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Stalked by an overblown fear of crime

The latest British Crime Survey show that the authorities are now lumping together minor acts of annoyance with serious cases of sexual assault.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

British news features a steady stream of cases involving celebrities stalked by crazy fans. The latest case involves a man accused of harrassing actress Samantha Morton. There’s even been the bizarre case of the celebrity-as-stalker; former BBC Radio 1 dj, Andy Kershaw, was convicted in October 2007 of ‘stalking’ his former partner in the Isle of Man. Many people believe this kind of offence to be endemic – amongst ordinary people as well as celebs. Vulnerable women are considered to be at the mercy of obsessed men who follow their every move to the point where they are harassed or even frightened by their behaviour. Does the perception that we live in a nation of stalkers and stalking victims have any basis in reality?

In the UK in general, intimate violent crime (domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking) does not appear to be on the rise. There is ‘little evidence overall of changing trends’ (1) between 2004/5 and 2006/7 according to the latest British Crime Survey (BCS) – a survey of 47,000 people aged 16 to 59 years living in England and Wales (2). Good news then? Not according to the scaremongers at the BCS.

The BCS’s summary in its chapter on intimate violence flags up the fact that ‘stalking’ was the most common form of intimate violence experienced in the past year (3). This may seem like a cause for alarm. Yet dig deeper into the report and it confirms that most stalking convictions were for letter-writing or telephone calls (67 per cent) rather than acting out the stereotypical, menacing view of a stalker who repeatedly follows or watches the victim or hangs around their home or workplace (19 per cent) (4).

The Home Office press notice accompanying the BCS report says that women are more likely to be the victims of intimate violence ‘across all types of abuse’ (including stalking) (5). Again, this may heighten fears for women’s safety – yet the report actually shows that men (seven per cent of whom claim to have suffered some form of stalking) are almost just as likely as women (eight per cent) to be stalked. In addition there was a ‘significant decrease’ in women’s experience of stalking from 8.9 per cent (2005/6) to 8 per cent (2006/7) (6) – and if you look at the relevant table, the frequency of men being stalked has fallen, too (6).

While these figures seem to express an encouraging trend, in reality it is difficult to know what is really going on. That is because definitions of ‘stalking’ are problematic. Firstly, echoing the legal definition of stalking under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, the BCS’s definition of stalking is: ‘two or more incidents – causing distress, fear or alarm – of obscene/threatening unwanted letters or phone calls, waiting or loitering around home or workplace, following or watching, or interfering with or damaging personal property by any person including a partner or family member.’ (7)

As with offences of intimate violence generally, the definition of stalking partly relies on the victim’s emotions (in this case, ‘distress, fear or alarm’), and sometimes does not even involve physical acts against them. Yet different people react differently to certain events; whether we consider ourselves the victims of stalking seems very subjective. For instance, some may not consider a verbal threat as abuse and/or a crime; they may see it as simply part of the rough and tumble of private, intimate relationships. Even more sinisterly, ‘stalking’ is lumped in to the category of ‘intimate violence’ as if an emotional reaction by somebody is the same as suffering from a physical act of violence.

Physical acts that count as a stalking crime may only amount to two or more incidents such as loitering or sending threatening letters. However, these could be considered normal events arising from everyday disputes between people. While no one considers the intimate and violent crime of sexual assault to be acceptable, there may be legitimate reasons for waiting to see an ex-partner at their workplace. One person’s threatening letter is another person’s irritation that arises from an ongoing argument.

But if the official definition of stalking sets a very low bar for what should be criminalised, the public perception of stalking offers an even wider definition. All kinds of people are labelled ‘stalkers’, even if they haven’t put people in fear of violence or committed two or more acts that fall into the legal definition of the offence. Today, ‘stalker’ is used when somebody is doing something that appears uncommon or irritating even if it is not menacing or threatening. This means that when people tell researchers they are the victim of stalking, they may mean something even more trivial than the kind of behaviour currently outlawed.

