Following People on Empty Streets: Stalking in a Pandemic
There are many questions that plague my mind on a daily basis. Why do we never see baby pigeons? Do bald people use shampoo or soap? Do different breeds of dog bark in the same language? But more recently, as I was cycling along the Thames, a more troublesome question circled my mind: where did all the stalkers go during the pandemic?
Before looking into it, one might think the government mandate to stay home might relieve victims from their stalker’s pursuit; our ‘new normal’ making it too difficult for stalkers to stalk. Stalkers live in the same universe as private detectives, they are slippery shadow-people who keep their hoods up and hat rims down. Round-the-corner creepers. Through-the-letterbox peepers. But what if the streets were empty and they had nowhere to hide?
In a paradoxical twist, our homes – supposed bulwarks against the bedlam outside – were no such safe haven. Suddenly devoid of varied routines – the coffee shop, the gym, the office – the vulnerable found themselves turned into sitting ducks, their aggressors now able to pin point their exact location with ease. As the PCC for Sussex ominously said, ‘Stalkers now have 24 hours in the day, uninterrupted, to obsess over their victims.’
On average, there are 1.5 million victims of stalking every year in England and Wales, and according to a BBC article written in July 2021, some parts of the country saw a 200% increase in stalking offences during the pandemic. Data taken from thousands of people supported by the National Stalking Helpline found that over half the respondents saw an increase in both real life and online stalking. The introduction of mandatory face masks may have made it easier for stalkers to stalk in person whilst remaining unrecognised. As populations fled to the digital world, internet applications such as Zoom and Houseparty provided additional ways for stalkers to monitor their victims online by hacking and spying. Other circumstances such as loss of employment and working from home further contributed to the trend.
But what counts as stalking? We’ve all been known to hungrily look-up our Bumble matches, or try to find out more about our colleagues private lives. We check people’s Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. A touch of untoward curiosity is one thing, slinking down the street after someone is another. Stalking needs to be relentless, disturbing and persistent. It also needs to be unwanted.
Ted Mosby, on the TV show How I Met Your Mother, lays out a pretty accurate theorem, the ‘Dobler-Dahmer effect of Romantic Gestures’. He describes how, if both people are into each other, then a big romantic gesture has a lot of significance i.e. Lloyd Dobler infamously holding up a boom box in Say Anything. However, if a person isn’t into the other, the same gesture comes off deranged, like Jeffrey Dahmer, the 80s American serial-killer and cannibal.
There are other things that complicate an already nebulous issue. Because the stereotype of the stalker as an anonymous loner is so pervasive, we may be naïve about the kind of people who stalk. The media is rife with stories of bitter exes, or downtrodden strangers on the margins of society. One recent piece on the subject featured a victim who’d been intimidated, followed and harassed by a handyman she’d fired.
Crime writer Ruth Rendell liked to inject strange lonely men with no family or jobs into her plots – they make excellent uncomfortable reading. The maladjusted protagonist of the 1984 book The Killing Doll spends his days behind an old mattress in a tunnel, and the height of his aspirations is to work in an Italian Delicatessen. A Dog’s Ransom, penned by Patricia Highsmith in 1972 features an equally squalid personage, an ugly outsider who lives in a basement and kills pet dogs.
Yet often stalking, like other menacing behaviour, can be a power play and is not only performed by the down-and-out. The wealthy and aberrant take part too, just think of Patrick Bateman prowling late-night New York and garnering for himself the gory nickname of American Psycho. Published in the early 90s, Bret Easton Ellis’s famous novel veers away from the destitute stalkers in earlier literature.
And what about the female counterpart? Well, she falls to female stereotypes. In Rona Jaffe’s best-selling and super-sexist 1958 novel, The Best of Everything, a beautiful young actress misses all her chances and ends up languishing out in the cold on a fire escape, obsessively gazing into the apartment of the man who broke her heart. The stalker is always one dimensional, perhaps boiled down to their fixation.
Since the late 1990s, rom-coms such as There’s Something about Mary work to normalise obsessive behaviour as part of courtship, a trope that reached its full potential with recent blockbusters such as Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey and Netflix’s You. This becomes more worrying since the intended audience are often teenage girls. The harmful idea that by watching someone you get to know them is not one we should be so accustomed to.
Even Bollywood has its fair share of stalking tropes; the films are often filled with instances of men determinedly pursuing women until they give in. In 2015, a court case in Australia saw a man, accused of harassing two women, let off. His defence blamed Bollywood for influencing his stalking habits.
The stereotype of ‘man pursues woman who doesn’t reciprocate his love’ is based in some truth. Women experience stalking exactly twice as much as men. A study conducted by Mullen et. al in the late 90s, shows that the most common type of stalker pursued their victim after they had been rejected romantically, showing how often it is a case of overstepping the boundaries of interest, and the limits of pursuit. But ultimately, it is unlikely to be a case of malicious and strategic psychopathy as Netflix series You implies, but a more standard and much sadder case of failing mental health.
Other reasons for stalking included seeking intimacy; a reason that became significantly more charged during the pandemic when people were completely isolated from one other. It also created a unique set of circumstances; without regular social interactions, it was easier for us to dehumanise one another, strangers became a number in a dataset; a possible conduit of disease. This arguably made it easier for stalkers to mentally eliminate any remaining sense of their victims as people, instead psychologically placing them in the realm of objects.
In 2017, the maximum prison sentence for stalking doubled from 5 to 10 years after a series of high-profile cases. In January last year, the government gave the police new powers to help combat the rise in stalking. New protection orders (SPOs) were put in place to allow courts to move faster in banning perpetrators from contacting their victims and from visiting their houses. Interestingly, the orders can also force stalkers to receive professional help to change their behaviours.
Unfortunately, there were only 294 successful applications for stalking protection orders in well over a year- meaning that they’re only used in around 2% of stalking arrests, according to the BBC. This may be in part due to the application process for an SPO; a police officer must first consider whether the stalking threshold has been met, meaning enough acts have been carried out before a victim is considered ‘at risk’. Anecdotal evidence also shows that reports of stalking are often ignored or dismissed as inconsequential, when in fact stalking acts as an antecedent to many other serious crimes.
It is clear that stalkers in the pandemic were an unexpected but very real threat, fuelled by the isolation. It’s possible that lockdown also increased paranoia; whilst taking my evening run down empty streets in fading light, my heart skipped more than once at the sight of my own shadow. Every feeling goes both ways – we can have a gaze trained on us, or we can train our gaze on others. Perhaps these unfortunate developments will serve as yet another reminder of how much we need social interactions to break us out of the scenarios we construct in our heads. Mass isolation is tough on the psyche, but if in doubt, better fixate on the baby pigeons than your next-door neighbours.
Mullen, P., Pathe, M., Purcell, R., & Stuart, G. (1999). A study of stalkers. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 1244 –1249
Bracewell, K., Hargreaves, P. and Stanley, N. (2020) ‘The Consequences of the COVID-19 Lockdown on Stalking Victimisation in Journal of Family Violence.