Stalking Awareness Month sheds light on an overlooked form of violence

Elizabeth Phelan | Staff Writer

Stalking is something people often disregard or make light of in popular culture and conversation. We make jokes about stalking people on Instagram or WUSTL Faces. Television and movies romanticizing stalking behaviors as proof of a character’s ardent love. Yet the reality of stalking involves a deeply serious and dark trend on campuses nationwide; it is predatory, distressing and dangerous.

According to the Stalking Resource Center, a program of the National Center for Victims of Crime, a staggering 7.5 million people are stalked every year in America, and most victims are young women ranging in age from 18 to 24. This statistic is frightening for many reasons, foremost among them how frequently stalking precedes horrors like assault, rape and murder.

Mark Glenn, Chief of the Washington University Police Department, noted that stalking is intrinsically linked with other forms of intimate partner violence.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault and stalking generally are intertwined,” Glenn said. “We take stalking as more of a sexual crime because, when you look at the dynamics of it, it falls in line.”

Stalking is a prevalent form of interpersonal violence at Washington University; according to the 2019 AAU Campus Survey, 14.6% of students reported having experienced stalking since enrolling at Wash. U. Despite this, Glenn said that the number of stalking cases reported to WUPD is “overall very low.” This discrepancy suggests that many victims do not come forward about their experiences.

“There’s always that stigma that goes with this type of crimes,” Glenn said. “Until we talk freely and openly about it in society, people aren’t going to come forward and report it.”

Leaders in Interpersonal Violence Education (LIVE) recently held a program for national Stalking Awareness Month, which occurs every January, featuring informational tabling and programming in the Danforth University Center.

“We did the Fun Room program, so we [provided] some stats, resources and also some knowledge about stalking,” said senior and LIVE Programming and Outreach co-Chair Laura Yang.

Official definitions for stalking are varied and often murky. The United States Department of Justice defines stalking as “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 suffer substantial emotional distress.” This definition is ridden with ambiguity; what, for example, does it mean to be a “reasonable person”? At what point is emotional distress “substantial”? LIVE prefers to use a different definition.

“The definition of stalking is very, very broad because it can take a lot of forms,” sophomore and Programming and Outreach co-Chair Shaelee Comettant said. For this reason, LIVE uses a more broad definition than WUPD or the Justice Department; they define it as “repeated contact that makes the victim uncomfortable or harmed” in order to encompass more students’ experiences.

“It’s such an interpretive and subjective form of interpersonal violence,” Comettant said. “A lot of people have that definition of someone following them around all the time and don’t know that stalking can take forms outside that. Getting a definition that is more inclusive of people’s experiences, and having stalking being a part of the conversation.”

Because of the lack of awareness, Comettant said, a stalker may not even realize they are stalking someone. Part of LIVE’s Stalking Awareness Month programming involved posing the question “What can stalking look like on Wash. U.’s campus?” to students on a chalkboard. Responses varied from “wrongful use of Snap Maps” to “showing up to someone’s class” and “trying to entice someone to see you with an unwanted gift.”

Discrepancies in data based on subjects’ sexual orientation adds another dimension of complexity to the issue. In the AAU study, heterosexual students reported a prevalence rate of 4.3%, while the prevalence rate among non-heterosexual students was more than double, at 10.2%.

“There’s a level of harassment that comes from an identity, and I think that’s something that’s really not talked about when it comes to stalking,” Comettant said. “In the little bit that it’s talked about in our culture, the dynamic is usually that a man is stalking a woman because he wants to be with her or was rejected by her, or that sort of thing. But there isn’t really a conversation about different dynamics and different reasons behind stalking, and whether it’s a pursuit or an attack or any sort of discrimination.”

The prevalence of the crime makes it a daunting problem to tackle, and Comettant doesn’t believe that the University is doing enough to prevent it from occurring. Yet the hope is that students will use their knowledge and begin conversations with one another to spread awareness; as Comettant said, “Getting people talking about it is really the biggest step in solving this problem.”

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