I know how frightening it is to have a stalker

Claire Cohen
Claire Cohen was stalked at university and is calling for a stalkers register in Britain - Copyright ©Heathcliff O'Malley , All Rights Reserved, not to be published in any format without p

As the police are given powers to grant Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs) to stop suspected stalkers from contacting their victims while under investigation, Claire Cohen recounts her own experience of being stalked and explains why the powerful new protections are so vital

 

For pretty much my entire twenties, I refused to give out my mobile number to men.

That sounds awful, doesn’t it? Arrogant. But the truth is that women are twice as likely to be stalked, and their stalkers are almost exclusively male. I wasn’t going to risk it again.

Really, I was one of the lucky ones. My experience of being stalked, at university, never turned ugly. It began after I had given my number to a male acquaintance – a well-known figure around campus, good-looking and someone friendly with my then-boyfriend. A group of us were at the student bar and he asked for it. What was the harm?

The messages didn’t start straight away. But a few weeks later, during the summer holidays, I received the first one: “I’m in London for a few days and was thinking about you. Do you want to meet?”

I was busy with a newspaper internship and, besides, I didn’t really know this guy. “Sorry, see you in September,” I wrote back.

Should I have not replied? I have asked myself that numerous times over the years. It’s a classic response – stalking victims often blame themselves. A 2017 audit of the police and Crown Prosecution Service found that stalking and harassment victims can also feel blamed by the people investigating the crime – told to change their own behaviour to avoid it, rather than the emphasis being put on the stalker to stop.

Let’s end that myth right now: it is not your fault. It is not the consequence of something you have done. Nor is stalking romantic, the sad consequence of unrequited love. It is a crime: sinister, serious and with the potential to destroy lives.

It took me a long time to even call what happened to me “stalking”, and it still feels like I am overstating it. But how else do you define the increasingly creepy text messages and attempts to lure me to unfamiliar meeting places, alone? What else do you call constant phone calls at 3am, some of which were just heavy breathing? Harassment, sure, but I started to feel watched and worried that he might turn up outside my lectures. Did he know where I lived? I’m not sure and it was harder to find out back then. With the rise of social media and GPS, I suspect he could have located me easily today.

At the time, it seemed insane that he would do all this from his own phone; adding to the sense I was overreacting. Friends would joke, “Ooh, is that your stalker?” when my phone buzzed – as if I should be flattered by the attention. I understand now that 80 per cent of victims know their stalker.

Alex Lovell didn’t know hers. Last year, 69-year-old Gordon Hawthorn was jailed for stalking the BBC Bristol presenter via greetings cards.

BBC presenter Alex Lovell was stalked for years. The perpetrator has just been jailed for 2.5 years Credit: BBC/SWNS 

One of the most harrowing arrived in January 2016, four years after the first. It read: “Make no mistake, Alex, I am going to have sex with you this year, even if it means I have to rape you.”

As Hawthorn was sentenced to two-and-a-half years, Judge Martin Picton said that Lovell had been left “frightened and miserable”. She suffered panic attacks as a result of the stalking.

“When out and about, she could never be sure that the author of the cards was not spying on her or posing a threat to her safety,” he added.

Lovell, 45, urged other victims to come forward. “Stalking can happen to anyone and can take many forms, but please don’t wait until the situation has become extreme to tell someone who can help,” she said.

I hope her message is heard, because this is threatening to become a crisis. According to national stalking advocacy service Paladin, one in 10 people has been a victim, while one in five knows someone who has been stalked. New technologies have made it even easier, with text message and social media stalking on the rise. Between 2017-18, the number of reported incidents trebled, yet only 25 per cent were prosecuted. There are no official figures for the number of people stalked and cyber-stalked each year.

The introduction of SPOs is a powerful tool that could see anyone breaching the order jailed for five years. But it's just the first step in tackling the stalking epidemic in Britain.

Ignorance is no longer an excuse. Stalking was criminalised in 2012, and it beggars belief that Britain still doesn’t have a stalkers register – somewhere previous offences can be recorded, much like the sex offenders’ register. In October 2018, the Commons Home Affairs Committee called this “a matter of urgency”.

It is. Women in Britain are still being murdered by men who stalk them, and who have previously stalked others – something they did not know, because there is no register.

Women like 24-year-old Alice Ruggles, killed by her ex-boyfriend in October 2016, even though she had contacted the police. Women like Shana Grice, murdered by her former partner in July 2016. Guess what? She had also told police that Michael Lane, who is now serving a life sentence, was stalking her. It is possible that they, and others, would still be alive had their killers’ previous offences been logged.

A 2009 study found that one in 10 stalkers, with no prior relationship to their victim, will act on their threats. Alex Lovell’s story could have ended so differently.

My own never reached that stage. In the end, I answered the phone to my stalker and told him, voice shaking, to stop or I would report him.

He did, and months later I received a message apologising and trying to excuse his behaviour; saying that he had been “fixated” with me. Last week, Lovell’s stalker said that he had been “obsessed” with her. That made my blood run cold.

So, for the avoidance of doubt, here is Paladin’s definition of stalking: “A pattern of unwanted, fixated and obsessive behaviour which is intrusive and causes fear of violence or serious alarm and distress.”

If that rings true for you, or someone you know, don’t ignore it. Not everyone is one of the lucky ones.