We’re at the tail end now of Stalking Awareness Month and I’ve realized that I haven’t said much explicitly about it, although the discussions we’ve had about escaping violent ex-partners, worrying about people who may be following us, performing realistic risk assessments, understanding boundaries, and the like are all relevant. As with all crimes, anyone can become a target, and anyone can be the aggressor – a former intimate partner, a friend, an acquaintance, a total stranger. One of the trickiest parts, though, is that it’s not always obvious when someone’s behavior crosses over into crime. After all, stalking is often couched in terms of admiration, in gifts and messages that seem kind and even complimentary on the surface. Some stalkers are more violent and threatening, and it’s more obvious that their behavior is causing their victim to fear for their safety, but even the “nice” stalkers can terrorize. Either way, understanding the core wrongness of their actions can help us articulate not only why a certain person is causing us to live with a constant tension that they’ll once again appear unwanted and perhaps dangerously, but also why a certain person just makes us feel uncomfortable.
There’s a key phrase there that gives us a hint: they’ll once again appear unwanted. We’ve never invited them into our lives, or we’ve hinted or asked them to take themselves out. And yet, they continue to intrude. It doesn’t matter how nice the intrusions might seem from the outside, they’re something we didn’t ask for and perhaps explicitly rejected. We said no; they said yes. They ask, even tell, us to accept their yes no matter how squicky and uncomfortable it makes us feel. In other words, we have drawn a boundary and they are attempting to run right through it. At the lower end, with the smaller nudges, we might call them creeps. At some point, it becomes so intrusive to our sense of security and safety that it can become more than that. One direction it can go is stalking. Of course, it doesn’t always start with small border incursions, but recognizing and being able to describe those can be a helpful tool in recognizing and being able to describe why those expensive flowers and constant letters are actually really scaring you.
The options we have for defending ourselves are, in many respects, quite similar.
They start with being explicit and clear about our boundaries. It’s not that sending mixed messages or no messages at all is any excuse for someone to try to force you to accept an interaction you don’t want, but doing so makes life harder both for you and for them. If nothing else, saying clearly that a behavior is unacceptable creates a narrative that supports your later responses both to yourself and to others. When someone wants to know why receiving that florist delivery was terrifying, being able to say you had refused and returned earlier gifts and told the sender a dozen, documented times to stop contacting you, the answer becomes much more obvious to everyone, even you. And don’t forget, ignoring contact attempts and refusing to respond is also a form of communicating a boundary.
They are helped by being open and vulnerable about our emotions. I’m not saying open up to the person who is bothering you (though there’s a place for that sometimes, with unintentional creepers), but letting other folks know how you are being affected is useful in a number of ways. It helps them understand how we are being affected by those actions, instead of believing a minimized explanation. It helps them prepare to protect you, whether in an official, authoritative role, or simply as a supportive friend. And it gives you a release and an opportunity to feel less isolated, alone, and afraid.
And finally, they are backed up by having physical safety layers around us, whether in terms of behavior or passive security measures, or in being ready to fight with skills and tools. Some of them are things we should be prepared with all the time, even if we’re not already a target: being careful about where we go and when, keeping an eye out for obvious threats surrounding us, actually locking our doors and using secure passwords for online accounts, and similar. Others are things that aren’t difficult to add to our lives: carrying pepper spray regularly, continuing education about ways to keep ourselves safe, staying guarded about our home address, limiting who knows our local and non-local travel schedules, and more. Everything that works against the kinds of dangers that make the news works against the kinds of dangers that don’t make the news…yet.
Stalking is a crime, but it’s not one that exists in isolation. Instead, it is a crime that exists within a spectrum and constellation of bad behaviors. Some of them are legally punishable and some are not, but they all affect our safety and our feelings of safety. Fortunately, we can defend against all of them with our own spectrum and constellation of skills and tools.