Research by Swinburne University of Technology and Monash University in Australia has revealed that, when it comes to stalking, there's an underlying community perception that 'victims are to blame', 'stalking is romantic' and 'stalking isn't serious' - and, worryingly, these three beliefs affect whether or not people believe someone is guilty in a fictional stalking case.

The study set out to investigate whether community attitudes towards stalking could be minimising the criminal behaviour, which affects around one in six women and one in 19 men in their lifetime. After studying 244 community members and 280 police officers, they found that, worryingly, many people downplay stalking, and tend to think that it can be a normal part of dating.

"Understanding and being able to reliably measure stalking-related attitudes and beliefs would be of use in anti-stalking education campaigns and offender and victim treatment programs," said study leader Troy McEwan, from Swinburne's Centre for Forensic and Behavioural Science, in a press release.

To work out how people felt about stalking behaviour, the researchers sent out a Stalking Related Attitudes Questionnaire (SRAQ), a scale that attempts to measure stalking-related attitudes and beliefs by asking people to agree or disagree with certain statements, such as "A woman who dates a lot would be more likely to be stalked", "A man should be allowed to pursue a woman to a certain extent, if it is part of romance", "Women often say one thing but mean another" and "Those who are upset by stalking are likely more sensitive than others".

The results revealed that some participants had underlying beliefs that victims were to blame for being stalked, that stalking could be romantic and that it wasn't that serious. Men were overwhelmingly more likely to believe these statements than women, but perhaps most concerning was the fact that police officers didn't differ much from the general population in their opinions, except that they were more likely to take stalking seriously than members of the public.

The team then looked into whether these beliefs would affect whether or not the participants believed someone was guilty in a fictional stalking case, and found that those who believed stalking was 'romantic' or 'not that serious' were more likely to find a stalker not guilty. The results have now been published in the journal Psychiatry, Psychology and Lawand highlight that not only are some public perceptions of stalking incorrect, they can also affect whether or not stakling is dealt with effectively.

"The study provides preliminary evidence that these attitudes are related to failure to recognise stalking behaviour when it is present," said McEwan in the release. "Specific education for helping professionals may be necessary to ensure that appropriate responses are given to all stalking victims."

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