MARISSA F. COHEN
~Founder of the Healing From Emotional Abuse Philosophy
January is Stalking Awareness Month, so I thought it would be fitting to address it, as the number of stalking reports have skyrocketed since 2017. Whether the actual amount of stalking has increased, or TV shows such as YOU brought attention to the dangers of stalking, it is increasingly important that we acknowledge it. On college campuses between 2017 and 2019, stalking reports have increased an average of 65% in the United States.
The term stalking, as defined by the Department of Justice, means engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety, or the safety of others; or causing the target to suffer substantial emotional distress.
Basically, stalking is behaving in a way that makes a target feel unsafe in their surroundings or environment. Stalking occurs when someone repeatedly harasses or threatens a target, causing fear or safety concerns. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), about 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have experienced stalking in their lifetimes, as reported by the CDC.
I was chatting with a colleague of mine about harassment and stalking, and how common it is. As I began to speak about experiences I have had with stalking in college and in workplaces, I had this overwhelming sensation that these are not experiences I have discussed much. I rarely speak in detail about the three times I was aggressively stalked, and figured it was because stalking isn’t as dangerous as domestic violence or sexual assault. In fact, it’s rarely given the same attention as rape or assault by law enforcement or the legal system — people will generally overlook it until something physical happens. However, stalking is extremely psychologically damaging. You don’t feel safe anywhere. Even if they never touched you, you feel unsafe in all areas of your life.
Have you ever experienced anything like that? That subtle feeling that you’re being watched? The tension in the pit of your stomach that something isn’t right? That unconscious need to peer over your shoulder consistently, but you don’t know what you’re looking for? That’s the residue of the psychological impact that stalking has on a person.
When I visit my alma mater, Rowan University, I like to have lunch at the bar in town. I love the food there, but I find myself having this compulsive need to always be looking at the doors or the entrances to the room I’m sitting in. I can’t have anyone sitting behind me or I peer over my shoulder a million times.
That goes back to a boy I dated in college. After we broke up, he would find out where I was, using his fraternity brothers and other Greek Life resources on campus, and then show up. He would have his brothers stand in every corner, or by every exit of this bar, watching me and monitoring everything I did, and who I was there with. He would position himself outside of my classrooms after all of my classes, or have his friends outside my classrooms, or outside of the building to watch where I go, and make sure I wasn’t with anyone. He would use his fraternity brothers’ Facebook and Instagram accounts to stalk me and see where I was, who I was with, and what I was doing. I was never one for posting all of my personal information anyway – but it really deterred me from even using social media. When I realized that’s how he was getting his information, I had to ask my friends to cut down on posting or tagging me in things, for fear he’d show up — which he did anyway.
I haven’t seen him since I graduated, and he hasn’t seen me in person either. But I still have this unconscious need to see the front door at all times and constantly check over my shoulder when I’m out in public. It’s a PTSD trigger that I cannot shake.
The infatuation isn’t really about making the target feel loved and comforted, it’s about attaching themselves to the target’s patterns and routines, in order to gain full control of their life and surroundings. The more they know about the target, the more they can isolate them, and integrate themselves into their routines.
A common misconception that NEEDS to be addressed is that being stalked isn’t romantic or flattering. I wasn’t stalked because I’m cute or have a great personality. I was stalked because a person who is abusive and manipulative worked his way into my routine and did everything in his power to control me. I was stalked because this person was sick.
Because stalking is either romanticized or the validity of it is questioned, we are opening ourselves up to allowing people to target and stalk without consequences. But by recognizing the actual trauma inflicted on those who experience stalking, and by working to make it a legitimate topic of conversation and concern, we can reduce the amount of people who experience it on college campuses, and throughout life.
Anyone who has any social media, I’m sure, knows the term “Facebook Stalked,” or “Cyber Stalked”. It’s a comical way of saying that you dove deeply into someone’s Facebook page, and that’s totally fine. My concern with it is the act of cyber stalking loses its meaning when it’s watered down like that. Cyber stalking is what Joe does in the TV show YOU. He digs deeply into someone’s social media and connects dots to find out where his targets live, who their friends are, everything about their friends, everything about their families, and every small detail of their lives. He learns everything he can about his target and everything around her, so he can systematically control her and be wherever she is, and fit perfectly into her routine.
Cyber stalking is not a funny joke. I’ve seen lives completely turned upside down from being cyber stalked for over a decade, with law enforcement and the legal system delegitimizing it. Always watched. Always intimidated. Being threatened and sent candid pictures of yourself taken from your computer camera while you’re not actively taking pictures. I’ve had several friends who were being watched and then blackmailed with pictures taken from their cameras by someone who hacked into their computers, of them changing, or naked or after a shower, or in bed with someone. And those pictures were used against them. That’s an invasion of privacy, and it’s terrifying! You’ve lost control of the comfort of your home!
Imagine being in that position. Imagine being sent pictures of yourself that you didn’t know were taken in compromising situations. Feeling like you’re always being watched and nowhere is safe. I can’t think of anything more terrifying.
To prevent stalking, CDC promotes the importance of early prevention and support efforts, which can include:
- Empowering everyone to understand, recognize, and address stalking.
- Recognizing the validity and danger of stalking and responding appropriately by having safety measures and support in place.
- Mobilizing men and boys as allies in prevention efforts.
- Supporting safe environments within relationships, schools, and communities through programs and policies that reduce risk and promote healthy relationships.
To recap: stalking is dangerous. It’s a loss of control of your life and your surroundings. It makes a person feel unsafe in their homes, offices, streets, anywhere and everywhere. It can result in physical harm and death, as seen on YOU. It psychologically traumatizes victims for years, and often forever. I can never say that I’m 100% over it. I am still paranoid in public places. I still look over my shoulder. I still like to be sitting facing the front doors or near windows at restaurants. I still wonder if someone is watching me through my phone or computer camera every day.
The chill still runs down my spine when I think about it, and it’s been a few years since I’ve been in contact with any of the people who stalked me. So, bottom line, before you write-off stalking as a nonviolent crime, just keep in mind that external damage heals, but internal damage doesn’t go away. It stays with you and inside you for a long time.
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