So, I mentioned that the title of this blog is a pun on my name. And that is exactly why I almost didn’t use that title.
Having a “net presence” as a woman leads you straight onto the double-standard tightrope. Especially if you have work you want people to see – you want your name out there, you want them to know it’s you who did it, you want them to find you. But if they can find you by name….sometimes they can find you for real. And you don’t always want to know what will happen if they find you.
And sometimes it’s all too easy for someone to find you. About a year ago, I got a call one Saturday morning from a man I’d never met, who first apologized for the interruption, but…he’d seen my online dating profile, and wanted to ask me out directly. I’m sure he thought it was a sweet and charming romantic-comedy thing, but I was more alarmed – how had he gotten my home phone number? Turns out what he’d done was:
- He took note of the handle I used on an online personals site, and Googled that handle.
- He read whatever he could find about me under that handle, looking for a place where I maybe slipped up and used my real name. He found one, in a fanfiction site where I didn’t know my real name was visible.
- He paid a public-records lookup service to get my home phone number and address.
…And he didn’t understand why this was a totally creepy thing for a man to do to a woman whom he’d never met before in his life, especially since there was a way to contact me directly through the damn personals site. I told him – at length – exactly why this was a profoundly misguided thing for him to do, and after we hung up I spent the rest of the day consulting with techie friends about how to stop further such searches. (It’s possible, fortunately – it just involves a lot of strongly-worded letters to a lot of nebulous companies.)
I’ve mentioned this in a lot of other discussions online about gender where people don’t always get why I was so alarmed and think I should have cut the guy some slack. He was just trying to ask me out, they say. Okay, maybe he was awkward about it, but not everyone has been properly socialized, and couldn’t I have just been nice instead of reading him a riot act? Or hell, maybe gone out on one date with him? What would it have killed me? And so what if my name’s out there?
And that’s when I tell the other story.
About six years ago, I got another call one early evening when I was home alone. A calm male voice recited my name and asked if that was me. Caught off guard, I said yes. He recited my address and asked to confirm that was correct. I did – if he had my name and full address, this must be legitimate, right?
“Okay,” he then said, in the same calm voice, “I need you to answer the following questions or else I am going to come over and rape and mutilate you. Do you understand?”
Okay, not so legitimate.
When I hesitated, he called me “bitch” and threatened to rape me if I didn’t comply. “Okay, yes, I will,” I said quickly.
Fortunately, working in theater for ten years has given me a really good instinct for coping in a crisis; it switched on full, and took over. It kept me calm – the whole time he was asking me questions about things like my hair color, my bra cup size, and my sexual preferences, the tone of voice I used was “mildly impatient,” as if he were a Gallup pollster who’d interrupted me in the middle of dinner. It also reminded me that giving fake answers may be wise. It also made me text my then-boyfriend, telling him “COME OVER I AM IN TROUBLE”, and then walk through the entire apartment, checking that all the doors and windows were securely locked. So by the time he finally asked the question “tell me how you think it would go if I were to come over and try to rape you right now,” I had the courage to say “well, I think if you did you’d find me and my boyfriend and my roommate waiting for you with her samurai sword that’s sharp enough to cut a dick off”, and then hang up and dial 911.
The only reason I am comfortable telling that story publically is because the police investigated and confirmed that the guy was calling from eight states away, and it is unlikely he would drive all that way just to come after me. I also still have the name of the detective assigned to my case – as soon as they heard he threatened me, Brooklyn’s SVU got really interested – and I stay on top of the public records search sites to get my address and phone number secured. (I just found a new site with my data on it, in fact, and have just Fedexed them the form asking them to cut that crap out.)
This is the kind of thing that makes a girl reluctant to use her real name online. And the hell of it is, I’m not the only one, and that isn’t even the worse story. Some women no doubt have been raped and mutilated by strangers. Others just get a constant stream of sexist abuse heaped upon them; some of it threats far worse than my phone friend issued against me.
The thing is, if you want public acknowledgement of your work, your name kind of has to be attached to it. And I’ve wondered if my reluctance to have my name out there has held me back. For a time, it was indeed wise, and understandable how uncomfortable I was given my past. But there’s something to be said for feeling that fear and getting my name out there anyway. Shortly after the obscene phone call, my then-boyfriend took a bit of a tough-love approach – he came to stay with me that night, but not the following one. He thought trying to reclaim my own strength was the best approach, and he was right; I may have been freaked out at first (“uh, did you miss where the guy said he wanted to rape me?”), but taking back control of my phone, my presence, and my apartment made the impact of that attack on me a lot less lasting.
So I can’t be afraid. I can take steps to protect myself, but I can’t – I shouldn’t – be too afraid to use my own name.
And that name is Wadsworth. And so I went ahead and named this WadsWords.