In 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in a last desperate effort to gain actor Jodie Foster’s attention, wounding the president and several others. Beginning in May 1988, Margaret Ray repeatedly visited late-night television host David Letterman’s home, and, after 10 months in prison and 14 months in a mental institution, committed suicide. Halle Berry got a restraining order against Greg Broussard in 2004, after he stalked her and sent her manager numerous gifts intended for the actor, even going so far as to believe he and Berry were engaged. More recently, paparazzi outside Paris Hilton’s home identified a man who had previously been charged with battery in a case involving Hilton and her boyfriend. Celebrity cases receive national attention, but stalking is not confined to the world of money and fame. In most instances of stalking, in fact, perpetrators know their victims personally, even intimately.
The National Institute of Justice describes stalking as a “crime of power and control.”1 Stalkers need to know they have an impact on their victims’ lives. The type of reaction a stalker gets is not necessarily as important as the fact that they get a reaction in the first place. Stalking can be carried out in person or through electronic mechanisms, known as cyberstalking. In order to be legally classified as stalking, a perpetrator’s actions must be repeated and unwanted by the recipient. Physical stalking behaviors include persistent phone calling; waiting outside the victim’s home or workplace; making threats to the victim, her family, or friends; threatening to kill oneself unless the victim complies with a demand; sending written messages (letters or emails) or gifts; slandering the victim’s character; and objectifying the victim. Cyberstalkers can go even further, using any technology, including phones, GPS, cameras, fax, computer spyware, and the Internet (especially social networking websites). Although these behaviors may or may not include a “credible threat of serious [physical] harm,” Privacy Rights Clearinghouse emphasizes that stalking can cause psychological damage to victims and can lead to assault or murder.2
There is a difference between stalking and harassment that is not widely known. According to the Supplemental Victimization Survey (SVS) conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006, many instances of harassment could have escalated to the level of stalking, but “at the time of the interview, the offender’s actions and victim’s responses did not rise to the threshold of stalking victimization.”3 The SVS also notes that harassment victims experienced behaviors associated with stalking, but “neither reported feeling fear as a result of such conduct nor experienced actions that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.” The difference is mainly in the intensity of the offender’s actions and often extends into the legal sphere. Harassment is not grouped with stalking in many states’ definitions and laws (see Legal Examples sidebar), although as with stalking, the definitions and penalties vary by state. Victim advocates stress that victims do not need to know the particular laws in their states to start recording potential harassing or stalking incidents or to seek help from law enforcement.
While the majority of stalking cases involve women as victims and men as their stalkers, women and men are equally likely to experience harassment. Men and women, as stalking victims, are also equally likely to report stalking behavior to the police. Nearly 75 percent of victims know their stalkers in some capacity. Most victims are under the age of 35. According to the SVS, nearly 3.4 million adults in the United States were stalked in a 12-month period. Survey respondents named the most common types of stalking behaviors: making unwanted phone calls (66%), spreading rumors (36%), and sending unsolicited letters or email (31%). More than one in four respondents said some form of cyberstalking, such as email or instant messaging, was used.
The group End Stalking in America (ESIA) calls stalking the “new epidemic of the new millennium,” and describes being stalked as “an act of terrorism that a victim faces every hour of every day.” 4 Their website lists common traits of stalkers, including the following: stalkers will not take no for an answer; stalkers don’t feel the embarrassment or anxiety people should feel in certain circumstances; stalkers often have low self-esteem and believe they must have a relationship with the other person to feel any sense of self-worth; and few stalkers can see how their actions hurt others. Michael Conner, Psy.D., agrees with the above assessment and adds that a true stalker “can’t stand to be ignored. If they can’t have your love they will settle for your anger and hatred.”5
Conner describes two types of stalkers, obsessional and delusional, each with different causes. Obsessional stalking is a psychological problem with multiple causes, for instance, an “on-again off-again relationship,” or a fear of separation and loss. Delusional stalking, according to Conner, is caused by a mental disorder and makes the stalker obsessed or fixated on a person. It should be noted that these are only some reasons one person stalks another. Stalkers might have different reasons or mental conditions that prompt them to stalk someone, but their actions (and the legal definition of stalking in each case) are the same.
One aspect of stalking that the public may overlook is the devastating effect it has on a victim’s life. The emotional, physical, and even financial toll can be overwhelming for the victim and her family. ESIA highlights the difficulties they face in even convincing a police officer there is a problem: “Stalking victims don’t have the physical bruises to show. Day after day, they are mentally raped.” The Department of Justice’s SVS found that about 130,000 victims were fired or asked to leave their jobs as a result of the stalking. About one in eight employed stalking victims lost time from work due to activities such as getting a restraining order or testifying in court, or simply because they were afraid to go outside. In commenting on recent changes to Illinois’ stalking laws, Lisa Madigan, the state attorney general, said, “Stalking is a crime that can paralyze an otherwise productive person with fear.”6 The stalker’s intrusion into a victim’s life wreaks havoc on the stability of her home and work lives and often those of her immediate family members.
