Is it cute or creepy: Media’s normalization of stalking behavior

| January 9, 2023
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Note: this post was updated in July 2024 to reflect new resources.

What makes romantic comedies so enticing? Is it the way one character ‘just can’t stay away’ from another and follows them everywhere?

Is it showing up to their house, where they work, or any other location with grand, sometimes public gestures?

Perhaps the persistent, incessant messages, even against the receiver’s wishes?

Or maybe it’s one character being so enamored they know every single detail about the other’s life?

Sure, sometimes these things are portrayed as over the top, but ultimately all of these methods are just a means to an end, and perfectly okay as long as the (typically) male protagonist gets the girl.

The media portrays this behavior as romantic, but it’s problematic. There are violations of boundaries, obsessive behavior, and a lack of consent in the type of contact someone is receiving. These behaviors can be an indicator of stalking. January is Stalking Awareness Month, and awareness of this social issue was started in 2004 by the National Center for Victims of Crime. We’ll break down this type of violence, which affects 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men (CDC). 

A Legal Definition of Stalking

Stalking is defined by federal law as actions that place a person in reasonable fear of death or injury of themselves, immediate family member, partner/spouse, pet or service/emotional support animal, or causes, attempts to cause, or reasonably causes emotional distress. It includes the intent to or action of putting someone under surveillance/monitoring with an intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate. (18 U.S. Code § 2261A).

This looks like physically showing up to a place the person frequents (school, residence, work), unwanted letters, telephone calls, DMs, emails, or other electronic attempts to interact with or monitor the target or another person or animal they are close to. It can also look like spreading rumors, keeping tabs on the person, damaging their things, or using other people to do these behaviors. 

Stalking is legally defined in Maryland as a malicious course of conduct that includes approaching or following the target that causes a reasonable fear of harm of injury, assault, sexual violence, imprisonment, or death of themselves or others (MD Crim Law Code § 3-802). 

For D.C. affiliates it is defined there as a course of behavior with the intent to cause or reasonable cause a person fear of bodily harm and/or emotional distress of themselves or another person through any means of communication, devices and means (Code of the District of Columbia § 22–3133). 

The issue with the definition of stalking is that it varies by jurisdiction, the respective locations of the stalker and the target, requires proof of intent to harm, and that the behavior causes ‘reasonable fear’ or causes a ‘reasonable person fear.’ The reasonable person standard tried to create some sort of consistency in understanding how people might react to events in the case of crime.

But stalking (and other kinds of gender violence) is usually committed by someone whom the target knows, which can affect their reaction to the behavior. Seventy-five percent of women who were stalked knew their stalker, and sixty-six percent were stalked by a current or former intimate partner (Bureau of Justice Statistics, CDC). Most people’s understanding of relationships is a dynamic of care, not danger. But intimate relationships are where the most harm can occur.

From the 2019 Hopkins Campus Climate Survey, 12.5% of students had experienced stalking since attending Hopkins. When asked why they didn’t reach out for help, 36% of students who were stalked said that behaviors like those they experienced seemed common. Additionally, 23% percent of students who were stalked reported that the reaction of others made them believe it wasn’t serious enough to get help.

Another issue with stalking is that it includes common behaviors, like physically showing up to a place the person frequents (school, residence, work), telephone calls, DMs, emails, and other forms of digital communication.  

Even if stalking includes mundane behaviors, it can be dangerous. Twenty three percent of women who were stalked were also sexually assaulted (National Institute of Justice). Eighty-one percent of women who experienced stalking also experienced physical violence by an intimate partner.  

Bloomberg School of Public Health and Hopkins School of Nursing professor Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell co-authored a study that showed an association with attempted and completed murder. Seventy-six percent of female murder victims were stalked. Eighty-five percent of female victims of attempted femicide victims were stalked.  

Despite these dangers, media makes us see these behaviors through rose-colored glasses.

A Psychological Explanation of How Media Affects Us

Jackson Katz, an advocate against gender violence through publications and Bystander Intervention programs, says,Media plays a powerful role in establishing and perpetuating social norms.

There are two psychological theories that can explain how media does this:

  • The Social Learning theory suggests that behavior is learned by observing others. We can learn what behavior to perform and what behavior to avoid based on the reward or punishment we see people receive. In most romcoms, the character who does these behaviors gets the object of their affection and a happy ending. This common narrative may influence people to believe that if they copy this behavior and if they accept this behavior
  • The James-Lange theory suggests we interpret our emotions based on experiences and our body’s response to those experiences. For example, two people go skydiving and their hearts are racing. One might experience it as exciting; the other might experience it as terrifying. It’s the same physiological response to the same situation, interpreted in different ways. When it comes to stalking behavior, a person being stalked might think that an elevated heart rate is the result of excitement when it could be fear. A person could be particularly predisposed to this misperception If they’ve seen positive portrayals of stalking behaviors in media.

How Do We Challenge These Harmful Behaviors? 

There are steps you can take to make stalking, IRL and in media, less common.

Be mindful of the media you consume. Media literacy can help the community collectively gain a better understanding of healthy and unhealthy relationships. A simple criticism of media romanticizing harmful behavior can start helping people identify them as truly harmful. Saying something like, “Wow that’s creepy. Imagine someone not listening to what you say and bothering you when you don’t like it” is a way to start the conversation on the portrayal of unhealthy behaviors. 

Learn about healthy relationships. With media influencing our perception of relationships, it can be helpful to learn about the features of a healthy one. The One Love Foundation has information on healthy and unhealthy relationships to empower people with knowledge. (You can also check out the Relationships tag on this blog.)

If you notice that you have engaged in unhealthy stalking behavior of someone else, seek out connections with people that reciprocate your interest or find hobbies that help you feel better. It can deter focus on one person who is the target of these behaviors. 

Get additional help if necessary. Unlearning unhealthy behaviors can be difficult. Reaching out to a resource like Mental Health Services can help you reframe your thinking and facilitate healthier behaviors. 

It’s never the target’s fault if they are being stalked. Some people might think it’s easier to ignore a stalker and hope they go away, but stalking can be dangerous and cause significant emotional distress. If you know someone who might need help, please reach out to the following resources. 

Confidential Hopkins Resources 

 Non-Confidential Hopkins Resources  

Peer-Led Resources 

Community Resources

Photo credit to Karl Connolly Photography.

*Serves Homewood undergraduate students