One in 6 women will be stalked in her lifetime, data shows. (Photo: Istock/Yahoo)
“Did you Google stalk him already?”
“Guys, I can’t stop Facebook stalking my ex.”
“OMG, so creepy. He’s such a stalker.”
Sound familiar? It should.
The word “stalking” has taken on a whole new meaning in the cultural lexicon. It’s the word we increasingly use to describe the garden-variety, 21st-century voyeurism we partake in everyday — behaviors at which no one bats an eye. “Stalking” a person online before an upcoming date is common, even de rigueur. “Stalking” frenemies we haven’t talked to in years (but still know all about via their Facebook profiles) has basically become a new pastime.
But the truth is, actual stalking is not something to simply brush off, mention in passing or take lightly. It’s very real and very scary — and this era, it’s all too easy to get caught up in a stalker’s snare. In fact, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 14 men will be stalked in their lifetimes.
Read on for eight truths about stalking — so you know what to look out for, and how to get the right help if you need it.
Stalking is a lot more common than you think.
When looking just at women, 1 in 6 — and that’s a conservative estimate — will be stalked at some point over the course of her life. Using a wider definition, though, involving persistent behaviors that make victims uncomfortable or fearful, that number is closer to 1 in 4 women.
There’s an under-awareness about stalking, says Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center. “Some estimates suggest 7.5 million people are stalked yearly in the United States,” she tells Yahoo Health. “And that’s only adults.”
Stalking behavior isn’t uncommon among high school students — especially cyberstalking, which can be done easily from a distance via publically accessible information online. The behavior is also on the rise among the college set: According to a new study from the Crime Victims’ Institute at Sam Houston State University, almost twice as many college students report being stalked in the past 12 months than those in the general public (4.3 percent versus 2.2 percent). In fact, the Stalking Resource Center reports that half of female victims and one-third of male victims are under the age of 25.
You probably know your stalker.
Stalking is not a random crime. Generally, a stalker is someone the victim knows (or knew) well — often an ex or someone who was (or wishes to be) romantic with the victim. “It’s an intimate partner in about 50 percent of cases,” Garcia says. “In other situations, it’s an acquaintance — it could be a relative, a casual friend, or a person you see at the coffee shop every morning.” The point is, victims are usually familiar with, or at least aware of, the person doing the stalking.
For Katie*, her stalker was a guy from her elementary school. “When he added me on Facebook, I thought nothing of it,” she explains. “He would chat me, usually super-friendly, asking me how my day was, etc. — all was well. He wasn’t someone I would ever consider a romantic relationship with, but he was nice enough and we would talk. I even gave him my number at one point. This was my freshman year of college in 2008.”
But Katie knew something was off. ”He started hurting himself ‘accidentally’ and telling me about it, like slamming his hand through a window on purpose and needing stitches, head injuries, you name it,” she says. “This was the beginning of my fear.”
Indeed, another common characteristic of stalking behavior is that the attention is constant and makes the recipient uncomfortable, no matter who is doing it. The stalkers engage in behaviors that raise that red flags in your gut — incessant texts or messages, random gifts, sudden appearances, or, as in Katie’s case, attention-seeking comments and behaviors.
Intimate partners who are stalkers are also more likely to physically approach their victims and most likely to escalate contact, but progressive behavior can happen to anyone. More than two-thirds of stalkers will reach out to the object of their desire at least once a week, often daily, and 78 percent use multiple forms of communication — from letters, IMs, emails, gift deliveries, phone calls, and showing up unannounced. The stalker’s initial approach may seem harmless or soft, but the motives may not be.
Stalking is usually a slow and steady build.
A pattern of stalking is generally not an immediate, in-your-face realization. Pursuit is often a collection of behaviors that start small but then grow to something bigger, from a few strange emails to excessive, unpredictable, in-person contacts. “One of the biggest challenges with stalking is that individual behaviors are part of a bigger picture when it comes to stalking,” says Garcia. “It’s a progression, and it’s always context dependent. It’s not criminal to call or to send someone flowers.”
