

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