Valentines Day and Stalking

11 Feb

I think the only series I haven’t skipped (or been wildly late posting) is my ‘Valentines Day is extremely problematic and shouldn’t be a thing’ series.  So am I in the middle of an emergency, out-of-state move because my landlord jacked up the rent $400/mo on our lease renewal?  YES.  Did my mate get Covid amidst a frantic, 5 weeks to leave an entire 2 bedroom house, packing frenzy?  YES.  She is fully Moderna vaccinated and boosted, and was wearing a (cloth) mask, when she ran inside a store for ten min, by the way.  And has she slept 20 hours a day and been alarmingly foggy and confused since she became symptomatic this last Sunday?  YES.  So I am super-stressed and overwhelmed.  But also, I feel very strongly Valentines Day needs to be retired.  So here I am!

This year, I’m going to talk about how Valentines Day trivializes and low-key encourages stalking.

The above is a picture of a card from the store, SketchyPrintCo depicting an image of Penn Badgley’s character from the Netflix stalker series, You, with the caption: “Stalker is a strong word, I prefer Valentine.”  There’s another cheeky card from Etsy store, Guiltycard, , with the caption: “Happy Valentines from your favorite stalker” (5).  Another image, from Etsy store LucyMaggieDesignsLtd shows a geo-tracker symbol with the caption: “You say stalker, I say devoted (Happy Valentines!)” (5).

I see the intention was to be playful and funny, but these cards make light of a very real, very serious problem– stalking.  Others agree (5):

Katy Bourne tweeted, “Dear @Etsy -please, pls reconsider & do not use stalking as a form of joke on your valentine’s cards (or any cards for that matter) out of respect for the thousands of victims living in fear of this awful crime Thank you #StalkingIsNeverAJoke #StalkingIsACrime.” Another user added a harrowing and sobering note, saying: “My stalker raped me when I was 17. These are not funny.”  Charity, Action Against Stalking replied to Bourne’s tweet saying: “Thanks for this post and for bringing this to people’s attention, especially so close to Valentine’s Day when many stalking victims may be triggered or receive unwanted gifts. As you mention, stalking is not a joke and should be taken seriously.”

A spokesperson for GuiltyCards told Glamour: “We also understand the upset this has caused and have taken this down. We wholeheartedly apologize for any offence caused. This card was simply taken from the TV program You.”  A spokesperson for Lucy Maggie Designs said the store “stands in solidarity with all victims of abuse, including those who have endured the terrible distress of stalking and harassment. The card in question was only ever intended as a playful greeting between two loving, consenting parties and we apologize unreservedly for any unintended offence caused. We thank you for bringing this to our attention and have removed this design from sale on all platforms” (5).

The problem isn’t just about funny cards, it’s the whole sentiment around normalizing secret admirers (being watched), surprise anonymous trinkets, over the top Valentines gestures, or obsessive behavior to woo.  It’s all a green light for stalking behavior.  And it tells the recipient to feel honored, proud, and open to these types of advances (1).

Romantic vs. Creepy:

Valentines Day encourages some cringy behaviors in the name of courtship and romance. Most of us will have to endure being rejected by someone we were crushing on. Most will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on to another more welcoming party.  However, stalkers do not operate like that, and often it’s not about pursuing a relationship at all.  Stalking is often about control and coersion, power and intimidation.  Stalkers do not just drop it when they’re rejected or told NO. Stalkers persist until it becomes annoying, and then creepy, frightening and potentially dangerous (4).

Experts have highlighted that one of the root causes of failing to apprehend stalkers is a misunderstanding of the motivations behind their behavior and treating them with the gravity they deserve. This is the kind of sentiment that Valentines Day helps create (along with ubiquitous patriarchy, of course, ‘boys will be boys.’).  The typical behavior exhibited by stalkers has been placed into five main categories (1):

  1. Rejected – Individuals who want to reconcile with previous partners. These stalkers can become resentful and fluctuate between amicable and aggressive.
  2. Resentful – Persons who feel they have been wrongfully treated by their victims i.e. they were passed over for a promotion or disrespected.
  3. Intimacy Seeker – An obsessive individual who fantasizes about having a romantic relationship with their victim. Delusional by nature, these stalkers often believe that their victim is in love with them.
  4. Incompetent Suitor – An unrelenting admirer with poor social skills who attempts to start a romantic relationship with their victim.
  5. Predatory – Sadistic, predatory individuals who enjoy the power and control of stalking their victims via surveillance, aggressive phone calls, exhibitionism and voyeurism, often with malicious intent.

