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What are Stalking and Harassment?
The National Center for Victims of Crime's Stalking Resource Center defines stalking as "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person fear." This definition suggests that stalking is a pattern of behaviors rather than a single incident. In addition to federal stalking statues, all states and U.S. territories have laws to address stalking (Stalking Resource Center).
Under the definition above, there are many behaviors that stalkers can use to intimidate their targets and cause them to suffer fear and distress, including but not limited to harassment. However, the West Virginia law pertaining to stalking (WVC §61-2-9a) addresses harassment as a crime separate from stalking:
- To be charged with the crime of stalking, someone must repeatedly (on two or more occasions) follow another person "knowing or having reason to know that the conduct causes the person followed to reasonably fear for his or her safety or suffer significant emotional distress."
- To be charged with the crime of harassment, someone must repeatedly (two or more times) harass or make credible threats against another person. Harassment is broadly defined as "willful conduct directed at a specific person or persons which would cause a reasonable person mental injury or emotional distress." A credible threat is defined as "a threat of bodily injury made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat and with the result that a reasonable person would believe that the threat could be carried out."
What Behaviors Constitute the Crimes of Stalking and Harassment?
Stalking, according to West Virginia law, is clearly identifiable as repeatedly following another person. But, unlike other crimes such as speeding and murder, there is no "master list" of behaviors that constitute harassment. Harassment, using the West Virginia definition of "willful conduct," could include numerous behaviors. The following is a list of behaviors that could potentially be considered stalking or harassment (Stalking Resource Center; WV Foundation for Rape Information Services); however, note that the list is not all-inclusive:
- Surveillance or watching the victim (sitting in a car in front of the victim's house, going through the victim's trash, contacting the victim's family and friends, etc.);
- Pursuing/following the victim;
- Unexpected appearances where the victim works, lives, goes to school or visits;
- Approaching or confronting the victim, perhaps even in violation of a protective order;
- Telephone harassment, which might include playing disturbing music, hang-ups or threats;
- Sending/giving unwanted gifts, letters or e-mails to the victim;
- Monitoring of telephone calls or computer use;
- Use or misuse of technology to stalk and harass (see below);
- Spreading rumors or otherwise defaming the victim's character;
- Vandalism or other destruction of property;
- Threat to the victim and/or her/his family, friends and pets;
- Physical attacks; and
- Sexual assault.
Except for vandalism, threats and physical and sexual violence, each of the above behaviors could be considered annoying and/or disturbing, but hardly criminal. It is the cumulative pattern of behaviors that forms the "course of conduct" that can cause the targeted individual to be afraid and distressed. For example, a single e-mail or bouquet of flowers may not be frightening, but 150 e-mails, bouquets of dead flowers and late night threatening calls become something that cannot and should not be ignored.
Every situation is different. Because many of the behaviors may be viewed as innocent or even romantic, stalking and harassment can be difficult to prove, much less prosecute.
Note On Terminology
For the ease of reading the remainder of this section, the term "stalking" will be used to refer to both stalking and harassing behaviors, since that is the inclusive term used in the federal legislation. However, these crimes are separate under West Virginia law.
Use of Technology to Stalk
Technology has provided stalkers with additional tools and added new dimensions to the impact on victims. This use/misuse of technology by stalkers is sometimes referred to as "cyberstalking." For example:
- Stalkers can use hidden cameras to watch their victims or global positioning systems (GPS) to track victims (Stalking Resource Center);
- "Spy phone" software programs and devices that utilize GPS allow stalkers to monitor victims' cell phone conversations and text messages;
- Software is available that enables stalkers to remotely access victims' computers and know their every keystroke or each website they visited;
- Stalkers can post comments and pictures about victims on message boards or social networking sites;
- Stalkers can fill victims' e-mail with spam or send a virus or other damaging programs to victims' computers; and
- Stalkers can easily and legally obtain public information about victims through online searches, such as phone and address listings, court records, property records, subscriptions, etc. (Stalking Resource Center). That information might later be used to gain access to victims' homes, pets, families and/or friends.
Is Stalking Dangerous?
