Stalk: (verb) To pursue or approach stealthily.
The first time most of us heard the word stalk, we learned that definition. Probably while watching a nature documentary when we were kids. The camera focused on a harmless animal, like a mouse, going about its business – eating cheese, twitching its whiskers, playing with its little mouse friends. Then the camera panned back to reveal a cat lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to pounce. The narrator’s smooth, calm, British voice intoned,
“Watch as the cat patiently stalk its prey.”
Despite the fact we knew the mouse was likely done for, there was something interesting and even cute about watching the predator-prey relationship unfold in the natural world.
Unfortunately, over the last two decades, a different variation of the word stalk has replaced this original. And there’s nothing interesting or remotely cute about it. It’s serious, it’s disturbing, and it’s often a leading indicator of impending danger and violence – not for a mouse on a TV screen, but for people we know and love.
Stalking: The Criminal Definition
According to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC), the basic definition of stalking in its contemporary criminal context is:
“A pattern of behavior directed at a specific personthat would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.”
That’s what most people think of when they hear the word stalk these days: unwanted attention from another human that’s so extreme it causes the object of the unwanted attention to fear for their safety. However, there’s more to the definition than that.
In legalese, it reads like this:
“A course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.”
Stalking includes any form of nonconsensual communication. Law enforcement considers all the following behaviors – when they match the repeated and unwanted criteria – as stalking:
- Phone calls
- Social media messages, posts, or comments
- Unsolicited gifts
- Unwelcome appearances
- Unwanted approaches to family and friends
- Surveillance or monitoring with or of:
- Internet activity
- Social Media activity
- Verbal and physical threats
- Damage to property
Many of these behaviors aren’t crimes by themselves. However, if they occur repeatedly, their recipient should document and report them. Clearly, making phone calls and giving gifts are not crimes, while making threats and damaging property obviously are crimes. However, when calls, texts and other types of contact escalate, they may form an overall pattern of behavior that is a crime, even though the separate incidents are not.
It’s critical for someone on the receiving end of repeated unwanted contact to understand they’re not helpless. They’re the victims of a crime – and they can do something about it.
Stalking: Who’s at Risk?
Although women are victims of stalking more often than men, statistics indicate men are victims of stalking as well. Studies show the following:
- 7.5 million people in the U.S. are victims of stalking each year
- 17% of women experience stalking (1/6)
- 6% of men experience stalking (1/17)
Those rates are disturbing. More disturbing, however, is the fact that most stalking victims know their stalker. And more often than not, they know them very well. Here’s the data:
- 72% of all stalking victims knew their stalker
- 61% of female victims report stalking by an intimate partner (current or former)
- 44% of male victims report stalking by an intimate partner (current or former)
- 25% of female victims report stalking by an acquaintance
- 32% of male victims report stalkng by an acquaintance
It’s possible some people see these statistics and still think that, though stalking is creepy and outside the bounds of typical behavior, it’s not big deal. A few calls, a few texts, some social media posts – what’s the big deal?
The big deal has two parts:
- Only the victim gets to decide if it’s a big deal or not. Not outside observers. And where the police are concerned, they have a set of guidelines to follow. The bigdealness of it is not for them to decide: laws defining what constitutes criminal stalking criteria are on the books in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government.
- Stalking often leads to violence, abuse, and in some cases (more than most people care to know), even murder.
That’s why stalking is such a big deal: it’s often the precursor to things that no sane person can minimize. It’s not just about overboard romantic enthusiasm. It’s about real people living in fear, and possibly getting hurt or killed.
Stalking and Intimate Partner Violence
The relationship between stalking an intimate partner violence should convince anyone who thinks stalking is a minor issue to rethink that position. Here’s the data on the relationship between stalking and intimate partner violence:
- 74% of people stalked by a former intimate partner report violence or some type of coercive control during the relationship
- 81% of women stalked by a current or former intimate partner were physically assaulted by the partner
- 46% of stalking victims report one or more violent incidents involving their current or former partner
- 31% of women stalked by a current or former intimate partner were also sexually assaulted by the partner
If those stats aren’t enough, we’re going offer the numbers on stalking and femicide. Yes, you read that right: femicide. You don’t have to look it up, because it means exactly what you think it means: murder of a female. Here’s the data:
- 54% of femicide victims reported stalking to the police before being killed
- 76% of intimate partner femicide victims were stalked by their partner before being killed
- 67% of femicide victims reported being physically abused by their partner before being killed
Physical assault, sexual assault, coercive control, and murder all have strong statistical correlations to stalking. That’s why stalking is a crime, that’s why we have Stalking Awareness Month, and that’s why we’re writing this article: stalking is something everyone needs to take very seriously.
What You Can Do If You’re Being Stalked
In their public information about stalking, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offer good, first-line-of-understanding advice:
Stalking: Know it. Name it. Stop it.
That’s step one: understanding that harassement or excessive, unwanted attention has a name, and it’s a crime. Step two is knowing what to do if you’re being stalked, and step three is doing it. The National Center for Victims of Crime advises you to take the following five proactive steps:
- Trust yourself. You decide if you’re being stalked. Not your family, not your friends, and certainly not the family and friends of your stalker. Put your safety above everyone else’s feelings or opinions. Stalking can lead to real harm and danger: don’t ignore this fact.
- If you’re in danger – and again, you decide that, no anyone else – then call the police immediately. Explain what’s happening and why you’re afraid.
- Document, document, document. Start keeping a log of each incident of contact as soon as someone’s interest in you starts to scare you. The more information you have, the better. Make a record of each and every red-flag incident that occurs, no matter how minor it may seem at the time.
- Save every email, text, photo, direct message, and social media post or comment the stalker sends or makes. In court, documents like these – especially third-party documents such as cell phone logs – are incredibly persuasive. They constitute evidence of a crime that’s close to impossible to refute.
- Reach out to a victim advocacy or resource center to talk to an experienced person about your situation and what you can do.
Resources for Victims of Stalking
If you’re the victim of stalking, you are not alone. First, you should understand the law is on your side. Then, you should know experienced advocates are standing by, ready to help you. Before we offer those resources, we want to reiterate that if you’re in imminent danger or you feel threatened and fear for your safety in any way, pick up the phone and call the police right away. Do not wait for the behavior to escalate, because statistics show there’s a real chance stalking behavior can and does escalate to physical violence or worse. If you’re not in immediate danger, here’s a list of phone numbers to call for help and advice:
- Victim Connect: 1 (855) 484-2846
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 En Espanol: 1 (800) 787-3224
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1 (800) 656-4673
Finally, there’s a very helpful online resource called the Stalking Harassment and Risk Profile (SHARP) Assessment you can do online. We tried a practice assessment and learned it’s a powerful tool. You answer questions, submit your answers, and the website generates a report – in the language of lawyers and law enforcement – you can use if and when you contact the authorities. If you think you’re being stalked but still unsure, use this questionnaire for an objective, third-party assessment of your situation. It only takes about fifteen minutes. It’s well worth your time, and empowers you to take important steps toward ending the stalking behavior before it escalates to something more dangerous.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.