Similarly, stalking victims cannot be classified as one type. Just watch Investigation Discovery or listen to any crime podcast–there are all manner of victims.  Victims could have been in a previous romantic relationship with their stalker, they could be a casual acquaintance or friend as well as a professional contact such as a colleague from work or a client with whom they previously interacted. One of the most worrying instances of stalking is when it comes from a complete stranger; someone who admires their victim from a distance without any prior connection. This is what makes stalking such a far-reaching and indiscriminate offence; it can impact anyone, of any age, gender or social status (1).

Some Statistics

(may vary due to multiple sources– cited below this post):

Over one million individuals receive unwanted attention from stalkers every year (1).  This figure, alarmingly does not include male stalking victims who account for 1 in 3 of all stalking victims (1).

Around 8 percent of all women and 2 percent of all men will be stalked at some time in their lives (4).

how prevalent is this behavior in the United States? Here’s two statistics to wrap your head around (2):

#1 A 2011 survey found 5.1 million women and 2.4 million men had been stalked the previous year.

#2 1 in every 6 women and 1 out of 19 men in the United States have been stalked in their lifetime.

Many times, the stalker is someone the victim knows (2):

#3 Almost 3 out of 4 stalking victims know their stalkers in some capacity. The most common relationship between the victim and perpetrator is a current of former intimate partner.

#4 66% of female stalking victims were stalked by current or former intimate partners.

Stalking is often an indicator of other forms of violence (2):

#5 81% of women who were stalked by a current or former husband or cohabitating partner were also physically assaulted by that partner, while 31% were sexually assaulted.

Our youngest populations are at the most risk (2):

#6 People aged 18-24 have the highest rate of stalking victimization.

State laws don’t always protect stalking victims (2):

#7 Although stalking is a crime in all 50 states, less than one-third of states classify stalking as a felony if it’s a first offense. This leaves stalking victims without protections afforded to victims of other violence crimes.

Not only is stalking often an indicator of other forms of violence, it has been linked to femicide, the murder of women and girls (2):

#8 76% of women murdered by an intimate partner were stalked first, while 85% of women who survived murder attempts were stalked.

#9 89% of femicide victims who had been physically assaulted before their murder were also stalked in the last year prior to their murder.

#10 54% of femicide victims reported stalking to the police before they were killed by their stalkers.

Consider that 85% of stalking victims do not report the incident to the police (1).

What is the definition of stalking?

It depends who you ask.  Part of the problem is there is no ONE, agreed upon definition held by every entity.  Stalking is the unwanted or obsessive attention by an individual or group towards another person (1). More specifically, the federal government defines stalking as a course of conduct directed at an individual that “places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to that person; an immediate family [member] … of that person; or a spouse or intimate partner of that person; or causes, attempts to cause, or would reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress …” to that person, a family member or an intimate partner (2).

According to Michigan law [laws are state by state, and this is just an example of one specific state’s laws] “stalking” means a willful course of conduct involving repeated or continuing harassment of another individual that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested and that actually causes the victim to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested (4).

For there to be stalking, the contacts made by the stalker must be unwanted or non-consensual.  One particularly problematic of stalking in regards to the law, is that much of the onus is put on the victim. If a victim feels stalked by a person, they must at some point communicate with the stalker that they do not want contact and do not want a relationship with this person. Many victims do not want to hurt feelings and want to “let them (stalkers) down easy.” This does not work on stalkers (4).  Many victims are blamed for their own troubles because there is a perception they sought out, instigated, or encouraged their stalker’s behavior.  Or the victim is blamed for not saying NO strongly enough.  Somehow the victim of stalking is held more accountable than the perpetrator.

When a victim tells a stalker they do not want contact, it should be forceful and direct. The police can help here, if necessary, by assisting in the delivering the message for the victim. Once the message is delivered, the victim must stand firm, and, if they tell their stalker they will take an action if contacted again, like calling the police, they must follow through or they will endure more annoyance and disruption caused by a stalker (4).

For it to be criminal stalking, a victim must also be in fear. The conduct that is causing fear in the victim must be repeated or continuing. In other words one creepy phone call does not necessarily constitute stalking. However two or more contacts — in person, telephonic, electronic, by mail or just leaving “presents”  — especially after clearly being warned by the victim — could constitute stalking (4).

And more responsibility put on the victim:  It is very important for the victim to document all unwanted contacts (date, time and what sort of contact) made by the stalker (4).  A preponderance of evidence is the best thing a victim can compile in order to get a case together that will be taken seriously.