What constitutes stalking is not an exact science. For instance, if a boyfriend or a telemarketer calls a few times in a day, most people would generally not consider this bizarre. But if a waiter from a favorite restaurant in town, or an ex dumped six months ago continuously Facebook messages someone, it’s a little different. “It’s a series of events, and it can escalate over time,” Garcia says.
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For Katie, text messages and cries for attention turned into harassing calls from a mystery man. “I started receiving phone calls at all hours of the day, usually someone just breathing,” she says. “This person would call me 10 times an hour on bad nights. After weeks of that, the person on the phone started threatening me.”
Katie confronted her stalker, who insisted the he was not the one calling. “He would tell me he knew who was bothering me and was going to stop him, even going so far to say he would kill him once,” she says. “I tried to control his manic behavior by thanking him — but I was really scared. I knew how unhinged he had become. This is when I knew I was in trouble.”
Shortly thereafter — following one particularly frightening phone call — Katie involved the authorities. “He told me he could see me while I was in my kitchen, and that was that,” she says. “To be honest, I will never know if he was actually outside of my house or bluffing, but that was it for me.”
“The police officer told me that he was an ‘angel of death,’ or someone who puts people in bad situations on purpose to be the savior,” Katie says.
After changing her number, the first step in stalking prevention, Katie’s stalker stopped his behaviors — although she heard through friends he tried repeatedly to obtain her new number. “The scariest thing of it all is that this story is not that bad. He never caused me bodily harm, didn’t follow me to a bar, didn’t stalk me home late at night, and yet I was still absolutely petrified,” she says. And it all started with a Facebook friend request.
Often, cyberstalking precedes physical stalking.
With all this in mind, it’s not a bad idea for people to filter their social-media contacts — or at least think twice before accepting someone they’re not comfortable or familiar with into your circle.
Commonly, cyberstalking is the gateway behavior accessible to anyone, says Robert London, MD, a practicing psychiatrist for more than three decades and a national columnist for Elsevier/Frontline. “Though Facebook [stalking] doesn’t have the physical elements of being stalked in the real world, such as being followed or watched, the psychological impact tends to be just the same,” he tells Yahoo Health. “Cyberstalking is, unfortunately, becoming more and more commonplace and frequently leads to physical stalking.”
And it’s also hard to monitor for people who aren’t careful with their social media contacts. Accepting “friends” into social networks isn’t always harmless. Think before you friend, consider locking up your Twitter and Instagram feeds, and be wary of the location settings on the apps you use, especially if you’ve noticed stalker-like signs from an ex, acquaintance, or the like.
Victims may not recognize stalking behaviors, or take them seriously when they do notice them.
One of the weirdest facets of stalking in our tech-savvy culture is how often people blow off the warning signs. “Victims will recognize it’s happening, but they don’t realize it’s stalking,” says Garcia. This is because we live in a world where we can block out the noise we don’t want to hear.
With so many ways to contact and track a victim, stalking is easier than ever. But there’s also a multitude of ways to block or eradicate a stalker from your daily life — making it easy to brush off obsessive behaviors. “People blow off technology warning signs because you can just delete those emails and texts,” Garcia says. “It feels like you’re minimizing the risk, but it’s not gone.” Someone may not recognize that the behaviors are a serious problem until a stalker is already at the door.
Even then, it might not raise immediate alarm, says Garcia. Culture has conditioned us to accept some stalker-like actions as commonplace. “It’s almost normalized, between the advent of ‘Facebook stalking,’ and TV [shows] and movies where a guy wins over the girl with this ‘pursue, pursue, pursue’ method,” she explains. “It’s often romanticized.” So, in part, we can probably blame rom-coms and Twilight’s Edward Cullen for blurring the lines between cute and concerning.
