NVAA 2000 Text

Chapter 22 Special Topics

Section 2, Stalking


Stalking behavior has existed since the beginning of human history. Until recently, however, this behavior had never been labeled as a distinct pattern of deviant social behavior--let alone a crime. In fact, it was not until the passage of the first anti-stalking statute in 1990 that such behavior became illegal. Since this event, legislators, criminal justice professionals, and victim service providers have started to examine the nature of and psychological motivations behind stalking behavior. Still, the study of stalking and the development of effective response strategies is a discipline that is very much in its infancy. New information, issues, and challenges related to stalking come to light on a daily basis. The rapid evolution of this issue places ever-increasing demands on the field to stay current about how best to assist victims and respond effectively to stalkers.

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this section, students will understand the following concepts:


Though the term "stalking" is somewhat new to the modern lexicon, the behavior itself is not new to human experience. The conduct generally associated with stalking--following, spying, unwanted calling/writing, accosting, harassing, and threatening--is as old as the history of human relationships. Yet, it has only been within the last decade that we have recognized such behavior as socially deviant--even criminal. Criminal justice and victim service professionals have always had to face such behavior but they only began to think about and address it as a separate issue when the conduct was distinguished as a unique phenomenon, deserving its own name--stalking.

This process of distinguishing stalking from other deviant social or criminal behavior reached a defining moment in 1990 when the state of California passed the first statute that made stalking a crime. This was a watershed event that triggered similar statutes in other states and at the federal level. The enactment of the California statute resulted in a growing awareness of stalking among criminal justice officials, victim service professionals, and the general public--all of whom began to view the problem in a more serious light.

Following the enactment of the California law and other anti-stalking statutes, criminologists and forensic psychologists began to study the nature of stalking behavior and the motivation of stalkers. Law enforcement, previously lacking the power and authority to take any action in such cases, began to develop specialized response strategies for stalking cases. Some jurisdictions even created special units to take on a more pro-active role in stalking cases. Prosecutors embarked on an effort to educate themselves and one another about how stalkers could be charged under stalking statutes (as well as other criminal laws) and how to best prosecute such cases. Victim service providers began to reexamine the way in which they responded to stalking, expanding their services and enhancing case management strategies in an effort to better serve the needs of victims. Even victims of stalking have come to identify themselves as a distinct and unique constituency by forming support groups to help one another cope with the aftermath of the crimes committed against them.

The rapidly growing interest in stalking is spawning a new area of "specialization" among professionals whose roles regularly involve them in such cases. Yet, even the most experienced among such professionals would readily admit that they are just beginning to understand the complex problems that stalking poses for both victims and society-at-large. Most of these professionals agree that solutions to the problem of stalking are not likely to be found without a considerable amount of additional research.

Definition of Stalking

Traditionally, the general perceptions of stalking involve some dark and malicious character following and even spying on an unsuspecting person. However, this stereotypical view is far too narrow to encompass all the behaviors generally attributed to stalkers today. Stalkers may indeed follow their targets physically but they are just as likely to use a variety of other means to monitor the activities of their targets. Stalkers have been known to use binoculars, telescopes, cameras equipped with "long lenses," video cameras, hidden microphones, the Internet, public records, and accomplices (both witting and unwitting) to keep track of the whereabouts and activities of those they target.

Stalking is less about surveillance of victims than it is about contact with them. If stalkers only wished to view the objects of their obsession from afar, they would not pose a serious safety risk. Stalkers, by their very nature, want more. They want contact. They want a relationship with their victims. They want to be part of their victims' lives. And, if they cannot be a positive part of their victims' lives, they will settle for a negative connection to their victims. It is this mind set that not only makes them "stalkers," but also makes them dangerous. Thus, virtually all stalking cases involve behavior that seeks to make either direct or indirect contact with the victim. A 1998 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) survey of stalking victims provided the first glimpse into the kinds of tactics stalkers most often employ in the commission of their crimes (Tjaden and Theonnes 1998). What follows is a breakdown by percentage of some of the tactics that victims report:

While most of these behaviors alone may not in and of themselves explicitly communicate a threat, the number, nature, and context in which they occur may well communicate an implied threat. It is this element of threat to the safety of another that makes the conduct a crime and most legal definitions of stalking specifically address the presence of an element of threat.

