When is stalking stalking?

MELISSA DAVEY
Last updated 10:50 11/12/2013
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Kylie Ofiu was stalked so persistently by her ex-husband that she had to move to another state of Australia to escape him.

She and her daughters were forced to move houses several times because her ex would linger outside their home watching them, while also stalking Ms Ofiu online. Her ex found her every time she moved. Sometimes she had to flee her home and stay with friends.

Once, her home was broken into. The only items taken were personal belongings - her clothing, her underwear, and some jewellery.

During an inspection of a house she hoped to rent, Ms Ofiu opened a kitchen drawer and found a single knife inside. It was the same knife her ex husband had tried to kill her with when she told him she was leaving him.

"I lost it," she says. "I called the police but they said there was nothing they could do - they said it was just a knife in a drawer." 

Despite the police being called several times for AVO breaches, the stalking has not stopped. When Ms Ofiu returns to her home state to visit, her ex finds her - turning up at supermarkets she shops in or events she goes to. It had been difficult to get the permission to move interstate, since she and her ex have joint custody of their children.

"He still thinks he is in the right for stalking me,'' she says. "He sees nothing wrong with hiding under my house, or following me.

"He says I am the one who is in the wrong, for having friends over to my house, for example.''

Professor of Criminal Justice at Wayne State University in the US, Eric Lambert, has been trying to understand how men and women differ in their perceptions of stalking. He has just released a study in the international journal Violence and Victims that offer some insights into this.

In his survey of university students, women tended to perceive stalking as more pervasive and harmful. Men were more likely to perceive stalking as involving strangers [stalking is much more likely to involve an ex-partner] and to blame the victim for the stalking.

Even though male respondents were more likely to have taken a class at university that covered stalking, they were still more likely to blame victims. There was almost twice the rate of stalking victimisation among female respondents as compared to male respondents - 62 per cent compared to 38 per cent.

"The gender difference in stalking perception could be due to frustration that the legal system cannot easily stop stalking and women are far more likely to be victims," Professor Lambert says. 

"It would be interesting to see if a gender difference existed among criminal justice employees who deal with stalking. Women tend not to be taken as seriously by the police in the US."

In Australia, a clinical and forensic psychologist and research fellow with the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Monash University, Dr Troy McEwan, is trying to understand how stalking is perceived by the general community. 

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The stalkers she works with tend not to think that what they have done is stalking, regardless of whether they're male or female, she said. Dr McEwan shared her thoughts on a recent episode of SBS Insightwhere victims and perpetrators were interviewed.

It seems like it should be a black and white issue - if someone is told their behaviour is distressing and needs to stop, then surely that person should stop?

However, Dr McEwan explains there is a grey area between normal behaviour and stalking.

"This is partly because different people have different levels of vulnerability and what may be okay for one person is unacceptable to another," she said.

"Often victims don't feel threatened immediately, they're just a bit frustrated or nonplussed by the attention. People in this situation often try to be nice and express their lack of interest gently rather than giving a really clear signal to stop. " 

Despite difficulty in prosecuting stalkers it was possible to regain control, Ms Ofiu says. She began reporting every incident to police, even if they couldn't take action because it at least revealed a pattern of behaviour. She is seeing a psychologist and said she was amazed by the support offered by her local domestic violence support centre.

"Sometimes victims don't want others to know about their situation but they must let someone know, and to let people help them," she says. "Report things to police because even if they can't take action, they can put you in touch with support and counselling services."  

- Click here to read through the NZ Police's advice on steps to take if you feel you're being stalked.

- Daily Life 

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