Houston, We Have a Problem
Of course this is about Navy Captain Lisa Marie Nowak, astronaut, now possibly facing attempted murder charges. From news reports, Nowak claimed she was only trying to "scare" Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman into "talking" with her about a common romantic interest. Shipman apparently recognized that Nowak was stalking her, ran and got into her car. After securely locking herself in, Shipman felt compelled, pehaps out of sympathy, to partly roll down her window to speak with a crying Nowak, only to find herself pepper-sprayed.
Even though the diaper and "lust in space" jokes have faded from the repertoire of news columnists and late-night comics, we still need to face the real issue. Stalking is a serious crime. Over a million women and 370,000 men will be targeted by stalkers this year. Current estimates are that 1 in 12 women and 1 in 45 men will be stalked in their lifetimes. Stalking is behaviorally defined as a person embarking on a course of conduct that would cause another reasonable person to feel fear. Specific behaviors can include: following you either on foot or in a vehicle, waiting for you, leaving notes, phone calls, destroying property, and threatening violence. Most victims know their stalker. If the stalker is a current or former intimate partner, the risk of violence increases. Stalking has only recently been recognized as a potentially serious threat to personal safety and is a crime in all 50 states; California passed the nation's first anti-stalking law in 1990, and by 1995 all other states had their own measures. The first federal antistalking measure was signed into law in 1996.
What does this mean for your safety? What can you do if you believe you are being stalked?
Your most important first step is education. There are several national organizations that provide information as well as listings of local help and support resources, some of which are listed below. Recognize that your life has changed, and you will have to adapt. And while you're learning about stalking, here are some tips:
- Do not communicate with your stalker after you initially let them directly know that you want no further contact. If they try to contact you 100 times and you respond on the 101st time, even if it's telling them to get lost, that only teaches them that the cost of a response is 100 attempts. And they will repeat the cycle, and you won't enjoy that.
- Document EVERYTHING. Each and every attempted contact, each and every sighting, each and every phone message and note left on your car. Carry a camera to document their presence.
- Do not trust your stalker. If they "only want to talk," RUN! A stalker is deliberately violating any boundary they can find, and will use your sense of trust, empathy and fairness against you.
- Tell your family and friends. If they are aware, they can help watch for you. They can also watch out for themselves, as stalkers sometimes also try to harm people close to their victim.
- If you find yourself thinking that perhaps this person really does love you, think again. Someone who really cares about you would not stalk you. It is not a sign of true love, it is power and control.
- Limit access to your address. This slows down stranger stalkers and intimate partner stalkers after you move (yes, you may have to change your address--some victims have had to change cities or even countries). Go the the DMV, voter registration office, any agency where your address is on file and have it blocked. Do not use your address on mail or your checks, use a post office box or private mail service. Have all mail sent to this box. Destroy discarded mail.
- Keep your cell phone with you at all times. Don't have a cell phone? Now's a good time to get one. One with a camera that can be used to document, document, document.
- Contact your local crisis clinic or abused women's hotline. Ask how to find an advocate and support group. You'll want them.
- Take a self-defense class. A significant minority of stalkings turn violent, and that number increases if the stalker is an intimate partner or former intimate (the majority of women being stalked by a current or former partner are physically assaulted). Solid physical and verbal skills, plus the confidence that you know you can be effective, are critical.
- Restraining orders leave a great paper trail, but they are not bullet-proof. Most stalkers violate them anyways. Getting a restraining order in many cases escalates stalking to violence.
A good online source of information is The Stalking Resource Center. A good book is A Girl's Gotta Do What a Girl's Gotta Do by Kathleen Baty (a/k/a "The Safety Chick"), as she describes her experience with a stalker. Other good information is in these downloadable PDF files: US Dept of Justice's Stalking in America, Stalking Myths, and Stalking Fact Sheet.
Finally, if you believe you are being stalked, take steps immediately. When it's your safety at stake, the moves that give you more control and less fear are your best bets.
From Strategic Living News Update February 2007