Stalking is not just a stand-alone, situation in many cases.  It’s a symptom of a bigger problem:  Stalking is something many victims and survivors of domestic violence must contend with as part of their abuser’s pattern of control and power, as former and current intimate partners often use stalking to terrorize their victims (2).  The most dangerous stalkers are the ones with the most emotional investment. Therefore former domestic partners are the most common and often the most dangerous stalkers. These stalkers take the attitude: “If I can’t have you, then no one can.”  Control of a victim’s life replaces emotional and physical bonds for a stalker. They may not be able to “possess” their victim, but they can control their lives using fear and intimidation as weapons (4).

The Role of Technology and Social Media in Stalking:

In the digital age it has become increasingly easy for stalkers to obtain extensive information about members of the general public via social media. Another recent case is that of Molly McLaren who was stabbed 75 times by her former boyfriend Joshua Stimpson outside a busy shopping center in Kent. Ms. McLaren had previously complained about Stimpson to the police when he posted threatening messages about her via Facebook. Police also received a complaint in 2013 from a former girlfriend of Stimpson’s who received abusive text messages from him following their break-up. Stimpson has been found guilty of murder and was jailed for 26 years in February 2018. However, Ms McLaren’s family have stressed that more needs to be done to raise awareness over the dangers of online stalking (1).

According to a survey made by the antivirus provider NortonLifeLock, there is one out of ten Americans that admits that they have had use ‘stalker apps’ without their partner’s approval– or worse, even their exes accounts.  As explained, the company had interviewed more than 2,000 American adults asking whether they have had used stalking apps that are widely available online. The study showed that “46% of Americans admit to ‘stalking’ an ex or current partner online by checking in on them without their knowledge or consent” (3).  29% of this survey said that they check their current or former partner’s phones; 21% admitted that they review their partner’s history of their accounts; 9% said that some of them even use fake accounts to determine the loyalty of their partners. Meanwhile, 8% revealed that they use tracking apps on their partners to check their physical activities in their daily lives (3).

Contrary to the common misogynistic mindset that women more likely checks their partner’s phone, the study also showed that men tend to be twice more likely to use ‘stalking apps’ to know their partners’ whereabouts every day (3).

Though the act of stalking tends to be creepy for most people, 35% of Americans said that they do not mind the act of ‘online stalking’ to be done to them by their partners, as long as it is not in person. However, men tend to agree more on this sentiment compared to women.  NortonLifeLock mentioned that stalking apps like the most active one called ‘Stalkerware’ can be dangerous to couples or individuals when it comes to protecting their privacy.  “Some of the behaviors identified in the NortonLifeLock Online Creeping Survey may seem harmless, but there are serious implications when this becomes a pattern of behavior and escalates, or when Stalkerware and creepware apps get in the hands of an abusive ex or partner,” says Kevin Roundy, Technical Director of NortonLifeLock (3).

Additionally, the survey identified more than 1,000 ‘stalking’ apps are now available in online stores (3).  P.S. I am particularly horrified by the above stats!

What to Do About Stalking?

If stalking and harassment are such a widespread epidemic, why is more not being done to protect the victims of these traumatic offences?  Many victims feel powerless, living in fear and unsure where to turn for help. Like we talked about above, one, two, three incidents are not enough for law enforcement to act.  The stalking victim must endure and document so many incidents that it’s ridiculous.  By the time they have, the stalking behavior has escalated.  And forget restraining orders–the way police enforce those, is when they’re already broken.  Many victims of stalking have highlighted how police procedures, are not always effective against aggressive stalkers (1).

Stalking is a misdemeanor unless it becomes “aggravated stalking” — that’s when a stalker violates a Personal Protection Order (PPO) or other court order or a stalker commits another stalking crime after already having been convicted of stalking. Aggravated stalking is a felony (4).

Stalking takes its toll emotionally, psychologically and even financially (2):

#11 1 in 7 stalking victims has been forced to move because of their victimization.

#12 Stalking victims suffer much higher rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and social dysfunction than the general population.

#13 86% of victims surveyed reported their personalities had changed as a result of being stalked.

#14 37% of stalking victims fulfill the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, and an additional 18% fulfilled all but one diagnostic criteria.

#15 1 in 4 stalking victims contemplated suicide.

#16 1 in 8 stalking victims has reported losing work because of the stalking. More than half of these victims reported losing 5 or more work days.

Recently, TV presenter Emily Maitlis has compared her stalking to a ‘chronic illness’ which has impacted her life for over 20 years. Despite her stalker, 47 year-old Edward Vines, being issued with an indefinite restraining order in 2009, he has been convicted of twice breaching this order in the last year alone. Emily discussed the long term psychological impact of stalking within a BBC News interview, candidly revealing (1):

“You turn into this person who shouts at your kids for the wrong thing…It just makes you jumpy – and that’s stressful and it’s tiring and it’s time-consuming…It’s not that you think everyone is out to kill you. You recognise it as a paranoia. But it doesn’t make it any easier…This has literally been going on for 20 years. It feels like sort of a chronic illness…It’s not that I ever believe it will stop or he will stop, or the system will manage to prevent it properly”.

