On Saturday, the Bristol Post reported the story of how a 34-year-old man was intending to play one of the city’s public pianos in order to “win” back his ex girlfriend. Calling the woman who he’d been dating for four months “Rapunzel”, the stunt was intended to show off how much he loved her.
As is fairly typical in these kinds of stories, the Post branded the stunt as romantic, calling Luke Howard “heartbroken”, tagging his efforts as “dedication” in their tweet. However, in refusing to accept his ex girlfriend’s “no”, and by making a huge public statement demanding that she recognises his “love” for her, Howard’s behaviour is not romantic. It’s entitled – and it’s symptomatic of a wider problem of men’s harassment of their exes.
This is not the first time that women have been told to accept men not taking no for an answer as a romantic gesture. From John Cusack’s ghetto blaster in Say Anything… to the best man’s creepy filming of his friend’s bride in Love Actually, the ideal of a heartbroken man harassing the object of his affection has been sold to us as true love over and over again.
But there’s nothing romantic about refusing to accept that a woman has a right to leave you. It’s not a love story when a woman tells a man “no” and he demands she change it to a “yes”.
In fact, this attitude of male entitlement to women’s time, bodies and emotional energy can easily turn to violence.
A few weeks before Howard’s public demand that his ex return to him, another man refused to accept his ex had left him. His romantic gesture? A marriage proposal. When his offer was turned down, the so-called spurned lover punched his ex-girlfriend. That's not romance. That's not a heartbroken lover. That's a violent and entitled man.
This is just one example of men's refusal to respect a woman's decision to leave leading to physical violence. The most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is after she leaves – the time when she says no. Twice a week in the UK, violent male entitlement to women leads to murder.
When the media reports controlling and manipulative behaviours as ‘romantic’, it undermines much-needed efforts to tackle a violent crime
Men who try and coerce women into staying with them, who try to emotionally manipulate or violently threaten women into staying with them, are not romantic heroes in a love story – they are men who refuse to recognise that women are subjects. They refuse to respect that we have our own autonomous wants, desires and lives.; that we have our own voices with which we should be free to use to say no. Instead, these men see women as objects, demanding we subordinate our own wishes and instead fall in accord with their wants.
The media needs to stop reporting such incidents as romantic behaviour and call it what it is: stalking and harassment. A failure to do so risks normalising controlling attitudes and actions at a time when one in six women is a victim of the crime and the conviction rate is a staggeringly low one per cent.
Stalking and harassment cause real harm to women (80 per cent of victims are female, with 70 per cent of perpetrators male). As well as the huge amounts of emotional distress caused, the practical implications can force women from their jobs and their homes. A violent crime in itself, stalkers often graduate to more severe acts of physical violence against their victims. According to the charity Paladin, one in two domestic stalkers will act on a threat made.
A lot of vital work has been done to encourage the legal system and wider society to take stalking seriously and see it as the devastating crime it is. For too long, women reporting stalking have been failed by the police and, this year, the government introduced long-overdue measures to support women and convict their perpetrator.
When the media reports controlling and manipulative behaviours and stalking itself as “romantic”, it undermines these much-needed efforts to tackle a violent crime and end male entitlement. The more we paint this behaviour as normal, or justify them as the understandable actions of a lovelorn ex, the harder it is for women to report, be listened to, believed and taken seriously.
When Howard sat down at the piano and invited the media in to witness his heartbreak first-hand, he wasn’t sending a message of love to his ex. He was sending the message that he didn’t respect her decision to leave him. He was sending a message that women aren’t entitled to say no.