Defining Stalking: The Influence of Legal Factors, Extralegal Factors, and Particular Actions on Judgments of College Students

Article excerpt

Abstract: Although research demonstrates that college students are at great risk for stalking occurrences (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2002), little scholarship exists on how students define stalking. In the current study, a 2 (offender/target gender: male offender/female target, female offender/male target) x 4 (relationship: stranger, casual acquaintance, ex-intimate, hook-up) x 2 (respondent gender: female, male) factorial design survey was administered to 527 college students to determine whether these extralegal factors influence the ascription of a stalking label. Logistic regression results revealed that respondent gender and offender/target gender did not statistically influence the application of a crime label. However, cases involving strangers and acquaintances were significantly more likely to be envisioned as stalking than cases between ex-intimates, partly because behaviors by the latter could be excused as attempts at closure or reconciliation. Student narratives further revealed that students often envisioned information gathering, following, or showing up unannounced as indications of stalking. Results also suggested that students do not feel victim fear is necessary for a case to be deemed stalking, a legal requirement set forth by many states. Implications of these findings and directions for future research will be discussed.

Keywords: stalking, perceptions, gender, prior relationship, law, campus crime

Researchers have recently begun examining perceptions of stalking, but studies are limited in number, and many have been conducted in locations outside the United States (Dennison and Thomson 2000; 2002; Sheridan et al. 2003; Sheridan and Davies 2001a). In addition, results have yielded findings that are not always consistent, possibly because perceptions were measured using different samples of respondents (college students, the general public, victims) and different definitions of stalking. In general, studies have revealed that prior relationship (Dennison and Thomson 2000; 2002; Kinkade, Burns, and Fuentes 2005; Phillips et al. 2004; Sheridan et al. 2003), particular actions (Sheridan et al. 2003), the presence of threats, and the absence of victim fear play a role in the determination of stalking cases (Dennison and Thomson 2002). The current research adds to this literature by incorporating a qualitative component within the traditional fixed format of surveys, allowing for a deeper investigation into the meaning behind perceptions. The narratives also allow for the researcher to simultaneously examine the impact of multiple factors (legal and extralegal) on college students' judgments of stalking.

In the current study, a 2 (offender/target gender: male offender / female target, female offender / male target) x 4 (relationship: stranger, casual acquaintance, ex-intimate, hook-up) x 2 (respondent gender: female, male) factorial design survey was administered to 527 college students to determine whether these extralegal factors statistically influence the ascription of a stalking label. Using open-ended responses, this study then explored why gender or prior relationship might impact perceptions. Second, this study investigated whether select actions permeate students' descriptions of stalking. Third, this research examined whether college students' interpretations of stalking adhere to the legal requirements set forth in legislation. Last, this research explored whether one commonsense definition of stalking exists among college students.

Investigating these questions could help identify any student misconceptions with the law and/or risk that warrant clarification. If college students do not see select actions by certain types of offenders as stalking, it could inhibit the reporting of genuine stalking cases to criminal justice authorities, thereby decreasing the chances for victim assistance. Further, if college students do not know what stalking is, they cannot be deterred from committing stalking acts. …