Initially victims, their friends and families, law enforcement, perhaps even the courts may not fully recognize that these offenders can be dangerous. However, stalking behaviors should always be taken seriously. Stalking can be violent and escalate over time (Stalking Resource Center). It most likely will not stop if it is just ignored. In fact, ignoring the behavior sometimes seems to cause the behaviors to increase in frequency and/or become more disturbing or bizarre. Stalkers have physically assaulted, sexually assaulted and/or murdered their victims. No risk assessment system exists to predict if stalking will escalate from the merely uncomfortable to the unspeakable.
Tjaden & Thoennes (1998) noted that stalking can be extremely dangerous for female victims if it involves an intimate relationship that has recently ended—81 percent of women who were stalked by current or former intimate partners were also physically assaulted by their partners and 31 percent of those women were also sexually assaulted by their partners.
Who are the Victims?
Although anyone can be stalked, certain factors increase the risk.
- Persons aged 18 to 24 years experience the highest rate of stalking (Baum et al., 2009). Because of the ages identified, this fact is especially relevant to college communities. Many college campuses have ideal environments for stalking as they are like closed communities, where class schedules and other campus activities can be easily monitored (Fisher et al., 2000).
- Nearly three in four victims are stalked by someone they know in some capacity; 10 percent are stalked by a stranger (Baum et al., 2009).
- Thirty percent of stalking victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner (Baum et al., 2009). Understandably, a current or former partner knows details such as likes, dislikes, habits, interests and even passwords that can assist in stalking.
- The risk of stalking victimization is highest for individuals who are divorced or separated—34 per 1000 individuals (Baum et al., 2009). Some stalking behaviors are part of a pattern to assert or maintain coercive control over a partner even when the relationship has been legally dissolved.
- Women are at greater risk for stalking victimization; women and men are equally likely to experience harassment (Baum et al., 2009). Females experience 20 stalking events per 1000 females, while male victimization is approximately 7 per 1000 males (Baum et al., 2009).
Impact on Victims
Victims react differently; however, the element of fear is a key element to the very definitions of stalking and harassment. The tactics that stalkers use can create enough distress that their victims fear for their own lives or safety or for that of a family member, friend or a pet. Approximately 29 percent of stalking victims fear that the stalking behaviors will never stop (Baum et al., 2009).
Additional ways that stalking can impact victims include:
- Being stalked can affect one's ability to trust others and cause victims to be constantly on alert, feel vulnerable, stressed and anxious (National Center for Victims of Crime, 2004). Sometimes the stalking behavior is random and mild at first, and then it may grow more pervasive and threatening. Victims may initially overlook or minimize what later is determined to be stalking
- Victims often find themselves changing their routines to avoid their stalkers' actions. Changes can include anything from varying routes or methods of transportation to changing telephone numbers or taking time off from work or school. According to Baum et al. (2009), more than half of stalking victims lose five or more days from work and others experience issues with their employers (including termination) because of the stalking.
- When any form of technology is involved in stalking, victims may become fearful of or uncomfortable when using devices that had been part of their lifestyles. Stalkers may ruin some victims' enjoyment of social networking sites or chat rooms by spreading rumors or posting inappropriate material. Stalkers may use cameras or other devices to invade victims' privacy so the victim feels she has no safe place.
- Some victims have relocated to evade their stalkers. Some have even changed their social security numbers. Getting a new identity may seem ideal, but it can generate other unintended consequences that should be considered. Employment, credit eligibility and other factors can be adversely affected when social security numbers and names do not match.
- Many stalking victims seek counseling as a result of their victimization. Victims have reported feelings of powerlessness, exaggerated startle reflex, panic attacks, hyper-vigilance, chronic sleep disturbances, appetite disturbances, persistent nausea and excessive fatigue (Baum et al., 2009).
- Stalking can have a financial impact on victims—from the loss of work and increased expenses such as attorney fees, damage to property, child care costs, moving expenses or changing telephone numbers (Baum et al., 2009). In other instances, stalkers may have committed identity theft, opening or closing accounts and charging merchandise and services to victims' credit cards without their consent (Baum et al., 2009).
Stalking can impact victims in every facet of their lives.
"While victims cannot control the stalking behavior, they can be empowered to take steps to keep themselves, their families and loved ones safe. The creation of a safety plan can assist victims in doing this" (Stalking Resource Center, 2009). This plan needs to be a working document that provides guidelines not only for their personal safety, the safety of their family, friends and pets and the security of their environment, but also protects the safety of sensitive information such as financial records and passwords. While such a plan itself does not guarantee safety, it can be a tool to identify activities, resources and people who can be helpful in keeping them safer. (See the Stalking Resource Center at http://www.ncvc.org/src/ for Safety Planning Guidelines.)
