TFC’s own Jaime Gabrielli discusses the prevalence and seriousness of stalking, and what to know about this crime so we can all support survivors with care, confidentiality, and accurate information.
Stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person causing them fear for their physical or psychological safety. For very good reasons, stalking has been described by some experts as “homicide in slow motion.” This owes partly to a well-documented correlation between stalking and the risk of intimate partner homicide. But the comparison to homicide also refers to the way stalking can rob a survivor of their basic sense of life and autonomy.
Much like other forms of control, abuse, and intimidation, the seriousness of stalking is widely underestimated and misunderstood, thanks in no small part to the way it’s represented in our culture. In popular media, for example, stalking is portrayed casually—sometimes as a sign of harmless infatuation with, or deep affection for another person. In reality, stalking is extremely dangerous, and misattributing it to admiration or love obscures its defining characteristic: the terror and harm it causes victims.
With January being Stalking Awareness Month, we want to take the opportunity to highlight the signs, prevalence, and seriousness of stalking. To kick everything off, we’ve called upon one of our awesome advocates, Jaime Gabrielli, to talk us through key facts to know about this crime, how we can all support survivors, and what The Friendship Center can do to help those who experience stalking.
Prevalence and Tactics
It’s estimated that at least 13.5 million individuals in the U.S. are survivors of stalking every year. For perspective, that’s about double the population of Arizona. And most of those survivors are women. Like other interpersonal crimes (i.e., domestic violence, sexual assault), we know that stalking is underreported. That is notable because the data we do have suggests that stalking is widespread, and yet, it still probably represents an undercount of its prevalence.
In most cases, stalkers are known to their victims. About 61% of females and 44% of males experiencing stalking are victimized by a current or former intimate partner. Most stalkers use multiple tactics, leaving victims unable to know when they are being watched, or where they can find safety in their everyday lives.
Stalking can take many forms, including:
Unwanted phone calls, texts, emails, or social media messages
Unwanted gifts or love letters left at a survivor’s home, workplace, or vehicle
Watching or following from a distance
Monitoring through a third party (i.e., friends, neighbors, coworkers)
Posting threatening or personal information about a victim on the internet
Spying on someone using a listening device, hidden camera, apps, or software
Using a cell phone tracker or GPS device to monitor location
Contacting friends, family, or coworkers to intimidate or manipulate
Leaving personal, significant, or potentially dangerous objects for the victim to see
Threats of harm
Take Stalking Seriously and Validate Survivors
Stalking is a criminal offense and there is never an excuse for it. It destroys the survivor’s quality of life, sense of wellbeing, and personal safety. Their responses are attempts to protect themselves and their loved ones from future harm. It is important for us all to understand and convey to survivors that their concerns are valid, and they are never to blame for their stalker’s actions.
Stalking is not only terrifying and emotionally distressing for victims; it can also be deadly. Research indicates stalking is a greater risk factor for intimate partner homicide than other forms of intimate partner violence. As advocates, we are trained to take stalking seriously and educate victims about potential risks and necessary safety planning.
We know that stalking after a victim leaves or attempts to leave increases their risk of experiencing future violence and even being killed at the hands of their partner. One of the most sobering statistics we keep in mind when working with stalking victims is that more than 76% of femicide victims were stalked prior to being killed.
It Is Harder to Leave an Abuser Who Stalks
Stalking is not just a concern after a person escapes an abusive relationship. Studies show 74% of those stalked by a former intimate partner reported violence and/or coercive control during the relationship. Domestic violence victims are commonly stalked before they try to leave, making it more difficult to get away. Concerns about nonconsensual image sharing (often referred to as “revenge porn”), online harassment, financial sabotage, increased monitoring, and threats of violence are a few of the reasons stalking victims feel unsafe leaving their abusers.
Survivors often tell us it is safer for them and their children to remain with the abuser to prevent further harm and acceleration of abusive behaviors. Because of these added barriers, those stalked by violent partners report more attempts to leave their abusers than partner violence victims who are not stalked.
Stalking in abusive relationships is a deeply complex issue with no easy solutions. Victims struggle with how to respond to their stalkers without increasing their risk of further harm. They may try reasoning with their abuser to placate them, hoping that “being nice” will make the behavior stop. It is normal for victims to minimize their experiences, telling themselves, “It’s not that bad.” Out of desperation, some even try to confront or threaten the stalker or attempt to “fight back.”
Individuals impacted by the crime of stalking frequently feel alone, confused, and powerless. Recent studies report that nearly a third of stalking victims say they fear the stalking will never stop. As a result of the persistent terror, victims of stalking suffer much higher rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and social difficulties than the general population.
For many, having access to the right type of supportive resources can be the difference between hope and hopelessness, and even life and death. That’s where agencies like The Friendship Center can help.
Confidentiality, Accurate Information, Support, and Agency
Victims are not in control of their abusive partner’s behavior and often don’t know where to turn for help. They need accurate information about their options and legal rights and deserve to be respected as experts in their own lives. Stalking survivors have the right to be informed, supported, and empowered to take steps to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, whether they choose to remain in the relationship or not.
Stalkers can be unpredictable and dangerous; addressing safety concerns needs to be an informed, adaptive, and ongoing process. At The Friendship Center, our advocates are trained to approach each situation as unique because we know there is no single effective approach survivors can rely on to remain safe.
It is vital that victims are aware of confidential services like ours in their own community, where skilled advocates can help them create individualized safety plans and offer ongoing support.
Resources for Survivors
Whether or not a survivor seeks the help of an agency like The Friendship Center, there is a wealth of free online resources they can access and steps they can take to help with safety planning. This list of tools and actions we often use with our clients is not exhaustive, but can help survivors understand their risks, make decisions, and plan their next steps:
Stalking and Harassment Assessment and Risk Profile (SHARP) This web-based assessment provides a big picture evaluation of a survivor’s circumstances and can help address a wide variety of safety concerns.
Protective orders Montana Law Help’s FAQ on Orders of Protection provides an overview on protective orders in Montana, how to get one, how to prepare for court, and what to do after your hearing. The Friendship Center can also provide survivors with information about filing protective orders and reporting options.
Stalking log Survivors can use this tool to document incidents of stalking and create a record of the abuse. Logs like this can help establish the pattern of behavior that defines stalking.
Documentation It’s up to a survivor to choose whether they want to report stalking to authorities or request a protective order. Regardless, saving all voicemail, text, social media, and email messages sent by the stalker can be important evidence to present for law enforcement reports and requesting protective orders. Saving as much evidence as possible (or forwarding it to a safe person or email address) can help a survivor make a delayed report, or plan for their safety if they choose to work with an advocate later.
If you or someone you know is experiencing stalking, advocates at The Friendship Center are ready to help. Call 406.442.6800 to access our free and confidential services 24/7. Visit our stalking resource page to explore resources for victims and advocates, and to learn more about our services.