How prevalent is stalking? Until very recently, no empirical evidence was available to answer this question. The most commonly quoted estimate had been that approximately 200,000 individuals are stalked each year in the U.S. However, the 1998 NIJ study first attempted to quantify the number of stalking cases. Based on a survey of more than 16,000 adults, the study estimated that 1.4 million Americans (approximately 1,000,000 women and 400,000 men) are currently being stalked in the U.S.--a number seven times greater than the previous estimate of 200,000 (Tjaden and Theonnes 1998).

Stalking Statutes

While stalking statutes in each state vary considerably, most include language which defines stalking as:

Most states classify first-time stalking offenses as misdemeanors. While penalties vary from state to state, stalking typically carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and/or up to a $1,000 fine. Some states have penalties that are substantially stiffer for second offenses, stalking in violation of a protective order, and/or stalking a child.

Service providers need to keep in mind that stalking victims may have the option of turning to the federal system for prosecution if their case falls within jurisdictional guidelines (i.e., if the offense occurs on a military base, involves crossing a state line, etc.). In addition to the anti-stalking provision of the Domestic Violence and Stalking Act (18 U.S.C. §§ 2261­2265) the statute also includes provisions related to the violation of protective orders. Crimes in violation of either provision may provide victims with the means to pursue prosecution in federal court--particularly when the stalker is a former spouse or domestic partner. The Federal Obscene or Harassing Telephone Calls statute (47 U.S.C. § 223) may also prove useful in stalking cases where the perpetrator uses the phone to stalk and harass his or her victim. Having the option of pursuing a case in federal court may prove critical to many victims. In cases where local authorities refuse to prosecute--or when the local authorities are the perpetrators--federal prosecution may be a victim's only option.

Characteristics of Stalkers and Their Victims


The demographics related to stalkers are both broad and diverse. As empirical evidence now shows, virtually anyone can be a stalker. Stalkers come from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite their demographic diversity, data shows that some characteristics are more common among stalkers than others.

The one trait all stalkers share is that they suffer from a personality or mental disorder, if not both.


Just as anyone can be a stalker, virtually anyone can be a stalking victim. The characteristics of stalking victims typically cut across all demographic boundaries. But again, some characteristics are more common than others among stalking victims.


As mentioned above, stalking is most often about "relationships"--prior, desired, or imagined. Therefore, it is critical to know about any prior relationship between the victim and the offender. The NIJ study indicates that the clear majority of stalkers and their victims (60%) had a personal relationship before the stalking began. The majority of these cases (42%) involved spouses or partners and another 14% had a dating relationship. In more than 4% of these cases, the stalker and the victim were actually related to one another. Nearly 18% of stalkers were acquaintances or co-workers of the victim, while only 22% were complete strangers (Tjaden and Theonnes 1998).

Nevertheless, the relationships between victims and offenders often follow broad, distinct patterns, allowing forensic psychologists to use the relationship between stalkers and victims as a means of categorizing stalking behavior and stalking cases. Still, it is important to keep in mind that some cases do not follow any pattern and may shift between categories as they evolve. Thus, these categories are only useful as broad guidelines to aid in the discussion and analysis of stalking as an emerging category of crime.

Categories of Stalking

As mentioned, forensic psychologists have begun to study stalking as a distinct pattern of criminal behavior by analyzing and categorizing identified patterns and common characteristics of stalking cases. Chief among these characteristics is the relationship between the stalker and the victim. Initially, this approach identified three categories of stalking cases ­ Simple Obsession, Love Obsession, and Erotomania. However, recent developments seem to indicate the need for a fourth category which could be termed "vengeance" or "terrorist" stalkers.


