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What are we talking about when we talk about stalking? The word has become a reference to nosing around each other’s Facebook timelines—or to unhealthy but not persistent choices, like that one miserable weekend when you drove past your ex’s place three times. We’re not here to talk about those. We’re talking about patterns of behaviors that cause substantial emotional distress to another person and may seriously compromise their sense of safety. Sometimes, these behaviors escalate to attempted sexual assault or other kinds of violence.
Stalking is more common on campuses than off, studies show. It is widely underreported and can affect anyone. “Most stalking is by men of women, but men can be stalked too,” says Detective Mark Kurkowski of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Domestic Abuse Response Team, Missouri. Students who are transgender, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming may be especially vulnerable, a 2015 survey suggests (AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct).
Although stalking is a crime in all 50 states, it is often missed or minimized—even by people whose lives are disrupted by it. See Students’ stories; Stalking it over (next page).
Would you recognize stalking?
Most definitions of stalking come from the Violence Against Women Act and its 2013 reauthorization. “Stalking’ means engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to (A) fear for his or her safety or the safety of others, or (B) suffer substantial emotional distress.”
Two things are important about this, experts say:
- Stalking is a “course” of conduct; a pattern of unwanted behaviors. It may include persistent texts and calls, online harassment, physically or digitally tracking or following the targeted person, and more.
- This legal standard judges the effects of stalking—a person’s fear for their safety or substantial emotional distress. People sometimes get caught up on the question of what constitutes “substantial emotional distress,” says Jennifer Landhuis, director of social change at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “Does substantial emotional distress mean they have to go to counseling? No, it could be changing how they go to classes, feeling like they have to look over their shoulder—that kind of stuff.”
What stalking may look like
This list of stalking behaviors comes from the Stalking Resource Center, a collaboration between the National Center for Victims of Crime and the US Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. Stalking does not necessarily involve all of these behaviors.
- Follow you and show up wherever you are
- Send unwanted gifts, letters, cards, or emails
- Damage your home, car, or other property
- Monitor your phone calls or computer use
- Use technology to track you
- Drive by or hang out at your home, school, or work
- Threaten to hurt you, your family, friends, or pets
- Find out about you via public records, online searches, contacting your friends or family, and other methods
- Posting information about you or spreading rumors about you online or in public
- Other actions that control, track, or frighten you
Why stalking can be difficult to spot
We may not recognize stalking or be reluctant to label it.
Here are some of the reasons:
- Stalking may criminalize otherwise noncriminal behaviors
It may be difficult to understand why someone is frightened by the gifts they are receiving.
- Stalking involves actions that may have a specific but not apparent meaning
The implicit threat in some actions may be understood only by the offender and victim. Those actions could include going into the targeted person’s home or room in their absence and moving things around.
- Some stalking-type feelings and behaviors are normal
“Normal brain development continues till you’re 25, so some of that behavior that happens in pursuit of a dating relationship is typical,” says Jennifer Landhuis, the director of social change at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “That can get confusing when you’re asking whether you’re following someone, whether you’re texting them too much. How do we decide when it passes the line and goes into stalking? That depends on the person who’s experiencing it. Is that behavior scary?”
- Stalking often intersects with other abuses
When stalking intersects with intimate partner abuse or sexual violence, it is more easily missed, says Detective Mark Kurkowski of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Domestic Abuse Response Team, Missouri.
Who's being stalked and by whom
- People aged 18–24 experience the highest rates of being stalked (Bureau of Justice, 2009).
- In a 2015 study of sexual misconduct on campuses, the undergraduates most likely to have been stalked while in college were transgender, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer (12 percent) (AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct). Four percent of students overall, and seven percent of female undergraduates, reported that they had been stalked in college.
- In another study of college students, one in four women (25 percent) and one in ten men (11 percent) had been stalked at some point in their lives (Violence and Victims, 2000).
- Most victims know their stalker: In the 2015 college survey, 40 percent said their stalker was a friend or acquaintance, and 24 percent said it was someone they had dated or a former sexual partner.
- Stalkers who are the current or former partners of their victim are more likely to physically approach the victim, are more insulting and threatening, are more likely to use a weapon, are more likely to escalate quickly, and are more likely to reoffend (Journal of Forensic Science, 2006).
