American Journal of Criminal Justice

, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 250–269 | Cite as

College Student Perceptions of Victim Action: Will Targets of Stalking Report to Police?

Article

Abstract

Stalking is a concern on college campuses and it often goes unreported to authorities. This study seeks to determine whether gender of the respondent, gender of the victim/offender, and relationship status influence perceptions of victim reporting of stalking in a university setting. Regression results indicate that students believe that male victims and victims of an ex-intimate are significantly less likely to report their cases to police, while qualitative data suggests that gender norms, the potential for violence, and shame all play a role in perceptions of reporting. Implications of these findings are discussed, as well as directions for future research.

Keywords

Stalking Perceptions Gender Victimization 

Since stalking was first codified into law in 1990, a considerable amount of scholarship has been published examining the extent of stalking in the population. The most current national estimates suggest that in one year, as many as 14 in every 1,000 adults have been victims of stalking (Baum et al., 2009). Research further indicates that victimization is particularly prevalent on college campuses, with estimates of female stalking victimization ranging from 13 % (Fisher et al., 2000) to 30 % (Fremouw et al., 1997). Like other forms of interpersonal violence, stalking has great traumatic impact on victims (Pathe & Mullen, 1997). In fact, stalking has been referred to as “psychological terrorism” because its victims perceive they must be in a constant state of readiness to protect themselves, and they often feel forced to alter their lives (Hall, 1998).

While research reveals that stalking is a widespread and serious social problem, we are just beginning to develop an understanding about the nature of this phenomenon. One of the greatest challenges in understanding the nature of stalking is that many victims fail to report these cases of victimization to legal authorities; and once reported, stalking is either not identified by police or it is not taken seriously by law enforcement (Klein et al., 2009). The latest figures from the National Crime Victimization Survey revealed that only 41 % of female victimizations and 37 % of male victimizations were reported to police; and nearly 20 % of these victims claimed police took no action once contacted (Baum et al., 2009). These numbers are even more staggering for female college students, where national data revealed that 83 % failed to report to police or campus law enforcement following a stalking incident, 33 % of which claimed the police would not find the situation “serious enough” (Fisher et al., 2002; see also Campbell & Moore, 2011). Moreover, many college victims themselves do not identify stalking as a serious situation (Buhi et al., 2008; Fisher et al., 2002). Consequently, an examination of student perceptions of reporting has the potential to uncover what actions students feel are serious enough to report to authorities. Ultimately, these perceptions could impact the extent to which they might report their own stalking cases to police. Perceptions can also highlight perceived biases and stereotypes with regards to victimization, predispositions that presume few victims will report to police. Additionally, if it is perceived that the probability of facing formal sanctions for stalking is low, the deterrent effect of criminal justice policies aimed at prosecuting and stopping stalkers will be undermined.

The current study explores the relationship between the gender of the victim and offender, the nature of their relationship, and the gender of the participant to determine whether these extralegal factors influence perceptions of reporting stalking. Existing research shows that prior relationship and gender (Phillips et al., 2004; Sheridan et al., 2003) influence the help-seeking attitudes of young adults; however, these findings are primarily quantitative. The current research adds a qualitative component to the research design to best uncover the deeper meanings behind perceptions. This study also adds to the literature with the inclusion of a new relationship category. “Hooking-up” (a.k.a. casual sex) is a prominent relationship type on college campuses (Bogle, 2007) and it is possible that the vision of a one night sexual encounter may influence one’s perceptions of reporting.

Literature Review

Research has illustrated that college students believe that the gender of the victim or offender alters the perceived severity of a stalking experience, as well as the likelihood of a victim to seek assistance (Phillips et al., 2004; Sheridan et al., 2003). Studies of college students in the U.S. (Phillips et al., 2004), and the U.K. (Sheridan et al., 2003), demonstrated that respondents believed that violence or bodily injury was more likely to occur in cases where men were portrayed as the offenders and women were identified as the victims. Police intervention was thought to be more necessary in cases of women stalked by men, as women were seen as needing to be more concerned for their safety (Phillips et al., 2004). In contrast, men were judged as having a greater capacity to alleviate the stalking situation on their own (Sheridan et al., 2003).

These gendered responses seem to correspond with traditional, deep-rooted cultural norms about men and women - that is, men are burly, fierce, and self-sufficient, and women are weak, passive, and ultimately reliant on others (West & Zimmerman, 1987). Consequently, college students may believe that men would “do their gender” and report to police less because they want to avoid the stigma associated with seeking help, as help-seeking demonstrates personal vulnerability, a status at odds with “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell, 2000). On the other hand, research has found that male offenders create higher levels of fear for their female victims, compared to female offenders with male victims. This level of fear is maintained even when male offenders do not display overt signs of aggression (Sinclair & Frieze, 2000). Similarly, when victimized, men were less likely than women to identify the intrusive behaviors as distressing (Cupach & Spitzberg, 2000) and to indicate that they felt threatened or upset in response to pursuit (Emerson et al., 1998). It then appears that there is “a tendency in our society to trivialize and normalize female-perpetrated acts of violence” (Nabors et al., 2006, 792). In fact, in a recent study of 293 Australian college students, female perpetuated violence on male victims was viewed as more acceptable and justifiable than male perpetrated violence towards female victims (Thompson et al., 2012). If female offenders are perceived as less predatory and aggressive than men, their crimes may be distinguished as not grave enough to report to police. This form of chivalrous response may indicate that women are more likely to get away with these particular forms of violence (Pollak, 1950). Furthermore, perceptions of male reluctance to report stalking may not be a result of culturally dictated norms, but a result of not feeling fear in response to actions engaged in by female pursuers, an important legal consideration for stalking (as victim fear is a requirement by law).