This category represents 60% of all stalking cases, including all cases arising from previous personal relationships (i.e., those between husbands/wives, girlfriends/boyfriends, domestic partners, etc.) Many simple obsession cases are actually extensions of a previous pattern of domestic violence and psychological abuse. The only difference is that the abuse occurs in different surroundings and through slightly altered tactics of intimidation. Thus, the dynamics of power and control that underlie most domestic violence cases are often mirrored in simple obsession stalking cases.

Stalking behaviors observed in many domestic violence cases are motivated by the stalker's lack of self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness. Indeed, abuser/stalkers attempt to raise their own self-esteem by demeaning and demoralizing those around them. In most cases, they target their former spouses. The exercise of power and control over their victims gives stalkers a sense of power and self-esteem that they otherwise lack. In this way, the victim not only becomes the stalker's source of self-esteem but also becomes the sole source of the stalker's identity. Thus, when victims attempt to remove themselves from such controlling situations, stalkers often feel that their power and self-worth have been taken from them. In such cases, stalkers will often take drastic steps to restore personal self-esteem. It is when stalkers reach this desperate level that they may feel they have "nothing to lose" and become most volatile. This dynamic makes simple obsession stalkers dangerous, as individuals and as a group.

Simple obsession is the most likely category of stalking to result in murder. Thirty percent of all female homicides were committed by intimate partners. Domestic violence victims run a 75% higher risk of being murdered by their partners. "If I can't have you, nobody will," has become all too common a refrain in cases that escalate to violence. Many of these cases end with the murder of the victim followed by the suicide of the stalker.


In this category, stalkers and victims are casual acquaintances (neighbors, co-workers) or even complete strangers (fan/celebrity). Primarily, stalkers in this category seek to establish a personal relationship with the object of their obsession--contrary to the wishes of their victims. Love obsession stalkers tend to have low self-esteem and often target victims who they perceive to have exceptional qualities and high social standing. These stalkers seek to raise their own self-esteem by associating with those whom they hold in high regard.

Love obsession stalkers become so focused on establishing a personal relationship with their victims that they often invent detailed fantasies of a nonexistent relationship. They literally script the relationship as if it were a stage play. However, when victims choose not to participate in the stalker's imagined passion-play, the stalker may try to force victims into assigned roles. Often, love obsession stalkers are so desperate to establish a relationship--any relationship--that they "settle" for negative relationships, explaining why some stalkers are willing to engage in destructive or violent behavior in an irrational attempt to "win the love" (more likely the attention) of their victims. Such obsessive reasoning might explain why John Hinkley believed he would win the heart of Jodi Foster by shooting President Ronald Reagan. It might also explain why a man who proclaimed himself to be John Lennon's "biggest fan" shot him dead on the sidewalk outside of his home.

While cases of "star stalking" often receive the most media attention, a greater number of love obsession stalkers develop fixations on "regular" people--noncelebrities. In one particularly tragic case, a young computer engineer developed a fixation on a new female co-worker, Laura Black. What began as seemingly friendly, even charming gestures on his part soon became excessive and threatening. Shortly after he had been fired for the relentless harassment of Ms. Black, he returned to the workplace and literally shot his way through the building. He killed several employees and wounded many more, including Ms. Black. A search of the stalker's home uncovered a scrapbook full of doctored pictures of himself and his victim on a ski trip that never took place. This fantasy ski trip was part of a scripted relationship he wanted to make a reality.


By definition, erotomaniacs are delusional and consequently, virtually all suffer from mental disorders--most often schizophrenia.

Unlike "simple" and "love" obsession stalkers who seek to establish or reestablish personal relationships with their victim, erotomaniacs delude themselves into believing that such a relationship already exists between themselves and the objects of their obsession.

