Every year, women in the UK are killed by stalkers and domestic abusers—despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of our coverage here.
Starting university is traditionally seen as an exciting and formative new life chapter. It’s an opportunity to expand your knowledge, widen your social circle, and, in most cases, move out of home for the first time.
But this freedom can come at a price. Living independently in a new environment can be a disorienting experience, especially if you’ve moved away from friends and family to an unfamiliar town. For young women in particular, this can be a period of heightened vulnerability: one 2009 study found that the highest rates of harassment and stalking victimization tend to occur in people aged between 18 and 19.
Watch: Unfollow Me: The Story of Alice Ruggles
While there have been few studies that examine the risks faced by women at college specifically, in 2010 Britain's National Union of Students (NUS) published a damning ‘Hidden Marks’ report, the only report of its kind in the UK. Their research revealed that 68 percent of female students experienced “some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment,” including flashing, unwanted sexual comments, and groping. Additionally, 14 percent experienced “serious physical or sexual abuse,” while 12 percent had been the victims of stalking. Broadly's own Freedom of Information investigation into the phenomenon found that 381 students at UK universities have been accused of stalking and domestic violence over the past three years.
For Laura Richards of anti-stalking charity Paladin, these findings barely scratch the surface. “12 percent believe they’ve been stalked, but I imagine it’s far higher than that,” she says of the report. “It’s just about how you ask the question. Some behaviours can be dismissed as low-level harassment, or intrusive behaviour—when in fact, they’re stalking. If it’s unwanted and it’s a pattern, and it frightens you, that’s stalking.”
And with social media now making our everyday movements more accessible, it’s likely that this kind of harassment has become more common since this report was published nearly a decade ago. So what do you do if you believe you’re being stalked or harassed on campus? We spoke to experts to find out the most effective ways of taking action.
Trust your instincts
“If you think someone is stalking you, it’s best to take your instincts seriously,” says Dr. Jane Monckton-Smith, a criminologist specialising in stalking and coercive control at the University of Gloucester. Often, she says, the main obstacle for victims is their own self-doubt, which can lead them to dismiss behavior that they find unsettling. “If you are worried, don’t think about looking silly or getting someone into trouble—tell someone. Don’t be afraid to use the term ‘stalking’ to professionals. Name it: [it’s] best to be clear.”
It’s also important not to justify low-level harassment or disturbing behavior if it’s coming from someone you know. For example, in many stalking cases, the perpetrators are already known to the victim. “Remember that the most concerning stalkers are ex-partners,” adds Monckton-Smith. “Don’t assume they should be ignored.”
Collect all the evidence you can
If you do begin receiving unwanted harassment, either online or in real life, Paladin recommends that you retain all the evidence you can. Start a diary which includes all the details of each incident, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. Record unwanted phone calls, and screenshot any troubling messages or emails. If you can, take videos and photos of your stalker. This will all be invaluable evidence if the behavior escalates and you need to make a report to police.
Keep an eye on your digital footprint
It’s easy to lose track of how much of yourself—from your interests and friends, to your most frequented locations—is available online. “The growing use of social media has made stalking much easier,” says Monckton-Smith. “Students need to be careful about the kind of information they put on social media, and be mindful of GPS tracking.”
Richards stresses the importance of regularly Googling yourself, to see whether there is anything public that shouldn’t be (if there is, adjust your privacy settings accordingly). You should also disabled geo-location tracking on your smartphone, and tagging on social networking sites, to lessen the chances of being followed or monitored.
Keep your friends close
The long term effects of stalking can be emotionally devastating, with many victims becoming purposefully isolated from friends and family. To prevent this, the NUS urges people to be as open as possible with people they trust. “If you feel unsafe being on campus or journeying to and from, invite those closest to accompany you,” says Sarah Lasoye, NUS England Women’s Officer.
Even if you’re not being victimized yourself, it’s essential to stay vigilant. As Laura Richards points out, there are telltale signs if your friends and loved ones are suffering: “If a friend's behavior changes—perhaps she is more withdrawn, going out less, is becoming isolated, losing weight, or if she is losing her 'sparkle'—please do ask questions,” she says. “Check on your friends.”
Let your university, and the police know—early
As well as speaking to your friends and family, it’s vital that you keep a clear line of communication with your university as soon as you feel threatened.
“Often students do not report cases of stalking, as they feel there isn’t a clear or ‘serious enough’ incident,” says Lasoye. “However, it’s important that we remind students that they shouldn’t be waiting for a situation to escalate, in order to be taken seriously. If someone’s behaviors are intimidating, threatening, and interfering with your feeling of safety on campus, you should report.”
While the NUS handles each incident on a case by case basis, it urges anyone struggling to immediately reach out to a member of staff at their university. “This might be a personal tutor, a supervisor, or a sabbatical officer at your students’ union,” continues Lasoye. “They will be able to signpost you to the member of staff responsible for dealing with cases of harassment and should support you throughout, making the necessary interventions for you to feel safe to access your education freely.”
If you don’t feel adequately supported, or if you still feel like you could be in danger, the police also need to be informed, and sooner rather than later. “It has been said that police don’t always take stalking reports seriously, [but] I think this has changed,” says Monckton-Smith. “Remember not to downplay your experiences, be open and clear. Police may not be able to fill in the gaps. Always tell them if you are frightened: they need to know this.”
Even if you think you can handle the situation, never underestimate what a perpetrator may be capable of. “Always take stalking seriously,” she adds. “The earlier you intervene, the more likely it is that it can be managed effectively.”
If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.