President Obama has declared January 2017 to be National Stalking Awareness Month. "Every year, stalkers deny too many people the comfort and safety they deserve, violating our basic expectation of dignity and respect for all," starts the presidential proclamation, issued December 28. "This month, we join together in support of victims to raise awareness of this threat and reaffirm the importance of ensuring every person can live free from fear of violence, harassment, and any form of stalking."
That all seems innocuous enough, the kind of feel-good pronouncement that means little in terms of concrete action but won't do much damage, either. But then Obama drops this: approximately one in six women and one in 19 men will be victims of stalking. Seems a little high, no? According to Obama's unsourced statistic, more than 16 percent of U.S. women will be stalked in their lifetimes.
The closest thing to such a fact among federal data comes from a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, based on data collected in 2011 through the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). The 2011 NISVS data encompasses interviews with 12,727 American adults, who were asked about their experiences with rape, sexual assault, sexual coercion, and stalking. Based on those interviews, researchers concluded that "an estimated 4.2 percent of women and 2.1 percent of men were stalked in the 12 months preceding the survey," and "an estimated 15.2 percent of women and 5.7 percent of men have been a victim of stalking during their lifetimes."
But "stalking" as defined by the CDC may fall short of many people's idea of stalking. In the agency's estimation, physically following someone or surveilling them by other means isn't a prerequisite for being a stalker; simply sending an unwanted text, social-media message, email, or phone call will do.
Certainly, a string of unsolicited and unwelcome communications from someone could rise to the level of stalking. Messages that are menacing, or persistent, may elicit the same feelings of fear and anxiety that being physically stalked engenders. But for the CDC's purposes, unwanted communications must merely occur once to be counted as stalking. Ditto for someone approaching a "victim" unsolicited on just one occasion. Here's how the poll primed respondents for the stalking questions:
I'm going to ask you some detailed questions about times when you may have been contacted, followed or harassed. When answering, please think about anyone who may have done these things to you, including romantic or sexual partners, other people you knew, or strangers. Please do not include bill collectors, telephone solicitors, or other sales people.
Respondents were then asked how many people had ever watched or followed them from a distance; spied on them with an electronic device; broke into their homes or cars just to "let you know they had been there"; approached them in public when they didn't want to be approached; left them an unwanted text or voice message; contacted them with an unwanted phone call; sent them unwanted email, Facebook, or Myspace messages; or given them unwanted letters or gifts. The CDC summary report claims that respondents must have experienced more than one type or instance of these behaviors from the same perpetrator to have been counted as stalking victims, but a questionnaire described as the direct survey text contains no follow-up questions about stalking after these that would determine prevalence from the same perpetrator or emotional states of victims.
In an older report, the Department of Justice (DOJ) relied on a slightly less expansive definition of stalking than the CDC. For DOJ counting purposes, stalking behaviors—this includes "making unwanted phone calls, sending unsolicited or unwanted letters or e-mails," following or spying on the victim," showing up at places without a legitimate reason," waiting at places for the victim, "leaving unwanted items, presents, or flowers," and "posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth"—must have occurred on two or more separate occasions and the target must have felt fearful for their own safety or that of a family member.
Using this rubric, data collected as part of the 2006 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) led to an estimate of 3.4 million U.S. stalking victims annually. With a U.S. adult population of about 220,995,170 in 2006, that puts the prevalence of stalking victims at about 1.5 percent each year.
"The most common types of stalking behavior reported by victims were receiving unwanted phone calls from the offender (66 percent), receiving unsolicited letters or email (31 percent), or having rumors spread about them (36 percent)," according to DOJ. Broken down by gender, 2.2 percent of women and 0.8 percent of men were estimated to experience stalking in a given year.