Beware geeks bearing gifts

The claim that 900,000 Brits are the victims of stalking comes from conflating pests with psychopaths.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘Stalkers “target two million victims”’, reports the Evening Standard. ‘An estimated 900,000 adults in Britain are stalked every year’, says BBC News (1).

The discrepancy came from misreading a press release about a new University of Leicester online survey examining the scope and effects of stalking (2). ‘The two million figure is rubbish – it came out of nowhere’, said Lorraine Sheridan, a lecturer in psychology and head of the project.

While the 900,000 figure is from the British Crime Survey (BCS), it seems equally arbitrary. The measure of ‘stalking’ encompasses a broad range of behaviour, ranging from sending flowers and making unwanted phone calls to physical assault.

The BCS relies on surveys rather than police figures to measure ‘crime’, and has been at the forefront of defining the new category of stalking. The 1998 BCS reported that 16 per cent of women and seven per cent of men had been stalked at some point in their lives – which amounts to more than one in 10 of us (3). Yet beneath the hard stats lie some pretty soft definitions. Interviewees were asked whether they had been subject to ‘persistent and unwanted attention’, which it was admitted amounted to ‘a very broad definition of stalking’ that ‘captures a wide range of experiences’. Just how wide was revealed by the fact that the most common ‘stalking’ experience was ‘being forced into talking to the offender’. It is perhaps surprising that the figures were only one in 10.

Its 2001 survey took a more specific approach, asking whether people had experienced two or more incidents, including: ‘phone calls or written letters that were obscene, a significant nuisance or threatening’, someone loitering ‘regularly outside my house/work’, or someone deliberately ‘interfering with/damag[ing] my property’ (4). This found that 2.5 per cent of women and 3.1 per cent of men had been stalked in the previous year, which amounted to some 900,000 people.

Yet the University of Leicester website,, run in association with the Network for Surviving Stalking, casts a still wider net for stalkers. Alongside serious incidents such as ‘physically assaulted you’ and ‘sexually assaulted you’, the survey also includes ‘unsolicited phone calls/letters’, ‘photographed you without your agreement’, ‘sent you “presents” (eg, flowers)’ and ‘spread lies about you’. This bands together the danger posed by an obsessive pursuer with the attentions of a spurned lover.

The view is that a slippery slope lies between sending one bunch of flowers too many, and physical abuse. ‘These behaviours tend to be clustered together’, Lorraine Sheridan tells me. BBC News reported that stalking can ‘sometimes [lead] to assault, rape and even murder’ (5).

The definition of ‘stalking’ is seen to lie in the eye of the beholder. ‘The onus is on the feeling in the victim’, Sheridan says. ‘If you feel that somebody is intruding, if there is a targeted repetition, it could be stalking.’ Of course, the way we receive the attentions of others is highly personal. One woman’s over-hopeful suitor could be another woman’s pain in the neck. That’s life. To make such subjective impressions the basis for criminal law is another matter entirely.

The law hasn’t gone as far as the British Crime Survey or the University of Leicester just yet, but it’s heading in that direction. The 1997 Protection from Harassment Act made ‘harassment’ into a criminal offence – it didn’t define it, but it did say that the would-be harasser would have to do whatever it was at least twice, and should have known that his or her behaviour constituted harassment (6).

Official police figures turn up far fewer stalking or harassment incidents. Some 150,000 harassment incidents are reported to the police annually (7), and fewer still of these reach the courts and result in a conviction. Indeed, only one third of those women whom the 1998 BCS ear-marked as having been stalked thought that they had been the victims of a crime, presumably the same third who had reported it to the police. The greatest number, 37 per cent, thought it was ‘wrong but not a crime’ and 25 per cent thought it was ‘just something that happens’ (8).

Given that the BCS defines them as having been stalked all the same, there seems to be less respect for these women’s interpretations of their experiences. ‘The onus on the feeling in the victim’ apparently only counts if the woman comes to the conclusion that she was, indeed, a victim.

The police are keen to increase reporting of ‘stalking’, and the online stalking survey is supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). ‘The aim is to demonstrate what stalking is, and urge people to come forward. The ACPO wants people to come forward’, says Sheridan. With this in mind, the ACPO is also apparently supporting a Stalking Awareness Month in December.

Sheridan says that there is ‘no awareness about stalking. People think that it only happens to celebrities. In fact, over half were ex-partners’. The stalking survey asks people what their impression of stalking was ‘before you became a victim’, including the options: ‘thought it was a media fuss over nothing’ and ‘thought it was about people trying too hard to get dates’.

This awareness-raising has an evangelical bent, trying to penetrate the public’s false consciousness and show them the light. If you write off somebody pestering you as ‘just something that happens’, it seems that you’re in need of re-education. Stalking is another one of those ‘hidden’ epidemics of crime that are increasingly common today. In translation, this generally means something that is defined as a crime by Home Office researchers, but the general public hasn’t yet cottoned on.

Of course, some individuals do have the misfortune to be pursued by a seriously disturbed and threatening another. But there are perfectly good laws to tackle physical assault, criminal damage and sexual assault. There’s no need for an all-encompassing criminalisation of pestering.

Much of what is now talked about as stalking would hitherto have been known as personal problems. Sometimes people impose themselves on you. That’s part of being separate people, with different aims and desires. She thinks they’d be perfect together; he can’t stand her. Negotiating these differences of opinion is part and parcel of life.

Personal relationships are today seen as minefields of abuse, with everyday interactions redefined as a criminal affair. This encourages a sense of mistrust, where we are encouraged to see partners, friends – and unwanted suitors – as abusers.

We should spurn the advances of the stalking awareness-raisers.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Love and sex

(1) Study to examine stalking impact, BBC News, 5 October 2004

(2) See the Stalking Questionnaire website

(3) The extent and nature of stalking: findings from the 1998 British Crime Survey (.pdf 345 KB), Tracey Budd, Joanna Mattinson and Andy Myhill, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, October 2000

(4) Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: findings from the British Crime Survey (.pdf 561 KB), Sylvia Walby and Jonathan Allen, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, March 2004

(5) Study to examine stalking impact, BBC News, 5 October 2004

(6) See the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

(7) Evening Standard, 6 October 2004

(8) The extent and nature of stalking: findings from the 1998 British Crime Survey (.pdf 345 KB), Tracey Budd, Joanna Mattinson and Andy Myhill, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, October 2000

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Topics Politics


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