Grand gestures by “lovesick” men to “win” back girlfriends aren’t romantic, they’re scary

It’s no coincidence stalking has such a low conviction rate when the behaviour associated with it is celebrated as romantic.

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On Friday, the Sun newspaper reported the case of a “lovesick” Dominos employee who, so desperate to “win” back his ex-girlfriend, had taken to camping out on her roof.

This isn’t the first of such cases. Last year, Bristol’s “Piano Man” caused a media frenzy when he announced his intention to play the piano non-stop in the city’s centre to persuade his ex to return to him (his efforts came to an abrupt end when an inebriated Bristolian punched him in the face). Then there was the case a few years back, of a man described as a “heartbroken” “gentle giant” who died after a heavy drinking session while camping outside his ex’s house.

From John Cusack with his ghetto blaster in Say Anything, to Mark’s obsessive filming of Keira Knightley in Love Actually, the image of the heartbroken man making grand gestures to win his damsel’s love has been repeatedly sold to us as romance. We are meant to feel sorry for their heartbreak, and judge the woman who caused it. We are expected to praise their persistence, and idealise their obsessive behaviour as romantic. In the face of such dedicated wooing, culture demands the woman admits her mistake in leaving her ex, and take him back with open arms.

In these situations, the man is presented as trying to “win” the woman back — but women aren’t prizes to win. There’s no romantic victory in bullying a woman to go out with you.

These so-called romantic grand gestures are steeped in a culture of male entitlement that refuses to recognise women as autonomous human beings. It positions women as the property of men, and denies our right to say no, to leave, to demand our own independence.

It’s telling how male-centric these narratives so often are. When the news reports another lovesick man, we are told about his emotional state. He’s heartbroken, he loves her, he’ll do anything — anything to get her back. He demands our pity, and in that pity is a judgement of the woman who left him. How can she be so cruel, as to cause a man such hurt? How can she be so wicked, as to refuse to accept his love?

Never do we hear about the woman’s feelings. We don’t hear how frightening it must be, to have a man drunk and camping outside your house, or sleeping on your roof. We don’t get to hear about how intimidating it must be, to have a man publicly shame you for leaving him.

Stalking is a serious crime and a terrifying experience. In the UK, one in six women are victims of stalking (a number the charity Paladin fears is a gross underestimate). Meanwhile, the conviction rate is a staggeringly low one per cent. Stalkers often graduate to physical violence the longer the abuse goes on for — in fact one in two stalkers act on a threat made.

It’s not a coincidence that stalking has such a low conviction rate, when the behaviour associated with the crime is celebrated in the media as romantic. If our cultural narratives sell harassment as romance, then abusive behaviour becomes normalised. This not only makes it harder for women to speak out and report, but it also makes it harder for her to be believed.

Further, the romantic framing of abusive actions is steeped in victim blaming. It presents any abusive behaviour as the woman’s fault for leaving her partner in the first place. After all, the story goes, if she just took him back, then he wouldn’t need to camp outside her house and harass her.

The Sun’s report came in the same week as the mass murder in Toronto by Alex Minassian. Before he drove a car into a crowded pedestrian area, killing 10 and injuring 14 more, Minassian reportedly wrote a Facebook post praising an ideology called “incel”, as well as one of its idols, mass-shooter Eliot Rodger.

Incels — or involuntary celibates — are men who believe they have been sexually rejected by women. Steeped in a culture of male entitlement, they view women as objects who should serve men domestically and sexually. Some advocate for a government-led girlfriend distribution programme.

Incels in Toronto might seem a long way from a Dominos employee camping on his girlfriend’s roof, but the roots of the problem are the same. Both incidents are caused by male entitlement to women’s bodies. Whether it’s misogynistic communities on the internet or piano playing in Bristol, both refuse to respect a woman’s right to say no. Both see women as objects to win, and treat a woman’s rejection of their advances as an injustice.

It’s time to challenge this culture of male entitlement wherever we find it. We have to stop perpetuating the narrative that men who refuse to respect a woman’s right to say no are “lovesick” “romantics”. We have to stop endorsing the view that women are objects for men to win, and instead call this stalkerish behaviour out for what it is.

Dominos Pizza Guy, the Sun, and everyone expressing support of him: every woman has a right to say no, has a right to leave, has a right to her own bodily autonomy. To suggest otherwise is not a love story. It’s a horror.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.