Disclaimer: Although this article discusses ways in which victims of stalking can minimize the threat of stalking and how to protect themselves if it occurs, we want to emphasize that stalking is NEVER the victim's fault. Stalking is rooted in the stalker’s desire for power and control over the victim, and in no way are we excusing stalking behaviors or implying that it is the responsibility of the victim to avoid being stalked. As always, we only seek to provide the most accurate and helpful information we can.
What is Stalking?
The legal definition of stalking varies from region to region, but most legal codes define stalking as “any repetitive-approach behavior done by one party that makes another party fear for their safety.” Stalking behaviors can include:
- Showing up at places the victim goes
- Knowing their schedule
- Sending unwanted gifts, mail, emails, and/or pictures
- Calling or texting repeatedly
- Contacting them or posting about them on social media
- Damaging their property
- Sending gifts
- Stealing things that belong to them
- Using technology (e.g., GPS or hidden cameras) to track them
- Practicing any other actions to contact, harass, track, or frighten them or people close to them1
Some of these behaviors may resemble healthy relationship behaviors, such as sending gifts or text messages. However, the key difference between the two is consent. If these actions are unwanted by the receiver and continue to occur, then these seemingly healthy behaviors may constitute as stalking. For behaviors to classify as stalking as opposed to harassment, they usually need to meet the above criteria. It is noteworthy that while harassment has long since been considered a crime, anti-stalking legislation has just recently been written into the law; in 1990, California was the first U.S. state to pass anti-stalking legislation, and many other states and countries have passed their own legislations.2
Who Stalks and Why?
Stalkers are usually someone the victim has had contact with, including former intimate partners, employers/coworkers, family members, or even strangers (which is the least common stalking scenario). Offenders are frequently noted as having strong sensitivities to rejection, abandonment, and loss. While not all offenders are male, they do comprise about 80% of stalking cases. It is also estimated that 60% of female victims and 33% of male victims were in a prior intimate relationship with the offender; however, the motivation behind the stalking is not always to reunite the relationship with the target.3 Some experts classify stalking offenders into five groups based on motivation and social functioning:4
1. The Rejected Stalker: an individual who targets a former intimate partner and communicates both romantic and angry feelings to them.
2. The Intimacy-Seeking Stalker: an individual who seeks to obtain the affection of the target due to their own erotomanic delusions.
3. The Incompetent Stalker: an individual who seeks an intimate relationship with the target but realizes that their affection is not reciprocated.
4. The Resentful Stalker: an individual motivated by an insult or wrongdoing (real or imagined) with intention to scare or intimidate the target.
5. The Predatory Stalker: the rarest subgroup, an individual who stalks for the purposes of eventual rape or sexual assault.
How Dangerous are Stalkers?
Even when a stalker is nonviolent, the stalker can have a negative impact on the victim’s life because the victim generally experiences feelings of fear and powerlessness.5 It is difficult to determine whether or not an offender will be violent. Stalking may continue for long periods of time without turning violent, while other times a perceived "harmless" or "shy" stalker can suddenly turn violent or even deadly. In a 1999 study, rates of violence were found to be positively correlated with the following: threatening behaviors, previous intimate interactions between the target and the offender, feelings of jealousy, a history of drug/alcohol abuse in the offender, a history of violence in the offender, and nearer proximity between the target and stalker (situations can range from distant, such as a relationship through e-mail, to close, such as face-to-face contact).6 These indicators were more predictive of violent behavior than the perpetrator's prior psychiatric history, prior criminal history, prior domestic violence history, or prior threats made to a third party.3 Also, the stalker's sex and/or gender have not been found to correlate with likelihood of violence.
Who is Stalked and How Does Stalking Affect One's Life?
Popular media tend to sensationalize accounts of celebrities being stalked, seen in the case of Monica Seles—the professional tennis player who was stabbed by a man who was obsessed with her rival, Steffi Graf— and the case of television star Rebecca Shaeffer, who was murdered by the person stalking her. It is estimated that as many as one in every 12 women and one in every 50 men will be stalking targets in their lifetime.7 Additionally, stalking may have detrimental effects on the victim. Some stalking victims develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).7 Other symptoms reported by targets include anxiety, insomnia, depression, and somatic concerns.3 These findings may apply to any instances of stalking, regardless of their comparative intensity.
How Can Targets Protect Themselves?