The notion of fear could also drive perceptions by outside parties observing the actions. Literature has noted that “women, by virtue of their smaller physical stature vis-à-vis men, are reported to have higher fear of crime because they feel more physically vulnerable” (Callanan & Teasdale, 2009, 362). This fear of crime among women could be fueled by their heightened concern with sexual violence (Pain 2000). This shadow of sexual assault dominates women’s gendered experience with fear of crime and victimization. As a result, women in this study may be more inclined to believe that targets of unwanted pursuit would report to police if they could imagine potentially grave consequences to the victim. In a vignette study of community members in Australia, women were more likely than men to report being worried about the stalking situation and willing to seek outside assistance (Hills & Taplin, 1998); however, this study used vignettes depicting women stalking men, which were read by men, and vignettes depicting men stalking women were read by women. Therefore, the differences observed may have occurred due to the relationship between participant gender and the gender of the characters in the vignette, a relationship which potentially could confuse the interpretations of true gender differences in the perceptions of stalking behavior. The current study assigned stalking vignettes to respondents irrespective of their gender to circumvent this problem.

The nature of the prior relationship between the victim and offender also plays a role in explaining college student perceptions of reporting practices. In a study on perceptions of college students in Australia and the United Kingdom, Scott et al. (2010) found that cases with strangers (as opposed to acquaintances or ex-partners) were more likely to be identified as stalking and to be perceived as serious. Other studies have indicated that college students felt that police intervention was necessary (Sheridan et al., 2003) and that confronting the offender was less advisable in cases involving a stranger, as opposed to an ex-intimate (Phillips et al., 2004). In addition, college students believed that victims who did not know their stalker bore less responsibility for their own harassment than victims with a known offender (Sheridan et al., 2003). Findings such as these indicate that individuals who have had a history with their stalker, and who have been compliant with their stalker in some way, may not be envisioned as “true” stalking victims (Dunn, 2002) in need of outside assistance. These perceptions lend credibility to the idea that outsiders view victimization through a “just world” lens in an attempt to rationalize that similar victimization would be less like to happen in their own personal lives (Lerner, 1980).

Another reason individuals may believe stranger stalking cases are more worthy of criminal justice system intervention is because pursuit by someone known to the victim could easily be perceived as innocent, normal courtship behaviors (Dunn, 2002). If an incident is perceived as a case of unrequited love, the victimization may be viewed as excusable, or in the very least, a private matter, and not a matter worth pursuing legally. Interestingly, in interviews with police officers, victim advocates, and attorneys in the state of Rhode Island, Klein et al. (2009) found that practitioners neglected to recognize the true threat of an intimate stalker; instead, they rationally explained the behavior using excuses such as the need to deal with family problems or issues with shared children. As a result, it is likely that college students in the current study will perceive that ex-intimate stalking victims will be less likely than other types of victims to report their victimization to police.

Current Study and Hypotheses

Drawing on the previous literature, this study seeks to examine whether college students believe stalking victims will contact the police to report their victimization. As mentioned earlier, perceptions of reporting play a vital role in gauging how students view the seriousness of stalking, how they construct victimization and the ultimate need to seek help, and how they perceive the deterrent effects of stalking law. In addition, national surveys suggest that victims are most likely to seek informal assistance from friends and family in cases of stalking (Baum et al., 2009). Thus, it is important to examine how laypersons interpret these experiences as their advice will likely be sought should individuals within their personal networks experience stalking-related behaviors. Given the previous literature, we hypothesize that prior relationship, offender/target gender, and participant gender would have significant effects on the perceived likelihood of victim reporting.
  1. H1

    College women will perceive victim reporting to be more likely than college men.

     
  2. H2

    College students will perceive that victims of stalking are more likely to report in cases where men stalked women than in cases where women stalked men.

     
  3. H3

    College students will perceive that victims of stalking are less likely to report cases involving ex-intimates than in stalking cases with strangers, casual acquaintances, and casual sex partners.

     

Method

Data Collection and Sample

A 2 (offender/target gender: male offender / female target, female offender / male target) × 4 (relationship: stranger, casual acquaintance, ex-intimate, casual sex) × 2 (respondent gender: female, male) mixed factor design survey was administered in undergraduate classrooms during regularly scheduled courses in the spring 2006 semester. Selection of classrooms was not random as the instructors volunteered their classrooms as a study site. Ten classes in total were surveyed from courses in health and exercise science, sociology, African American studies, political science, leadership, civil engineering, philosophy, art, and dance. Once in the classroom, students were told the survey was about their perceptions of unwanted pursuit behavior. The respondents were not told the study was on stalking; they determined for themselves if the actions were criminal. The authors recognized that acknowledgement of an act as a crime increases the likelihood that a report will be made to police (Reyns & Englebrecht, 2010), thus disclosing the criminal element of the scenario could potentially influence the variation in student’s perceptions of reporting to police. Also, completion of the survey was voluntary and no incentives were offered to students. While there was no systematic information collected on response rate, very few students declined to participate in the study upon learning about the survey.