This long-lasting psychological harm of stalking has been reported by all manner of victims; irrespective of their age, gender or profession. For instance, Bob Coughtrey, 53 from Lancashire, was stalked by one of his pupils. Although Bob’s stalker was issued with a suspended prison sentence and restraining order, Bob says that the ordeal has left a lasting impact on his everyday life (1):

“She sent me a message which said ‘part of me wishes I hadn’t passed my test, because I would have got to spend more time with you’,” he recalls…I didn’t reply, but the texts just kept coming all night. They got darker and darker. I thought she might be at risk so I called the police, who went to her house…  I’m a grown man, but I felt very vulnerable and anxious. The next evening, my doorbell rang repeatedly. I looked out of the window and it was her again. She then phoned me eight times while she was outside. I phoned 999, and within a few minutes a police car arrived and they arrested her on suspicion of harassment…  It’s horrible. It’s almost suffocating. It changes your life, how you feel about people. You feel as if you’re not quite being taken seriously, because you’re a man…Some people might think it’s harmless – it’s just a woman that’s just giving you some attention. It’s not, because the attention is unwanted, the attention is unsolicited, and it was never reciprocated. I’m very cautious now, always looking around me when I go outside. I don’t feel safe”.

Basically, it’s terrorizing to be stalked.  If you are in fear and feel you are being stalked, contact the police. If you tell someone you do not want a relationship with them and they persist, tell them to knock it off, call the police and let everyone around you know there is a problem (4).

Co-workers, family members, neighbors and friends should know about the problem and provide a network of eyes and ears for the victim. Again, the victim is forced to modify their life, and become hypervigilant.  People surrounding the victim should be instructed not to give out any personal information about the victim and to report to the victim or police if they spot the stalker around the victim or the victim’s belongings. For instance, cars are often damaged by stalkers because they are easy to find and easy to trash without detection (4).

How Can I Help?

Looking to support stalking victims and make some changes on their behalf? Here’s where you can start on a grassroots level (2):

    • Encourage your state legislators to tighten stalking statutes so that stalking is both easier to prosecute and classified as a more serious crime.
    • Ask your legislators to update the federal domestic violence firearm prohibitor to including misdemeanor dating violence and misdemeanor stalking.
    • Ask your members of Congress to support legislation providing additional funding for local program initiatives and other services to victims of stalking and domestic violence, like programs established by the Violence Against Women Act.
    • Research and support legislation encouraging domestic violence education for middle and high school students. An appropriate curriculum should include information about healthy relationships, domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and available resources.
    • Encourage local schools and youth programs to train teachers, school counselors and athletic coaches to recognize children and teens who are in violent situations. Provide educators with resources and prepare them to intervene in domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking situations.
    • Support programs in your community aimed at increasing domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking education, prevention and intervention.

In other words, Valentines Day sentiment makes light and even suggests stalking behavior.   Normalizing such dangerous behavior, that often goes along with a pattern of domestic violence is bad for all of us.  It’s bad for men, because they are pressured to do Valentinesy things which breech boundaries and often cross into “creepy” territory.  And it’s bad for women because the day tells them to want, expect, and graciously receive these gestures, which can be ultimately unsafe.  And it teaches society to see over the top gestures as romantic and fun, instead of red flags and an introduction to control and violence.  We, as a society, need to shut. it. down.  Over the years I have probably listed 12-16 reasons that Valentines Day is problematic.  Can we finally just admit that the cutesy stuff isn’t worth all the (unintended) consequences?

If you or someone you know is experiencing stalking, the Stalking Resource Center has resources, including online “Help for Victims” information and a Victim Connect Helpline at 855-4-VICTIM (855-484-2846).

Sources:

(1):  https://blackstoneconsultancy.com/unwelcome-valentines-stalking-and-harassment/

Stats-
(2):  https://ncadv.org/blog/posts/quick-guide-to-stalking-16-important-statistics-and-what-you-can-do-about-it

(3):  https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.techtimes.com/amp/articles/247360/20200214/valentines-day-warning-men-more-likely-to-follow-women-using-stalker-apps-like-stalkerware.htm

Creepy vs dangerous-
(4):  http://www.annarbor.com/news/valentines-day-brings-out-the-stalkers/

Card-

(5):  https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/stalker-valentines-day-cards

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