Stalkers will try to win the victim over.
While on the topic of pursuit, it’s important to realize that the very definition of stalking involves persistence. London says stalkers often partake in “romantic” behaviors they believe will put them in the good graces of their victims.
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Erin was the victim of stalking by a guy she’d first met when she was a preteen living in Texas. Seven years later — well after she’d moved to Seattle with her family — her stalker began sending letters. “He professed strong feelings for me even though he really didn’t know me at all,” Erin tells Yahoo Health. “The letters were pretty intense, and then one day I received one asking me to meet him at a certain spot in Seattle at a certain time.”
“I just ignored the meet-up,” says Erin, who also happened to be housesitting that day. “But we are pretty sure he tried to find me at my parents’ house, because my mom came home one day and noticed a car with Texas license plates parked at the top of the driveway. He also called her and asked to speak with me.”
Declining a stalker’s advances usually isn’t a deterrent, though, says London. “Stalkers won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and [will] use any method available to contact you,” he explains. Erin’s stalker insisted that there was reason for his persistence. “I got a letter stating that I probably thought he was a stalker but that he wasn’t and if he could just talk to me, he could explain everything.”
Stalkers can seem cordial. When a victim describes the behavior to a friend, individual aspects of it might not sound threatening — but the victim’s gut says otherwise. “One of the scariest signs of a stalker is someone who makes you fear for your safety,” London says.
Stalkers generally have psychological issues.
Don’t laugh or brush off “crazy” behavior, but be sensitive to the kinds of issues that plague stalkers. For instance, shortly after Erin’s near-encounter with her stalker, she learned he had committed suicide. “When I heard he had ended his life, it definitely made me realize that the situation could have been much worse for me,” she says. “I think things can go from weird to really bad in the blink of an eye.”
Most stalkers have some kind of mental or emotional problem, however stalking behavior “can be temporary or as a result of being in a relationship where the person has been rejected,” says London. “Stalkers will go across town, country, or even to different continents in order to continue their stalking. Stable people simply do not continue to pursue someone.”
Stalkers do not deal with rejection in a normal way, either. When they tire of being rebuffed, they do not give up. They become more insistent. “He may threaten to harm you,” says London, who says this is the moment to notify authorities. If the problem runs deep and involves a need for mental help, it probably won’t go away.
This is a good reason to get authorities involved early in a stalking situation. “While the police may not be able to do anything initially, simply making them aware of what’s happening can help,” London says. “If they have a record of you reporting a stalker, you are likely to get a faster response time whenever you call them again. Keep records of everything the stalker does, including copies of emails, letters and text messages.”
Stalking can lead to serious psychological consequences for the victim.
Even if stalking is finally curtailed, it may not truly be over for the victim. According to a study published in Journal of Interpersonal Violence, the prevalence of conditions like anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction, and severe depression is significantly higher among victims of stalking when compared with the rest of the population.
That period of constant psychological stress takes its toll. “Being stalked can be destabilizing and traumatizing, leading to anxiety, panic attacks, fear of leaving the house, or never feeling safe,” London says. The circumstances can even trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as hyper-vigilance, jumpy behavior, and flashbacks of frightening incidents.
The long-term side effects can be life-altering. “Victims often feel insecurity and have an inability to trust others, developing problems with intimacy, personality changes, introversion or aggression, even suicidal thoughts,” London says. That’s why it’s so important for victims to seek when dealing with any of these lingering effects of a stalking experience.
And with stalking, as with so many situations in life, prevention is probably the most underrated course of action. Remember how accessible you are to everyone in your social circle — and those who may want to be.
Don’t ignore behaviors that give you that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, and don’t keep a person’s unwanted attention to yourself. “We use this casual language like, ‘Someone is creeping on me’ or, ‘Someone is bothering me’ — but if you’re concerned, trust your instincts,” says Garcia. “Talk to someone about safety planning.”
*Name has been changed
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