January is National Stalking Awareness Month, and I'm glad it happens in January -- a month so associated with fresh starts and self-improvement resolutions. This year, I am making the conscious choice to curb my own casual and flippant use of the term "stalker," and its various derivatives. Stalking is a highly dangerous and serious crime with a direct correlation to fear, physical violence and murder, yet it's often a punchline.
"O.M.G., he's totally stalking me!" "She's such a stalker." "Did you stalk him/her?"
I've said these words, and chances are you or somebody you know has said them too, in jest. I should know better. Words matter, and how we use them matter even more. I work in threat assessment; I've done research on stalking, and have a deeper understanding of the behavior than most, and yet I still fall prey to using our societal slang with such ease.
I'm not alone. Colloquial use of "stalker" is common, often cheeky; it's mainstream and accepted. Over the past few months, I've started passively collecting examples of items and products that trivialize stalking. I don't seek out this stuff, it seems to be just out there in the world. Greeting cards, coffee mugs and so much more.
Recently, I spied an oversized business card suggestively situated at the cash register at my local Brooklyn Industries store. It prompted me to write this blog. A plain white background, a cartoonish cat styled to look like Hunter S. Thompson, and a directive:
STALK US ON INSTAGRAM
I was startled when I saw this. The statement is brief, simple and deceptively powerful. It creates a false sense of intimacy around the relationship with the brand. It feels like an invitation to be seduced. The inference being: "Come watch us stealthily, from a distance; we're just within your reach; we can be yours." Which is the intent, I suppose. However, taking a look at some recent stalking statistics, Brooklyn Industries, and the rest of us, might want to re-think that association.
- In one year in the U.S., 7.5 million people are stalked.
- 76 percent of women who are murdered by their intimate partner were also stalked by that same person.
- One in 12 women will experience stalking victimization at some point during their lifetime.
After considering these statistics, to me at least, "Stalk Us on Instagram" is akin to saying "Rape Us on Instagram" or "Murder Us on Instagram." I can't imagine that anybody in the creative meeting where the "Stalk Us" idea was born seriously suggested "rape" or "murder" as options. It's absolutely ludicrous to consider. So, why is it ok with "stalking"?
Writing this makes me feel uptight and humorless, but that said, I've seen the other side of stalking: fear, violence, anxiety, torment and the unwelcome and unwarranted disruption of life. And that is what helps me get past these feelings. I have an unholy sense of humor, accordingly, I have been known to say outrageous things from time to time. However, as I've grown older, I have developed a better filter, though I'm sure some would heartily disagree. But more important than the filter, I have developed an understanding of how and when certain allowances can have a harmful effect. Our society's casual use of the term stalker is one of those instances. It devalues the significance of the behavior, especially in a criminal sense, diminishes the understanding of victimization, and ultimately the inherent danger. Stalking is a crime in all fifty states, Washington D.C., federally and in all U.S. Territories. Let's not collectively cry wolf. In 2015, I'm going to change what I say. I hope you'll join me.
If you, or somebody you know, are the target of a pattern of behavior that causes you to feel fear, get educated and get help. More information is available from the Stalking Resource Center.