What to do if your obsessive thoughts about someone else are driving your behavior
Don’t be that person: How to handle your obsessive thoughts
If you have engaged in stalking behaviors, you could benefit from developing your interpersonal and social skills.
You would likely also benefit from an emotional health evaluation. Stalking can overlap with conditions such as depression, substance abuse, and personality issues, which may be alleviated or managed through treatment and support.
- Make an appointment with your campus counseling center or a therapist based in the community; request help finding a counselor who has expertise in obsessive thoughts and behaviors
- Try a support group, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous
- If you have addiction issues, ask at your counseling center about relevant resources
- Confide in a close friend or mentor, if possible: Ask them to help you keep things in perspective, steer you away from recurring thoughts, and fill your time with other activities
- Seek out distractions: sign up for a team, club, or extracurricular
Therapy for obsessive thoughts and behaviors
Appropriate therapy for stalking-related issues involves you working individually with a clinician. The approach is guided by your mindset and the underlying issue (for example, whether you are struggling with rejection, social awkwardness, or delusional thinking). The therapeutic work may include:
- A mental health assessment and treatment if indicated (for example, medication may help with false beliefs)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy and/or motivational interviewing to build more realistic perceptions and empathic perspectives (for example, understanding how your behavior affects the other person)
- Programming to enhance your interpersonal and social skills, such as expanding social activities
Looking back: what I did, why I did it, how I stopped
Stalking-type behaviors can show up in students who are not yet well-adjusted to the dating environment of college. Behaviors such as excessive texting may not reflect malign intent or emotional illness. Students making this mistake are in many cases open to hearing from peers, an RA, or a staff or faculty member about how their behaviors are being perceived and experienced by others.
“I followed her social media closely and thought about her a lot. It was difficult to not call her (and I often did it late at night after drinking...which I regret). Taking better care of my own mental and physical self would have helped. Counseling would probably have helped too. It was a close friend who got me through all that.”
—Male third-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland
“I was feeling lovesick after a breakup. Nothing malicious, but I found myself wanting to hang out in areas where they might be, and search for them online. Therapy helped, as did finding constructive ways to distract myself.”
—Female third-year undergraduate, Sonoma State University, California
“I have intentionally loitered or taken a certain route in hopes of running into a certain person. I could have managed my feelings more constructively by doing something more productive with my time, and accepting that the person was probably bored of our conversations.”
—Female fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
“The first few times when you fall in love, you won’t know how to deal with these feelings. These are mistakes anyone can make, especially those who have deep ingrained trust issues.”
—Male, fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
“I wanted to be closer friends with this person, and the thought of that person being happy with other people made a little sad. I have a ‘need to be needed’ so that may have influenced the desire to give that particular person lots of gifts. I didn’t do anything else. It was a valuable learning experience in terms of interpersonal relationships and how to manage them. It also allowed me to slightly empathize with those who are currently similar to that ‘Past-Me.’”
—Female fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
8 ways to help a friend who’s being stalked
Chances are your friend isn’t quoting the Violence Against Women Act. They may not even use the word “stalking.” Even so, it’s important to take seriously initial concerns about stalking behaviors, and to act early, says Detective Mark Kurkowski, of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Domestic Abuse Response Team, Missouri. “Respond to stalking cases before [they involve] violent threats or [run to] years of stalking,” he says. Here’s how to do that:
1. Listen to your friend’s story and believe it
Allow them to tell their story the way they want to tell it. Do not underestimate how powerful listening is.
“Allow them to tell their story the way they want to tell it,” says Jennifer Landhuis of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Do not underestimate how powerful listening is. “Sometimes the trauma will make them minimize what’s been happening, because they’re in the middle of it. That outside touchstone can make a big difference.”
2. Recognize that you are not in a position to say what they should do
All the methods they’ve tried have failed.
… or what you think they should have done to make the stalking behavior stop. “By the time stalking victims are reaching out and telling people about what’s going on, all the methods they’ve tried have failed,” says Landhuis.
