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What are we talking about when we talk about stalking? The word has become a reference to nosing around each other’s Facebook timelines—or to unhealthy but not persistent choices, like that one miserable weekend when you drove past your ex’s place three times. We’re not here to talk about those. We’re talking about patterns of behaviours that cause substantial emotional distress to another person and may seriously compromise their sense of safety. Sometimes, these behaviours escalate to attempted sexual assault or other kinds of violence.

Stalking is more common on campuses than off, studies show. It is widely underreported and can affect anyone. “The majority of stalking is men stalking women,” says Bobbie McMurrich, Associate Executive Director of Victim Services Toronto. “Young women ages 15–24 are at the highest risk of being stalked of all age groups.” And Aboriginal peoples are twice as likely to experience stalking, a 2005 study by Statistics Canada suggests (Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile).

Although stalking is a crime in Canada, it is often missed or minimized—even by people whose lives are disrupted by it.

Would you recognize stalking?

According to the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, “Criminal harassment, more commonly known as stalking, can be defined as harassing behaviour, including repeatedly following, communicating with, or watching over one’s dwelling or home.”

But that’s not all, experts say:

  1. Stalking is recognized as any behaviour that causes another person reason to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them. It is a form of criminal harassment, which is against the law in Canada and punishable by conviction or indictment.
  2. It’s usually recognized as a pattern of unwanted behaviours, rather than one single incident—such as persistent texts and calls, online harassment, or physically or digitally tracking or following a person. These behaviours are not a sign of love, but of power and abuse. “If someone is continuously contacting you because they feel entitled to you, to your time, to have you in a relationship with them, that is unhealthy,” says Rona Amiri, Violence Prevention Coordinator at Battered Women’s Support Services in British Columbia.

What stalking may look like

This list of stalking behaviours comes from the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. Stalking does not necessarily involve all of these behaviours. Keep track if you notice someone engaging in these behaviours:

  • Following you and showing up wherever you are
  • Sending unwanted gifts, letters, cards, or emails
  • Continuously calling you at home, on your cell, or at work
  • Sending threatening or obscene email or text messages
  • Tracking or following you
  • Posting information about you or spreading rumours about you online (message boards, social media, chat, etc.)
  • Driving by or hanging out at your home, school, or work
  • Threatening to hurt you, your family, friends, or pets
  • Damaging your home, car, or other property
  • Assaulting you physically, sexually, or emotionally

Why stalking can be difficult to spot

We may not recognize stalking or be reluctant to label it.
Here are some of the reasons:

  • Stalking may criminalize otherwise noncriminal behaviors
    It may be difficult to understand why someone is frightened by the gifts they are receiving.
  • Stalking involves actions that may have a specific but not apparent meaning
    The implicit threat in some actions may be understood only by the offender and victim. Those actions could include going into the targeted person’s home or room in their absence and moving things around.
  • Some stalking-type feelings and behaviours are normal
    “Normal brain development continues till you’re 25, so some of that behaviour that happens in pursuit of a dating relationship is typical,” says Jennifer Landhuis, Director of Social Change at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “That can get confusing when you’re asking whether you’re following someone, whether you’re texting them too much. How do we decide when it passes the line and goes into stalking? That depends on the person who’s experiencing it. Is that behaviour scary?”

    “It’s not easy to say definitively what stalking behaviour is; it’s different for everyone,” says Bobbie McMurrich, Associate Executive Director of Victim Services Toronto. “Trust your gut instinct. If that instinct is telling you something is wrong, listen.”
  • Stalking often intersects with other abuses
    “Stalking is [sometimes] related to violence in an intimate relationship,” says Rona Amiri, Violence Prevention Coordinator at Battered Women’s Support Services in British Columbia. And because it intersects with these other forms of abuse (e.g. intimate partner abuse or sexual violence), it can be more easily missed.

Who's being stalked and by whom

  • Young women aged 15–24 reported the highest rates of being stalked (Statistics Canada, 2005).
  • In a 2009 study, over three-quarters of stalking victims were women (Statistics Canada, 2009).
  • In a 2015 study of sexual misconduct on campuses, the undergraduates most likely to have been stalked while in college or university were transgender, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer (12 percent) (AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct). Four percent of students overall, and seven percent of female undergraduates, reported that they had been stalked while in post-secondary education.
  • In another study of college students, one in four women (25 percent) and one in ten men (11 percent) had been stalked at some point in their lives (Violence and Victims, 2000).
  • Most victims know their stalker: In the 2015 college survey, 40 percent said their stalker was a friend or acquaintance, and 24 percent said it was someone they had dated or a former sexual partner.
  • Stalkers who are the current or former partners of their victim are more likely to physically approach the victim, are more insulting and threatening, are more likely to use a weapon, are more likely to escalate quickly, and are more likely to reoffend (Journal of Forensic Science, 2006).

