Online dating sites are increasingly becoming the way that many of us form new relationships and as a lawyer specialising in Stalking and the Chair of Paladin the National Stalking Advocacy Service I was asked by BBC CrimeWatch to discuss the risks for users of these sites.
The first thing that I was keen to get across was that there is one definite factor that causes (mainly) women to be stalked or assaulted by men that they meet online.
The answer? Stalkers. That’s it. Nothing else causes or contributes to it just as only rapists cause rape. Not alcohol, short skirts, previous sexual history, dark streets or mixed tube carriages.
Blaming victims for being abused is insulting, crass and colludes with the stalker or rapist as we focus on the behaviour of the victim rather than that of the perpetrator. Maybe we do this to try and reassure ourselves that this type of thing wouldn’t happen to ourselves, or our family members as we aren’t “that type of woman”. It is simply misogyny and part of the reason that stalkers and rapists are rarely arrested and prosecuted and when they are why they receive such pitiful sentences.
We all use the Internet and social media. It is part of our lives just as using a car or taking the train is. We need to stop seeing a distinction between “real life” and “virtual life”. Stalkers more often than not will stalk using online tools and by their physical presence as well.
The Internet just makes the life of a stalker or rapist easier. It gives them access to far more women than they would previously have been able to come into physical contact with. It also allows them to do their research much faster and without the need to leave their own homes in the initial stages.
As users of dating sites or social media we should be able to say what we want and disclose whatever we like about ourselves just as we should be able to do when we meet someone new at work or in a bar. Disclosure does not encourage or cause stalking or rape however there is no doubt that unfortunately there is a small minority of vile and sadistic men who would seek to use this information to carry out their abuse however it is disclosed.
If someone wants to find out where you live or work unfortunately this is now fairly easy and there are companies who exist purely to do this with no questions asked as to why the information is required.
The electoral register can be searched by anyone and provides an individual’s address and sites such as Linked In will tell a stalker where you are likely to be Monday to Friday during the day. Although employers have a duty of care toward their employees in relation to stalking few have policies or are aware of how seemingly innocent information about when you are due back to the office could be dangerous given to the wrong person.
I don’t want this to become a stalker’s handbook so I won’t go on but information about us is readily available for public consumption both on and off-line.
The real issue that we need to focus on is the appalling service provided by the Criminal Justice System to victims of Stalking, domestic abuse and sexual offences. It seems that crimes that are disproportionally committed by men against women are treated differently with the automatic initial response one of disbelief and unwillingness to help.
Agencies blame victims of these crimes for what has happened to them which helps them to justify their shocking dereliction of duty as the norm.
We must stop the policing of women’s behaviour and ensure that the criminal law protects women as well as men. This doesn’t seem like a big ask but I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.