Unrequited

On obsessive love, rejection, yearning and relationship pursuit in an era of romantic practicality.

Stalking Is Not Strength (Even When a Woman Does It)

We shouldn't buy the latest spin from U.S. Senate candidate Monica Wehby.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Monica Wehby is no longer avoiding allegations that she harassed her ex-husband and former boyfriend. She’s embracing them as evidence of her strength.

“I’m a person who doesn’t easily back down,” she explained at an event with supporters in Oregon City

Her words are in keeping with the narrative her campaign launched after police reports of stalking, harassment and physical abuse surfaced in the final days of the Oregon Republican primary. Her campaign manager called the leaks evidence that “the real war on women is being waged by the Democrats.”

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It seems that the message Team Wehby is pushing is that it’s sexist to attack Wehby for getting out of hand with her exes. Her alleged refusals to go away when she’s asked to, observe custody agreements, and restrain herself physically are, according to her, signs of her persistence.

This storyline isn’t really new. It’s a sign of our cultural ambivalence about women and relationship aggression. Movies about women who stalk men–"All About Steve" and of course "Fatal Attraction" come to mind–have a kind of campy aesthetic that encourages a “You go girl” cathartic viewing experience. The male targets are often married philanderers or unsympathetically ambivalent, jerks who had it coming.

Social science research shows that people are more likely to feel that stalking is justified when it’s female on male than when it’s male on female–as if female stalking is a way of leveling the power imbalance between the sexes.

And now Wehby has seized upon the idea that female stalking is female power. To be sure, she's not exactly a fatally attracted psycho. She's made peace with her former husband, and her ex-boyfriend is a major (and perhaps overzealous) campaign contributor.

But it's misguided for her to blur political determination, something of potential value, with stalking and harassment, as if female relationship aggression wasn't something real or serious.

In fact, what Wehby did was not unusual. Stalking is usually perceived as a crime against women, and indeed women are three times more likely to be stalked than men. But this statistic is based on a narrow definition of stalking: A pattern of unwanted harassing or threatening tactics that causes the victims to feel unsafe or fearful. Many instances of female on male stalking may not fit this definition because men are less likely to admit they feel afraid or unsafe, even if they suffer other effects, such as anxiety or other post-traumatic stress symptoms.

A growing body of research looks at a broader definition of stalking: Persistent and unwanted harassment that, like Wehby’s alleged actions, may or may not cause fear or safety concerns. Under this broader definition, women are just as likely or even more likely than men to resort to the kinds of behaviors detailed in the police reports on Wehby. 

Wehby's efforts to explain away relationship aggression as a sign of strength is something no male politician would ever get away with. Insisting that Wehby, or any woman, should be let off the hook for stalking, harassment or abuse smacks of protectionism, itself a form of sexism. Wehby is essentially asking for a gender pass for her behavior, a clear double standard we shouldn't fall for.

References: 

Black, M.C. et al, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report at http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf.

Dutton, L.B. and Winstead, B.A. “Predicting Unwanted Pursuit: Attachment, relationship satisfaction, relationship alternatives, and breakup distress,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2006) 23: 575.

Lyndon, A.E. et al. “An Introduction to Issues of Gender in Stalking Research,” Sex Roles (2012) 66: 304.

Sheridan, L., et al.. "‘There’s no smoke without fire’: Are male ex-partners perceived as more entitled to stalk than acquaintance or stranger stalkers?'" British Journal of Psychology (2003) 94: 87-98.

Thompson, C.M. et al. “Are Female Stalkers More Violent Than Male Stalkers? Understanding Gender Differences in Stalking Violence Using Contemporary Sociocultural Beliefs,” Sex Roles (2012) 66: 357-360.

Wigman, S.A. “Male Victims of Former-Intimate Stalking: A Selected Review,” International Journal of Men’s Health (2009) 8: 112.

Williams, S.L. and Frieze, I.H. “Courtship Behaviors, Relationship Violence, and Breakup Persistence in College Men and Women.” Psychology of Women Quarterly (2005) 29: 253.

Lisa A. Phillips is an assistant professor of journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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