Stalking is not something we necessarily have a very good understanding of as a society. We tend to imagine stalkers as sad individuals with so little going on in their own lives that they fully attach themselves to someone else’s. We envisage stalking in a simplistic way – we conjure up images of a man following a woman around dark corners and sneaking into her garden to simply be near her. Most troubling is that our popular image of the stalker often paints them as a creepy but ultimately harmless figure – too sad to be taken seriously.
But this could not be any further from the truth. A 2017 study from the University of Gloucestershire found that stalking behaviours were present in 94% of intimate partner or domestic homicides. Dr Jane Monckton Smith, a researcher leading on the study, urged police forces to reconsider their methods of assessing risk in light of the study. The findings demonstrated that much of the time, stalking was considered a ‘minor, unrelated’ aggravation in cases of femicide, but in reality it should have been treated as a key predictor of fatal or extremely violent attacks.
So, we wanted to examine stalking a little more closely to explain what it might look like and how it can develop.
What behaviour constitutes stalking?
Stalking does not merely refer to the act of following another person from place to place covertly. It also takes place in other ways, some of which involve a significant amount of coercion. Sometimes a stalker’s behaviour may appear non-threatening; at others it may even appear to other people that the stalker is simply trying to be nice. But it is still a harrowing experience for victims and should be treated as serious, even if the stalker seems ‘harmless’. After all, about 50% of domestic stalkers who make a threat will act on it. And it only takes one threat for serious harm or loss of life to occur.
Stalkers don’t just follow their victims. They pester them in many ways. They might send you unwanted gifts, or comment on all your social media posts. The action may seem harmless, but it can be stressful to endure so much unwanted attention, especially if others around you don’t take it seriously.
Stalkers are often consumed with their victim, following every move they make online and keeping records of their activity. A stalker may infer things from a victim’s behaviour that are totally inconsistent with reality, but which align with overblown fantasies or paranoias which dwell inside the stalker’s head. Like most abusers, stalkers rarely take responsibility for their own actions and instead view their victims as having somehow caused the stalking to which they subject them. They make victims feel as if the stalking is their fault. Most abusers tend to do this in different ways – for example, a man who hits his partner may yell ‘see what you made me do!’. Likewise with a stalker, they may tell their victim that they can’t help stalking them because the victim is leading them on.
Stalkers are controlling people, and many of their monitoring tactics (such as contacting a victim’s friends and family or hacking their social media) stem from a desire to be in control of all facets of a victim’s life. This makes a stalker feel powerful.
Stalkers are often people with whom victims have been intimately involved already – they are often exes who will not leave the victim alone. Our image of them as creepy strangers is misleading and fails to take into account the fact that stalkers often know a lot about their victim and have access to a victim’s life in ways that leave the victim at high risk.
How does it precipitate fatal violence?
People rarely see these behaviours as serious but they are. If a person keeps showering someone with attention that that person hasn’t consented to, it means that the stalker is unable to appropriately modify their behaviour to make others feel comfortable, and has instead turned the person they are stalking into an object. And once someone becomes an object of another’s attention, the capacity for that stalker to dehumanise and treat them without necessary human consideration becomes much greater.
As a stalker showers their victim with gifts, attention or pleas to be loved, they may begin to feel a sense of entitlement which becomes very dangerous to any victim who continues to refuse to pay their stalker attention. Many stalkers, because of their self-centredness and sense of entitlement, are unable to cope with rejection. This is not simply because they are highly sensitive people, but because very often they have objectified the person they are stalking. When an ‘object’ then displays the agency to reject the stalker this is then seen not only as a huge insult and blow but as a significant loss of control for an abuser.
Stalking is an obsessive behaviour. Seeing it as a minor infraction perpetrated by harmless but sad individuals does a real disservice to victims who are rightly frightened or disturbed by what is happening to them.
Let’s turn back to the study from the University of Gloucestershire. As part of this, Dr Jane Monckton Smith identified an eight-stage pattern in the majority of cases of domestic homicide. She argues that this pattern should be actively looked for by police assessing a woman’s risk of intimate partner femicide. In most of these cases, there was a pre-relationship history of stalking. If we contextualise stalking as obsessive behaviour centring around social media monitoring, bombarding a victim with texts or sending unasked for gifts, then we can see how victims experiencing this behaviour can even be worn down into accepting a relationship with their stalker.
But first and foremost, we have to recognise stalking as dangerous behaviour. Even if stalking itself down’t involve physical violence, that’s not to say that it can’t lead to that point.
Stalking is harrowing of its own accord
One thing to remember amidst all of this is that stalking is not simply problematic because it can be a predictor of fatal violence. It is harrowing of its own accord and should be treated as such.
Experiencing stalking is highly unpleasant and often draining. Having to constantly push back on unwanted gifts and attention can wear a victim down and leave them emotionally fragile. Having to also explain what is happening to them to others can be really difficult. If a stalker is contacting a victim’s friends, they too may be peeved, but they also may not be able to see how serious and distressing the situation is for the victim. Being stalked is an awful position to be in, as it leaves you uniquely vulnerable to a behaviour that is not well understood or legislated for.
So if you find that you know someone who is a victim, make sure to listen and try your best to understand their concerns and fears. Even if a stalker isn’t physically violent, their constant barraging of a victim’s emotions and privacy is certainly violence in itself.