As Valentine's Day approaches, my heart always sinks slightly in anticipation of the sexist blunders the occasion tends to attract from retailers, advertisers and media. From the idea that it's every heterosexual man's responsibility to plan and control every element of the day to the stereotype of nagging, materialistic girlfriends, Valentine's is ripe with potential for misogyny.
The season also sees an uptick in entries to the Everyday Sexism Project. One student wrote that her school was throwing a suits and sluts party. Another young woman described how her 12-year old sister and a friend were approached by a much older man in a car asking who wanted to get in and be his Valentine.
Many women report inappropriate comments in the workplace, including one who described how the co-worker who had been persistently sexually harassing her used the occasion as an excuse to step up his campaign within the socially sanctioned "traditions" of the day. In fact, an alarming number of women who have reported experiences of stalking to the project have seen men using the excuse of Valentine's day to track them down, follow them home or send them anonymous messages, under the guise of "romance".
What makes things worse is that as a society we actively encourage and play into this idea of stalking as a romantic, or "dedicated" way for a man to pursue a woman who is not interested in him, or an acceptable way to demonstrate affection for a female family member.
Take the recent Hyundai advert screened during the Super Bowl, for example. It shows an overprotective dad using a tracking device to follow his daughter on a first date, allowing him to trail her everywhere she goes and to sporadically pop up and terrify her date into keeping his distance.
As several women pointed out, the advert presents the idea, in 2016, that a father has the right to police and control his daughter's bodily autonomy and her romantic and sexual choices – an absurd and regressive suggestion. But because it is disguised as an affectionate and protective stance, the sexism often goes unnoticed or is even actively celebrated.
Valentine's Day takes that acceptability of creepy behaviour to a whole new level, as tech journalist and Gadgette founder Holly Brockwell recently demonstrated when she tweeted a screenshot of a PR email she had received with a Valentine's day promotion for a tracking device. It read:
"Here are some fun ideas on how this gadget can be used on Valentine's Day too: All those lovelorn daters that are scared of being stood up and would like to check if their date isn't going somewhere else could discreetly attach it to their belongings and 'make sure' they went home using the app."
The email also suggested "accidentally on purpose" dropping the tracking device in a date's bag as an excuse to meet up with them again.
Quite apart from the chilling potential exploitation of such a device by controlling or abusive partners, the idea that secretly tracking a potential partner is funny and romantic is particularly problematic. Stalking, controlling and possessive behaviours are forms of abuse in their own right and also often form part of a wider pattern of domestic abuse.
In 2003, the Metropolitan Police Service found 40% of the victims of domestic homicides had also been stalked. And around 40% of people who contacted the National Stalking Helpline were being stalked by former intimate partners.
According to National Stalking Advocacy Service Paladin, one in five women and one in 10 men will experience stalking in their adult lives, a figure the charity suggests may be "grossly underestimated". In 2015, it was reported that charges handed out by UK police for stalking offences had risen by 33% since 2012.
Yet the topic continues to be used as fodder for jokey and "romantic" Valentine's Day merchandise, as a range of greetings cards currently on sale at online retailer Zazzle.co.uk demonstrates.
One has a poem in a red heart above a picture of a man looking through a pair of binoculars. The poem reads: "Somewhere there's someone, who dreams of your smile, and finds in your presence, that life is worthwhile. So, when you are lonely, remember it's true. Somewhere, a STALKER is thinking of you."
Other cards bear slogans including: "I'm watching you", "Watch your back", "I'm addicted to you", "I'm creepy and totally capable of finding you", and: "Stalking is when two people go for a long romantic walk together but only one of them knows about it."
There will, of course, be people who cry that this is just a bit of fun and that such jokes have no bearing on the real and serious crime of stalking. But social acceptability and normalisation have an enormous impact on both perpetrator and victim perceptions.
Joking about stalking and casting it in a positive light risks sending the message to perpetrators that it will be condoned or even supported, and making victims think they won't be taken seriously if they come forward. And while research still suggests victims do not tend to report what is happening to the police until the 100<sup>th incident, that normalisation matters very much indeed.
Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collated over 80,000 women's stories of harassment and discrimination at work and in everyday life.