Healthy Relationships: No laughing matter: Stalking is a serious issue

It really isn’t funny. When I looked on the website Pinterest for quotations about stalking, the vast majority of quotes were humorous or trivializing of the very real, very terrifying experience of being stalked. (It’s my own fault, you might point out, for looking on Pinterest — and you would be right). A Google search was more informative, with listings for the National Stalking Resource Center and www.loveisrespect.org near the top. So from my own unscientific personal experience, I am cautiously optimistic that some of us are beginning to understand that stalking is not a joke, is not romantic, and for too many it is a terrifying reality. But we have long way to go.

January is Stalking Awareness Month and a good time to review the facts about stalking. While legal definitions of stalking vary from state to state, the National Center for Victims of Crime provides a good working definition of stalking as a “course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.”

Stalking often includes following and the monitoring of behavior, and technology has increased the opportunities for stalkers to track and terrorize their victims. Like its frequent companions domestic and sexual violence, stalking is significantly underreported, in part because many people still don’t realize it is a crime. Another reason for underreporting, however, may be due to society’s trivialization of stalking as a problematic behavior. Many of us who would never dream of making a joke about domestic violence or sexual assault are perfectly comfortable joking about stalkers and their behavior.

When 6.6 million people are stalked in the U.S. each year (one in six women and one in 19 men) and live in fear that they or someone close to them might be hurt or killed, it is time to stop making jokes.

Knowing the facts and talking about stalking realistically is important for those of us who work with teens and young adults. While children learn about healthy relationships from the moment they are born, teens (and pre-teens) “practice” adult relationships by dating and in the friendships they develop. And unfortunately, they do this in a culture that often sends confusing messages about what healthy, loving relationships look like.

Teens in particular are vulnerable to the confusion of love with obsession. They need our help to understand that there is a difference between wanting to spend time with a special someone and needing to control their every move. If our kids hear us making jokes about stalking, it becomes even more difficult for them to understand where the appropriate boundaries are in relationships. And worse, they will be much more reluctant to come to us for help if someone is behaving in ways that make them uncomfortable. The message to our kids — and to ourselves — about stalking needs to be: “It’s not romantic. It’s not a joke. It’s not OK.”

Humor often is a way of deflecting fear of being a victim, of telling ourselves it couldn’t happen to us or those we care about. But when the funny quotes keep us from understanding the reality of stalking and keep us from working to stop it, then perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the humor and find something less dangerous to laugh about.