Commentary

Don’t trivialize the crime of stalking

January 24, 2023 6:00 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Are you ever listening to The Current and start thinking about the DJs who were stalked?

Have you seen “The Watcher” or “I am a Stalker” or “You” and thought about how terrifying it could be to be stalked? Those shows portray stalking as serious and terrifying. But you can also find plenty of examples of stalking in pop culture that are presented as somehow cheeky or even romantic. Remember the boombox scene from “Say Anything”? An iconic scene of a touchstone of modern romantic comedies. But why is Lloyd standing under Diane’s window at dawn after she broke up with him? It’s kinda creepy. Have you ever thought about how many movies, TV shows and songs are portrayed as romantic but are actually creepy? It’s something I can’t turn off, and hopefully after you read this, you’ll see it everywhere, too.

January 2023 marks the 19th annual National Stalking Awareness Month (NSAM), which Peggy Klinke’s sister started after Peggy was murdered by her stalker. Stalking is dangerous and devastating on its own, and it also often intersects with other types of victimizations, including physical violence, sexual violence and homicide. This year, the city of Minneapolis recognized January 2023 as Stalking Awareness Month for the first time, and the White House continued its tradition of declaring January as National Stalking Awareness Month.

Yet, too often, stalking is trivialized, minimized, unrecognized and unaddressed. 

Stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear or emotional distress. As fear is highly personal, so is stalking; stalkers often engage in behaviors that seem benign to outsiders but are terrifying in context. 

For example, receiving a surprise flower delivery is generally a welcome experience, but when a victim has quietly relocated to escape a stalker, that flower delivery can be a terrifying and threatening message: The offender has found them. And while it is legal to send someone flowers, it becomes illegal when part of a pattern of stalking behavior because the entire pattern is a crime.

Stalking is a crime under federal law, in all 50 states and D.C., in U.S. Territories, in many tribal codes, and in the military justice system. Stalking is one of the four major crimes under the federal Violence Against Women Act, and its prevalence rivals that of intimate partner violence and sexual violence: Stalking impacts nearly one in three women and one in six men in the United States over their lifetimes. Most stalkers target people they know, and the majority are intimate partners or acquaintances who tend to have intimate knowledge about the victim’s vulnerabilities and fears. 

Stalkers often follow, monitor, and wait for their victims, as well as leave them unwanted gifts, spread rumors about them and repeatedly call, text and message them. The majority of stalking victims experience both in-person and technology-facilitated stalking. Technologies and tactics used by stalkers constantly evolve and may seem impossible or unrealistic when you first hear about them; but stalkers are creative in the pervasive ways they monitor, surveil, contact, control and isolate victims, as well as the ways they damage victims’ credibility or reputation.

Stalking can impact every aspect of a survivor’s life. Survivors often suffer anxiety, social dysfunction and severe depression as a result of their victimization, and many lose time from work and/or relocate. One in five stalkers use weapons to threaten or harm victims, and stalking increases the risk of intimate partner homicide threefold. 

And yet — despite its high prevalence and impacts — many victims, families, service providers, legal professionals and the general public underestimate its danger and urgency. 

Join me — in January and all year long — in spreading awareness of stalking. NSAM’s theme of “Know It. Name It. Stop It.” is a call to action for everyone in Minnesota and across the country. The vast majority of victims tell friends or family about their situation first. How we respond will influence whether they seek further help or not. 

The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, & Resource Center offers lots of facts and figures, resources for folks supporting victims and holding offenders accountable, and awareness resources for National Stalking Awareness Month; for all of these and more, visit StalkingAwareness.org

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Julia Holtemeyer
Julia Holtemeyer

Julia Holtemeyer's work in gender-based violence began more than 15 years ago as a college student, working at the rape crisis center and as a peer health educator. She was with the Peace Corps in Tanzania, and currently works as the training specialist for the Stalking, Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC).

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