by Tom R. Arterburn

According to a study recently released by the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while victimization of women is gaining attention, stalking is still greatly misunderstood.

The National College Women Sexual Victimization study results are based on a 1997 telephone survey of a randomly selected, national sample of 4,446 women who were attending a 2- or 4-year college. In addition to 12 other types of sexual victimization covered in the survey, stalking was measured with this screen question:

"Since school began in fall 1996, has anyone—from a stranger to an ex-boyfriend—repeatedly followed you, watched you, phoned, written, e-mailed, or communicated with you in other ways that seemed obsessive and made you afraid or concerned for your safety?"

If a respondent answered "yes," she was then given an incident report that asked detailed questions about the stalking that occurred.

The survey indicated an incidence rate of 156.5 per 1,000 female students. Indeed, fully 13.1 percent of the female students in the sample (n=581) had been stalked since the school year began, they reported.

The rising fear is that college campuses are not ivory towers but, instead, have become hot spots for criminal activity because large concentrations of young women come into contact with young men in a variety of public and private settings on campus. Research suggests that these women are at greater risk for rape and other forms of sexual assault than women in the general population or in a comparable age group. Shirley Smoyak, professor of planning and public policy, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. says, points out that perpetrators have easy access to victims. "They can just sign up for a course they're taking."

Yet Bonnie Fisher and her colleagues at the University of Cincinnati find that many women do not characterize their sexual victimizations as a crime for a number of reasons. Embarrassment, not clearly understanding the legal definition of rape or stalking, not wanting to define someone they know who victimized them as a rapist or because self-blame for their sexual assault all play a part in under-reporting.

What is the nature of stalking incidents?

Although some victims reported being physically injured, the most common consequence was feeling "injured emotionally or psychologically" from being stalked. In 15.3 percent of incidents, victims reported that the stalker either threatened or attempted to harm them. In 10.3 percent of incidents, the victim reported that the stalker "forced or attempted sexual contact." In nearly 75 percent of incidents, victims reported that they had taken action as a result of their stalking.

Two of the most common responses were "to avoid the stalker" (43.2 percent) or, conversely, "to confront the stalker" (16.3 percent). In about 17 percent of incidents, victims reported the stalker to the police. In more than 90 percent of the incidents, victims confided in someone—such as a friend, family member, or roommate—that they were being stalked.

The new and growing problem of Cyberstalking—stalking online—is a worrisome variant. Smoyak notes that many students, despite their Internet savvy, are prone to this form of stalking. "Most students are very gullible when it comes to the type of information that they disclose on the web, and fail to realize they need to maintain some distance between themselves and the people they communicate with on the Internet."

Working to Halt Online Abuse (W.H.O.A.) is working to educate the Internet community about online harassment, empower victims of harassment, and formulate voluntary policies that colleges can adopt in order to create harassment-free environments online for everyone.

W.H.O.A. gets an average of 100 requests for help each week. Of these, 95% are "legitimate" cases, meaning they are actual online harassment or stalking situations. The other 5% usually are just cases of spam (junk mail) or simple disagreements.

According to Jayne Hitchcock, W.H.O.A. president, cyberstalking is just not taken seriously enough. "Many victims who go to local law enforcement or campus security are told to simply stay off the computer." But the group's statistics suggest the issue might be more complicated.

Smoyak is also concerned that law enforcement may see cyberstalking as courtship gone wrong, and fail to recognize it as a criminal behavior. In fact, she says while most states have stalking laws on the books, cyberstalking legislation is just now being written. Security and police departments also lack the proper resources to investigate stalking online. "It requires a different level of technology, which many police departments are not up to speed on," Smoyak says. "As a result, we don't know about the prevalence of one's ever tracked that."

Are some women more at risk of being stalked?

The risk of being a stalking victim was increased by a number of factors: the propensity to be in places with alcohol; living alone; being in a dating relationship, especially early in the relationship, as opposed to being married or living with an intimate partner; being an undergraduate; being from an affluent family; and having experienced sexual victimization before the beginning of the academic year.

Asian/Pacific Islander women were significantly less likely to be stalked while American Indian/Alaska Native women were significantly more likely to be stalked compared with women in other racial/ethnic groups.

Although campus communities are prone to stalking, officials can be slow to recognize the problem.

George Mason University (GMU), Fairfax, VA, which put a stalking policy, and guidelines, into effect February 1, 1999, defines stalking as "any behaviors or activities occurring on more than one occasion that collectively instill fear in the victim, and/or threaten his or her safety, mental health, or physical health."