Though relatively rare (comprising fewer than 10% of all cases), erotomania stalking cases often draw public attention because the target is usually a public figure or celebrity. Like love obsession stalkers, erotomaniacs attempt to garner self-esteem and status by associating themselves with well-known individuals who hold high social status. Erotomaniacs seek fame and self-worth by basking in the celebrity of others. While the behavior of many erotomaniacs never escalates to violence, or even to threats of violence, the irrationality that accompanies their mental illness presents particularly unpredictable threats to victims.

Perhaps the best-known case of erotomania stalking involved a series of incidents perpetrated against the popular late night talk show host, David Letterman. This woman, first found hiding in Mr. Letterman's closet, believed she was his wife. On numerous other occasions she was caught trespassing on his property. With her young son in tow, she once scaled the six foot wall surrounding Letterman's property. On another occasion, she was arrested while driving Letterman's stolen car. When questioned by police, she confidently stated that her husband was out of town and that she was going grocery shopping so she would have dinner ready for him upon his return. Despite the treatment she received during her many involuntary stays at a mental institution, she eventually took her own life.


The final stalking category is fundamentally different from the other three. Vengeance stalkers do not seek a personal relationship with their targets. Rather, vengeance/terrorist stalkers attempt to elicit a particular response or a change of behavior from their victims. When vengeance is their prime motive, stalkers seek only to punish their victims for some wrong they perceive the victim has visited upon them. In other words, they use stalking as a means to "get even" with their enemies.

The most common scenario in this category involves employees who stalk employers after being fired from their job. Invariably, the employee believes that their dismissal was unjustified and that their employer or supervisor was responsible for unjust treatment. One bizarre variation on this pattern is the case of a scout master who was dismissed for inappropriate conduct and subsequently decided to stalk his entire former scout troop ­ scouts and scout leaders alike.

A second type of vengeance or terrorist stalker, the political stalker, has motivations that parallel those of more traditional terrorists. That is, stalking is a weapon of terror used to accomplish a political agenda. Utilizing the threat of violence to force the stalking target to engage in or refrain from engaging in particular activity. For example, most prosecutions in this stalking category have been against anti-abortionists who stalk doctors in an attempt to discourage the performance of abortions.

Impact of Stalking on Victims

There is little doubt that stalking has a tremendous impact on the lives of those who are targeted. Indeed, many victim service professionals contend that the threat of violence inherent in stalking cases can take a higher toll on its victims than those who have been victims of completed acts of violence. The following are signs of stalking-related stress:

The 1998 NIJ study indicated that 30% of women and 20% of men in stalking cases sought psychological counseling as a result of the victimization (Tjaden and Theonnes 1998). Moreover, many victims experience a loss of personal support systems at the very moment they need them most. Stalking victims often turn to family, friends, and co-workers for help, guidance, and emotional support. However, given the intractability of many stalking cases, victims often find that their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even their family members are unable to sustain levels of long-term support.

Additionally, the economic security of stalking victims may be shattered as a result of their victimization. The NIJ study provides an empirical perspective indicating that 25% of stalking victims lost time from work as a result of being targeted and another 7% said that they were unable to return to work altogether. In some more egregious cases, victims have been fired by unsympathetic employers unwilling to accommodate special needs of victim employees.

Response Strategies for Stalking Victims

Each stalker is different just as every stalking case is different, and it is virtually impossible to construct a single strategy that is an appropriate response in all stalking cases. Response strategies must be tailored to fit the unique circumstances surrounding each case.

Given the complexities involved, any victim is unlikely to have the experience and knowledge to craft an effective response strategy without assistance. Victims' strategic planning is better accomplished with the advice and active support of victim service professionals who have extensive experience in the management of stalking cases. For this reason, the best advice anyone could offer a stalking victim is to seek the assistance of victim service professionals at the earliest point possible.

