January is National Stalking Awareness Month. The National Center for Victims of Crime started National Stalking Awareness Month in 2004 in order to provide “an opportunity to focus on identifying and stopping stalking in your community.” This is particularly important at CU Denver, as well as other universities, because the highest percentage of victims falls in the age range of 18 – 24 years—traditional college age, in other words.
Additionally, stalking is a common crime. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which collects data from state and federal agencies, “about 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have experienced stalking in their lifetimes.” This amounts to an estimated 6 – 7.5 million people stalked in one year in the United States alone, according to SPARC (the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center).
Fear is contextual
While stalking is illegal in all 50 states, what constitutes stalking varies. The definition many experts use comes from the U.S. Department of Justice: “The term ‘stalking’ means engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.”
But there is a lot of gray area in what actions cause fear. This is a subject taken up by SPARC, a nonprofit organization that promotes stalking awareness. “Fear is contextual,” SPARC states on its website. “A bouquet of roses is not scary on its own. But when a victim receives a bouquet from an abusive ex-boyfriend who she recently relocated to get away from—and she did not think he knew where her new home was—this flower delivery becomes terrifying and threatening.”
Barbara Paradiso, Executive Director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the School of Public Affairs, agrees that stalking is difficult to define. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding around stalking,” she said. “Generally, it’s a crime that’s much more difficult to prosecute.” That’s partly because some of the behaviors involved in stalking—like texting—are not in and of themselves illegal.
Some stalking behaviors may even be hard to differentiate from normal behavior. “It’s hard to clearly identify the boundaries between normal adolescent/young adult behavior and stalking, especially because of technology,” Paradiso explains. And yet, technology is fast becoming one of the methods stalkers use regularly. SPARC’s “Stalking Fact Sheet” states, “1 in 4 victims report being stalked through the use of some form of technology (such as email or instant messaging).”
Stalking as precursor for other crimes
Often, when stalking is in the news, it’s because the stalking victim is famous. In these cases, the stalker is usually a stranger. However, the majority of stalking victims are stalked by someone they know. Many times, stalking coincides with domestic violence: “There is a real and frighteningly significant connection between stalking and intimate partner violence,” writes SPARC. Stalking often precedes escalating violence. According to SPARC’s “Stalking & Intimate Partner Violence Fact Sheet,” “81% of women who were stalked by a current or former husband or cohabitating partner were also physically assaulted by that partner.” More disturbingly, “76% of intimate partner femicide victims have been stalked by their intimate partner.”
Because stalking often correlates to other forms of violence, it is a crime that should be reported, even if the victim is unsure if the behavior constitutes stalking. “The best indicator may be whether the victims themselves are changing their behavior—taking different routes to class or not responding to texts,” Paradiso said.
What can I do if I’m being stalked?
If you or someone you know suspects stalking, one important step that both Paradiso and SPARC suggest is keeping an incident log (find one here). “If they keep a log, it can be really helpful if they need evidence down the road,” Paradiso said. Writing it down also “reaffirms that it’s real.”
On campus, the Phoenix Center is a great resource. CU Denver students, faculty, and staff can also contact the Counseling Center. “There’s no shame in reaching out and talking to somebody, even if you don’t necessarily believe it’s stalking,” Paradiso said. She also suggests there is something very simple everyone in the university community can do to honor National Stalking Awareness Month: “We can increase our willingness to believe victims who are in fear.”