Such behaviors and activities may include non-consensual communication, whether face-to-face, by telephone, voice messages, electronic mail, written letters, unwanted gifts, threatening or obscene gestures, pursuing or following, surveillance or other types of observation, trespassing, vandalism, or non-consensual touching.

Incidents occurring on or off campus are subject to University discipline. "Our judicial administrator will take action if a student who is being stalked wants them to," says Connie Kirkland, coordinator of sexual assault services. Although none have gone to the hearing stage, Kirkland, adds, simply making contact with the accused and indicating the potential of a hearing, usually causes the stalking behavior to end.

University guidelines for victims encourage students to put a variety of strategies into action:

- Avoid handling the situation alone. Get help, they say.

- Call the police non-emergency line and report the incident as suspected stalking. When the police confront the suspect, it almost always ends."

- Call 911 in an emergency.

- Keep a journal of stalking incidents (date, time, place, event, and witnesses).

- Avoid walking or riding alone. Call the University Escort Services or stay in the company of people you know and trust.

- Change your travel routes frequently.

- Consider seeking a police trespass warning for the suspected stalker, and/or asking the University’s Judicial Officer to put the suspected stalker on notice that he or she is to leave you alone.

- Ask your friends, family, and classmates to support your decision to remain separate from the suspected stalker.

- Identify as much as you can about your stalker, such as descriptive data or student status.

- Save any evidence such as notes, gifts, objects, photos, printed email messages, or voice messages. If you receive suspicious packages or mail, this should be reported to the police as soon as possible.

- Get caller ID if possible or let voice mail answer incoming calls.

- Fill out a Directory Hold Form from the Registrar’s Office to make your personal information unavailable and omitted from the telephone directory.

- Reject the assumption that you are "overreacting." Trust your instincts. Stalking is not a harmless game or a form of flattery. Use all of your resources to protect yourself.

- Take a self-defense class.

- Lock your doors.

- Carry pepper spray, not mace.

- Carry a personal alarm.

- Tell police facts of incident to document what happened for possible criminal investigation.

- Call police department in locality where incident occurred, if it took place off campus.

- Tell University officials the facts of the incident if both victim and accused are students. Judicial proceedings may result in an academic sanction, such as probation, suspension, or expulsion, against the accused if found guilty.

- Contact a private civil attorney to initiate a civil proceeding against the accused stalker. Civil lawsuits may result in monetary damages paid to the victim.

Stephen Thompson, sexual assault services coordinator, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant is author of No More Fear—a handbook of sorts on stalking. He describes a continuum of behavior that stalkers engage in, and insists that campus security should be aware of it. "If they are rejected, and they become obsessed, things can take a very dark turn. The object of the stalker should go to the police. I work as a profiler, and when I work on a homicide or a sexual assault, many times it started with stalking."

His advice? "The best thing I can say is to let the campus community know that stalking does in fact exist, that law enforcement is prepared to deal with it, and that they will deal with it."

Thompson advises officers to be aware of five criteria associated with stalking:

1) Reasonableness. "Would reasonable people feel threatened or intimidated by the repeated phone calls, someone waiting outside your door, whatever it is?"

2) Effect versus intent. "If the effect [of the behavior], makes [the complainant] feel uncomfortable, that's all that matters. A lot of times predators will say 'I just want to let her know I want to be with her again,' or that they are simply flirting, but the effect may be that it is creating fear or intimidation."

3) Is it repeated? "In Michigan, a one-time incident is generally not going to be adjudicated unless it is threatening."

4) Avoidability. He says, for example, if the victim cannot find an alternative route to class, in order to avoid the pursuer, that adds to the case.

5) Notice. "Has the person been told to stop? At the top of the list for defenses to stalking is 'I didn't know.' And whether you call the person or the police, document what time you called, who you talked to, and what they said." This will help prove that the person was told to stop.

"You don't have to have all five factors to have a case, but if you have all five, you have a credible case," says Thompson, whose next book on the subject will be entitled No Zebras, No Excuses.

Tom R. Arterburn is an independent journalist based in St. Louis, Mo. He can be contacted at

For further information, contact:

Shirley Smoyak, professor of planning and public policy, Rutgers University, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901—732/932-4101, ext. 677.

Connie Kirkland, coordinator of sexual assault services, George Mason University, Mail Stop 2B2, Fairfax, VA 22030—703/993-4364.

Jayne Hitchcock, president, W.H.O.A., P.O. Box 696, Dover, NH 03821-0696—240/332-2443.

Stephen Thompson, sexual assault services coordinator, Central Michigan University, SAC195, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859; 517/774-4000, ext. 6677; e-mail:

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