When safety planning, remember that stalkers use multiple tactics to stalk their victims: Two thirds of stalkers pursue their victims at least once per week, many do so daily, using more than one method; 78 percent use more than one means of approach; and weapons are used to harm or threaten victims in one out of five cases (Mohandie et al., 2006). Given the length of time involved and the changing tactics that stalkers may use, safety plans need to be re-evaluated and updated continuously (Stalking Resource Center, 2009). Revisions to safety plans also need to be considered as victims' routines and their access to services and support change (Stalking Resource Center, 2009).
Critical elements for victim safety include, but are not limited to the following (Stalking Resource Center, 2009):
- Keep a phone handy at all times. The phone number should be unlisted and stalkers should not have access to this phone. Emergency numbers and numbers of any trusted family, friends and other allies should be on speed dial. Some sources encourage victims to memorize emergency numbers. In crisis mode, however, memory may not be reliable. Panic buttons or other easily engaged emergency alert devices can be helpful back-ups.
- Spend more time in the company of friends or trusted family members rather than alone.
- Be less predictable. Victims may need to change grocery stores, take a different route to work, use public transportation, or stay with a friend or family member for a few days.
- Take any threats, whether explicit or implied, seriously. Know when to notify law enforcement or seek a protective order. Since June 2010, a protective order may be possible in domestic cases. The local rape crisis center or domestic violence shelter can assist the victim with additional information, advocacy and support.
- Explicitly instruct businesses, agencies, schools, workplaces, family, friends and others not to give out personal information. With businesses, victims should request that accounts be password protected. This password should be one only known to the victim; no information should be released or discussed until the password has been verified.
- Use caution when sharing personal and location information. Posting details on social networking sites or on away messages (computer, phone, instant messaging, etc.) can provide stalkers with locations, pictures, and information that can compromise victim safety. An innocent comment ("Can't wait to see that new movie Saturday night.") details where the victim will be as well as confirms that she will not be home (which would be an opportunity for a stalker to break into her home, install spyware or cameras, etc.).
- Address safety issues related to the misuse of technology by stalkers. For example, victims may need to change e-mail addresses and other online account information (passwords and access codes). Another safety tactic can include erasing the history of Internet sites visited on home and public computers. If stalkers have access to victims' phones or computers, they may have the capacity to use GPS to track them—in which case, victims should stop using these devices or only use them in a manner that will not give the stalkers any information about their location.
- Encourage victims to trust their instincts about people, places and things. If it does not feel safe, take steps to make it so.
When and Why Does Stalking Stop?
While stalking may be brief in duration, the average case lasts about two years (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Stalking often does not stop if ignored. If anything, it tends to escalate. It often does not stop unless the stalker's focus moves on to someone else. Victims are encouraged to seek the assistance of a rape crisis center advocate for support and information regarding using the criminal justice system for protection.
Baum, K., Catalano, S., Rand, M. & Rose, K. (2009). Stalking victimization in the United States. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Through http://www.ncvc.org/src.
Blauuw, E. et al. (2002). The toll of stalking. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17(1), 50-63. Through http://www.ncvc.org/src.
Fisher, B., Cullen, F. & Turner, M. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
McFarlane, J., Campbell, J., Wilt, S., Sachs, C., Ulrich, Y. & Xu, X. (1999). Stalking and intimate partner femicide. Homicide Studies, 3(4). Through http://www.ncvc.org/src.
Mohandie, K., Reid Meloy, J., Green McGowan, M. & Williams, J. (2006). The RECON typology of stalking: Reliability and validity based upon a large sample of North American stalkers. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 51(1). Through http://www.ncvc.org/src.
National Center for Victims of Crime (2004). Stalking: Guide no. 22. National Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. Through http://www.popcenter.org/.
Stalking Resource Center (2009.). Safety planning guidelines. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Victims of Crime. Through http://www.ncvc.org/src.
Stalking Resource Center (n.d.). Stalking facts. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Victims of Crime. Through http://www.ncvc.org/src. Also see Stalking fact sheet (2009).
Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (1998). Stalking in America: Findings from the national violence against women survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information Services (n.d.). Stalking and harassment (brochure). Fairmont, WV. Through http://www.fris.org.
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