Each participant was assigned one of eight possible stalking scenarios (see Appendix A for complete scenarios). The scenarios were pretested prior to dissemination of the final survey to determine if interpretational issues existed. To limit the chances of confounding target gender with the respondent’s gender (whereby respondents could more closely identify with targets of the same gender), participants were assigned to a scenario irrespective of their gender. To ensure that each classroom responded to each of the eight possible scenarios, the surveys were specially ordered prior to administration (every ninth student in each row restarted the pattern of possible scenarios). This distribution ensured that half of the respondents read a scenario with a man stalking a woman and half read a scenario with a woman stalking a man. Within these gender assignments of victim and offender, one fourth of the scenarios involved strangers, one fourth involved ex-intimates, one fourth involved casual acquaintances, and one fourth involved casual sex partners.

The study sample involved 527 students (289 females and 238 males) from a large east coast university. An overwhelming majority of students identified themselves as Caucasian (84 %)1. Unlike other studies that often survey large introductory freshman social science courses, this study incorporated a greater variety of students in terms of class standing. Thirty-three percent were freshman, 34 % were sophomores, 17 % were juniors, 14 % were seniors, and 2 % were graduate students. Academically, 22 % listed majors in the social sciences, 19 % in arts & humanities, 18 % in engineering, 13 % in business, 12 % in health science, 6 % in natural/mathematical sciences, 4 % in education, 3 % in human services & public policy, 1 % in agriculture, and 2 % were undecided.

Scenarios

Within each of the eight scenarios, the behaviors of the offender and the response of the victim met the legal requirements of stalking for the state in which it was administered. Like most states nationwide, stalking in this east coast local required repeated intrusions by the offender and reasonable fear to be felt by the victim (or, in this specific state, significant mental anguish or distress to the victim). Considering the most prevalent forms of stalking behavior today, the persistent intrusion in the scenario consisted of a pattern of unwanted telephone calls and messages (Baum et al., 2009). There was no physical violence or interactions portrayed in the scenario. The scenarios were kept vague to allow students to determine for themselves what is serious or not serious enough to report to police. Drawing from Dennison and Thomson (2000; 2002), the threat (required in many statutes in the U.S.) was captured by indicating that the victim received a telephone message on his or her answering machine stating, “If you don’t give me a chance then there will be trouble. You will be sorry.” Victim fear was portrayed by the concluding remark indicating the victim was frightened and the next day had a dead bolt lock installed by the landlord.

The elements of persistent intrusion, threat, and victim fear were constant across all eight scenarios. The beginning of each scenario was manipulated to examine the impact of target/offender gender and prior relationship. Target/offender gender included cases in which men pursued women or women pursued men. The prior relationship between the victim and offender included strangers, casual acquaintances, ex-intimates, and casual sex partners. In the casual sex scenario, the offender and victim met at a bar where they flirted on the dance floor and eventually went out to the parking lot and had sex. In the stranger scenario, the offender saw the victim at a bar and obtained the victim’s name from a credit card receipt left on the table. In the acquaintance scenario, the offender and victim had a class together; they ran into each other in a bar and talked for 10 minutes about the class. In each of these situations, the offender located the victim’s contact information within the campus directory the following day and engaged in the pursuit behavior. With the ex-intimate scenario, the offender and victim met at a bar and the next day the offender obtained the victim’s contact information from the campus directory and called to ask for a date. The date went well and the two dated for a year. Right after the break-up, the offender engaged in the pursuit behavior.

Variables

The independent variables in this study included the prior relationship and gender of the target/offender described in the scenario, as well as the gender of the respondent. Prior relationship included stranger, casual acquaintance, casual sex, and ex-intimate cases. For the current analysis, the dummy variable of ex-intimate was left out of the model as the comparison category. Target/offender gender incorporated scenarios with men pursuing women and women pursuing men. Respondent gender included both male participants and female participants.

The dependent variable measured the perceived likelihood of the victim reporting to police. This variable was measured using a Likert-scale ranging from 0 to 9 with 0 being “not at all likely” and 9 being “extremely likely.” Students were then asked to explain in their own words why the pursued would or would not report to police. No triggers, prompts, or clues were provided to participants to ensure that the responses were the clear reflections of their attitudes.

