Stalking first became recognized as a crime in the United States in the late 1980s. After the highly publicized stalking and murder of television actress Rebecca Schafer in 1989, as well as several other stalking murders and attempts, stalking moved onto the public’s radar. Legislation criminalizing stalking followed these tragic, and potentially foreseeable, events. California was the first state to adopt legislation defining stalking as a criminal offense in 1990. Other states followed in short order. Since 1994, all 50 states have similar classifications.
The National Center for Victims of Crime estimates that 1 out of 12 women and 1 out of 45 men will be stalking victims during their lifetimes. Thus, during any given year, nearly 1,000,000 women and 400,000 men experience an episode of stalking.
Despite the staggering prevalence of stalking, it remained relatively unnoticed until only recently, and even then, policymakers have had difficulty with its definition. Undoubtedly, some of these difficulties stem from the orientation of the criminal justice system: that one is innocent until proven guilty and one cannot be arrested without some type of justification.
Prior to stalking legislation, a victim might have reported her stalker to the police only to be told that they could not do anything because “he (she) hasn’t done anything wrong (yet).” Now, while specifics vary across states, most statutes include definitions that convey that (a) the behavior is a course of conduct that is unwanted and harassing, causing substantial emotional distress and serving no legitimate purpose; and (b) the offender must pose a credible threat to the safety of the victim, her family, or friends. Most recently, lawmakers added cyberstalking to the growing ways in which stalkers threaten and frighten their victims.
The Problem of Definition of Stalking
Interpreting the definitions and behaviors of stalking is problematic. For one, how many acts does it take to determine that certain behaviors create a “pattern” or “course” of conduct? Further, the terms credible and threat are complicated. For example, how serious does one have to be to be considered credible or reasonable? Presumably standards for reasonable fear could be different for males and for females; if so, which standard should we use, or should they be different? Further, must threats be verbal? Could threats be written? Do they have to be clear and direct, or can they be implied?
Similarly, typical or usual (and completely understandable) victims’ responses often jeopardize their cases as well as their positions and significance as “victims” in the eyes of the criminal justice system. To illustrate, many victims engage in what are called “acquiescent strategies”; that is, assenting to their stalkers to some small extent so that “he would stay cool.” Law enforcement personnel may see the victim as being unsure of what she wants or leading the stalker on. Another example is that many stalkers engage in “courtship”-like behaviors (e.g., leaving a rose on the windshield of the victim’s car, professing love, begging the victim to return). While the victim is aware of the true meaning and threatening nature of these “romantic” displays, others, such as criminal justice personnel, may see these seemingly insignificant behaviors as no cause for worrying or being concerned. Such issues regarding the definition of stalking may negatively impact victims’ experiences with the criminal justice system as well as the ability of criminal justice personnel to adequately protect the victim. As such, many victims of stalking do not report their harassment to the police or do so only minimally.
Most scholars typify stalkers into three categories: simple obsessional, love obsessional, and erotomania. The simple obsessional is the type who stalks his or her ex-spouse, lover, or former boss. The love obsessional is typically a male who stalks a stranger (possibly a celebrity) and professes inappropriate romantic notions. Finally, the erotomanic is typically a female who stalks a man she believes loves her. She reinterprets his responses to her in order to support her delusions. Other typologies of stalkers include the intimate stalkers, who want to (re)establish a permanent romantic union; the rejected stalkers, who pursue their victims in order to reverse or avenge a rejection (e.g., divorce, separation, termination); and predatory stalkers, who spy on their prey so they can plan an attack—usually sexual—on the victim.
Stalkers use a wide variety of strategies. Depending on the type of stalker, she or he may use courtship behaviors like professing love or begging the victim to return. The offender may use surveillance techniques like following the victim, driving by the victim’s home or place of work, spying on the victim, tapping phones, or otherwise listening in on the victim’s conversations. Most stalkers utilize threats, either direct or implied, against victims. These may include threatening to kill the victim; breaking in or vandalizing the victim’s car, home, or property; entering the victim’s home without permission; verbally abusing the victim; threatening to harm the victim; threatening the victim with a weapon; or threatening suicide if the victim does not comply. Stalking often escalates into violent behaviors such as physical assault, preventing the victim from leaving some place, sexually assaulting the victim, or murder. Other types of typical behaviors by stalkers are showing up at the victim’s home or work, repeatedly telephoning, contacting the victim’s family, and leaving written messages.
Women are primarily the targets, and their stalkers are usually ex-partners who cannot accept the conclusion of the relationship. Typically, the stalking behaviors start soon after the conclusion of the relationship, one often characterized by abuse. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that about one third of female homicide victims were previously stalked by their killers.
Stalking victims are unique from many other types of crime victims. They experience an ongoing crime rather than one with a definite beginning and end. Many experience great confusion, because stalking often incorporates romantic gestures intermixed with threatening overtones, and the victim may once have even loved the stalker. Nonetheless, stalking is a crime that produces extreme stress, fear, and hysteria. The stalker may appear to be everywhere; she hides but he finds her. He may be whispering sweet nothings to her, but he may be ranting abuse as well. Victims try to get help, but often it is not particularly effective, and all the while he or she continues to experience stalking. Victims may experience denial and self-guilt, shock and confusion, irritability, fear, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, anger, depression, flashbacks, difficulties with concentration, post-traumatic stress disorder, health problems, sleep disturbances, or alcohol or drug use or abuse.
- Dunn, Jennifer. 2002. Courting Disaster: Intimate Stalking, Culture, and Criminal Justice. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Minnesota Center against Violence and Abuse. (http://www.cehd.umn.edu/ssw/mincava/).
- Mullen, Paul E., Michele Pathe, and Rosemary Purcell. 2000. Stalkers and Their Victims. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Tjaden, Patricia and Nancy Thoennes. 1998. Stalking in America: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. In the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Research in Brief, April. Retrieved January 4, 2008 (https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/169592.pdf).
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