A qualified service professional will first consult with the victim on risk-assessment. Based on the assessment, victims and service professionals will next jointly develop a safety plan or overall response strategy which will best serve victims' interests. Often, victims are the best judges of the threat and the likely reaction that stalkers may have to any conceived strategy. No matter how carefully an initial plan is thought out, victims and advocates must be willing to alter the plan as circumstances warrant. The approach that may make the most sense upon first inspection may prove ineffective or even counterproductive when tested against real-life circumstances. Thus, both victims and their service providers--in conjunction with other allied professionals--must be willing to revisit and adjust their strategies and plans as events evolve. This dynamic partnership has proven to be most effective.

While each case is unique and must be addressed with a unique set of strategies, the vast array of options may appear daunting to the victim. Skilled service providers, however, can help victims find their way through the buffet of options so that victims can piece together response strategies.

What follows is a list of these strategies for stalking victims as developed by the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC 1999; LAPD 1993). Although this list is not intended to be comprehensive, the strategies are representative of alternatives that victims and service providers may want to consider when developing response plans.


The primary goal of victims in imminent danger should be to locate a safe place for themselves. Safety for stalking victims can often be found in the following places:

If departure from the current location is not possible and a telephone is accessible, a victim may contact local law enforcement via 911. Upon reaching safety, a victim may want to communicate with local law enforcement, victim services, mental health professionals, and/or social services in order to receive additional assistance and referrals.


Some victims may not be in immediate danger, but they may assess the probability of impending danger. If stalking victims determine that they are at risk of being in a potentially harmful or violent situation, they may consider the following:

Restraining/protective/stay-away orders.

Anti-stalking laws.

Other illegal acts.

Notifying the police of any of the above illegal acts may be important for the following reasons:

- Charges may intimidate the offender, sending the message that his or her actions are illegal and will not be tolerated.

- Notification to the police produces documentation that may be useful in a future complaint for evidentiary or credibility purposes.

Documentation/evidence collection.

Local victim advocate/crisis counselor. Assistance may be obtained from the following sources:

Crisis counselors may either give a referral telephone number to a victim or offer to make an initial call and have a service professional from the referral organization contact the victim.

When no appropriate referral is available in the victim's vicinity, law enforcement agencies should be contacted.

Preventive measures.

Contingency plans. When victims are not in imminent danger, they still could be at risk at any time. For this reason, a contingency plan may be appropriate. Victims should consider--

- Law enforcement agencies.

- Safe places (friends, domestic violence shelters, etc.).

- Individuals to be contacted after safety is secured (family, neighbors, friends, employers, attorneys, prosecutors, pet care, etc.).

- A packed suitcase in the car, or at another ready location for quick departure. Include a toy, book, and any special belongings for children.

- Money.

- Other necessary items such as bank and credit card information, creditors' numbers, medical insurance, and birth certificates, as well as personal welfare items including medications.

- A ready means of transportation (keep gas in the car, have money for a taxi, etc.) and back-up keys for neighbors.

- Law enforcement.

- Employers.

- Family/friends/neighbors.

- Security personnel.

Stalking is one of the most difficult issues facing criminal justice officials and victim service professionals. Studies now show that stalking is far more common than previously estimated and its consequences to victims more profound than imagined. The demographics of stalkers and their victims are as diverse as the entire population. The complexity of stalking behavior and the motivations behind such crimes make it a problem as difficult to comprehend as it is to solve. Professionals in the fields of criminology, psychology, and victimology are just beginning to develop response strategies based on their initial study of experience with stalkers and stalking behavior. Only a comprehensive and coordinated response of committed individuals and institutions--both inside and outside the criminal justice system--will likely succeed in stemming the fear, violence, and death that stalking inflicts on millions of victims each year.

Stalking Self-Examination

1. How do most state statutes define stalking?

2. What characteristics are most typical of stalkers? Stalking victims?

3. What are the four categories used to distinguish stalking cases?

4. What are some of the strategies used to respond to stalking cases?

Back to NVAA 1999

2000 NVAA Text
Chapter 22.2