Analysis

This study used a mixed-method design by adding an open-ended question to the traditional fixed-format questions of a factorial survey. The three hypotheses examining the influence of prior relationship, victim/offender gender, and participant gender on perceived likelihood of reporting were analyzed using linear regression techniques. To get a deeper understanding of the quantitative results, narrative responses to the open-ended question were analyzed and coded. To create a detailed coding protocol with assigned categories, we relied upon existing literature that documented a variety of rationales to explain why victims of stalking report to police and fail to report to police. These rationales included such things as the event was not serious enough, victim fear of retaliation, and victim shame and embarrassment (see Tables 1 and 2 for all of the coding categories: Table 1 highlights the responses for why victims would not report to the police and Table 2 highlights the responses for why victims would report to the police). All narrative responses were coded using these pre-established categories. However, we also investigated and coded other original perceptions as they emerged in the data (see Table 3). All responses were coded independently by each author of this study. Initial analysis revealed that less than 2 % of the assignments involved differences in coding between the authors. These initial disagreements in the assignment of categories were resolved by consensus between the authors.
Table 1

Qualitative Comments Using Existing Literature: Perceptions of Why Victims Would Not Report to Police

 

Female

Male

N

% within category (n = 277)

% total (n = 593)

A belief that the event was not serious enough (Buhi et al., 2008)

54

35

89

32.1

15.0

Victim fear of retaliation for reporting (Buhi et al., 2008)

6

3

9

3.2

1.5

Victim fear that police won’t believe them (Buhi et al., 2008)

9

15

24

8.7

4.0

A belief that a crime hasn’t occurred (Baum et al., 2009)

0

0

0

0

0

A belief that nothing can be done to stop the behavior (Baum et al., 2009)

10

10

20

7.2

3.4

A desire to protect the perpetrator from legal consequences (Baum et al., 2009)

0

0

0

0

0

Victim shame or embarrassment (Baum et al., 2009)

21

17

38

13.7

6.4

A belief that the experience was a private matter (Baum et al., 2009)

24

27

51

18.4

8.6

The behavior by the offender involved few repetitive unwanted actions (Jordan et al., 2007)

0

0

0

0

0

The stalker wasn’t a stranger (Jordan et al., 2007)

8

7

15

5.4

2.5

The victim doesn’t feel fear (Jordan et al., 2007)

3

3

6

2.2

1.0

There was no perceived threat or act of violence (Brewster 2001)

2

1

3

1.1

0.5

After responding to the quantitative question regarding the likelihood of reporting, respondents were asked in a follow up question to explain why they felt the victim would or would not report to the police in this case

N = 277 refers to the number of qualitative responses that indicate perceptions of why victims would not report to the police

Table 2

Qualitative Comments Using Existing Literature: Perceptions of Why Victims Would Report to Police

 

Female

Male

N

% within category (n = 104)

% total (n = 593)

A belief that the event was serious enough (Buhi et al., 2008)

7

1

8

7.7

1.3

The stalker was a stranger (Jordan et al., 2007)

0

4

4

3.8

0.7

The victim does feel fear (Jordan et al., 2007)

16

11

27

26.0

4.6

There was a perceived threat or act of violence (Brewster 2001)

12

11

23

22.1

3.9

N = 104 refers to the number of qualitative responses that indicate perceptions of why victims would report to the police

Table 3

Additional Qualitative Comments from Within the Data

Perceptions of why victims would report to police

 

Female

Male

N

% within category (n = 104)

% total (n = 593)

Would report because they sought prior help

20

17

37

35.6

4.6

Would report because the behavior was persistent

2

3

5

4.8

0.8

Perceptions of why victims would report to police in the future

 

Female

Male

N

% within category (n = 212)

% total (n = 593)

Would report if persistence increased

58

19

77

36.3

13.0

Would report if threats increased

24

12

36

17.0

6.1

Would report if fear increased

13

6

19

8.9

3.2

Would report if violence increased

2

8

10

4.7

1.7

Would report if severity increased

39

31

70

33.0

11.8

N = 104 refers to the number of qualitative responses that indicate perceptions of why victims would report to the police

N = 212 refers to the number of qualitative responses that indicate perceptions of why victims would report to the police in the future if the incident got worse

Results

Although the scenarios presented to respondents in this study met the legal requirements of stalking, descriptive results from our quantitative data on the likelihood of reporting indicated that many college students believed that the likelihood that the victim would report the unwanted behavior to police was low (Mean = 4.18; SD = 2.33). Also, results from the regression model (see Table 4) provided no statistical support for our first hypothesis (H1) which suggested that college women would perceive victim reporting to be more likely than college men (p = .97). Surprisingly, female participants were no more likely to judge that the victim would report to police than male participants, indicating that men and women may possibly perceive stalking victimization in similar ways.
Table 4

Linear Regression Results Predicting the Perceived Likelihood of Victim Reporting

Variable

b

ß

t-value

SE

p

Male pursuing female

1.24

.27

6.40

.19

.00

Stranger

1.15

.21

4.15

.28

.00

Acquaintance

0.54

.10

1.97

.27

.05

Casual sex

0.18

.00

0.07

.27

.95

Respondent is male

0.01

.00

0.04

.19

.97

Constant

3.16

13.36

.24

.00

R2 = .110

     

The results from the regression model did provide support for our second hypothesis (H2) which indicated that college students would perceive victim reporting to be more likely in cases where men stalked women than in cases where women stalked men (p < .01). Students believed that men who are pursued by women were significantly less likely to report their case to police than women who are pursued by men. In fact, results revealed that the gender of the target and offender in the scenario had the greatest effect on perceptions of reporting behavior (ß = .27). Finally, these results provided partial support for our third hypothesis (H3) which stated that college students would perceive victim reporting to be less likely in stalking cases with ex-intimates than in stalking cases with strangers, casual acquaintances, and casual sex partners. Our analysis indicated that students perceived that victims who were pursued by ex-intimates were significantly less likely to report their case to police than victims who were pursued by strangers (p < .01) and class acquaintances (p = .05). Significant results were not reflected for the casual sex scenario (p = .95), suggesting that ex-intimates are not perceived to report less than victims who engaged in a one night sexual encounter with their now stalker.

