A few years ago, Liana Mauro, owner of Mauro Pilates, was stalked by a man she had met at a gym. He asked her out, she said no, and that was that. Well, normally it would have been. He started showing up in many places—at the gym, in the grocery store, and at work—it seemed like he was everywhere. Liana had no way of knowing these weren’t coincidental meetings and began to think there was a reason they were seeing each other so often. They began dating.
She quickly saw more warning signals—possessiveness, jealousy, and bizarre comments and behavior— and decided to end the relationship, thinking that it would be best to pull away slowly. His behavior quickly escalated. He would come to her and her friends’ houses, call and text her repetitively throughout the day, and reveal that he knew small details like what she was wearing and who she was with. His behavior was scaring her and she couldn’t get him to stop without legal action.
After careful preparation she filed for a protective order, but through clever legal tactics and exploitation of ambiguous parts of the law, Liana’s remedy was not as strong as it should have been – anti-stalking laws, combined with a complex legal process, were unable to give her the full protection and peace-of-mind she wanted. She was denied her protective order, but still felt like it was a success.
Today we tell her story: how she has turned her experience into something positive by speaking about it often, raising money for a local non-profit that helps others who are targeted by stalkers, and encouraging changes in stalking laws to provide better protection.
Stalking is misunderstood by most people and for good reason: we haven’t been talking about it for very long. In fact, the first anti-stalking law wasn’t passed until 1990 (in California) on the heels of a celebrity stalking-murder that startled the nation from its complacency. Since then all 50 states have passed their own anti-stalking laws, but prosecution to fully protect victims can still be very difficult.
Under US law you are “innocent until proven guilty,” and much of the behaviors involved in stalking are legal—sending flowers, calling hundreds of times a day, walking by your house, or sending troubling texts—but together they combine to give their target a very real fear, and often result in physical assault, rape, or murder. Their threats may be clearly stated, like “I’m going to kill you”, but often they’re more subtle, like “Why’d you wear the green dress today?” The stalker often is just letting their victim know they’re watching, they’re close by, and they’re not going away. They’re trying to control their victim, force them to be in a relationship with them again, or make their life miserable.
Stalking victims often need long-term protection, but since their stalkers haven’t done anything yet that would lock them away for 10 years or merit a permanent restraining order, that sometimes can’t be done.
So, what does “stalking” mean, exactly? Most of us make fun of each other for “Facebook stalking” friends or people we want to ask out . . . but what exactly is the legal definition?
California’s penal code puts it pretty well: “Any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or harasses another person and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, of his or her immediate family.”
A simpler definition for stalking can be found on the Stalking Resource Center’s website: “A course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.”
Mike Proctor, the author of How to Stop a Stalker gives the most colorful definition: “Stalking is pretty straightforward. The person who decides to stalk you is basically a domestic urban terrorist that has established a clear-cut goal in life: to make your life a living hell for as long as he deems necessary.”
For the purpose of this article, let’s drop the playful use of the word “stalking” for a minute. Stalking involves incredibly troubling behavior done with the intent of manipulating another person into doing what the stalker wants and often results in violence.
Yet we talk about it lightly and glorify it as “romantic” in movies. Think about Phantom of the Opera for a second. Erik falls in love with Christine, who doesn’t even know he exists, uses secret tunnels to spy on her, helps her when she does what he wants, hurts her career when she doesn’t, eventually abducts her to his lair beneath the theater, and then . . . and then . . . she starts to fall in love with him. At least until he takes off his mask . . . then she’s creeped out.
This intense, unwanted fixation on another person is not romantic – it’s a crime, and rightfully so.
The statistics clear away many of the misconceptions people have about stalking. Most of these stats come from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Stalking Victims Survey from 2009 and 2012. Click here if you’re curious as to how they arrived at their numbers and how they defined “stalker” for the purpose of their study.
Here’s what the stats show:
Many people are affected by this crime
- 3.3 million Americans are stalked each year
Men and women are both victims of stalking, but mostly women
- Women are three times more likely to be stalked than men
- However, men and women equally likely to be experience harassment (non-repetitive stalking, basically)
It’s not done by strangers . . .
- Nearly 7 in 10 stalking victims knew their offender in some capacity.
- 30% of stalking victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.
- 10% of stalking victims are stalked by a stranger.
It leads to assault and murder . . .
- 76% of intimate partner femicide victims were stalked by their immediate partner. That means there was a period of time where the woman’s partner was monitoring, controlling, tightening their grip, threatening, and manipulating . . . SEVENTY SIX PERCENT of women who are killed by their immediate partner were stalked before – we need better and quicker protection for them, and more awareness of the resources.
- 54% of femicide victims reported stalking to police before they were killed by their stalkers. They reported it but didn’t get protection in time (or they didn’t push for protection, out of fear, love, or promises from their partner).
- Intimate partner stalkers’ behaviors escalate quickly. “Domestic Violence Stalkers” typically escalate to violence very quickly and are the most lethal
Besides physical risk, victims suffer psychologically
- 46% of stalking victims fear not knowing what will happen next.
- 46% of stalking victims experience at least one unwanted contact per week.
- 11% of stalking victims have been stalked for 5 years or more.
- 29% of stalking victims fear the stalking will never stop.
