Woman being stalked by man

The Word You May Be Looking For is “Stalking”

by | October 8, 2021

While stalking played a central role in stories that horrified this week’s news audiences, the word itself was largely absent from coverage.

In “Bad Art Friend,” The New York Times framed a story with a clear pattern of stalking, replete with vexatious litigation, as a quest for justice. The Daily Beast published a story about a fatal stalking case, its headline blaming the victim for her femicide: “Body of Florida Student Found a Week After Spurned Suspect Killed Himself.” Meanwhile, ABC7NY aired footage of a stranger aggressively stalking a Bronx woman in her apartment building. The report describes the victim as being “[followed].”

Following happens when you play Simon Says.

Stalking is a different phenomenon entirely.

According to criminologists, “stalking comprises patterns and behaviors where a person is persecuted, intentionally harassed, and/or subjected to unwanted communications, approach, or pursuit, and from which the victims feel distressed.” The Department of Justice defines stalking similarly; it is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.” Stalking also constitutes a form of gender-based violence, “[research indicating] that most stalkers are male, and most stalking victims, especially partner stalking victims, are female.” Youthfulness also contributes vulnerability. In the United States, “the majority of victims are…women between…18 to 24.”

This isn’t to say that queer or other forms of stalking don’t happen. It’s to say that misogyny is profoundly implicated in cases of heteronormative stalking, especially those that inspire patriarchal terror. The misogynist dimension of stalking is demonstrated by the “significant association between partner stalking and sexual assault.” 

Stalking is a common precursor to a lethal form of gender-based violence: femicide. In the essay “Girl on a Motorcycle,” writer Rachel Kushner evokes the predatorial atmosphere created by this form of harassment, intimidation, and surveillance:

“I broke up with him…and moved out…I got my own apartment and started dating someone else…not controlling. The old boyfriend began to appear everywhere I went. I wish there were another term besides ‘stalking’ for what he did, the number of calls he made to my apartment, and his ubiquitous and constant showing up, here and there, everywhere I went, but there isn’t. This culminated in him climbing through my apartment window one morning. Luckily, my roommate came home and scared him off. I never saw him again, but for a decade I felt hunted.”

The entertainment industry, Hollywood especially, has trained the popular imagination to gender stalking as a feminine behavior, television and film priming us to conjure a dangerous female stereotype, one that threatens heteronormative harmony. Fatal Attraction (1987) is a classic of this misogynist genre. The thriller’s plot follows Dan (Michael Douglas), a happily married lawyer, who embarks on a short-lived sexual affair with Alex (Glen Close). Unable to accept the end of their affair, Alex terrorizes Dan and his family, threatening to annihilate them.

In a notorious scene, Beth, Dan’s wife, finds their daughter’s pet rabbit boiling in a pot of water. While this scene might seem over-the-top, it isn’t. Stalking may involve destruction of personal property and threats to loved ones, animals included. Such threats give stalking its coercive element. The desire to protect loved ones is why many victims keep stalking a secret. It also why some victims seem to acquiesce to demands. They are struggling to protect lives, health, and property.

Fatal Attraction depicts Alex’s obsessive perseverance as almost supernatural. She becomes Rasputin-like, seemingly impossible to kill. Freedom from Alex is achieved only when Beth shoots her in the chest. By sacrificing Alex, Beth restores the heteronormative balance of her family.

Fatal Attraction cinematically inverts common gendered reality, the film going so far as to suggest that jealous women pose a threat as family annihilators. Data proves otherwise. Family annihilators are typically motivated by misogyny, these “[self-righteous] killers [holding] the mother responsible for the breakdown of the family.”

Miya Marcano / Orange County Sheriff’s Office via AP

While stalking is a common prelude to femicide, victims who seek help are often treated as if their fears and concerns are foolish. The stalking case of Miya Marcano, whose remains were recovered over the weekend, exemplifies this problem. When an apartment complex security guard tried to give officers fingerprints he lifted from Marcano’s window, “deputies laughed, refused, and said, ‘[her disappearance wasn’t] a high-priority case.’”

It is suspected that Armando Caballero, a maintenance employee who was stalking Marcano, abducted and killed her. Caballero was accused of having an “obsession” with the teen, and he took his own life prior to the discovery of her remains. The state of her remains indicates that she was abducted by force.

We are taught that I can’t live without you is a phrase we should aspire to have whispered in our ears.

Because stalking may unfold slowly, worsening across days, months, and even years, victims may be confused by the experience when it begins. When a former partner started stalking me, I didn’t get it. I’d been primed to believe that women engage in stalking, not men. I knew that my ex-partner’s behavior made me uncomfortable but having been raised on a steady diet of John Hughes films, movies where persistent harassment is presented as an innocent form of courtship, a manifestation of true love, I thought to myself that what I was experiencing was not dangerous. Despite these thoughts, I felt dread which escalated to terror once I caught my ex-partner lurking outside the house.

While the insidiousness of stalking is often downplayed by adults, the legitimization of stalking begins during childhood. When a boy bothers a girl, following her, calling her names, at times injuring her, adults may fabricate excuses for the boy’s harmful behavior. Conversely, adults pressure the victim to be flattered by harassment. The patriarchal pattern of conduct is presented as natural, an activity for which boys shouldn’t have to apologize or make amends.

“You’re so cute he can’t help himself!” is among the statements I’ve heard spoken by adults defending harassment. These dynamics teach boys that girls are for the taking, that harassment and violence are courtship, valid ways of acquiring companionship, affection, and attention. Through socialization, boys come to believe that affection can be forced and coerced. These boys may use violence when other forms of harassment fail and though stalking might induce trauma-bonding and obedience, those are not the same as love. That must be given freely. Young people are seldom given healthy models for friendship, romantic relationships, or courtship. If any models are taught, they usually arrive during adolescence, after over a decade of indoctrination by Hollywood. By adolescence, youth of all genders have been exposed to the idea that patterns of conduct that qualify as stalking are desirable, pleasurable, fair, and effective. When Hollywood teaches audiences that such patterns of conduct are undesirable, terrifying, unfair, and ineffective, it tends to do so by presenting stalking as a problem that disrupts heteronormative romance. According to this fantasy, stalking is the domain of crazed women, and the occasional queer, when in fact, stalking is a terrifying yet standard course of patriarchal conduct. It’s the stuff of teen romantic comedies! That’s why so many people fail to recognize it. We are taught that I can’t live without you is a phrase we should aspire to have whispered in our ears.

Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.