It wasn't until Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by Robert John Bardo in 1989 that the word 'stalking' began to take on a new meaning in popular culture, one associated with the pursuit of celebrities by the paparazzi, criminal harassment, and even serial killers (Nicol, 2006, pp. 18-20). A year later California responded by passing the first anti-stalking statute and within another year the other 49 states had followed suit. In 1996 interstate stalking became a federal felony.
The rapid response of federal and state legislatures to the perceived threat of stalking was fueled in part by the growing realization that celebrity stalking represented only a small percentage of stalking victims. The first states to pass anti-stalking legislation witnessed their court dockets begin to fill with stalking cases, leading some to conclude the magnitude of the problem had been underestimated. Nicol (2006, p. 22) proposed that the rapid response represented a social 'moral panic' concerning the threat of stalking that may have been an overreaction.
Putting stalking into perspective relative to other violent crimes is not easy, because the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not collect data for stalking specifically. The only official source of information regarding the prevalence of this crime has been collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which examined the annual incidence rate during 2006 (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009). Given that this data was not available until early 2010, the rapid passage of anti-stalking laws almost two decades earlier was probably more a knee-jerk reaction than an informed process.
Based on crimes reported to police departments and law enforcement agencies nationwide, 1 out of 200 Americans were the victim of a violent crime during 2006 (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2007). This includes 1 out of 16,400 murdered or the victim of negligent homicide, 1 out of 3,200 forcibly raped, 1 out of 623 robbed, and 1 out of 334 assaulted. By comparison, the National Crime Victimization Survey revealed that 1 out of 72 Americans would be predicted to have experienced stalking during 2006 (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, pp. 2-3).
Although the National Crime Victimization Survey on annual stalking incidence suggests this crime is three times more common than all violent crimes put together, only 41% of the women and 37% of the men responding to the survey ever complained to the police (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 9). If the FBI had received the data representing all of these complaints in the form of police reports, the annual incidence of stalking would be 1 out of 180 Americans. However, only 55.5% of complaints to the police ever resulted in a police report (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 14). The lack of reporting would have lowered the official incidence rate to 1 out of 324 Americans, which is equivalent to the number of aggravated assaults that were committed in 2006. This analysis suggests stalking incidents serious enough to trigger a police report is probably the most prevalent violent crime committed in this country.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines stalking as behavior by another that would lead the average person to experience fear (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 1). Forensic psychologists who study this type behavior define stalking as "… a constellation of behaviors in which one individual inflicts on another repeated unwanted intrusions and communications" (Nicol, 2006, p. 15).
The definition of stalking as outlined in the various state and federal statutes can vary substantially, but the behaviors that generally qualify as stalking, whether occurring repetitively or in various combinations, include unsolicited and unwelcome phone calls and messages (66.2%), letters/emails (30.6%), and gifts (12.2%), engaging in surveillance of the victim (34.3%), frequent unexplained encounters (30%), and spreading factual or slanderous information about the victim online or in the community (35.7%; Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 2).
For the purposes of the National Crime Victimization Survey the Bureau of Justice Statistics (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 1) included only those victims who experienced fear, otherwise the criminal behavior was classified as harassment. The fear experienced can be for one's own safety or that of a loved one; therefore causing another person to experience fear is a defining trait of stalking. The nature of the fear can vary from an uncertain future (46%), concern about the safety of someone in their social network (40%) or loved one (16.7%), bodily harm (20%) and/or loss of life (10%; Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 7). Unfortunately, the fears victims experience are justified. Approximately 43.2% of victims reported being threatened, 21% were physically attacked, 24.4% had their property damaged, and 15% experienced an attack on someone close to them or a pet (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 8).
Who are the Victims?
Most victims are under the age of 25 (53%), female (73%), single, divorced, or separated (76%), a member of a racial minority group (81%), and earning a low income (below 25K per year, 60%; Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 3). The victims therefore tend to be some of the most socially and economically vulnerable adults in our society and the emotions experienced by these victims can vary from the relatively mild, such as feeling annoyed and angry, to the serious such as considering suicide.
Who are the Offenders?
Offenders tend to be male when the victim is female (67%) or either gender when the victim is male (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 4). Offenders also tend to be of the same age and race as the victim. In the vast majority of cases the victim knows the offender (75.4%) and may be a current or former spouse or romantic partner, roommate, coworker, relative, or acquaintance. Less than 10% of stalkers are strangers, but the relationship to the victim could not be determined in 15% of cases. The duration of the criminal activity generally lasted less than a year (70%), but around 11% of victims were stalked for five years or longer (Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 2).
Stalking Motives and Causes
The majority of stalking cases involve a female breaking off a romantic relationship with a male, whether a marriage or something less formal. The primary motive for stalking in these situations seems to be either reconciliation or revenge (Nicol, 2006, p. 26). Another motive is seeking intimacy with an unwilling victim, which requires the perpetrator to perceive reality through a delusional lens (Nicol, 2006, p. 27). Another common motive is retaliation or punishment, for a real or imagined transgression committed by the victim against the perpetrator (Nicol, 2006. P. 28).
Nicol (2006, p. 23) points out that psychiatrist and psychologist believe that all of us can fall victim to obsessing about another person, but what separates a criminal from a non-criminal is the former acts upon their obsession. Stalking is therefore treated as a 'behavior' rather than a pathological condition. Yet, stalking represents the dissolution of the barrier between self and other with the goal of forcing the victim to become them (Nicole, 2006, p. 31). This type of behavior is fundamentally narcissistic and originates from a sense of inadequacy.
Stalking occurs when efforts to develop an intimate relationship fail and can represent an attempt to recapture the 'intimate' relationship by force (Nicol, 2006, p. 30). The proposed stages a perpetrator goes through include placing the victim on a pedestal, experiencing overwhelming feelings of humiliation and inadequacy once rejected, and coping with these feelings through rage-filled efforts to control or destroy the object of their desire (Nicole, 2006, p. 33). Only this last stage is considered pathological and criminal.
Other perceived causes of stalking behavior include mental illness or substance abuse (37.8%), opportunity (6.6%), ideological differences (4.0%), unknown (10.6%), and other (26.0%; Baum, Catalano, Rand, and Rose, 2009, p. 5).
The Do's and Don'ts of Victim Coping
Once perpetrators begin to engage in stalking behaviors there is little that can be done by the victim on a personal level to change this behavior. This is especially true for stalkers living in a world skewed by their delusions, mental illness, drug addictions, ideologies, or predatory habits. The possibility of meeting and discussing the ongoing staking behavior with the perpetrator, with the hope of resolving it, is simply a bad idea because it would more than likely reward the behavior and entrench the perpetrators commitment to their goal of subjugation (Nicol, 2006, p. 30).
Victims who cope with what is occurring through an emotional response, including hiding or avoiding the perpetrator, will eventually enter a point of crisis if the stalking campaign is prolonged (Collins and Wilkas, 2001, p. 329). This point of crisis represents the failure of the coping mechanism to protect the victim psychologically from what is occurring. A better coping strategy would be to believe that they can take steps to end what is occurring (hope for a better…