Today is National Stalking Awareness Day. Given that the law changed last November, this year’s awareness day is particularly important as our rights have changed and knowing them could get you the help you need.

Changes to the Protection from Harassment Act implemented on November 25th 2012 now mean that stalking is an individual and specific offence (although this only applies to cases after this date; those before November 25th are still treated under the original Act). There is not a singular definition of stalking because of the wide variety of behaviour it encompasses, but the list includes “following, contacting/attempting to contact, publishing statements or material about the victim, monitoring the victim (including online), loitering in a public or private place, interfering with property, watching or spying”. Two or more incidents of this behaviour amount to a “course of conduct” and can therefore be reported and investigated under section 2A of the Act.

Section 4A concerns “stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm of distress” – these are not narrowly defined concepts and can include “emotional or psychological trauma”. Section 2 carries a maximum prison sentence of six months, whilst for Section 4 this is 5 years.

Stalking can happen to anyone or any age or gender, but the lack of specific law led to a culture in which it was often brushed off or unseen. Even now, we joke about “Facebook stalking” all the time, potentially forgetting that stalking can have serious mental and physical impacts upon those who have experienced it. My personal experience was non-violent and one that luckily ended without legal intervention, although it was emotionally manipulative and included threats of violence against both my boyfriend at the time and myself. While the threats never came to fruition, the fear factor was still there, especially given that the perpetrator was a man with a tendency to anger. I’m lucky that this has now become a story I tell quite freely, usually with jokes, but it certainly wasn’t funny at the time and I want to stress that I am just one lucky case.

If you are experiencing stalking I would really encourage you to look into the law and seek the help you need. The National Stalking Helpline is a really useful resource, Protection against Stalking has good information on what can constitute stalking, and the Crown Prosecution Service has in depth information on the law. If you feel able, telling friends and family can be incredibly helpful in acknowledging your experience and gaining support. One of the stalking behaviours is engaging a third party – in my case ex-boyfriends and friends were contacted leaving me wondering who I could trust. If you have already told these people what is happening they may be better placed to question why they are being contacted in the first place. It may be frustrating to need legal advice, but it may be your only course of action. I, for example, thought I could just have a number blocked and was told by my phone provider that this was not possible without police intervention, and that they would probably recommend a new phone number altogether.

If a friend, family member, colleague, or anyone you know, has discussed warning signs that lead you to believe they are being stalked, do encourage them to access help and be a good listener. One of the most important things is to believe them. I know that being 18 at the time, if I had outright labelled it as stalking I probably would have been brushed aside. Now I’m fully aware of the law, and my rights, and I always call it stalking because to acknowledge and label our experiences is to take back our agency, and potentially help others acknowledge theirs.

Finally, do consider your safety and the safety of others. It is never stupid or wrong to tell someone about the repeated phone calls you’re getting, or that you feel threatened by someone. The majority of stalkers are known to their victims and it may feel difficult to accuse someone for contacting you, but if you feel in any way unsafe you are entitled to help no matter what. If we can stop stalking in its tracks before it becomes assault that is never a bad thing.

I’m happy to talk more about these issues, particularly with those who are looking to seek help, either in comments, by email or on Twitter.

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