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Commentary: Recognize, prevent stalking, and teach youth about healthy relationships

Sara Barber (copy)

Sara Barber

During a recent board meeting of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, one of our team members led a presentation on the topic of stalking. Afterward, three people on our 14-member board — two women and one man — shared that they had been victims of stalking at one point in their lives.

At first, I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been, because statistically this is close to average.

According to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness and Resource Center, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have been victims of stalking. And, like domestic violence and sexual assault, the threat is much more likely to come from someone you know and may have loved than from someone you don’t.

In fact, current and former intimate partners and acquaintances are the most common types of stalkers, with strangers accounting for only 15% of perpetrators.

Despite the prevalence of incidents of stalking, this problem does not get very much attention — not in the media, not in our schools and not in our homes. Why? Because what defines stalking is often misunderstood or even romanticized.

We grow up reading books and watching television shows or movies that teach us we should accept and even appreciate any and all romantic gestures, even if they are unwanted.

Stalking is defined as “any behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.”

It includes any unwanted contact (phone calls, texts, social media), unwanted gifts, showing up or approaching an individual or the person’s family or friends, monitoring, surveillance, property damage and threats.

And while many behaviors might seem harmless or even desirable to outsiders, these actions can be very frightening.

So when a friend receives a love note, flowers or simple or extravagant gifts and seems distraught, many of us might find it difficult to figure out why he or she is being so “weird” instead of being flattered.

Friends who react this way aren’t being weird.

They are afraid — and with good reason.

Stalking predicts higher levels of violence, threats and sexual violence within a relationship. And, terrifyingly, it makes it 11 times more likely that a victim will be murdered by the abuser.

As Stalking Awareness Month comes to a close, and we begin Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month in February, I ask you to consider: What has to happen for us as a community, state and nation to prioritize educating our young people on stalking and what constitutes healthy relationships before they end up in a dangerous situation that is beyond their control?

Just like domestic and sexual violence, there is no simple answer, but it starts with education. We must educate and better prepare service providers, educators, parents, health care professionals, legal professionals, law enforcement and the general public to understand, identify and respond to stalking and other forms of abuse.

We must be unwavering in our commitment to teach kids about healthy relationships — not just at home, but in our schools and through extracurricular activities.

We must meet them where they are — engaging in conversations that we may find difficult or uncomfortable, because these are critical to increasing safety and confidence.

With advancements in technology continuing to impact our culture in tremendous ways, especially in terms of its use within relationships, we must continue to change with it.

We must be forward-thinking. And we must be resolute in providing kids and teens with the tools they need to recognize and respond when they see or experience the warning signs of stalking or abuse.

Simply put, early education and prevention combined with early and appropriate interventions, which begin with believing victims, are the two most important steps we must take.

It will take all of us to solve these complex issues, so today, we ask you to commit to joining us in this sometimes uncomfortable but necessary work toward a safer South Carolina.

Sara Barber is executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. 

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