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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / What is Stalking?

What is Stalking?

A guide to the warning signs, escalation indicators and barriers survivors face to get a stalker to stop

a victim is stalked by an abusive ex-partner

Many survivors of an abusive partner are well-acquainted with stalking. It’s a sinister tactic abusers use to keep a survivor in a near-constant state of fear and unease. Abusers will stalk a current or former partner, even a potential partner. Of course, there’s also the stalker a victim doesn’t know—a stranger with an obsession—though this is more rare according to statistics. 

Sometimes the stalking is apparent—a figure lurking behind the bushes outside your home—while other times it’s far more covert, hidden inside your computer, your cell phone or a home smart device. 

In this guide, we’ll walk you through what constitutes stalking, how to know if you’re being stalked, how you should and shouldn’t respond to a stalker, how to get law enforcement to believe you and how to access help. 

What Is Stalking?

According to SPARC, or Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center, stalking is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s safety or the safety of others; or suffer substantial emotional distress.

What does that look like? Stalking can take many forms, including:

  • Unwanted phone calls, text messages, emails or messages over social media
  • Cyberstalking, or the misuse of internet or technology to stalk or harass someone, such as in the case of a survivor, Suzanna, whose ex-husband cyberstalked her and her two children after her divorce
  • Unwanted letters, gifts or notes left at a survivor’s home, on their car or at their workplace
  • Watching or following the survivor from a distance
  • Spying on someone using a listening device
  • Using a cell phone tracker or other GPS device to keep track of a survivor’s whereabouts
  • Contacting a survivor’s friends, family or coworkers in an attempt to intimidate the survivor
  • Property damage
  • Threats of harm
  • Trying to find the shelter where a domestic violence survivor is staying 

Who Is Being Stalked, and Who’s Stalking Them?

It’s estimated that at least 7.5 million individuals in the U.S. are survivors of stalking every year, the majority of whom are women. Half of all stalking survivors were under the age of 25 when the stalking began. 

In most cases, stalkers know their victims. About 61 percent of females and 44 percent of males who experience stalking are stalked by a current or former intimate partner, like in the case of Jessica Houston, who shared her survivor story with us in 2015. A quarter of females and 32 percent of males are stalked by someone they know, but not necessarily a former partner. 

Far too often, abusers can stalk a previous partner after the relationship has ended, like in the case of Monique Faison Ross. Her estranged husband’s stalking escalated to a violent conclusion, but luckily, Ross survived.

Are There Different Types of Stalkers?

Yes, there are different motivations that drive stalkers and various researchers have broken these types of stalkers in different categories. In a Psychology Today article, author Dale Hartley, Ph.D., says Ronald M. Holmes, professor emeritus of criminology and author of Profiling Violent Crimes: An Investigative Tool identified six different types of stalkers:

  1. Domestic: stalking a former spouse or paramour. This is the most prevalent kind of stalking and one which can manifest in the workplace, putting innocent bystanders at risk.
  2. Lust: serial predators who stalk victim after victim. Serial rapists and murderers may begin as lust stalkers. For example, Ted Bundy.
  3. Love-Scorned: an acquaintance, coworker, neighbor, etc. who desires an intimate relationship with the victim, but is rebuffed. (A sub-type of the love-scorned stalker is someone with the delusional disorder erotomania. This type of stalker—usually female—believes her target is madly in love with her. The woman who repeatedly broke into David Letterman’s home and stole his car, claiming to be his wife, is one example.)
  4. Celebrity: those who stalk famous people. For example, John Hinckley, who stalked actress Jodie Foster and then went on to shoot President Ronald Reagan in order to, in his mind, impress her.
  5. Political: stalking motivated by political beliefs, which could include either agreement or disagreement with the victim. For example, Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. 
  6. Hit (murder-for-hire): stalking of a victim by a hired killer in order to commit murder. 

Harley says he would add a seventh classification to the list:

7. Revenge: an angry former employee, an aggrieved business partner, a resentful neighbor, a vindictive relative, or any other person—usually known to the victim—whose motive for stalking is payback. One example is the ex-con Max Cady in the movie, Cape Fear, who stalks Sam Bowden, the lawyer who represented him at trial.

    Yes, Stalking is Against the Law

    While stalking is illegal in all 50 states, the specific nuances of each stalking law vary, including how cyberstalking is described. Luckily, the Violence Against Women Act included a cyberstalking amendment to the federal criminal provisions against stalking in 2013, allowing for electronic communication that causes emotional distress to be recognized as a form of stalking.

    However, statistics show that less than 40 percent of stalking victims report the crime to law enforcement. There are cases of law enforcement not taking victims’ reports of stalking seriously (see the webinar with Dana Fleitman at SPARC), telling victims they can’t do anything because, technically, the perpetrator hasn’t hurt them. However, Fleitman says there are other potential charges that could be filed including:

    • Harassment
    • Trespassing
    • Burglary
    • Computer Crimes
    • Nonconsensual distribution of intimate images
    • Vandalism
    • Threats of bodily harm
    • Voyeurism
    • Witness intimidation

    How Does Stalking Escalate?