What to do if your obsessive thoughts about someone else are driving your behaviour

Don’t be that person: How to handle your obsessive thoughts

Therapeutic approaches

If you have engaged in stalking behaviours, you could benefit from developing your interpersonal and social skills.

You would likely also benefit from an emotional health evaluation. Stalking can overlap with conditions such as depression, substance abuse, and personality issues, which may be alleviated or managed through treatment and support.

Next steps

  • Make an appointment with your campus counselling centre or a therapist based in the community; request help finding a counsellor who has expertise in obsessive thoughts and behaviours
  • Try a support group, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous
  • If you have addiction issues, ask at your counselling centre about relevant resources
  • Confide in a close friend or mentor, if possible: Ask them to help you keep things in perspective, steer you away from recurring thoughts, and fill your time with other activities
  • Seek out distractions: sign up for a team, club, or extracurricular

Co-Dependents Anonymous

Therapy for obsessive thoughts and behaviours
Appropriate therapy for stalking-related issues involves you working individually with a clinician. The approach is guided by your mindset and the underlying issue (for example, whether you are struggling with rejection, social awkwardness, or delusional thinking). The therapeutic work may include:

  • A mental health assessment and treatment if indicated (for example, medication may help with false beliefs)
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy and/or motivational interviewing to build more realistic perceptions and empathic perspectives (for example, understanding how your behaviour affects the other person)
  • Programming to enhance your interpersonal and social skills, such as expanding social activities

Looking back: what I did, why I did it, how I stopped

Stalking-type behaviours can show up in students who are not yet well-adjusted to the dating environment of college. Behaviours such as excessive texting may not reflect malign intent or emotional illness. Students making this mistake are in many cases open to hearing from peers, an RA, or a staff or faculty member about how their behaviours are being perceived and experienced by others.

“I have intentionally loitered or taken a certain route in hopes of running into a certain person. I could have managed my feelings more constructively by doing something more productive with my time, and accepting that the person was probably bored of our conversations.”
—Female fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“The first few times when you fall in love, you won’t know how to deal with these feelings. These are mistakes anyone can make, especially those who have deep ingrained trust issues.”
—Male, fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“I wanted to be closer friends with this person, and the thought of that person being happy with other people made a little sad. I have a ‘need to be needed’ so that may have influenced the desire to give that particular person lots of gifts. I didn’t do anything else. It was a valuable learning experience in terms of interpersonal relationships and how to manage them. It also allowed me to slightly empathize with those who are currently similar to that ‘Past-Me.’”
—Female fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“I followed her social media closely and thought about her a lot. It was difficult to not call her (and I often did it late at night after drinking...which I regret). Taking better care of my own mental and physical self would have helped. Counselling would probably have helped too. It was a close friend who got me through all that.”
—Male third-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland

“I was feeling lovesick after a breakup. Nothing malicious, but I found myself wanting to hang out in areas where they might be, and search for them online. Therapy helped, as did finding constructive ways to distract myself.”
—Female third-year undergraduate, Sonoma State University, California

8 ways to help a friend who’s being stalked

Chances are your friend isn’t quoting the Criminal Code. They may not even use the word “stalking.” Even so, it’s important to take seriously initial concerns about stalking behaviours, and to act early, says Detective Mark Kurkowski, of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Domestic Abuse Response Team, Missouri. “Respond to stalking cases before [they involve] violent threats or [run to] years of stalking,” he says. Here’s how to do that:

1. Listen to your friend’s story and believe it

Allow them to tell their story the way they want to tell it. Do not underestimate how powerful listening is.

“One of the most important things to do is to listen to your friend, hear what they have to say,” says Rona Amiri, Violence Prevention Coordinator at Battered Women’s Support Services in British Columbia. 

“Pay attention to what they have to say, and avoid putting your own opinion on the situation. Practice active listening. Let them know you’re there for them and can provide support.”

2. Recognize that you are not in a position to say what they should do

All the methods they’ve tried have failed.

… or what you think they should have done to make the stalking behaviour stop.

“We don’t want to take power away from people; we want them to feel empowered to make their own choices,” says Amiri. “You have the ability to provide information and resources. Say: ‘Hey, I know this crisis line, I can connect you with them.’ But never say ‘You should do this,’ or ‘If you don’t do this…’ because then they’ll feel judged and less likely to [confide in you].”

3. Consider their full context and situation

As their friend, you’ll have some idea of what other challenges they may be facing; the stalking might be one part of a difficult semester or year.

