Obscene phone calls: annoying or dangerous?

Since the end of April

The phone ringing at midnight often conjures up worst-case scenarios, like death or a family emergency. Lately, on San Juan and Orcas Island residences have had a sinister experience waiting on the other line when the lights go out.

Since the end of April, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office has taken 20 calls reporting sexually explicit telephone calls in the middle of the night by a man, from a restricted or private number, who speaks to his female victims by their name.

“That is really scary,” said Anita Castle, director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of the San Juan Islands. “You feel like someone is watching you and it instills fear.”

Frequent phone calls can be one of many methods stalkers use to harass their victim, and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of four victims report being stalked through the use of technology, including email or instant messaging. Castle said video cameras and GPS systems are also used sometimes to track a victim.

But San Juan County Sheriff Rob Nou said the recent rash of obscene phone calls is not characteristic of stalking because the same woman has not been contacted repeatedly.

He declined to comment further on the specifics of the case because it is an open investigation.

In general, reports of stalkings on the islands aren’t common, said Nou, and are usually tied to a domestic issue such as a post-breakup, when “one party can’t let it go.”

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics three in four stalking victims are stalked by someone they know, and 30 percent are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.

But stalkings on the islands could be more frequent than that those reported to the police; 59 percent of stalking victims do not report the harassment, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.

One of the reasons stalkings go unreported may be a misunderstanding by the public.

“Many don’t think of stalking as abuse,” Castle said. “Many look at abuse as such a black and white issue. It’s not the direct type of abuse we know.”

Stalking can lead to more dangerous activity beyond unwanted calls, but when it comes to the recent incidents Nou said it’s hard to say whether or not this behavior would escalate.

“It depends on the context of the situation,” he said.

If other behaviors of harassment  accompany the phone calls it could be cause for alarm, but Nou said it’s unlikely that the caller would resort to harassing victims at any other level.

Castle said that these types of situations can be dangerous, but agrees it does depend on the victim, their history and the specifics of the phone calls. She added that people who make obscene phone calls or other forms of harassment like flashing or public masturbation often never escalate their behavior to physical assault.

She said the information released about the phone calls describes a random act of perversion, where the perpetrator is excited by scaring women behind the “cloak” of telephone – rather than a stalker or crank call. But that doesn’t mean the phone calls aren’t cause for alarm.

“If you have a history of abuse it can escalate your fears,” Castle said. “If you have PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder] because of sexual assault, phone calls can set off that PTSD. It’s very stressful.”

And even if you don’t have abuse in your past, just watching scary movies like “Scream” and “The Ring,” which both involve a phone evoking terror that often leads to the victim’s death, can cause anxiety.

Years ago, Castle had her own experience with disturbing phone calls. Someone repeatedly called her and breathed on the line and then would hang up and call again. Every time the phone rang she wondered who was on the other end of the line. Eventually she changed her number.

For Castle, the phone calls are part of a bigger issue of gender inequality still pervasive in this country.

“We live in a society where women are objectified in the media, in movies and in video games,” she said describing graphic rape scenes in these mediums. “We live in a society where we don’t feel safe.”

Castle urges anyone who is experiencing anxiety or wants to talk about these phone calls, stalking or any other kind of abuse to call DVSAS on Orcas Island at 376-1234, on San Juan Island at 378-2345 and on Lopez Island at 468-4567.