Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in a Stalking Awareness Event at the University of California, Irvine. AAUW, the nonprofit organization I work for in my day job, co-sponsored it with UCI’s Campus Assault Resources Education department. The event was the culmination of a week-long awareness poster campaign on campus for Stalking Awareness Month.
During the event, a very brave woman in her 30s shared her experiences with stalking. A schoolmate started stalking her (and also attempted to sexually assault her) when she was 14 years old and has stalked as recently as a year ago when he called her office phone number to let her know he was still keeping tabs on her. The psychological games and impact it had on her during the height of the stalking – and through today – was intense.
The most disturbing moment for me was hearing how when she finally told someone about it while still a teenager living at home, he left a cat on her porch with its neck slit, which led her to keep quiet for many more years. She knows she may be putting herself in danger by speaking out about it now, but she is tired of being silent and wants to provide help for others who may be going through a similar situation. It was moving to witness her bravery.
Legally, stalking is defined by state statutes. While statutes vary, most define stalking as conduct that places a person in fear for their safety and directly or indirectly communicates a threat.
Stalking is often tied to other harmful behavior, like domestic violence, sexual assault, and psychological abuse. 3.4 million people over the age of 18 are stalked each year in the United States, most of them are female and between the ages of 18 and 24, and about 75 percent are stalked by someone they know, including 30 percent who are stalked by a current or former intimate partner. (More statistics)
You can find more information about what stalking constitutes, how to get help, and how to raise awareness about this issue from the Stalking Awareness Month website.
During the talk I gave at the UC Irvine event, I addressed a different kind of stalking, one that is familiar to readers of this blog —
Under the law, stalking has to happen more than once. In the case of street harassment, it usually only happens once, by one person. So technically, it was not stalking, just following. But it is still very threatening.
Exactly 75 percent of the 800 female respondents of my 2009 survey (conducted for my book) said an unknown stranger followed them in public. This has happened at least once to most of my friends and it happened to me three different times. Each time I was so overcome with fright that when I was safe, I was left shaking and crying.
Overall, except for assault, my respondents said that being followed was the most threatening, scary, and upsetting type of harassment they had experienced, often even more than groping, masturbation, or a sexually explicit comments. Women facing street harassment often feel their only choice is to leave the situation to get to safety, so to realize that the harasser is following them is very upsetting and they fear what the harasser may do. Will the harasser attack them? Will they be able to get away?
So whether the harasser is following a person just once or whether it is daily or hourly, the harassment is threatening and potentially dangerous. The harasser/stalker is exhibiting power over the target, trying to manipulate the target, and hoping to make themselves feel powerful by making the person feel powerless. Yet because so often both stalking and following are construed as flattering attention or the target’s fault, it is minimized as a problem.
Breaking the silence and becoming informed are huge steps toward ending and preventing stalking and following.
There are many resources you can access for dealing with stalking. Here are a few suggestions for what you can do if a stranger follows you:
- It’s okay to tell the person to go away or to leave you alone (try using a calm voice and don’t use insults or profanity). You can do this from a distance if it will make you feel safer.
- It’s okay to make a scene. If someone is following you in a populated area, announce loudly that there is a person following you and that they better stop. Another tactic, if you feel very worried for your safety, is to approach someone who looks friendly/sympathetic and ask if you can walk with them because you’re being followed.
- Take a photo of them. Or take out something to make notes on and turn around and ask the person their name and age write it down and, as you record it, say out loud a description of what they look like. If that doesn’t scare them off, tell them you’re doing a survey and ask them how often they follow people they don’t know, why they do it, how they plan it, etc.
- If you feel very unsafe or are not 100 percent certain they are following you, see if there is someplace safe nearby, such as a store or library, that you can go inside to get assistance from someone or just seek safety while you call for help or call the police.
- Report the stalker. If you’re in a store, speak with a manager. If you’re someplace with a security guard, talk to them. If the person is harassing you on public transportation, report them to the bus driver or subway manager.