As a society, we are generally aware of the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence and have taken great strides in openly talking about these crimes. Stalking, however, is much less understood.
Criminologists are beginning to recognize the severity of this behavior and its impact on victims. Law enforcement officers are now trained to take stalking seriously, recognizing that it is not only a form of personal terrorism, but it also can be a precursor to intimate partner homicide.
Last winter, Friendship Center staff attended a conference where stalking was highlighted as a crime deserving more awareness and attention. The presenter told a harrowing story about a woman who had left an abusive relationship and moved away to an undisclosed location in hopes of starting her life over. One morning, she left for work as usual. She unlocked her car and slid into the driver’s seat but immediately felt that something was amiss. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. There, in the cup holder, was a steaming hot cup of Starbucks coffee, prepared just the way she liked it. Her abuser’s pet name for her was written on the side of the cup. She was absolutely terrified.
She understood, with crystal clear clarity, her abuser’s message to her: He knew where she lived, he knew her schedule, and he could still access her safe spaces without permission. And yet, she wondered how could she report this. What would it sound like to call 911 and say, “Someone left a hot cup of coffee with my name on it in my car?” Would they take her seriously? Her abuser had delivered a terrifying message that only she understood. And therein lies the challenge that victims of stalking face. Savvy abusers understand this and use stalking to wield power over their victims.
Thankfully, policy makers and law enforcement officers are becoming increasingly responsive on this issue. Studies show that 76% of femicide victims were stalked before being murdered. According to Stalking Prevention, Awareness, & Resource Center (SPARC), nearly one in three women and one in six men in the U.S. have experienced stalking at some point in their lifetime. SPARC also estimates that 13.5 million people nationwide are stalked each year. Across the nation, laws have been updated to provide higher penalties for stalking and work is being done to educate law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts on the need to hold stalkers accountable.
Generally defined as a pattern of behavior targeted at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear, context is critical when someone is being stalked. While it may seem innocent on the surface, stalking causes distress and fear for the person targeted by the actions. The difference between being harassed and being stalked is fear. If you ever don’t understand why something is scary to a victim, it’s always best to ask to learn more.
Intimate partners pose the greatest threats because they know their victims best—their schedule, their social network, their triggers, and how to upset them. Even if stalking did not occur as part of a domestic violence relationship, it will often occur once the relationship is over.
What’s more, stalking can be hugely disruptive to the victim’s life. The impacts can include mental health issues like depression, anxiety, insomnia, and social dysfunction. One in eight employed stalking victims lose time from work, and one in seven relocate to escape the reach of their stalker.
As with sexual assault, stalking is overwhelmingly committed by people known to their victims with 40% being current or former intimate partners (for comparison, just 19% of stalkers are strangers to their victims).
If you or someone you know is experiencing stalking, The Friendship Center is here to help. We trust you when you say you are afraid and need help. Visit our services page to learn more and get in touch with one of our advocates. We also know that most victims of stalking talk to a friend, family member, or someone else they know and trust about the situation before pursuing any sort of professional or legal help. If a victim talks to you, your response significantly impacts if they feel validated and/or seek help. We encourage you to check out SPARC’s resources for supporting friends and loved ones experiencing stalking.