THE SILENT CRIME: STALKING
As more survivors of sexual assault come forward and speak about their experiences, the national dialogue is finally emerging about the prevalence of gender-based violence in our communities. Institutions, government officials, and policy makers are publicly
acknowledging that we, as a society, must change the cultures and norms that enable and encourage sexual harassment and abuse.
An issue that must be included in any discussion of sexual violence is stalking. More than 6 million people are stalked annually in the U.S.i While legal definitions of stalking vary, it is generally defined as the intentional, repeated following of a person for the purpose of harassing the person with express or implied threats of violence or death.ii Prior to 1990, there were no criminal laws that dealt specifically with stalking. In fact, a victim had to be physically harmed before a person could be arrested. Although stalking is now a crime in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and at the federal level, it is grossly underreported to law enforcement and difficult to prosecute when a victim does come forward.
Stalking and sexual violence intersect at several points. As with sexual assault, women are most commonly the victims. One in six women have been stalked. Women are almost three times more likely to be stalked than men, and three in four stalking victims are stalked by someone they know. Thirty-one percent of women stalked by a current or former intimate partner were also sexually assaulted by that partner. Equally as disturbing is the fact that FBI research with incarcerated rapists revealed that rapists stalked several women at a time waiting for an opportunity to commit sexual assault.
One of the most common forms is cyberstalking, or the use of technology, particularly the Internet, to harass someone. Common characteristics include false accusations, monitoring, threats, identity theft, and data destruction or manipulation. Cyberstalking also includes exploitation of minors, be it sexual or otherwise.
While many people do not consider cyberstalking a serious threat because there is no physical contact, it is far from benign. The emotional, physical, and financial toll can be overwhelming for a victim. A Department of Justice survey found that about 130,000 victims were fired or asked to leave their jobs as a result of a stalking incident. One in eight stalking victims lost time from work due to activities such as getting a restraining order or testifying in court, or simply because they were afraid to go outside. Researchers at Washington and Lee University found that women victims of stalkers are up to three times more likely than their peers to experience psychological distress. Another study showed that the prevalence of anxiety, social dysfunction, and severe depression is much higher among stalking victims than the general population.
Education is the first crucial step in recognizing and addressing stalking. Victim services providers and advocates should serve as catalysts in community efforts to form partnerships among law enforcement, the court system, the medical community, and other allies to address the specific safety needs of stalking victims and to hold offenders accountable for their actions. Only then can we make meaningful changes.