- The prevalence of anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction, and severe depression is much higher among stalking victims than the general population, especially if the stalking involves being followed or having one’s property destroyed. (“The Toll of Stalking,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17, no. 1 (2002):50-63)
What can be done and how
When Liana was stalked her life became very difficult. She was in the first few months of starting her Pilates studio and felt extremely stressed, anxious, and worried. She explains the effect it had on her,
“I purchased a new computer, a new phone, and moved. For all I knew, he was watching and tracking everything, from my house to my phone and computer. He seemed to know some intensely personal things—where I was and who I was talking to—and I didn’t know what to do. Normal human beings don’t behave that way, and when you try to react to them normally it doesn’t work. My instinct told me to talk to him, but I knew it wasn’t right, despite the hell I was going through.”
Convicting someone of stalking can be difficult because you have to prove a continued behavior of harassment, show that you asked them clearly to leave you alone and then cut off all contact initiated by you, and that there is a perceived threat to your safety or to your property. That “continued behavior” is essentially the only difference between the legal definition of stalking and harassment, so getting a conviction for “harassment” can be a good backup action – though it doesn’t have much teeth in and of itself, if the behavior is then repeated later a conviction for stalking is more likely.
Protective orders, though criticized by many as not doing enough to protect victims, are essential to gaining long-term legal protection. It provides the victim with a strong legal recourse if their stalker doesn’t stop, granting an easier conviction of “felony stalking” to put them in prison. Sometimes, though, this system is far too slow.
Liana suggests that any victim of stalking find people they trust and open up to them. She attributes much of her success in getting out of the stalker-victim relationship (a very complex and confusing situation) to her friends and family who were truly there for her, who understood her, and helped her see things clearly. She explains,
“I felt and continue to feel incredibly lucky to have had that and I want to stress to other people going through something similar to make it a part of their mission to create a support system of their own and lean on it. There are times we need to lean on people and something like this is one of them. Times like this cause you to feel like an absolute burden, your world feels like it’s collapsing around you, and you need help getting through it whether it’s from friends, family, or an organization like Texas Advocacy Project.”
It’s important to remember that each stalking case is different. Some stalkers are much higher threat than others. They could be agitated if you change your phone number, for example, and their actions could become violent more quickly. If your computer is being monitored it’s important to use a secure computer when finding resources to help you. Taking legal action for stalking is complex, but there are government and non-profit programs and counselors who can guide you in your particular case.
Anyone who is being stalked can contact the District Attorney in their area and get guidance, or go through non-profit organizations. Also, filing police reports and keeping a log of stalking behavior is important in getting legal protection. It’s also helpful to alert neighbors, friends, and family members so they don’t give out your information and so they can report on the stalker’s behavior as well.
“I refuse to be quiet about this.”
Many people who experience stalking don’t talk about it afterwards. Some feel shame—they feel like they were partly at fault—and it’s easier, they hope, to move on and forget about the whole thing. Sometimes there is a real risk that the stalker will be enraged by what they say.
Liana has chosen to be very open and verbal about what happened, which has enabled others to come forward to ask her for advice and to talk. From the beginning of this experience, Liana recognized that this wasn’t just about her: there were others who would go through this and she wanted to help.
“In the short-term it’s easier not to do anything about it because you just want to move on with your life. What I recognized was that in not fighting, I was implicitly telling him that he could go do it again and get away with it. I was determined that if I could stop him from doing this to just one more person I would undergo however long it took to do it. I recognized that, as with everything, we have a choice – to live in fear and be quiet, or to stand up and tell the world that it’s WRONG and that there is absolutely no shame in what I went through . . . I refuse to be quiet about this.”
Liana, having gone through the experience of being stalked, has the boldness to be open about it with others and has found an organization that embodies her vision – the Texas Advocacy Project – and that’s what makes her this week’s Philanthropist of the Week. She is a great example of turning personal difficulties into something powerful – channeling her passion, her frustration, and her knowledge in a way that will help thousands of others.
So, what has she done? She contacted TAP and said something no non-profit would ever turn down, “Hey, I’d like to give you money.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point. She started her own fundraising event, using her own talents as a fitness leader in Austin (Mauro Pilates was named “Best Pilates” in Austin Fit Magazine in 2011) to create a unique fund-raising event called Share the Love.
Share the Love happens every February close to Valentine’s day. She’s trying new things, keeping it new and exciting and trying to involve more people and raise more money. The first year she did a fitness fundraiser (donation-based classes all day) and raised about $1,000. Last year she did a “Happy Hour” with a silent auction and a few other events, and raised around $5,000. Not bad! She’s already brimming with ideas for the coming year, hoping to make it better than ever.
She explains, “Maybe you’re alone, maybe it’s a holiday that brings up hard memories for you, so do something where if people who have gone through something like that want to come out and celebrate Valentine’s day in a nontraditional way they can support an organization that is helping people who have gone through that stuff.” I’m excited to be a part of it, and you can too! “Like” her Facebook page to stay up to date, and remember to check back here. Save the Date! Share the Love 2013 will be held Wednesday, February 6th, 2013.
Don’t Stop Here
If this is your first time to my blog, stay awhile! Check out some of my other articles, subscribe if it interests you, and join the conversation! Also, take this opportunity to learn more about stalking and prepare yourself to react well if you or someone you know becomes targeted. Teen abuse is a huge problem in our society, and teen stalking cases present us with the most violent statistics. The thing about all of this is it can be prevented – with confidence and awareness, individuals are better equipped to recognize possessive, obsessive, controlling, and abusive tendencies early in a new relationship. Click on this link to see some of the best resources I’ve found for understanding stalking, and let me know what realizations and further questions you have!
Take a quick look at my other articles on Stalking:
I’ll be volunteering at TAP’s annual fundraiser this Saturday, the 26th – The Black and White Ball. Check back here for pics, details, and my thoughts on the fundraiser. Also, “like” my Facebook page and share this with your friends!