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When It Comes to Harassment and Stalking, the Virtual World IS Real

01/10/2014 05:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014
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Earlier this week, Amanda Hess wrote an in-depth article, "Why Women Aren't Wanted on the Internet," about cyber-harassment, the gross majority of which is targeted at women. Several other media, followed up, including Talking Points Memo, in which Jill Filipovic recounted years-long personal experience with online abuse. I do not know one woman engaged in public life who has not, to varying degrees, experienced harassment inflected with sexism and violence, usually deliberately designed with the intent to silence. But, this harassment and the stalking that often accompanies it is targeted not just at outspoken, public figures, but girls and women who are not publicly engaged.

A division between the "real world" and the virtual one has never existed where women are concerned and yet, this idea, enshrined in technology as a "disembodiment" pervades our attitudes, laws, social media policies and law enforcement. When women engage online, we do not have the sex-based luxury of feeling securely disembodied. New facial recognition software will only heighten the ability of harassers and stalkers to find and stalk people.

The fact is, there is nowhere that women can go to be taken seriously when this happens. Service providers are not responsible, law enforcement is often ridiculously ill-equipped (what is Twitter?), and even friends and family don't know how to help beyond giving advice about how to "stay safe."

No girl or woman has the luxury of assuming there is a disconnect between the virtual and the "real." Especially given statistics about sexual assault and intimate partner violence.This concept of safe distance and space as protection is a thoroughly male norm. A real world sex-based safety gapis reflected in the fact that 75 percent of online abuse is targeted at women. So, for example, in the United States, 89 percent of men surveyed feel that they can safely walk at night in their neighborhoods. That number is only 62 percent for women. A University of Maryland study revealed that feminine usernames in online forums averaged 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day to the 3.7 averaged by masculine ones. From the moment of its inception, the Internet has amplified this gap. It extends "real world" violence against women and regularly enables actual physical, in addition to hard-to-quantify, psychological harm. Even assessment of that harm is gendered. The criteria for evaluating danger and harm is imminent violence. This means that genuine emotional and psychological injury as well as loss of speech, income and free movement are all trivialized.

Filipovic's online abuse began when she was a law student. It began with a crush of rape and death threats and spilled over into the "real" world when, years later, a man she did not know, who'd been targeting her online, showed up in person. The realities of stalking speak most clearly to how inseparable the "real" and "virtual" are. Every year more than 6 million people in the United States are stalked. According to the CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), one in six women and one in 19 men are stalked during their lifetimes. Less conservative estimates that define stalking as a reflection of fear felt by targets makes those numbers 1 in 4 women and one in 13 men. The most recent Bureau of Justice statistics reveal the following:

  • 46 percent of stalking victims experience at least one unwanted contact per week.
  • 11 percent of victims are stalked for 5 years or more.
  • Divorced or separated people have significantly higher risk -- 34 per 1,000 individuals.
  • Male (37 percent) and female (41 percent) stalking victims are as likely equally to go to the police.
  • 1 in 4 stalking victims report cyber stalking, for example 83 percent get emails from their stalkers.
  • 46 percent of stalking victims feel fear from not knowing what will happen next.
  • Almost 75 percent of stalking victims know their stalkers.
  • More than 50 percent of stalking victims lose five or more days from work.
  • People between the ages of 18-24 are the most likely to be stalked.
  • College and university women, who make up the bulk of victims, experience stalking in multivariate ways, but one of the most common is electronically.
  • According to a nationwide study conducted in 2000, 13 percent of college women reported being stalked. An earlier study reported that between 27 percent and 35 percent of female students and between 15 percent and 18 percent of male students are stalked.
  • Last summer, Campus Safety Magazine ran a series of articles about stalking, which they called a "silent epidemic" on campuses.

"Real" stalking is integrated seamlessly with "virtual" stalking, specifically defined by Take Back the Tech as: "(repeatedly) sending threats or false accusations via email or mobile phone, making threatening or false posts on websites, stealing a person's identity or data or spying and monitoring a person's computer and internet use. Sometimes the threats can escalate into physical spaces."

Anti-stalking legislation -- which differs state-by-state and across borders -- requires that, in order to be recognized, a stalker demonstrate a repeated pattern of harassing behavior. Statues are often deliberately broad and take into account responses of the victim. In addition, law enforcement often fails to treat the crime seriously, leaving targets to fend for themselves. In order to stay say, people move, change their jobs, replace all of the online identities, change their phone numbers. It's expensive, burdensome, anxiety-provoking and, often, useless.

These two factors -- the broad nature and the question of victim responses -- make a false separation between "virtual" and "real" so impactful for women. Online threats are often treated as jokes, dismissed as "not credible," and the harm minimized, even though the impact of stalking can be significant. Women who live public lives are often stalked, sometimes by cyber mobs making explicit, graphic and violent threats. Without fail they are belittled for expressing anxiety or for changing their behavior as the result of fear.  When Cambridge University student debater Rebecca Meredith became the target of a vicious and misogynistic online mob assault in which her rape potential was debated publicly, a writer in the Spectator made a point of mocking her publicly for making a "fuss about 'misogyny.'" Silly girl.

Cases where victims do not know their stalkers often take place entirely online, as in the recent examples of UConn student Carolyn LubyTrista HendrenMary BeardAdria RichardsAnita Saarkeesian, and Meredith, all of whom experienced cyberstalking as the result of speaking out against sexism.

Stalking has serious impact on victims who suffer from stress, fear, anxiety, depression, loss of sleep, and other health and psychological trauma. They often change their behavior, work, and recreational activities. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) reports that when victims know their stalkers they are three times as likely to report these symptoms.

In addition, there are economic consequences as well. Victims often miss work, lose jobs, cannot take advantage of promotions. NIJ studies found that victims who work, "experienced twice as many stalking tactics and were stalked three times longer than unemployed victims." Stalkers often compromise their target's ability to work by harassing and lying to coworkers, vandalizing workplaces and other similar tactics designed to destabilize their targets.

Lastly, targets also experience property loss or incur expenses (such as security systems, altered travel needs) and the costs to society are high. One study referenced by the NIJ concluded that intimate partner stalking cost $342 million annually in 2003 dollars. Researchers explained that this was a significant underestimate given that several significant cost categories were not included.

Stalking Risk Profile: Guidelines for the Assessment and Management of Stalkers, assesses stalkers on the basis of their prior relationships with their targets: ex-intimates, strangers, or acquaintances. Two-thirds of stalkers make harassing or threatening contact with their victims at least once per week the vast majority (78 percent) use more than one means of approach. In 20 percent of cases they use weapons. Fully one-third of stalkers have stalked before. Sometimes, when the stalking takes place online, one person stalks multiple targets simultaneously. Last week, a New York man was charged in Federal court with cyber-stalking 15 women across the country after a University of Michigan student approached the police with her concerns.

Stalking is tightly related to other forms of violence, especially domestic violence and sexual assault. As with these dimensions of sex and gender-based violence, early education, institutional intolerance and bystander intervention training are essential to reducing incidences of harm.

Women's Health, a project of the Department of Health and Human Services, has useful guidelines for steps to take if you think you are being stalked.

Portions of this post originally appeared April 30, 2013 in Policy Mic, There Should Be No Distinction Between Stalking and CyberStalking