While these data shed some light on the perceptions of reporting behaviors for victims of stalking, the qualitative data reveal additional findings to expand our understanding of perceptions. Out of the 527 surveys administered, we yielded 593 qualitative comments from 518 participants (see Tables 1, 2 and 3). The most common themes mentioned by respondents included a belief that the event was not serious enough and that the experience in the scenario was a private matter.

While these perceptions indicated that the victim might not report at the current time (a finding supported by the quantitative data), 136 comments from female respondents and 76 comments from male respondents claimed that the victim would report if there was an increase in the level of persistence, threat, and violence, as well as if there was an increase in the severity of the pursuit behaviors or an increase in the victim’s level of fear. This finding demonstrates a belief that the current scenario involving phone calls and verbal threats was not “serious enough” to warrant a report to police. Many respondents indicate that “nothing has happened yet” or that “the circumstances do not call for drastic measures thus far.” This suggests that students, especially females, believe reporting to police might not be necessary in all cases, especially not right away. Repeated phone calls and messages, even a threatening message toward an uninterested, frightened party, may not be perceived as very harmful. Instead, students suggest that stalking may need to progress to a physical nature in order to warrant police intervention. When the behavior escalates to encounters that increase the risk for injury to the victim, such as face-to-face encounters, the incident is perceived as more severe and serious enough to report.

“I think she would report it if he steps the calls up to visits and harassing her face to face”(Female)

“(She) probably won’t report it because (he) hasn’t done anything physical yet, and she probably feels like the police won’t take her seriously”(Female)

“She only threatened him. I don’t think he will go to the police unless she shows up at his house” (Female)

“(She would report) only if he becomes violent or she fears for her safety so much that she can’t live her normal life and feel safe” (Female)

These qualitative results provide a view of perceptions on the future likelihood of reporting, a dimension of time that is not reflected in the quantitative analysis. Thus, while statistical data showed little difference with regard to male and female participant’s perceptions of reporting, when considering the potential danger with future stalking incidents, females were almost twice as likely to perceive that a report would be made by the victim if conditions worsened.

The qualitative data also provides a unique insight for our second and third hypotheses on the effects of target/offender gender and relationship status on perceptions of reporting. Table 5 provides a further breakdown of the descriptive counts of the most common qualitative responses by gender of the victim/offender, as well as the type of relationship. Like the quantitative data, the qualitative data indicates that perceptions of reporting are influenced by the prior relationship between the victim and the offender. For instance, the ex-intimate stalking scenario was twice as likely to elicit comments by participants that the event was not serious enough and/or the matter is private and should be dealt with by the victim, compared to comments provided by students responding to the stranger scenario. This suggests that there is less concern for the safety of the victim when stalked by an ex-intimate. When looking more closely at ex-intimates specifically, it appears that gender of the ex-intimate also plays a role in perceptions. While the majority of respondents indicated that a significant threat had not occurred in the scenario (and therefore a report to the police was unlikely), the scenario with a female ex-intimate was twice as likely to elicit comments that this was not a serious matter for the victim, compared to the scenario with a male ex-intimate. Similar patterns were observed with the other relationship categories as well, even stranger cases. Ten percent of the respondents viewing the case of male victims stalked by female strangers indicated the case wasn’t serious, whereas no respondent claimed the case was not serious when it involved female victims stalked by male strangers. The comments below further solidify a belief that respondents do not consider female stalkers, especially ex-intimates, to be dangerous or threatening, ultimately trivializing female perpetuated acts of violence.
Table 5

Key Themes in Perceptions of Why Victims Would/Would Not Report to Police by Relationship Type and Gender of Victim/Offender

 

Males

Females

Total N

Within category%

Comments involving Female Stranger Offenders with Male Victims (n = 74)

 NO—Incident is not serious/non threatening

2

6

8

10.8

 NO—Police won’t believe me

5

1

6

8.1

 YES—Engaged in prior help seeking behaviors

3

3

6

8.1

 YES IF—Offender increased persistence

1

11

12

16.2

 YES IF—Offender increased severity

8

2

10

13.5

Comments involving Male Stranger Offenders with Female Victims (n = 79)

 NO—Private matter, Deal with it on own

4

4

8

10.1

 YES—Engaged in prior help seeking behaviors

2

5

7

8.9

 YES IF—Offender increased persistence

1

10

11

13.9

 YES IF—Offender increased severity

3

8

11

13.9

Comments involving Female Ex-Intimate Offenders with Male Victims (n = 72)

 NO—Incident is not serious/non threatening

6

9

15

20.8

 NO—Embarrassment / Shame

7

2

9

12.5

 YES IF—Offender increased persistence

4

4

8

11.1

 YES IF—Offender increased severity

5

8

13

18.1

Comments involving Male Ex-Intimate Offenders with Female Victims (n = 64)

