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We Need to Talk About Stalking

January is National Stalking Awareness Month. Despite its prevalence in the US and South Asia, stalking is underreported and often absent from discussions around abusive behavior.

Stalking is, simply put, the act of illegally following and/or watching someone repeatedly. Stalking is a crime in all US states and territories. It is surprisingly common — 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have been victims of stalking at some point. Roughly 6-7.5 million people are stalked in a year in the US. It often co-occurs with other abuses in abusive relationships.

Yet for all its correlation with other abusive behaviors, stalking is often downplayed, not taken seriously, or outright dismissed. However, it needs to be made clear that stalking is abusive, and victims should not feel pressured to treat it as anything less.

What is Stalking?

Stalking is the illegal act of following and/or watching someone repeatedly. In this definition, “repeatedly” means two or more occasions. The actual legal definition of stalking varies by jurisdiction. Nonetheless, there are some defining characteristics. They are 1) repeated instances toward a specific person, and 2) that the behavior would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.

Fear is the most important part of the definition, and is generally what separates stalking from harassment. Actions that constitute stalking include following, threats, spreading rumors, and surveillance.

Stalkers often use many tactics. They may show up or approach the victim in unwelcome places, make unwanted phone calls and messages, or watch and follow the victim from a distance. Regardless of the tactics used, 2/3 of stalkers pursue their victims at least once per week, and many do so daily. Furthermore, nearly 80% of stalkers use more than one tactic to pursue.

Lastly, stalking victims generally know their stalker in some way. This can be acquaintances, coworkers, friends, or intimate partners. It is much less common for victims to be stalked by someone with whom they have no connection, though it still happens.

The Impacts of Stalking

Stalking is a psychologically abusive behavior that can take a significant toll on the victim’s mental health. Impacts can vary greatly depending on the individual’s experiences, as well as their knowledge (or lack thereof) of the stalker. Additionally, the way it is handled by both law enforcement and friends and family significantly shapes the impacts on the victim.

However the individual experience shakes down, research shows that victims of stalking experience depression, anxiety, insomnia, and social dysfunction at far higher rates than average. Furthermore, the impacts of stalking can be felt in many ways beyond mental health.

This list does not cover everything, but shows many possible effects that a victim of stalking may experience:

On Mental Health
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Agoraphobia, or fear of leaving the house
  • PTSD symptoms, such as hypervigilance or paranoia
  • Guilt, humiliation, shame
  • Fear of being left alone
  • Feelings of isolation and helplessness to stop the stalking
On Physical Health
  • Symptoms of chronic stress, such as hypertension and headaches
  • Risk of substance abuse to combat stress, and all associated health risks
  • Fluctuations in weight due to stress or irregularity
  • Chronic fatigue, perhaps as a symptom of insomnia, depression, hypervigilance, or a combination
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sexual dysfunction
On Work and School
  • 1 in 8 employed victims lose time from work, and many lose at least a week
  • Deteriorated work/school performance
  • Leaving job or being fired
  • Dropping out of school
On Social Life
  • Inability to trust others presently or in the future
  • Problems with physical and emotional intimacy
  • Avoidance of usual social activities for fear of going out
  • Isolation, either to protect others or due to not being understood/taken seriously
  • Relocation — 1 in 7 victims move altogether to escape their stalker

Intimate Partner Stalking

Intimate partner stalking is the largest category of all stalking cases. Stalking often co-occurs with other forms of violence and can be an indicator of other abuse. Many abusers resort to stalking to intimidate and control their victims. Furthermore, there is a much higher rate of violence associated with intimate partner stalking versus stalking by acquaintances. In fact, 81% of women who were stalked by a current or former husband were also physically assaulted by them.

The majority of intimate partner stalking cases occur while the abuser and victim are still together. Abusers use their control to keep victims from leaving, which makes separation extremely difficult. Victims often end up staying to mitigate further violence and abuse. However, if they do manage to separate and the stalking continues, it is much more likely to escalate.

The situation is more volatile in cases of intimate partner stalking. Intimate partner stalkers are much more likely to escalate to violence as well as to follow through on threats. It is commonly the case that instances of sexual violence are not spontaneous. Stalking in general, but especially by partners, is often a precursor to sexual assault and violence.

Lastly, there is a significant connection between stalking and intimate partner homicide. Several studies have found stalking to be a precursor or indicator. Nearly 80% of abused femicide victims reported stalking in the year prior to their murder. Tragically, over half of femicide victims had reported stalking to the police before being murdered by their stalker.

So Why Aren’t We Talking About Stalking More?

Stalking has only recently entered the mainstream conversation in South Asia. In India, for example, it wasn’t until 2013 that stalking became a prosecutable offense. Nepal lacks serious anti-stalking legislation, as does Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh and Malaysia struggle with enforcing their anti-stalking laws. Singapore didn’t pass anti-stalking legislation until 2014.

The lackluster anti-stalking laws across South Asia are reflective of the common attitudes around stalking. We need to understand that stalking is not something to be taken lightly. This is not a “boys will be boys” triviality. Stalking is a real danger, is abusive, and is a crime in the US.

Unfortunately, in our community there is a tendency to dismiss stalking outright. We justify the stalker’s actions and often place blame on the victim. We see these same attitudes directed towards survivors of any domestic abuse. Victim-blaming is a problem in South Asian culture, and it’s a problem in American culture. It’s no coincidence that stalking is severely underreported in both the US and South Asia.

It’s time to change the conversations around stalking. It isn’t romantic and it isn’t harmless following. We need to acknowledge it for the dangerous and abusive crime that it is. We need to support victims and hold abusers accountable. It all starts from the ground up, with the individual. If you or someone you know is being stalked, take it seriously and correct those who don’t. Changing the culture begins with us.

Click here for resources if you or someone you know is being stalked.

Our culturally-specific 24/7 crisis line is (952)-912-9100.

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