January is National Stalking Awareness Month.
"I can see you."
That's the text Grace Alexander remembers most — because it was chilling. The words that followed complimented the pink floral top she was wearing as she bowled with her family.
This message from her ex-husband was just one of many, along with phone calls filled with threats of violence to himself, to Grace, and to her family. After blocking his number, Grace received calls from unknown numbers and often spotted his truck nearby, even though she believed she'd left him behind in another state.
After the bowling alley, Grace filed for a restraining order, thinking a judge would see the case clearly. She was hopeful in court when she saw a woman on the bench, but the judge believed her ex-husband's claim that he'd been texting another woman with the same name, despite his description of Grace's clothing.
That's when Grace knew she needed to get even farther away.
Stalking by numbers
According to the CDC, nearly one in six, or 19.1 million, U.S. women are victims of stalking at some point in their lifetime, and the majority of perpetrators (61.5%) are current or former intimate partners.
Most victims stalked by a partner also experience other types of violence by the same hand. "There's a huge correlation. If you're stalked by an intimate partner, you've likely also been previously assaulted by that partner or experienced sexual assault," said Jennifer Landhuis, director of The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC), a federally funded project that provides education and resources about stalking.
Grace's husband was physically and sexually abusive, raping her while she was eight months pregnant. When she finally saved enough money to divorce him, she legally moved away with her three kids, but he followed.
Grace's experience with the judge who didn't grant her restraining order was not unique. Despite the prevalence of stalking, a lack of acknowledgment by the criminal justice system and others is an ongoing issue.
Maureen Curtis, vice president of Criminal Justice and Court Programs at Safe Horizon, the largest nonprofit victim services agency in the United States, explained that stalking behavior can be viewed as innocuous because it doesn't necessarily involve physical harm, but it needs to be taken more seriously. "[Stalking] is one of the indicators of future lethal violence … so when there's stalking in a relationship, we need to … treat it seriously, so that person gets meaningful services available for them," Curtis said.
Though the typical age of stalking victims is 18 to 24, 44.5% of victims are over 25, with 10.5% between 35 and 44 years old, and 7.6% over age 45. Grace was 40 years old when her stalking began.
Age seems to be irrelevant when it comes to the tactics perpetrators use — the most common of which are unwanted messages and phone calls, followed by threats of physical harm and showing up at a victim's location. Regardless of the victim's age, the psychological effects can be the same.
"There's definitely a very chronic trauma as a result of stalking. It's not just like an acute trauma, meaning it's not just that it's a stressful experience to go through, and then once the stalking stops, then the victims just go on with their normal life. It changes the chemistry in your brain to go through such a scary experience," said Liza Mordkovich, psychotherapist and founder of Brooklyn Center for Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. The lasting effects may include PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
"In general, we're programmed to remember the bad stuff that happened to us, because it's like a survival mechanism. If you touch a hot oven as a kid … you're gonna remember for the rest of your life to be careful around an oven. So when you go through an experience like that, where really safety is a concern, it isn't something that you're ever going to forget," she explained.
Grace only felt safe when she moved overseas. After she couldn't get the restraining order, she purchased a shotgun — feeling forced to go against her beliefs about firearms in order to protect herself and those she loved — and expedited her plans to move to another country. Since her ex was put on the no-fly list after his involvement in a green card scam, Grace knew he could never reach her once she settled in a foreign country.
But Mordkovich said even when the threat no longer exists, many victims are left grappling with mental health issues, which can manifest in other areas of their lives. Early, evidence-based treatments such as cognitive processing therapy and dialectical behavior therapy are helpful and sometimes necessary. Support groups can also be very effective.
Stalking during the pandemic
Since March, we've been told that staying home will keep us and others safe. Unfortunately, for stalking victims, this isn't always true.
Research on COVID-19's effects on stalking explains that the isolation of quarantine can magnify stalkers' feelings of rejection and intensify fixations, leading to increased stalking behaviors. Victims' inability to leave home means perpetrators always know their location. According to a study by the digital security company Avast, there was a 51% increase in the use of online spyware between March and June, 2020.
Curtis explained that her agency made most of their programs remote and spread the word in order to combat this. “Particularly early on, we were really strategic in making sure that survivors knew that many of our programs were working remotely," she said.
More advocates were added to Safe Horizon's live chat option, and the agency worked virtually with government partners and other organizations to help victims.
Ways to get help if you’re being stalked
Fortunately, there are many resources available for victims of stalking. "There's a network of domestic violence and sexual programs all across the country," Landhuis explained.
Victims can call hotlines, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which both also offer live chat. Expert advocates will give support, share information, and refer callers to appropriate programs nearby.
And, if one of your friends is a target of stalking or another form of intimate partner violence, the best thing you can do is be present. Social support can have a strong positive effect on lasting mental health issues. Check in and ask your friend what they need.
"Don't necessarily provide any advice … Just listen. Ask someone how they feel and just create that safe space," Mordkovich said.