As much as You will try to convince you that stalking is a sexy and elusive activity (and that somehow just wearing a baseball cap will conceal your identity entirely), the reality is that being stalked is a genuinely terrifying experience.
While it can show up in all sorts of ways, stalking is generally considered to be persistent and unwanted attention from someone that makes the person being stalked feel intruded upon and harassed. Although it can feel gross and weird to be followed or watched, stalking doesn’t refer to one-off instances of this kind of behaviour.
It isn’t always someone standing on a street corner in a fedora and recreating the Arthur meme as they watch their unwilling target. In fact, it’s rarely that. There are many low-level behaviours, that we may not even think of as stalking, that fall under the umbrella. It exists on a spectrum and can begin in subtle ways that lead to bigger, badder habits.
And most of the time it’s being done by someone you know: often someone you’ve dated, ended a relationship with or been in some way intimately involved with.
A US study, published by the US Department of Justice, showed that three in four stalking victims are stalked by someone they know, with people aged 18 to 24 experiencing the highest rate of stalking. Although we don’t have population based stats specific to Aotearoa, the NZ Women’s Refuge database has found that, of clients who complete the intake assessment section relating to their experiences of stalking, 74.6 percent are stalked by their partner or ex-partner pre-separation, and 64.7 percent are stalked post-separation.
So, what are the behaviours that are considered stalking?
These can be over the top, attention grabbing acts, to show your adoration of a person. Think Heath Ledger singing “I Love You Baby” with a marching band to show Katarina how he feels. But like… If she didn't like him… Or want to see him… or know him well. This kind of behaviour is often well-intentioned but totally misguided to the point of delusion.
Repeated attempts to have face-to-face contact with you. This might be coming to your work, your school, your home, or more subtly attending parties, gigs and events that the stalker knows you’ll be at too.
Mediated contact is when the person stalking uses different media to make contact with you. From the varied social media platforms, to more old school attempts like letters and emails and calls. With many of us online and having so many points of contact these days, this can feel especially invasive.
Surveillance refers to learning details about the target without his or her knowledge. Social media has given us an all access pass to each other's lives for the past 2 decades, which can make it tricky to determine when this becomes a big issue. But once this goes beyond checking their facebook once or twice to see where they’re from or who they’re mates with, this is definitely where stalking tendencies tip into genuinely frightening behaviour.
The violation of physical or symbolic boundaries. From trespassing to stealing physical items or information.
Harassment and intimidation:
These are things clearly done with the aim of frightening the victim of stalking into compliance. The person doing the stalking might go out of their way to create an intimidating or hostile environment, leaving the victim feeling unsafe and unstable.
Pressuring or forcing the victim to do what the person stalking them wants. These threats can be verbal or written, and can include blackmail or threats against the friends, family and loved ones of the victim.
Similarly threatening behaviour, but this time with physical or sexual violence. It’s important to remember that sexual violence includes sexual harassment and abuse that is, of it’s own accord, non-violent in nature.
These behaviours might sound out the gate, but they’re not unheard of in normal life.
One victim of stalking told VICE that they were stalked by “a guy my age, when we were 13, who was too shy to talk to me in real life” who would “call me with caller ID blocked, to silently breathe into the phone. He would follow me around on his bike from a distance.”
Another person who had experienced stalking shared that they were stalked both in real life and online.
“They wrote unhinged posts about me on social media to get my attention, and posted videos talking about me. They would also call and text off of new numbers every time I blocked them. Eventually I got a temporary restraining order”.
It’s easy to point fingers and call this kind of behaviour “crazy”, but how many people can say they’ve never gone to an ex’s Instagram and scrolled through their photos to see what they’ve been up to?
The way you painstakingly avoid the accidental double tap that might alert someone to your presence tells you everything you need to know. You shouldn’t be doing it. But you do it anyway. It can be really difficult to see these habits in yourself, but when your mental health is on the line too, recognising when your interest in someone is getting out of hand benefits everyone.
And we’re not trying to say that every Instagram scrolling ex has the potential to become Joe Goldberg. It’s 2023, and you’d have to live in the woods to avoid accidentally taking in information about the people you’re connected with online.
But finding yourself turning to these sorts of habits in the wake of a break-up, or during a crush, gives some insight into how people justify making the leap to legitimate harassment. You can know it’s wrong, and it might make your own life and mental health worse, too, yet you keep pushing. So why?
What makes people do it?
People “stalk” for all manner of reasons. Sometimes it comes out of a desire for control, or out of anger or an inability to handle rejection. Probably the reason we see the most, in fiction, is stalking to fulfil a fantasy – to emulate a closeness to the person, imagine a relationship with them, feel a sense of ownership of them. The person doing the stalking might feel a sense of entitlement over their victim, as if the victim belongs to them.
Where it often shows itself after a romantic relationship is in one person's continued attachment to the relationship.
They may stalk out of a dependency on romantic and intimate relationships in their life: what psychologists refer to as having ‘obsessive passion’. The person's self worth is so linked to needing a romantic relationship that they neglect other parts of their life to pursue one.
You’re not alone if your own sense of worth is tied to your relationship, but you need to own up to yourself and talk to someone about them, before it starts affecting you or others around you.
How does stalking affect the person experiencing it?
Whatever the reason the person is doing it, stalking is massively traumatic to experience. It can be incredibly overwhelming, frightening and cause strain on other areas of your life. In turn this can cause a variety of physical traumatic stress reactions like headaches, trouble sleeping, or appetite changes.
So here’s what to do if you’re experiencing stalking.
- Report the crime to the police. You can make contact by calling the 105 non-emergency police line, or by visiting a station in person to make a statement.
- Use your phone safely, preferably without active location services.
- Block numbers and accounts attempting to make contact with you.
- Keep a record and copies of things sent to you. This will help in cases of legal action.
- Make people close to you aware of what's happening and ask for practical support, such as lifts home or not posting photos of you online.
- If you are being stalked at work, either by someone also from your work or someone who knows where you work, tell your manager and ask for their help in keeping you safe there.
Own the Feels is brought to you by #LoveBetter, a campaign funded by the Ministry for Social Development.
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Rachel Barker is a Producer @ VICE NZ in Aotearoa