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10 Things to Know About Stalking and COVID-19

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As we’ve learned from our research on sexual violence in disasters, crises further magnify pre-existing social inequalities and violence. Stalking is no exception. The crime of stalking is highly misunderstood, often misportrayed in the media, but extremely pervasive and harmful. Stalking is  commonly defined as “recurrent and unwanted intrusive behavior toward another individual that causes distress.” While this has traditionally been thought to take place in person, through the mail, over the phone, and more recently online, new technologies have created new pathways for stalking. For example, there has been a rise in stalking through digital doorbells, baby monitors, and other personal items through hacking.

Research shows that stalking has risen significantly since the onset of the pandemic. While this initial wave of data comes mostly from the United Kingdom, evidence suggests a similar trend in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic has created new and worsened dangers for many survivors and potential victims - both in an increase in incidents and more barriers in accessing help. Given the rapid changes that have and are taking place amidst the pandemic, it’s important to reassess our understanding of stalking, the ways in which it’s evolving, its impacts on victims, and how to prevent and stop it. In service to spreading awareness, here are ten things to know about the changing nature of stalking and its impacts.

#1) Although necessary for public health, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and public closures have made finding someone at home more likely.

Stay-at-home orders raised a number of concerns mainly due to fear that domestic violence victims who aren’t safe at home would have nowhere to go. In that same vein, research shows that stalking victims represented “sitting ducks” as quarantine regulations would make their locations much more apparent. When the harassment takes place online, victims report feeling there is nowhere to go to feel safe, as they can never be sure if online harassment may develop into something in-person. Given the nature of the virus and its variants, leaving home can still come with a feeling of high risk whereby victims may feel they are increasing their chance of catching the illness in order to escape threatening situations at home or online, and therefore must weigh increased isolation against negative health outcomes.

#2) In many cases, restraining orders don’t help or law enforcement is unwilling to get involved. Many stalkers know this.

Stalking is a particularly difficult crime to prove and regulate. Even in cases in which the victim can identify the stalker and has sound evidence of their conduct, there is little law enforcement can or is willing to do in order to effectively prevent the behavior from continuing. When the stalking takes place online, it can feel almost impossible for victims to get the protection they need. Online stalking victims are frequently told to limit their usage, which can be a problematic approach. Policing victims or making them limit their normal behaviors is a big price for individuals to pay to avoid being stalked or harassed. It can be especially impactful when victims rely on virtual spaces to fulfil their socialization, stay connected with the world and their communities, or interact with their friends and loved ones. Given that the pandemic has drastically increased online interactions, expecting stalking victims to refrain from utilizing online spaces places undo blame and punishment on them.

#3) Stalking has increased in online spaces since the pandemic. Blocking perpetrators doesn’t fix the problem.

As much of our attention has shifted online both in work and in our personal life, virtual spaces have become yet another avenue in which to perpetrate and be victimized by stalking. While victims are encouraged to block perpetrators as a solution, many of the popular platforms where perpetrators frequently harass victims usually allow them to create new or proxy profiles to continue the intrusive behavior. Even if victims make their profiles private, perpetrators may pose as friends, family members, or someone else to gain access to them online. If the victim is a public figure, has an internet presence, or has a social media following, it makes it even more difficult to manage.

#4) The anonymity of the internet makes not knowing or being able to prove who the perpetrator is more difficult for victims.

Stalkers often rely on free untraceable accounts which make it extremely hard for victims to know or understand how to respond, or who and what is safe.  For example, a perpetrator may make multiple accounts to harass the victim, who may in turn believe there are multiple people abusing them. The inability to definitively identify perpetrators creates a sea of opportunities for them to use multiple approaches to harass, while victims are left without many options to protect themselves or withdraw from the unwanted attention.

#5) Stalkers are human beings with their own traumas. In many cases, victims are their scapegoats.

The pandemic has been difficult for everyone. For those with pre-existing trauma, anxiety, or mental health issues, the urge to reclaim power or control that they feel was once lost or taken from them may drive them to stalk or harass others. Some individuals who push unwanted communications on others may themselves be very isolated during the pandemic, and target others as their sole form of social contact. The distraction of focusing on their victim may make a stalker feel more in control as they manage their own fears and distress about the COVID-19 pandemic. As we’ve learned, traumatic disasters create feelings of helplessness and increase desperation and erratic behavior. These are not excuses, but instead potential explanations. Nonetheless, people are diverse, and so are their experiences. Stalking has been depicted in movies using similar stereotypical portrayals, which may wrongly lead people to believe that stalkers or victims all share a similar profile. Remember, stalking is any form of ongoing unwanted contact, and it can take many shapes.

