January 2011 marks the eighth annual observance of Stalking Awareness Month. Launched in 2004 by the National Center for Victims of Crime, an organization that emerged from the the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. Although funded by the Department of Justice, President Obama is the first American President to issue an official proclamation to focus attention on an issue that affects 3.4 million Americans and 2.3 million Canadians (according to a 2005 StatsCan study) annually.
Defined as ‘criminal harassment’ in Canada in section 264 of the Criminal Code, stalking is a form of abuse most often used by men against their intimate or former intimate partners. Eight out of ten stalking victims are women and nine out of ten stalkers are men. It is an often escalating pattern of behaviours intended to frighten, intimidate and control the victim.
Stalking relates very closely to femicide. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 76% of intimate partner femicide victims had been stalked by their intimate partner, 67% of stalking victims had been physically abused by their intimate partner, and 54% of stalking victims had reported to the police before they were murdered by their stalkers. Despite the common myth that only celebrities get stalkers, most victims are known to their stalkers and are usually ex-partners, spouses, acquaintances, colleagues or friends. According to StatsCan, 88% of criminal harassment victims fall into this category and stalking is usually an extension of family violence.
The most dangerous times for a woman to be stalked by her partner include the first three months after leaving the relationship, dates or anniversaries related to the relationship, if the stalker thinks the woman is involved with a new partner and when or if the stalker receives court orders related to the stalking. Living in a culture that tells us that typical stalking behaviours are romantic, it can be very challenging for the victim to believe that what she is experiencing is harassment. Socially pervasive myths concerning stalking are that if a man stalks a woman after the relationship is ended, it means he truly loves her and wants to renew the relationship, that the woman being stalked encourages the behaviour, that she likes it, and that if she just tried hard enough she could reason with her stalker.
A quiz on the National Stalking Awareness Month site is a useful tool to begin to understand the magnitude of this problem. If you feel concerned about your personal safety because someone is following you everywhere you go, contacting you repeatedly, watching your home or office and making you or members of your family feel threatened, you may be experiencing criminal harassment, and no one deserves to live in fear. If you feel you are the victim of criminal harassment, contact the police. Ask them for support and information; they can suggest ways to improve your safety and refer you to services, agencies, transition houses, crisis and counselling services. They will investigate the complaint so collect as much evidence as possible. Save the frightening emails, voice mails, any written letters, notes. Photograph any acts of violence. Document all unwanted contact. The more information they have the easier it will be for them to build a case. It is also helpful if you can provide them with details of the stalker such as whether he has an existing criminal record, access to weapons or an existing court order restraining him from talking to you. Keep a list of witnesses and ask your friends to keep records as well; dates, times places, what the stalker did or said.
The Ministry of Justice has this to say: “Being harassed or stalked is not your fault. The person may claim to love you, but he or she really wants to control you. You have the right to reject a friendship, separate from a spouse, or break up with a partner. Just because you know the person does not mean that you must put up with the harassing behaviour. You are not to blame if someone repeatedly bothers you or follows you around. Remember, what they are doing is NOT love. It is against the law and you can take action.”
Common Stalking Behaviours:
• repeated phone calls, emails, voice mails that threaten or annoy the victim,
• calling over and over again and hanging up when the phone is answered
• leaving threatening messages
• sending unwanted gifts
• stealing and opening the victim’s mail, breaking into her email, following her online
• attempting to obtain private information about her from other people
• breaking into her home
• vandalising her property
• following the victims, your friends or family
• threatening or harming her children, family, pets, friends