 NO—Incident is not serious/non threatening

4

4

8

12.5

 NO—It’s a private matter / Deal with on own

6

2

8

12.5

 YES IF—Offender increased severity

5

5

10

15.6

Comments involving Female Classmate Offenders with Male Victims (n = 70)

 NO—Incident is not serious/non threatening

6

11

17

24.3

 YES—Engaged in prior help seeking behaviors

4

7

11

15.7

 YES IF—Offender increased persistence

3

7

10

13.0

Comments involving Male Classmate Offenders with Female Victims (n = 63)

 NO—Incident is not serious/non threatening

5

6

11

17.5

 NO—It’s a private matter / Deal with on own

5

4

9

14.3

 YES IF—Offender increased persistence

3

6

9

14.3

 YES IF—Offender increased severity

3

6

9

14.3

Comments involving Female Casual Sex Offenders with Male Victims (n = 70)

 NO—Incident is not serious/non threatening

6

8

14

20.0

 NO—Embarrassment / Shame

6

5

11

15.7

 NO—It’s a private matter / Deal with on own

3

4

7

10.0

 YES IF—Offender increased persistence

3

7

10

14.3

 YES IF—Offender increased severity

5

3

8

11.4

Comments involving Male Casual Sex Offenders with Female Victims (n = 78)

 NO—Embarrassment / Shame

4

14

18

23.1

 NO—Incident is not serious/non threatening

2

6

8

10.3

 YES IF—Offender increased persistence

3

8

11

14.1

 YES IF—Offender increased threats

3

6

9

11.5

“This is not out of the ordinary when people have a break up. There are much bigger crimes and threats that are going on that make this one look insignificant” (Female responding to ex-intimate scenario)

“Its just an annoying ex-girlfriend” (Male responding to ex-intimate scenario)

“First of all Kyle is a man so he may not feel as threatened by a women [woman]. If the situation was reversed maybe the women [woman] would report. Also perceptions of masculinity may make him think twice about reporting because he might get ridiculed for being scared of a woman.” (Female responding to stranger scenario)

“He doesn’t think it’s that serious yet and he isn’t thinking about what she could do nonphysically. He is probably thinking that she’s only a woman. What can she do to him?” (Female responding to hook-up scenario)

“A boy afraid of a girl?” (Female responding to classmate scenario)

Perceptions of shame and embarrassment also played a role in explaining perceived reporting behaviors across relationship types and the gender of the victim and offender. With respect to ex-intimates, 12.5 % of the sample responding to a scenario with a female ex-intimate pursuing a male victim reported that the victim would not report given feelings of embarrassment. Interestingly, no students who responded to the scenario with a male ex-intimate pursuing a female victim indicated the female would be embarrassed to report. Perceptions of shame were also found when male victims were pursued by previous partners. Both male and female participants indicated that the male victim in the scenario would be ashamed to report and/or would prefer to deal with the situation on his own. Since he is being pursued by a woman, filing a report would be humiliating.

“I don’t think he would, his guy friends would make fun of him for running to the cops” (Female)

“Because he is a guy and she’s a girl, I think he would be embarrassed to have to report a threat from a girl and he probably thinks he would be able to handle the situation” (Male)

“As (the victim) is a male, he might not be as worried if a female were in his situation. I definitely think that if more threats were made, he would report it. However, one little threat might not be very significant and (the victim) wouldn’t feel like the police would care” (Female)

“Guys are usually embarrassed to report any kind of physical abuse or threats of physical abuse from a girl, so I don’t think he would report it” (Female)

“This situation would not want to be shared by (the victim) because it is quite uncommon for a man to report being threatened by a woman because it is not manly” (Male)

“That type of thing is unfortunately rather common, and John would probably feel stupid calling the cops.” (Male)

As is apparent, the qualitative data indicates that college students foresee a decreased likelihood that a male victim would report a stalking case to the police because he may be embarrassed. Interestingly, the qualitative data also revealed that students perceive female victims may feel shame and reluctance to report; however, the source of this embarrassment has nothing to do with perceived personal capability (like with male victims). Responses (many from female participants) suggest that the source of shame experienced by the female victim is related to the nature of the relationship she has with the offender. If the relationship was a “one-night stand,” respondents believed that the female victim accepted responsibility or anticipated blame from outsiders for the victimization since she engaged in sex with the offender without knowing much about his character.

“ When (the victim) reports this to the police, she will have to tell them everything—including how she had sex with him on the first night. This makes her look bad and she might be blamed for leading him on” (Female)

“ She may be reluctant to (report) just because she wouldn’t want to admit she played a part in this by having sex with him, so it’s not completely his fault” (Male)

It was originally hypothesized that students would perceive victims in ex-intimate relationships to report less than victims in casual sex relationships given the potential to easily make excuses for ex-intimate behavior. This was not supported with the quantitative data, and the qualitative data reveal that students believe female victims who have had one time sexual relations with a stalker want to avoid the shameful telling of their story, thus have justifiable reasons for not reporting. Implied in these perceptions are judgments that blame the casual sex victim. Consequently, statements claiming “it’s casual sex partners not completely his [the offender’s} fault” are formulating excuses and reducing culpability for the stalker.