#6) Although necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, masks have further complicated stalking prevention and created new distress for some victims.

Facemasks have been shown to be an effective and important component in stopping the spread and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have, however, had unintended consequences for victims of stalking and sexual violence. Survivors may be uniquely triggered by face masks, especially when they do not know who is behind the harassment. Face masks have been speculated to empower stalkers, as research in the UK found that masks afforded perpetrators an increased sense of anonymity which empowered their choices to follow victims, spy on them at home or work, or gain close proximity to them. As quoted in the Unmasking Stalking report, “some victims believed the monotony of lockdown had led their stalkers to become more obsessed while being able to hide their identity behind a mask.”  

#7) Stalkers aren’t always romantically driven.

Movies and media have often depicted stalkers as lovesick suitors or scorned ex-lovers, driven by an unhealthy obsession to be with the victim. Of course, this can be true in many cases, but not all. A stalker can be driven by hatred, delusion, revenge, or the power they feel when harassing a person, even if it’s a complete stranger. With rising political tensions and split opinions about news, politics, and the COVID-19 outbreak itself, a great deal of stalking has recently been fueled by belief bullying and “right fighting,” or the urge to prove that another person is wrong about an opinion, thought, or belief, even if it means using fear or taking extreme measures. Given the far-reaching platform of the internet which allows people to share their views, thoughts, and selves publicly, stalkers have ample opportunities to harass people with little consequence.

#8) Access to help and services is difficult due to COVID-19.

Insufficient care and support is an important component in understanding stalking. As with many other service providers, the COVID-19 shutdown created limited and strained capacities that left victims and survivors of stalking without sufficient help. This creates an impasse for victims who endure heightened harassment alongside lack of support. At the same time, service providers struggle to manage increased need as they grapple with larger issues brought about by the pandemic like limited staff, office closures, and budget cuts. Individuals who engage in stalking behavior may be unable to access support to help them stop, or the behavior itself may be the result of not being able to access emotional and mental health services.

#9) Victims have no way to truly know with confidence whether stalkers are serious in their intentions to harm them or how bad it might continue to get.

Stalking behavior is meant to make its victims feel afraid, unsafe, and overpowered. Stalking victims often live with the terror of never knowing for sure just how serious they should take the harassment or whether a perpetrator’s threats are motivated by true intent or simply designed to scare them. As such, they are put in a state of limbo where they are told to ignore it while simultaneously keeping vigilant to be prepared for the worst, all while being unable to stop it. Historically, stalking victims have been unable to get preventative legal action until the conduct became extreme - in many cases, by that time, it was too late. It’s common for people to try to comfort stalking victims by telling them the behavior is only meant to scare them and most likely not a legitimate threat. Regardless of what may happen, however, living with the possible unknown can be terrifying in itself. As we outlined in our series on trauma, even if nothing violent or extreme happens, chronically feeling unsafe is a form of trauma.  When a person endures something traumatic, their brain may engage in what we call “catastrophic thinking.” This is when victims imagine that a worst-case scenario is likely and almost guaranteed to happen. Even though our brain does this to protect us and keep us vigilant to potential future harm, it can be a truly terrifying experience for the victim.

#10) Stalking takes an immense psychological and emotional toll on a victim. They must mitigate this on top of the larger impacts of the pandemic.

Being victimized by stalking is incredibly exhausting in any climate, let alone during a period of disaster.  It’s important to understand the immense toll being the target of any form of harassment, bullying, threats, or continued unwanted contact takes on a person’s life. It affects their ability to trust people, to relax, to move through the world without looking over their shoulder, to enjoy sharing photos or information about themselves, or even just taking a walk with their children. It impacts them mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically, and in their career and relationships. Even if the behavior stops, the victim may be left continuing to wonder if they can finally move on or if the behavior and individual will resurface in the future. Victims must manage these feelings and worries in addition to all their other pandemic-related concerns and stresses - like elevated health risks, the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, financial insecurity, etc.

 

For more information on getting help for online stalking, visit Safe Horizon or call their Crime Victims Hotline at 1-866-689-HELP (4357); Available 24-Hours a Day, Seven Days a Week. Other resources include:

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