In 1989, 19 year old Robert John Bardo shot actress Rebecca Shaeffer in the chest at point blank range, killing her quickly. Bardo had been stalking Shaeffer for three years, during which time he sent her letters, tried to gain entry onto the set of her television show, and generally obsessed about her career.
As horrible as Shaeffer’s story is, the truth is that most stalkers don’t target celebrities. In the United States, about 3.4 million people are stalked annually, and women are three times more likely to be stalked than men (Stalking Victimization in the US-Bureau of Justice Statistics). Stalking is on the same continuum of violence against women as domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape. In fact, stalking often overlaps with domestic violence and sexual assault.
Only about 10% of the time does a stalker victimize a stranger. Most of the time, stalkers pursue people they know, usually (30%) current or former partners (Stalking Victimization in the US-Bureau of Justice Statistics). More than 80% of stalking victims who were stalked by a former partner also experienced physical abuse from that same partner (Stalking Victimization in the US-Bureau of Justice Statistics).
Stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. It is a course of conduct rather than an isolated incident. So, looking up your high school boyfriend on Facebook one time to see a recent picture of him? That’s snooping, not stalking. Especially if it doesn’t make your ex-boyfriend feel afraid. But if after you looked up that picture, you dug up his address and drove to his house to leave a note, and your ex-boyfriend felt threatened, that is probably stalking. Stalking is defined by how it makes the victim feel, rather than the intent of the stalker.
Stalking is unwanted phone calls, texts, letters or emails, particularly if they are threatening; following, spying or showing up unexpectedly, spreading rumors and even giving unwanted presents. A lot of stalking behaviors are not criminal activities in and of themselves. It’s not a crime to give someone a gift, after all. But when we look at the big picture, and consider that stalking is about a course of conduct rather than an isolated incident, it’s easier to see that gift giving very well may be a criminal activity.
Technology is often cited as having created a whole new group of stalkers who use the internet, cell phones, social networks, and other technological advances to stalk their chosen victims. The truth, however, is that technology facilitates the behaviors that stalkers have always engaged in. In 1989, Robert John Bardo found out where Rebecca Shaeffer lived through the help of a private investigator and her neighbors. In 2011, stalkers use the internet to locate people. Having access to technology doesn’t “make” someone a stalker, but it might open the door a little wider for them to use stalking behaviors by making it easier.
Unfortunately, there are no magic instructions to prevent you from being stalked. Stalkers are persistent, and most of them work hard to navigate the regular safeguards people put in place to keep themselves safe. And when you consider that most stalkers choose to victimize people they know, especially intimate partners, the amount of access the stalker has to the personal space and information of their chosen victim dramatically increases.
There are, though, things that you can do to protect yourself if you suspect you are being stalked. If anyone is giving you attention that you don’t want, and there is a recognizable pattern or the behavior does not change or stop when the person is confronted, chances are that the person is a stalker. The level of danger that you might face varies, but all stalking behaviors should be taken seriously. Tell someone and seek support.
Document the stalker’s behavior. Save any written communication from them, including email, text messages, instant messages or any other electronic communication. Keep a journal or calendar of the person’s behavior; writing down things like, “2:30 PM, hang up phone call. 3:30 PM, repeated attempts to send me instant messages.” Take pictures of things that can be documented that way, like roses on the hood of your car or if you see the stalker hanging around outside of your workplace. All of the documentation can assist you in acquiring a personal protection order, a court order requiring the stalker to stay away from you and end their stalking behavior. The documentation can also assist in prosecution.
Help is certainly available. Most local domestic violence/sexual assault service agencies help with stalking issues too. They can help you plan for your safety, file for a personal protection order and offer other resources to increase your feelings of safety. It’s also possible to request a personal protection order at your local courthouse, though it does help to work with an advocate.
From a prevention standpoint, one of the things that we can all do is to take stalking seriously. Making jokes about stalking, like wearing a t-shirt that says, “Some call it stalking, I call it love,” minimizes the danger that stalking victims deal with every day. Saying that you are stalking someone when you are merely looking or waiting for them desensitizes everyone around you to what stalking really is. Stalking is a crime that can, and too often does, end in serious injury or even murder. We should never consider it anything less.
The Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime is a terrific resource on the prevention and intervention of stalking.