As if the emotional and material toll were not high enough, stalking victims have the added burden of having to change their behavior to end the situation. Stalkers will not change, as ESIA points out: “It’s not fair, and most people don’t like hearing it. But if you want to protect yourself and your loved ones, it is reality.” Numerous websites, listed in the “Helpful Resources” section at the end of this article, detail what victims can and should do to discourage a stalker. Every site, every book, and every list starts with one command: Document everything. Victims should write down every single incident involving the stalker and make notes of every feeling they experience in relation to the stalker. The notes do not have to be organized or immediately turned over to law enforcement or a therapist, but it is important to have them from the first day someone realizes she is being stalked. Stalkinghelp.org boils their advice down to three main points: 1) protect yourself; 2) diffuse the stalker’s motivations: make it clear you never have and never will want the relationship, and then do not get involved in future discussions; and 3) be careful not to inadvertently encourage the stalker.
Stalking Victims Sanctuary advises, “Letting the air out of a threat by not reacting to it can mean the difference between escalation and de-escalation of your stalking situation.”7 The Sanctuary’s practical recommendations include the following: Don’t list your name on a list of tenants at the front of your building; register your driver’s license to an address other than your home; don’t change your number if a stalker gains access — instead, get a second number and keep the old one hooked up to an answering machine; teach children not to give out information to strangers; and stop all contact the minute the situation escalates — do not react to threats or continued communication from the stalker. Although obtaining a restraining order and changing one’s identity seem like the ultimate solutions, experts advise caution when approaching these cure-alls. Finding out that their victim has involved the police could propel some stalkers to more drastic action, and a restraining order cannot keep a stalker from attacking or murdering his or her victim. As ESIA points out, “truly obsessed stalkers are committed to the hunt” and will track and follow their victims despite legal protection or even an identity change. Changing one’s identity is very difficult, and it cannot make a person completely disappear. ESIA also lists a number of mistakes stalking victims make, taken from Linden Gross’s book, Surviving a Stalker. These mistakes include not listening to your intuition, trying to reason or bargain with a stalker, ignoring emotional needs during and after a stalking, and ignoring the early warning signs. Above all, stalking victims should act to protect themselves and their relatives and friends.
Advocates are working at the federal level to protect women and men from stalking. In January 2011, Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced the Stalkers Act of 2011 (S. 224), which would “improve federal anti-stalking laws to protect victims and provide prosecutors with the tools to combat the growing threat of cyberstalking.”8 The bill (co-sponsored by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison, Herb Kohl, and Saxby Chambliss) is designed to update current federal anti-stalking laws. Klobuchar says that anti-stalking laws “need to be as sophisticated as the predators who violate them,” emphasizing the need for these laws to encompass new technologies used by stalkers. The writers of the bill also aim to increase punishment for perpetrators who target more vulnerable citizens. Under this bill, a stalker violating a protection order or stalking a minor or an elderly person could receive an additional five years in prison. The Stalkers Act was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary after its reading in January.
The Violence Against Women Act defines stalking as “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to a) fear for his or her safety or the safety of others; or b) suffer substantial emotional distress.”9 The law lists stalking as one of four violent crimes against women; the other three are domestic violence, dating violence, and sexual assault. When we take stalking as seriously as the law suggests, we can help more victims recover from their experience and rebuild their lives. Attorney General Madigan noted that Illinois’ new law “focuses on the experience of the victim.”
While protection and healing for victims should be a top priority for everyone, further research into the mental, emotional, and psychological causes of stalking can help us stop this menace before it starts. Perhaps by rethinking the way stalking is perceived by society, stalkers, and the injured parties, we can start to put power and control back in the right hands.
3. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Stalking Victimization in the United States, 2009. 1.
9. Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005. 9.
End Stalking in America
Stalking Victims Sanctuary
National Stalking Awareness Month
Working to Halt Online Abuse
Safety for Stalking Victims: How to Save Your Privacy, Your Sanity, and Your Life
by Lyn Bates
Surviving a Stalker
by Linden Gross
Legal Examples and Recommendations
In Missouri, stalking is a class A misdemeanor (imprisonment up to one year), and aggravated stalking is a class D felony (fine of up to $100,000 or imprisonment up to 25 years or both). A stalker purposely “harasses or follows with the intent of harassing another person.”
California law charges “any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or willfully and maliciously harasses another person and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear for his or her safety, or the safety of his or her immediate family” with the crime of stalking. Stalking is punishable by up to one year in county jail or a fine of up to $1,000 or both, or a term in state prison.
In Vermont, stalking is “following, lying in wait for, or harassing” another person, and consists of actions that have “no legitimate purpose.” In Vermont, the penalty for stalking is imprisonment for up to two years and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
National Center for Victims of Crime: Criminal Stalking Laws by State
Center for Problem-Oriented Policing: Responses to the Problem of Stalking