In addition, although not part of our original coding schema, the concept of early help seeking played a role in the perceptions of victim reporting of stalking to police. For instance, in cases with stranger offenders, 17 % of the respondents perceived that victim would report to police. Participants in this condition perceived that the victim saw the need to install a deadbolt lock as a “wake-up” call. Filing a report with the police was simply the next logical step in protecting themselves. Apparently, the acknowledgement of prior help seeking indicated an understanding that stalking by a stranger was serious enough to warrant police intervention and that one manner of help seeking may predict other forms of help seeking. Comments indicating the victim would report because the victim already took one other precautionary measure was also seen in cases involving classmates; however, comments were rarely made in response to scenarios involving ex-intimates or previous hook-up partners, indicating again that relational distance between a victim and offender plays a role in perceptions by outside parties.

Discussion

The current study indicates that college students possess several predispositions that suggest victims of stalking will unlikely report their victimization: 1) a belief in the ashamed male victim who can handle stalking by a female on his own, 2) a belief in the ashamed female victim who had a casual sexual relationship with her stalker and is now embarrassed to report to police, 3) a belief in the dangerous male, stranger stalker who warrants a police report (while ex-intimate, female stalkers are less concerning), and 4) a belief that stalking is only serious and worth reporting when threats and persistence continue over a greater time period, or when physical actions are taken toward the victim.

Implied in these judgments are cultural and gender biases that downgrade victimization and/or blame victims for their plight. Traditional, deep-rooted cultural norms about men and women are constructing perceptions that men are capable and self-reliant as victims (thus women are not) and that men are dangerous predators (thus women are not). These findings are in line with recent scholarship indicating that gendered stereotypes about stalking can shape perceptions about the seriousness of the crime and whether victims will seek help (Lyndon et al., 2012). Our study also confirms previous literature suggesting that cases of stalking by strangers are viewed as the most dangerous and worthy of a report to the police (Scott et al., 2010). Adding to the existing stalking literature, this study reveals that feelings and attitudes about casual sex suggest that outsiders view only select targets of unwanted pursuit as “true” victims in need of help. Disguised in these attitudes is the shaming of select victims, who are viewed as more culpable for putting themselves at risk. As a consequence, when blame is directed toward the victim, less blame is attributed to the actions of the offender.

In addition, published quantitative studies have revealed that stalking is perceived as most serious and most likely to be reported when the situation escalates (Reyns & Englebrecht, 2010). Our study confirms these findings and attempted to provide a deeper understanding of the rationale behind these perceptions. The qualitative data in this study exploring why students perceived the victim in the situation would or would not report to police consistently indicated that the incident in question was not serious enough, but that increased incidents or severity would lead the victim to contact the authorities. This belief alone, that stalking is serious when physical altercations arise, is insulting to victims. The victims in the current study vignette claimed to be frightened and had a deadbolt lock installed on their door after being threatened on their answering machine. They qualified as victims under current stalking law; however, many respondents in this sample viewed the victimization as having little consequence (at the moment). Unfortunately, there was no explanation provided in the coded responses as to why students believed physical violence is more serious and worth more attention than the psychological torture often felt by victims of stalking. Future research would benefit from exploring this question in greater detail, yet for now, it would be wise to raise awareness about the real emotional and psychological toll that stalking takes on victims (Hall, 1998).

Considering advise and input from friends and family influence a victim’s decision to report to authorities (Greenburg & Ruback, 1992; Baum et al., 2009), these unveiled attitudes can potentially re-victimize the target of pursuit and deter them from seeking the assistance of police. It is possible that respondents are just indicating their belief that not all stalking cases need police assistance. They may feel that police should not be involved with small-scale forms of stalking. This is a valid suggestion given the difficulty investigating stalking cases and the poor track record police officers have in dealing with stalking victims (Klein et al., 2009; Kamphuis et al., 2005; Hall, 1998). However, it is never wise to suggest a victim who is in fear wait until the stalking gets worse or physical before contacting police.

It is also naïve to suggest that victims of ex-intimates have less to worry about than victims of strangers. Stalking is a form of domestic violence; it’s an attempt at control after the end of an intimate relationship (Spitzberg, 2002). As a result, stalking by ex-intimates poses the greatest risk for violence to victims. Interestingly, research has begun to document that a sizeable number of stalking victims do realize the threat presented by ex-intimates and actually report to police (Jasinski & Ehrhardt-Mustaine, 2001). In addition, a victim’s sexual history should never be used to deflect blame away from a guilty offender. These rationalizations applied in female victim cases make it appear she is partially responsible for her own victimization. Moreover, the data suggest females are the hardest judges of other female behavior. Much like what has recently been found with perceptions of statutory rape, females are more likely than males to be judgmental of the female victim’s behavior (Koon-Magnin & Ruback, 2012).

