How real can a relationship based on e-mails, Skype, and texts be? For victims of cyberstalking, the answer is: very. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent decision to extend domestic-violence protections to people in online romances is an important step toward empowering current and future victims against abuse.
In its ruling, the court went beyond the case at hand, in which a Massachusetts man asked for a restraining order preventing an adult from having consensual sex with the man’s teenage daughter. On that point, the court said no, citing the lack of evidence of any threat or coercion, plus the state’s legal age of consent, 16.
The high court could have stopped there. Significantly, justices opted to resolve a second issue in the case. They took the opportunity to define what this couple had as a “substantive relationship,” despite the fact that most of their courtship was conducted electronically. If there had been evidence of abuse, the justices instructed lower courts, a restraining order should have been issued.
Setting this new standard is an important recognition by the court of the increasingly digital nature of relationships, and the dangers that evolution brings with it. Twenty-six percent of stalking victims report being hounded through some technology, including e-mail and instant messaging, according to Justice Department figures, and 80 percent of all stalking by intimate partners results in physical violence.
With this ruling, the SJC has assured all victims of relationship violence, online or off, that they will now be protected under Massachusetts law.