(WOMENSENEWS)–A woman hears footsteps behind her as she walks back to her dorm at night. … The same fellow seems to turn up in several of her classes. … Should she be worried? … The guy she turned down for a date calls her repeatedly for a week, stops and then starts again. … She’s getting e-mails that hint of violence and retribution.
The women are all targets of campus stalkers, all of them pursued, menaced and fearful.
Campus stalking has gone on for years but only recently has it registered on the collective campus radar screen and been defined as a crime. Little research has been conducted, especially on campus stalking.
In fact, this weekend, the Rutgers University Department of Urban Studies is sponsoring the first national research conference on stalking, which will include police experts, stalking researchers and campus-based victims’ advocates.
A centerpiece of the conference is expected to be the recent results from the first national survey, which found that college women were at least twice as likely to be stalked as women in the general population–and as much as 13 times more likely to be menaced by a stalker.
The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, reported that 13 percent of female college students were stalked in the seven months prior to the study. By contrast, a 1998 justice department study reported that only between 1 percent and 6 percent of women in the general population were stalked during the previous year.
“Stalking had not been studied with respect to college women,” said Bonnie Fisher, primary author of the new study and associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati.
The national survey of more than 4,000 college women by University of Cincinnati researchers defined stalking as repeatedly following, watching, phoning, writing, e-mailing or otherwise communicating with someone in a way that seemed obsessive and caused fear or concern for personal safety.
“What we were trying to do was get a broad-based legal definition,” said Fisher. “The key components were repeat, pursuit behavior that caused the target to be fearful.”
Experts say the primary reason for the high stalking numbers in colleges may be that college life makes stalking easy. Campuses are closed communities in which it is easy to learn someone’s routine, track the target, blend in, obtain a home address, telephone number and e-mail address for menacing messages.
But though stalking is a crime in all 50 states, many campuses don’t have anti-stalking policies. Many include stalking under harassment policies, and universities are not required to report stalking incidents to the federal government. Moreover, victims are often reluctant to come forward, and cases are difficult to prove.
Overlooked for Years, College Stalking Only Now Is Studied
“Stalking is a new concept, and we don’t understand it like we should and give it the credence that it deserves,” said Dolores Card, director of the Syracuse University Rape Center and the Intercollegiate Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “We did that with sexual harassment five or ten years ago. The same thing is happening with stalking.”
The element of fear and menace is the difference between female and male stalking victims, according to women’s advocates. Although males are also frequently stalking victims, they are less likely to receive threats from their female pursuers and less likely to feel endangered by the pursuit.
Stalkers Either Former Lovers or Casual Acquaintances–Seldom Total Strangers
College women were more likely to be stalked by someone they know, typically fellow students who pursued them for an average of three months. Four out of five stalking targets knew their pursuers–slightly more than in the general population. College women are most often stalked either by someone with whom they had an intimate relationship or with whom they have had casual contact–not by total strangers.
“It’s almost always a student in a classroom who obsesses on this victim, or a student who met her in a club,” said Connie Kirklan, director of Sexual Assault Services at George Mason University in Virginia. “It is very rare that there’s been a dating relationship. That’s the reason some people don’t come forward, because they hear it’s always part of a relationship.”
In the study of college women, 42 percent of targets had had an intimate relationship with their stalker, whereas 46 percent knew their stalker casually.
Card, from Syracuse University, said stalking also occurs in the aftermath of sexual assault, when the attacker or his friends will stalk the victim to intimidate her in an effort to keep her silent.
In over 15 percent of cases reported to the researchers, victims said their stalkers had threatened or tried to harm them. In over 10 percent of the incidents, victims reported that their stalkers had attempted or forced sexual contact.
“There is the potential in every case for it to escalate to physical or sexual violence, which is why it’s so important to address it early,” said Seema Zeya, senior program director at the Stalking Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington.
Almost 30 percent of stalking targets in the study said they were emotionally scarred. “Its pretty clear that, psychologically, it’s devastating,” said Zeya. “They suffer from anxiety, depression, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder. They feel like they’ve lost total control over their lives. Stalking is a way to get power and control over the victim.”
According to the Department of Justice study, college women reported stalking to the police in only 17 percent of incidents, whereas 55 percent of women in the general population said they had reported their stalking to the police.
Fifty States Have Passed Anti-Stalking Laws, but Prosecution Is Difficult
The first anti-stalking law was enacted in California in 1990. Today all 50 states have anti-stalking laws under which stalking is generally a misdemeanor. When the perpetrator is a repeat offender or uses violence against his target, stalking becomes a felony. In 1996, Congress passed a federal anti-stalking law, which was amended in 2000 to include cyberstalking.
At the university level, stalking has only recently become a major source of concern. The problem is largely invisible except to the victims and to those providing victims’ services.
Campus police and victims’ advocates suggest strategies besides prosecution. Targets can use call blocking, caller ID and other technologies to make themselves less available; they can move to another dormitory or off-campus housing. Some universities provide escorts. In some cases, women can obtain restraining orders. University judicial affairs proceedings can also offer some relief through sanctioning the offender.
But awareness of campus stalking and its gravity have a long way to go. Shirley Smoyak, professor of urban studies and community health at Rutgers and a stalking researcher, said her presentation on stalking was greeted with scorn at Oxford University in England. Men in the audience told her that stalking was just part of men’s natural pursuit of women and told her to “go study something serious.”
“The unnatural part is when women get hurt or killed,” said Smoyak. “They put blinders on and don’t see it.”
Megan Costello is a free-lance writer in New York.
For more information, visit:
National Center for Victims of Crime, Stalking Resource Center:
George Mason University Stalking Policy:
Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics:
Read another Women’s Enews story about campus violence, “Sexual Assault, Stalking Widespread on Campuses”: http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm?aid=451