Gym Provides No Refuge From Prying Eyes

By Laurel Dalrymple
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

After I was chased around a neighborhood park one morning during my workout by an insistent man who claimed he "just wanted to talk," I decided to join a gym for my personal safety and peace of mind.

At first I enjoyed the comfort of my health club because I felt the presence of other people shielded me from such unexpected and unwanted encounters. Alas, strange people are everywhere, and soon I felt threatened even there. Somehow, though I had diligently kept to myself, I had incurred a gym stalker.

Within weeks of my noticing him, I felt this person had memorized my routine. He seemed to follow me around like a bad virus. If I hopped on the treadmill, he used the adjacent machine. If I lifted weights, he lifted weights nearby. During my weekly exercise class, he planted himself by the studio window and stared creepily at my squats, inner-thigh lifts and lunges for an entire hour.

I tried to avoid him. I wouldn't look him in the eye, walked briskly past him and even varied the time of day I worked out. At one point I got so annoyed while on the treadmill that I made a big show of sighing loudly and huffily switching to a machine across the room. He didn't follow me, but he still showed up the next day, right on cue. He'd never spoken to me or touched me in any way. He just . . . lurked. Is lurking illegal? I wasn't sure. I didn't know where to draw the line between creep and criminal. It was also possible, I thought, that he was neither. Perhaps he was a socially clumsy man who truly meant no harm.

My husband offered to come to the gym and talk to him, but I felt that would have been a more explicit response than the situation merited -- and it could have made me feel even more awkward later when my husband wasn't there. I did not want to deal alone with any fallout from a confrontation.

Friends urged me to report the man to gym management, but if I were overreacting and the managers revoked his membership, I would have felt guilty about inviting clear punishment on a nebulous crime.

I could never quite shake the feeling that I was imagining things. But that feeling reflects the power the stalker wields: He gains control not only over your physical activities but also over your imagination.

I chose instead to continue to focus on my negative body language, hoping it would make him go away.

After a few months, it did. First, he gave up watching my exercise class. Then he abandoned the synchronized weight lifting, and finally the tandem treadmilling. We still pass each other in the hall every now and then, but I stare straight ahead and walk as confidently as possible. I resent him, though, for making my workout -- my haven for stress reduction -- a source of stress. And I hated having to alter my busy schedule just to avoid him. As a paying member of the gym, I feel entitled to work out without being ogled or intimidated.

Even though my stalker's behavior abated, I sometimes second-guess the way I handled the situation. Would a more direct approach have saved me months of unease? I find it odd, even embarrassing, that someone like myself -- a successful, intelligent woman -- could be so easily intimidated by a stranger.

That prompted me to do more research. I called up the Web site for the National Center for Victims of Crime ( http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc), which defines stalking as a "course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear." Was I afraid? I believe I was. That's why I scanned the parking lot whenever I arrived and never parked near the car I'd once seen him driving; it's why I had memorized his license plate number; and why I always looked over my shoulder as I entered and left the gym. These actions practically became unconscious as time wore on. I wish I had looked up the definition earlier; it would have reassured me that I had good reason for acting the way I did.

Then I asked Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center, which is part of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, how to deal with a gym stalker.

"Typically we advise victims not to confront stalkers," Garcia said. "Although statistics are murky, victims say that a health club is one of the places they are stalked. Gyms are reluctant to report the behavior. But if you tell management, they'll be aware of your need for safety and can keep an eye out. They can provide one more safety mechanism."

I wondered how gyms do handle such situations, so I asked Dave Reisman, spokesman for one of the Washington area's biggest health club chains, Gold's Gym International, about its policy. "Depending on the type of behavior the member was reporting, we would take things on a case-by-case basis," he said. "We would either approach the person in question and ask him to stop or risk having his membership terminated. But if one of our members felt seriously threatened, we would call the police."

Garcia points out that a policy to report incidents to the police should be made known to members. "The victim might choose to go to police directly," Garcia said, "or might choose not to report at all. But the victim needs to know in order to do safety planning, because stalking can escalate after being reported."

That being said, I feel my nonaggressive strategy was the right course for me, especially since my stalker's behavior wasn't flagrant. My approach proved time-consuming but ultimately successful. If I had reported my stalker to the gym's administrators and they said they intended to call the police, I think I would have withdrawn my complaint. I would have felt uneasy about filing a police report based on my evidence, which was basically a man who leered. And I would have been afraid of making things worse. But another woman may have chosen a different path that felt more comfortable for her.

The complexity of a stalking situation makes it difficult to determine the "right" way to solve it. So much is involved: the feelings of the victim, the intentions of the stalker, the type of behavior that occurs, and laws and policies that could never perfectly address every incident. But it is never wrong to listen to your gut instincts.

If you feel you are being stalked, follow the advice offered by the National Center for Victims of Crime: Take a careful survey of your situation. Be vigilant of your actions and the actions of your stalker. Be aware of your surroundings at all times, and don't feel stupid about looking over your shoulder or taking the long way just because it is well-traveled. Vary your routines. Keep a written log of any frightening behavior. Ask your friends and family what they think. The more you observe and record all of the dynamics involved, the better idea you'll have about what to do. ยท

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