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10 March 1996

Look Who's Stalking

Ellie Lee finds the panic about 'stalkers' an offensive nuisance.

'Stalking' is in the spotlight, with everybody from Princess Di to the woman next door apparently under threat. Anthony Burstow has just been jailed for three years for committing 'psychological grievous bodily harm' against Tracey Sant, by sending her abusive letters and offensive material (including a used sanitary towel) and making nuisance phone calls.

The Burstow trial verdict has been welcomed by everybody from the police to women's safety campaigns. All agree that it is a first step towards making women safer. The ruling certainly sets a precedent. But the reality is that it is a bad one. No doubt Tracey Sant had an unpleasant time, but the use of her case to create a new category of 'psychological GBH' spells bad news.

At first sight 'psychological GBH' seems a contradiction in terms. How can perceiving something in your mind be classified as violence against your person? Yet this understanding of what constitutes harm is at the root of the issue. What is being said through the creation of this new legal category is that a woman feeling upset about something that is said to her should be put on a par with having her teeth kicked out.

This view of what constitutes violence against women, where physical and non-physical actions are seen as equally bad, has been promoted by feminist campaigners who say that 'male violence' should be understood as 'a continuum'. By this standard, everything from sexual jibes and nuisance phone calls to black eyes and rape is seen as part of the same 'unitary phenomenon' of male violence. They argue that it is wrong to distinguish between these acts because all degrade women.

The implications of this approach are two-fold. First, the experience of women who really have suffered GBH, like Sara Thornton, is demeaned. Being subjected to real violence is equated with being subject to no violence at all. The demeaning of violence in this way was made clear in the second recent case of 'stalking', where the defendant was acquitted. The judge said he would like to have sent the man down, but could not because 'at no stage did he use violence. He made no threats and indeed, when he communicated to her, his letters were polite and courteous'. Things have reached a worrying point when a judge can admit he wants to jail somebody for GBH for sending 'polite' notes through the post.

Second, the redefinition of violence through the 'stalking' debate portrays all women as victims. The notion of an all-embracing 'continuum' of male violence, encompassing phone calls, flashing and so on, paints a picture of a society in which women are besieged on all sides by threatening males. By definition a victim cannot stand up for herself. She is too weak and vulnerable, too damaged by her experience. Through the elevation of 'stalking' in particular and violence against women in general, women are being portrayed in this patronising way more and more often. Victims also need protecting by somebody big and strong. So in step the police and judges in their new guise as defenders of women. As ever these days, the end result of a panic about personal safety is an increase in state powers.

In the week of the Burstow case, Labour MP Janet Anderson proposed a parliamentary motion to make 'stalking' a specific offence. She claimed that many more women than previously thought are defiled and degraded by stalkers - even though the highest figure she could conjure up out of thin air was 5000. Anderson's bill on 'stalking' was New Labour's contribution to International Women's Week. It is an indictment of today's 'women-friendly' politics that promoting women as victims is on top of the agenda.
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