Similarly, it is never fair to assume a male victim can handle a female stalker on his own. This sexual double standard views men as able to defend themselves, which can impact the perceptions of male victims. Whereas women are blamed for creating unnecessary risks as a result of their behaviors (such as the hook-up scenario in the present study), male victims are shamed for not being able to take control of the situation. As seen with depictions of sexual assault, defenses such as these do not acknowledge that men can be victims of these types of interpersonal crimes (Davies & Rogers, 2006). Research shows that the lives of men are greatly interrupted by female stalkers who are capable of serious harm (Pathe & Mullen, 1997); and as a consequence, actions by female stalkers should not be trivialized.

Given these uncovered biases and the belief that many victims of stalking won’t report to authorities, it is possible that college students themselves would not be deterred from engaging in stalking behaviors, which could explain the high rates of victimization in this population (Fisher et al., 2000). College is a unique time where students are developing social skills and managing complex relationships, and misinformed judgments like those discovered in this study could make matters worse on college campuses. Efforts should be put forth to challenge these biases, increase empathy for all victims, and possibly expand reporting options on campus. Students acknowledged that shame may be a factor that hinders students from seeking help; thus, for those apprehensive students, an anonymous hotline could provide a useful source of information. This hotline could serve as a stepping stone for victims, as some participants in this study believed that if students could be motivated to seek some form of assistance, they may be inclined to seek help from other sources, law enforcement included.

In addition, the current study demonstrated the importance of examining the potential or actual future behavior by offenders, as they play a role in perceptions. It was discovered that many students felt the scenario, as is stood at the moment, was not worth a report by victims to the police. However, a large number indicated in their comments that if the unwanted behavior persisted, became more threatening, or violent they feel the victim would report. Indeed, research suggests that feeling threatened does increase the likelihood that victims will report stalking incidents to the police, particularly as the incidents increase in severity (Campbell & Moore, 2011; Reyns & Englebrecht, 2010). Consequently, researchers need to be careful to not just look at a stalking case or scenario at one point in time. Our findings indicate that future studies would benefit by including follow-up questions on surveys or interview schedules that discuss the possibility that the stalking gets worse or better with time. Factorial surveys specifically should manipulate the number of contacts by the offender and the type of contacts (physical, violent, email, etc.), as well as the number and type of threats (implied or explicit) to better gauge when outsiders, or victims themselves feel it is necessary to report the unwanted pursuit.

While this study provided insight into the perceptions of college students on the reporting of stalking behaviors, our results should be interpreted with caution given the limitations of this study. First, this study was comprised of a convenience sample of college students. Although it is imperative to study this population because they are at heightened risk of victimization, college student perceptions cannot be generalized to perceptions of the general public. In addition, this study examined anticipatory feelings of what college students believe victims will do, not necessarily what they would do in real life. While it is difficult to determine whether participants in this study would behave in manners consistent with their perceptions, it is not impractical to assume that they could (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

An additional area for reflection deals with the variables of race and ethnicity, which were not investigated in this study. Our study is homogenous in nature and does not provide the opportunity to understand how race and ethnicity affects perceptions of reporting behavior. Significant bodies of literature indicates that communities of color may experience victimization in different ways and that they may have different experiences and relationships with law enforcement officers which may impact the circumstances under which someone may or may not report a crime (Rice & Piquero, 2005). Given these differences, future research should explore the relationship between race/ethnicity and the perceptions of victim reporting of stalking behaviors.

The current study was also limited to perceptions of heterosexual stalking. Our results are focused on the perceptions of victim reporting in cases of a man stalking a woman or a woman stalking a man. It is very possible that perceptions may change in scenarios where a man is pursuing a man and a woman is pursuing a woman. In these new scenarios, the constructed beliefs regarding gender and homosexuality could impact perceptions. In a similar vein, the scenarios did not manipulate the offender’s motivation for the stalking behavior (retribution vs. reconciliation), which could also impact perceptions of risk and ultimate help-seeking behaviors. Lastly, this study did not ask respondents about personal prior stalking victimization, which could impact perceptions. Jordan et al. (2007), however, revealed that previous victimization did not have a “spillover effect” with regards to victim perceptions. Nonetheless, future research might consider the influence that indirect victimization, such as victimization of others within social groups (Ferraro, 1995) and media exposure (Chiricos et al., 2000) has on perceptions of reporting.

Despite these limitations, it is clear (at least in this sample) that constructed gender norms and relationship biases permeate students’ perceptions of help-seeking behavior. Unfortunately, these constructed perceptions come at a great cost. Biased perceptions held by college students could result in some student victims feeling ashamed to get the help, formal or informal, they need to end the stalking depredations. Secondly, those students who perceive nonviolent actions waged against a pursued target aren’t harmful and that stalking victims rarely report to authorities, will be unafraid of legal consequences from the criminal justice system, ultimately undermining the deterrent effect of stalking law. It goes without dispute that police involvement is not always desired or useful in all cases; however, it is important that all fearful victims get help before matters turn worse.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    The distribution of race/ethnicity in our sample reflects the demographic make up for the campus where the survey was administered. The majority of the study respondents identified as White, with the remaining 16% identifying as non-Caucasian. Six percent of the respondents were African American, 4% were Asian, 3% were Latino, 2% were mixed race, 1% were “other,” and less than 1% were American Indian.

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Copyright information

© Southern Criminal Justice Association 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.California State UniversityFullertonUSA

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