3. Consider their full context and situation
As their friend, you’ll have some idea of what other challenges they may be facing; the stalking might be one part of a difficult semester.
Your friend is your friend, not just a stalking victim. As their friend, you’ll have some idea what other challenges they may be facing; the stalking might be one part of a difficult semester. All the pressures and challenges in their life are important in how you think about helping. “Unless you try to consider everything they come to the table with, you might not be able to help,” says Landhuis.
4. Help them explore their options and access to resources
Stalking resources are less familiar to most of us than sexual assault; options are available on and off campus.
- Although many of us are learning what resources exist for people affected by sexual assault and domestic violence, stalking resources are less well known.
- If the victim or others is (or feels) threatened with violence, call the police. “Whenever you have a credible threat, law enforcement should be involved,” says Det. Kurkowski.
- Check out the reporting, advocate support, and counseling options on campus. A good place to start is your campus counseling center or public safety/security office. Even if the stalking is also reported to the police, the school has responsibilities under Title IX. Look for a campus advocate, such as a residence assistant or someone in school administration, like the Title IX office. Your job as a friend may be finding which advocate on campus is best equipped to help. Advocates on campus can help in various ways:
- Accessing accommodations, such as getting the person being stalked into a different residence hall or classes
- Taking action through the school’s disciplinary process, and/or going to the police, with a view to interventions such as no contact orders. “Sometimes campus stalking codes are stricter than state law, and the university can hold the offender accountable in a number of ways, like suspension,” says Det. Kurkowski. “And just because you’re going to talk to someone about it doesn’t mean it’s going to get reported to law enforcement.” (Before reporting to a campus authority, ask about the school’s policies and procedures for involving local law enforcement.)
5. Activate your friend network
Check out these 4 ways to harness the power of your social network.
Social networks are powerful. Here’s how to harness that power:
- When someone who’s been stalked talks to a friend, they may find someone who’s been through the same thing and knows what to do, says Det. Kurkowski.
- If you know people who are friends with the stalker, they might be able to help. Landhuis says, “You can absolutely engage whatever peer group might have influence on the person who’s conducting the behavior.”
- Help protect the victim’s privacy. It’s not realistic to ask your friend to get off social media, but you can be very aware of how you use your own. “What kinds of information is the victim or their friends sharing?” asks Landhuis. “Often a stalker finds out where a victim is because the victim’s friends have posted on social media that they’re going out.” To strip online posts of automatic location information, search “how to disable geotagging on [phone make/model].”
- Actively support your friend’s safety when you’re together. If you’re heading to a bar with your friend who’s been stalked, ask your crew, “How are we going to keep an eye on them? What kinds of bystander supports are going to keep our friend feeling safe?”
6. Make a safety plan and check out safety apps
Safety plans and apps can help.
“In any stalking situation, you should be doing safety planning,” Det. Kurkowski says. Safety plans use what a victim knows about a stalker to reduce the risk of harm to themselves and those around them. For example, avoid places where the stalker tends to hang out; if the stalker shows up, have a safe exit plan ready. In addition, look for evaluated safety apps that can address your friend’s needs.
7. Document the pattern of stalking
This is essential to any disciplinary process or police report.
“Documentation is key—whether it be text messages, emails, Facebook postings, whatever. Don’t erase anything, don’t delete anything, make sure there’s a way to prove that this happened over a period of time,” says Det. Kurkowski. Take screenshots of social media posts and learn how to download a copy of Facebook messages.
8. Help others understand what stalking is
Avoid using language that minimizes how harmful and dangerous stalking can be.
Some victims minimize the behaviors that threaten their safety, or blame themselves. In that case, look at those behaviors: Is someone following them around, tracking them somehow, or not taking “no” for an answer? “Many people who don’t use the word ‘stalking’ will say, ‘That is happening to me,’” says Landhuis. “Help to educate your friend. What does stalking look like, what does it feel like, what does it sound like?”
Your school’s stalking policies may be included in its sexual harassment and assault policies.
Your Title IX office, public safety/security office, and/or counseling center can provide resources and support.
Mark Kurkowski, detective, Domestic Abuse Response Team, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Missouri.
Jennifer Landhuis, director, Social Change, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
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