Experts recommend that stalking targets not make any contact whatsoever with the person stalking them. Additionally, while reporting the instance of stalking is an option for some, targets of stalking may find it difficult to report their situation to the authorities because anti-stalking laws can be vague and vary significantly from place to place. The victim may also choose not to report the situation in fear of angering the stalker. If the victim chooses to take legal action, there is usually a two-week threshold period before the police can intervene. However, the victim can still report their experiences to the police before the two-week threshold period; at the very least, the police may want to keep a running log of stalking behaviors.3 The target may also want to keep a log of their own, including pictures of the stalker marked with the date and time at which they were taken.
Stalking targets may also consider obtaining a restraining order. Experts recommend that targets of extreme stalking take the following steps: arrange for a safehaven you can flee to, keep your emergency numbers on-hand, change your phone numbers, screen your calls, save any of the stalker's messages, and travel with company while frequently varying your routes. Also, local authorities may also be able to provide you with resources and professional help.
What is Cyberstalking?
Some stalkers use the Internet as a stalking tool. Whether the stalking behavior begins online or in person, cyberstalking can have serious consequences. Cyberstalking can be particularly damaging for people whose social lives or businesses are largely internet based. Cyberstalkers may group up in chat programs to try to convince their targets to commit suicide, or they may obtain their target's personal information and try to find them in person. Social media sites like Facebook can become ideal sources of information for cyber-stalkers. The nature of these networking sites—as well as Internet chat rooms, blogs, and forums—encourages users to disclose personal information that can be viewed by virtually anyone with a computer and an internet connection. By recognizing the threat of cyberstalking and using their privacy settings wisely, people can minimize their chance of falling victim to stalking. Legislators and website moderators are constantly fighting to prevent the possibility of stalking behavior.
Cyberstalkers and Cyberstalking Victims
Many cyberstalkers choose to stalk using this medium because of its ease and anonymity. Cyberstalkers have basic traits similar to stalkers in the physical world and can range from sexual predators to identity thieves. Cyberstalkers can target complete strangers or people with whom they already know in real life. Cyberstalkers have a wide range of motives for stalking, which may include an obsession with the victim that is potentially sexual, a desire for personal revenge, sadistic urge to humiliate and harass the victim, or a variety of other reasons.
Ways to Minimize the Threat of Cyberstalking
These Internet safety guidelines apply to social media sites as well as chatrooms and Internet forums:
- Limit the amount of private information you provide online. Do not disclose any information that could allow a stalker to contact or locate you. This information may include the city you live in, your workplace, your email address, your phone number, and your date of birth. If you are a young adult, it is especially important that you refrain from disclosing which high school or middle school you attend.
- Make sure you know the people you add as “friends” on your site. Do not add someone as a friend unless you are sure that you know them.
- Be wary of people you talk to over the Internet, as they are often not whom they claim to be. Do not always trust what strangers say about themselves, because there is no way for you to know factual information about their age, sex, location, or true identity.
- Look into the privacy features of websites like Facebook and Twitter. These sites offer various features that can, for example, only allow your friends to see certain parts of your profile.
- Be selective about the photos you choose to put on the Internet. Photos can reveal more information about you than you might be aware of. Be careful about posting photos that expose your home address, license plate number, place of employment, or neighborhood landmarks.
How to Respond to Cyberstalking
If you believe that you or someone you know is being stalked on the Internet, it is important that the target immediately removes all information about themselves from the web. Do not try to contact the stalker directly—this puts the target in danger each time and may encourage the stalker to continue their behavior. If possible, victims may also file a report at their local police station.
- “Stalking Information.” Stalking Resource Center, National Center for Victims of Crime
- Kamphuis, Jan H, Paul M G Emmelkamp, Vivian de Vries. "Informant personality descriptions of post intimate stalkers using the five factor profile". Journal of Personality Assessment. Vol 82(2), Apr 2004, pp. 169-178.
- Cling, B.J. ed. Sexualized Violence Against Women and Children: A Psychology and Law Perspective. New York: The Guilford Press. 2004.
- Rosenfeld, Barry. "Violence risk factors in stalking and obsessional harassment: A review and preliminary meta-analysis". Criminal Justice & Behavior. Special Stalking. Vol 31(1), Feb 2004.
- Joseph, David I. "Surviving Stalking". Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Vol 65(3), Mar 2004, pp. 449.
- Roberts, Karl A. "Women's Experience of Violence During Stalking by Former Romantic Partners". Violence Against Women. Vol 11(1), Jan 2005, pp. 89-114.
- Comer, Ronald J. Abnormal Psychology. fifth edition. New York: Worth Publishers. 2004.
Last Updated: 07 February 2019.