Your friend is your friend, not just a stalking victim. As their friend, you’ll have some idea what other challenges they may be facing; the stalking might be one part of a difficult semester or year. All the pressures and challenges in their life are important in how you think about helping. “Unless you try to consider everything they come to the table with, you might not be able to help,” says Jennifer Landhuis, Director of Social Change at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence in the US.

4. Help them explore their options and access to resources

Stalking resources are less familiar to most of us than sexual assault; options are available on and off campus.

  • Although many of us are learning what resources exist for people affected by sexual assault and domestic violence, stalking resources are less well known.
  • If the victim or others is (or feels) threatened with violence, call the police. Even if it’s at the beginning stage of criminal harassment, you can call the police, tell them you’re concerned, explain what is starting to develop, and tell them you’d like it on record, explains Bobbie McMurrich, Associate Executive Director of Victim Services Toronto. There are no charges at that point, but the police will have record of the event.
  • Check out the reporting, advocate support, and counselling options on campus. A good place to start is your campus counselling centre or public safety/security office. Look for a campus advocate, such as a resident assistant or someone in school administration. Your job as a friend may be finding which advocate on campus is best equipped to help. Advocates on campus can help in various ways:
    • Accessing accommodations, such as getting the person being stalked into a different residence or classes
    • Taking action through the school’s disciplinary process, and/or going to the police, with a view to interventions such as no contact orders.

5. Activate your friend network

Check out these 4 ways to harness the power of your social network.

Social networks are powerful. Here’s how to harness that power:

  • When someone who’s been stalked talks to a friend, they may find someone who’s been through the same thing and knows what resources are available, says Detective Mark Kurkowski of the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Domestic Abuse Response Team.
  • If you know people who are friends with the stalker, they might be able to help. Jennifer Landhuis, Director of Social Change at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence says: “You can absolutely engage whatever peer group might have influence on the person who’s conducting the behaviour.”
  • Help protect the victim’s privacy. It’s not realistic to ask your friend to get off social media, but you can be very aware of how you use your own and what your privacy settings are. “When people have Facebook and whatever networks they’re using, it’s really important they do not share what they’re up to or where they’re going,” says McMurrich. To strip online posts of automatic location information, search “how to disable geotagging on [phone make/model].”
  • Actively support your friend’s safety when you’re together. If you’re heading to a bar with your friend who’s been stalked, ask your crew, “How are we going to keep an eye on them? What kinds of bystander supports are going to keep our friend feeling safe?”

6. Make a safety plan and check out safety apps

Safety plans and apps can help.

“In terms of safety planning, there is no one-size-fits all,” says McMurrich. Safety plans use what a victim knows about a stalker to reduce the risk of harm to themselves and those around them. “One thing we go over in safety planning is talking to [the victim] about what their routine is. Wherever possible, we want to help people change up their routines so they are not the same every day, Monday to Friday.” This could mean leaving school or work at a different time each day and taking a different route or method of transportation. Of course, some people can’t change their routine easily, McMurrich notes. In addition, look for evaluated safety apps that can address your friend’s needs.

7. Document the pattern of stalking

This is essential to any disciplinary process or police report.

Documenting the course of behaviours in a stalking situation is essential to any disciplinary process or police report. “If there are multiple voice messages, for example, don’t erase them. Keep those messages because that’s evidence,” says McMurrich. “Keep the emails, the postings, the text messages, everything.” Take screenshots of online posts and learn how to download a copy of Facebook messages.

8. Help others understand what stalking is

Avoid using language that minimizes how harmful and dangerous stalking can be.

Some victims minimize the behaviours that threaten their safety, or blame themselves. “A lot of people experiencing stalking or gender violence often blame themselves for the behaviour,” says Rona Amiri, Violence Prevention Coordinator at Battered Women’s Support Services in British Columbia. Look at those behaviours: Is someone following them around, tracking them somehow, or not taking “no” for an answer? Help to educate your friend. What does stalking look like, what does it feel like, what does it sound like?

Get help or find out more

Your school’s stalking policies may be included in its sexual harassment and assault policies.
Your public safety/security office and/or counselling centre can provide resources and support.

YWCA Safety Siren app

Safety planning: Victim Services Toronto

Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime

What you need to know about stalking: METRAC

How to stop obsessing: PsychCentral

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Evan Walker-Wells is the co-founder of Scalawag, a new magazine and website covering Southern politics and culture. As an undergrad at Yale, Evan was one of the first communication and consent educators, working with students and groups around campus to build a more positive sexual and romantic culture.

Lucy Berrington is a health writer, editor, and communications manager. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.