Ever since Angie broke up with Sam a few weeks ago, he’s been bothering her – following her around when she is going to class, calling her a couple of times a night, even showing up on her job, and walking around outside her house. Sometimes he tries to talk to her about getting back together with him; other times he’s just there. It’s starting to drive her crazy.
In the last few years, there has been a lot of publicity about stalking – from the woman in love with David Letterman who broke into his home repeatedly to the O.J. Simpson case. In the past, the police would get involved only if there was some physical threat or violence. Now in states across the country, there are anti-stalking laws specifically designed to protect victims before some tragedy occurs.
It’s the Law
The way the law defines stalking varies from state to state. In Illinois, for example, it is defined by specific objective behavior – an individual has to threaten to physically hurt a person and then trail or keep that person under surveillance. In other states, such as Virginia, stalking is determined more by the amount of emotional distress the victim feels – even if the person doesn’t threaten the victim, if the victim feels frightened by the person watching or hanging around, the person can be charged with stalking. What the laws have in common, of course, is that the person in question is deliberately following someone around.
Once a complaint is made, depending on the state law and how serious the behavior is, an officer may first talk to the stalker and issue a warning to leave the victim alone. Other times the police will observe the stalker to see that he or she is in fact trailing the victim, and then arrest with no warning. If convicted, the stalker can receive a sentence ranging from probation and orders to stay away from the victim to several years in jail, depending once again on the state law, the number of past convictions, and the severity of the crime threatened.
Not everyone who stalks and goes to trial, however, is found guilty. Some stalkers are found innocent on grounds of insanity. These are the cases of the romantic stalkers, people who don’t even have a relationship with the person they are stalking, but who follow a person, call all day long in an effort to start one or to get the person to like them.
It may seem like a crush, but they are mentally ill because their thinking is delusional and not based on reality. They always distort whatever the person tells them. Even if the person tells the stalker to leave him or her alone, for example, these stalkers believe that the person is lying – that he or she is just playing hard to get or that he or she is just saying that for the benefit of other people so they won’t get jealous of the relationship. Nothing the victim does changes the stalker’s mind.
Originally it was thought that most of these stalkers were women; now it’s thought that there are just as many men. These romantic stalkers don’t usually hurt the victims, but there have been a few cases in which the stalker has threatened or hurt other people, such as a person the victim was dating or a police officer who tried to intervene.
If found not guilty because of insanity, they are ordered for psychiatric treatment and usually are placed on medication. Unfortunately, they often stop taking it, and start stalking again.
But romantic stalkers seem to be a minority of the stalkers. Most stalkers have had a relationship with the victim, and begin stalking after the relationship breaks up. These people are not crazy in the legal sense. Most often they are men who have severe problems with loss and anger; they may say they love the person, but stalk as a way of intimidating the victim, or getting revenge. It’s hard for even experts to know just how far these types of people will go. Some will harass and make threats, but will stop if warned by the police; others will continue, even if arrested several times, and can without warning escalate harassment into violence or murder. The courts and the police have responded by taking stalking more seriously and by pushing for tougher enforcement of the law.
So what should Angie do? What should you do if you feel that someone is stalking you?
First, if you know the person or know of the person – somebody at school, somebody else around your age that you’ve seen – try to figure out the person’s intent. There’s a difference between an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend who is just having a hard time getting over the relationship and someone who is out to scarce you, or between someone who seems to be abnormally obsessed about you and someone who is just socially unskilled and doesn’t know how to get to know you. This is especially true among young people.
Be clear about what you want. If the relationship is really over, say it and mean it; if you don’t want to get to know a person, say so. Then follow through by ignoring that person. If his or her basic intentions are good, the person will get the message and back off.
If he or she persists in hanging around, following you, calling or harassing you, tell someone who can help – your parents, a teacher, someone older whom you trust. You may want to call the police. The police can tell you what you can do, instruct you about the law, and intervene to protect you.
Your Right to Privacy and Protection
Even though stories of stalking make the world seem more frightening, the new laws also reflect a growing sensitivity to the individual’s right to privacy and protection from others who try to emotionally, not just physically, do harm. Maybe this is a first and important step in creating a more compassionate society.