Stalking is defined as a set of intentional behaviors that involves the repeated harassment of another person. Out of context these actions may appear nonthreatening, but they cause the victim to feel fear or emotional discomfort. The conduct can be as varied as the stalker’s imagination and ability to take actions that harass, frighten, threaten, and/or force himself or herself into the life of the survivor. Some common behaviors include persistent unwanted phone calls; driving by home, work, or school; showing up unexpectedly at places frequented by the victim; manipulative behavior, such as threatening suicide in order to get a response; sending letters, e-mail, instant messages, graffiti, or gifts, either romantic (flowers, jewelry) or bizarre (inappropriate personal items, dead animals, violent or disturbing images); and making threats to the victim or the victim’s friends or family.
Stalking was not officially identified before 1990, when legislation was first enacted to address the issue. In 1998, the National Violence Against Women Survey was the first nationwide study of the prevalence of stalking in the United States. This study of 8,000 women and 8,000 men found that 6% of men and 12% of women experienced some kind of stalking victimization in their lifetime that incited a fearful reaction. Prevalence rates among teens and young adults have been found to be much higher than adults, with approximately one third of the former group reporting some stalking victimization.
According to many state laws, in order for a behavior to be considered stalking it must be such that it would cause a reasonable person to feel afraid. The victim, therefore, must be able to prove not only that the behavior occurred, but also that it would cause a reasonable person to feel afraid. This latter requirement is often difficult to prove and results in low arrest and prosecution rates.
More recent theoretical definitions have included obsessive intrusions and other unwanted pursuit behaviors. These definitions include harassing behaviors that range from irritating but legal behaviors, such as repeatedly calling or sending letters, to behaviors that meet the criminal definition of stalking, including threats of harm. Stalking and harassment behaviors are placed on a continuum from normal courtship to violent, obsessive behaviors. This harassment typically occurs either when an individual is pursuing a new romantic partner or after the end of a relationship. For this reason, for some, stalking may not be due to a psychiatric disorder, but instead to a skewed perception of what is acceptable behavior.
Studies that use definitions that include obsessive following and harassment find stalking to be even more prevalent than those that use legal definitions. It is estimated that 62% of young adults report being victimized by stalking behaviors after the end of an intimate relationship. Thirteen percent of college women have reported being stalked in the previous month. Other research finds that nearly all young adults (119 of 120 subjects) reported perpetrating at least one unwanted pursuit behavior after experiencing the breakup of a relationship. This indicates that it is likely that the majority of stalking behaviors do not meet the legal definitions.
Research has indicated that most stalking is perpetrated by males against females. However, due to the definitional requirement that the survivor must feel afraid in order for the behavior to be considered stalking, incidents of males being stalked may be underreported. Due to gender role socialization, males may be less likely to feel or report fear. Some research has indicated that when prevalence is measured based on behaviors alone and not reported fear, males are stalked about as frequently as females.
Causes of Stalking
Psychological disorders are the most common explanation of stalking behavior. Three types of stalkers were identified based on psychiatric definitions. One type is ertomanic in which the perpetrator has delusions of being loved by the victim, even if he or she does not know or has never spoken to the victim. The love obsessional stalker is characterized by fanatic, delusional love of the victim, but not necessarily the belief that love is reciprocated. Finally, the simple obsessional stalker is one who has had a previous relationship with the victim. The simple obsessional classification is also referred to as borderline ertomania in which the stalker does not have delusions of being loved, but instead acts out of narcissistic rage. Stalking by those with psychiatric disorders are the most highly publicized, but also the least common.
Aside from mental health, the most common explanations focus on attachment in infancy as predisposing one to engage in stalking behavior. These theories indicate that infants who do not develop a secure attachment to a caregiver will be unable to develop healthy relationships in adulthood. Those with an insecure attachment will be constantly seeking intimacy, but will feel unworthy due to low self-esteem. It has been hypothesized that this need leads to stalking perpetration. This behavior is believed to be reinforced by the intermittent attention received from the survivor.
Some research has indicated that the causes of stalking are quite similar to domestic violence and sexual assault. The perpetrator acts out of a desire to control or harm another individual. Rejection, anger, resentment, and shame may fuel decisions to stalk. In many cases, stalking is part of or occurs at the end of an abusive intimate relationship.
Impact on Survivors
The impact of stalking victimization is similar to other forms of interpersonal violence. Due to the ongoing and unexpected nature of stalking, survivors report high levels of anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder. In addition, the stalking survivor may experience negative mood or depression, difficulty in developing trust and intimacy, and feelings of self-blame. Although the legal system is an important avenue for intervention with survivors, most cases are never prosecuted because they do not meet the legal definitions or are difficult to prove. Research also indicates that survivors of stalking are underserved by counseling services, particularly those who are stalked by an individual who has not previously been an abusive partner. This lack of service may increase the survivor’s feelings of isolation and hopelessness, thus exacerbating the mental health and relational outcomes.
- Davis, K. E., Frieze, I. H., & Maiuro, R. D. (Eds.). (2001). Stalking: Perspectives on victims and perpetrators. New York: Springer.
- Morewitz, S. (2003). Stalking and violence: New patterns of trauma and obsession. New York: Kluwer Academic/ Plenum.
- Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (1998). Stalking in America: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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