The fact that stalking makes up a major part of the statistical category of ‘intimate violent crime’ suggests that behaviour that wasn’t considered worthy of legal intervention in the past is now being criminalised. The redefinition of stalking, and the constant search for it by the authorities, no doubt impacts on how people understand their experiences. So when BCS researchers ask people if they have been stalked, they might be more likely to say ‘yes’, and to define sometimes quite normal experiences as ‘stalking crimes’. The BCS report even categorises stalking by family members as an intimate crime, a definition that some judges have treated with caution. It’s unclear, however, whether anyone in the survey did report stalking by a family member as a crime, since the statistic is lumped together as part of the larger category of ‘family abuse’ (which includes stalking, non-physical abuse, threats, force and sexual assault) (8).

Unfortunately, from the BCS report it’s also impossible to work out victims’ views on stalking by partners, ex-partners or family members, whether they would report events to the police, who their stalkers actually are, how the stalking ended, the emotional effect on the victims, whether the victim sought medical attention, the kinds of post-crime treatment the perpetrator had received and whether the victim and perpetrator had remained together. The report lumps together all the sub-categories of research on stalking, non-physical abuse, non-sexual physical abuse, non-sexual emotional or financial abuse, sexual assault, physical threats and force as part of the larger category of ‘partner abuse’, too.

As a result, the authors note, there is some double counting in statistics: ‘It should be noted that there is some overlap across victimisation covered by these sections [in the intimate violence chapter]; respondents who were victims of a serious sexual assault by a current or former partner in the last year will be included in figures for both partner abuse and sexual assault.’ (9). We cannot tell to what extent the overall statistics have been exaggerated by this duplication.

Despite the fact that it’s impossible to pick out information on stalking from the statistics on partner abuse, it’s worth noting that 57 per cent of people didn’t report ‘partner abuse’ (including stalking) to the police because it was considered ‘too trivial or not worth reporting’ (10). Only 19 per cent thought the ‘partner abuse’ was a crime (11). Clearly, many acts the Home Office regard as criminal are simply not seen as such by the ‘victims’. Only six per cent of ‘victims’ had used the highly publicised victim support agency or a helpline. Most (55 per cent) just talk to their friends, relatives or neighbours (12).

There is a clear difference between what people say when ticking a box on a form and when they speak to a researcher, face-to-face. Yet the BCS celebrates its reliance on what victims say when they complete their own forms. The report argues: ‘These figures… are not affected by levels of reporting to the police, which is particularly important for these types of crimes… Prevalence rates for domestic violence from the self-completion modules are around five times higher than rates obtained from face-to-face interviews on the BCS; thus the figures here provide a more complete measure of intimate violence victimisation.’ (13)

While victims of some kinds of intimate crime may well be too embarrassed or worried about reporting their experience face-to-face to a survey researcher, or to the authorities, we should be cautious about applauding this approach when it comes to stalking figures. Stalking is a vague term that is overused in our culture; if we want to understand to what extent people are harassed or frightened by ‘stalking’ behaviour, as opposed to irritated or annoyed by something, it may be better to focus on cases where the victim thought the matter serious enough to report to the police.

Today’s tendency to blur the trivial with the criminal tends to label too many of us as victims or criminals on the basis of statistical interpretation – and it suggests we are all in need of greater intervention by the authorities. Sometimes, it would be better if the ‘intimate’ stayed intimate.

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and author. Email her {encode=”[email protected]” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said doctors can’t stop domestic violence. Josie Appleton warned that an excuse for murder. Jennie Bristow examined the state of gender equality. Or read more at spiked issue Modern life

(1) ‘Falls in homicides and firearm offences; BCS intimate violence stable,’ Home Office Statistical Notice, 31 January 2008

(2) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008

(3) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.58

(4) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.81

(5) ‘Falls in homicides and firearm offences; BCS intimate violence stable,’ Home Office Statistical Notice, 31 January 2008

(6) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.61

(7) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.61

(8) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.80

(9) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.72

(10) Note: statistics from BCS 2004/5 figures. Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.67

(11) Note: statistics from BCS 2004/5 figures. Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.71

(12) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.87

(13) Homicides, Firearm Offences, and Intimate Violence 2006/7, Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Home Office, 31 January 2008, p.60

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Topics Politics

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