Providing services to victims of domestic and sexual violence since 1983
What is Stalking?
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 ofharassment, 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
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.
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).
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