    Like all forms of abuse, stalking can escalate to more dangerous tactics of power and control. This might happen gradually or all of a sudden. Escalation is a sign that the stalker is becoming more agitated that they can’t establish control, or more emboldened that they eventually will. Escalation often means they’re moving into the next phase of a potentially violent plan and should be taken very seriously. Research from the National Institutes of Justice found 71 percent of stalkers whose victims are current or former partners ended up following through on threats of violence, assaulting their victims.

    What does escalation look like in stalking? It can be an uptick in the frequency and severity of stalking tactics. A once-daily harassing phone call might turn into a phone call every hour. Texts that were once begging for a survivor to talk are now threatening that if they don’t talk, something bad is going to happen. A survivor’s property is damaged—their car is keyed or their tires are slashed. A family member begins to receive similar threats, telling them they need to convince the survivor to talk to the stalker.

    The stalker may threaten suicide if the survivor doesn’t respond to them. Sometimes, those suicidal threats can also include homicidal threats—they’ll harm the survivor as well as themselves. 

    “In 85 percent of attempted and 75 percent of completed femicides there has been an episode of stalking within the year prior to the murder,” says Jennifer Landhuis, director of SPARC. “Stalking produces a three-fold risk of intimate partner homicide, meaning if a victim of domestic violence is also being stalked they are 300 percent more likely to be killed by that intimate partner.”

    Steps to Take When Being Stalked

    There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to stopping a stalker, unfortunately, but here are some steps a survivor can take initially:

    • Cease all communication with the stalker. The main goal of a stalker is to get their victim to acknowledge them. The last thing you want to do is engage or respond in any way to this person’s communication. This means no texting, no answering the phone when they call, no agreeing to meet them under any circumstances, even if it’s under the auspice of “working it out” or apologizing. 
    • Stay off social media. Assume the stalker is monitoring all of your activity— the last thing you want to do is give them any clues about what you’re doing or where you are. Try to find out if you’re being stalked through your computer in “High-Tech Stalking Tactics.
    • Change your route. Don’t travel the same path to and from school or work every day. Go to different coffee shops or grocery stores if possible. If you normally go to the gym at 6 p.m., try going in the morning instead. Don’t set up an easy pattern the stalker can follow.
    • Install extra lighting around your home. Solar-powered motion detecting lights can be found for under $30 on Amazon. If you’re able, consider a front door camera as well, which can record video of anyone who approaches the home or rings the doorbell.  
    • Document everything. Keep all texts and emails, photograph all physical evidence, and keep a log of the dates and times of anything else suspicious that occurs that you may suspect they are doing. To make an arrest, law enforcement needs probable cause that a crime has been committed, says Landhuis. SPARC has created a documentation log that can assist with documenting all the behaviors survivors are experiencing. 
    • File a police report. Stay in contact with local law enforcement about the stalking, filing a report for each incident, even if police try to dissuade you from doing so (you know what they say about squeaky wheels). “You need to create a paper trail through reporting,” says Brian Joslyn, Esq., family law attorney with the Joslyn Law Firm in Columbus, Ohio.
    • Contact a local advocate. Reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate in your area who can help safety plan and may also have some local resources that could help you report the stalking, like free or low-cost lay legal help.
    • Consider an order of protection carefully. It’s the seemingly obvious next step here but as survivor Donna Anderson told, “Laws are made for people who follow the laws.” Stalkers may not think the law applies to them. “It could be like waving a red flag in front of a bull … inviting confrontation.” Then again, violating an order of protection can also get a stalker sent to prison, so it may be a safe bet to take.
    • Warn those around you. Let your friends, family, neighbors and place of employment know that you are being stalked so that your stalker cannot get information about you from them. If you have a photo of your stalker, share this at the places you most frequent, such as your workplace, gym or your child’s school.

    What If I’m Not Sure If I’m Being Stalked?

    Is part of you trying to talk yourself out of believing you’re being stalked? That can be a normal defense mechanism. If it’s not happening, we don’t need to be afraid of it, right?

    Listening to your gut feelings at a time like this is vitally important, especially if someone else tries to minimize what’s happening. Be it a close friend, a family member or even a police officer—if someone is telling you to “just ignore it,” it’s not always the best advice.

    In “Listen To Your Gut,” Bob Martin, retired Los Angeles Police Department captain turned senior advisor for Gavin de Becker & Associates, told, “Victims will say, ‘I should have known better.’ I say, ‘But, you did.’” It’s not a guilt trip, assures Martin, it’s all to say that if someone creeps you out, “other people’s opinions don’t matter. You don’t have to figure out why he [or she] creeps you out, either.”

    You might want to look at our collection of assessment tools. By answering a few questions, you can better see what level of danger you might be facing from a stalker or partner. 

    Stalking Can Take a Toll

    “We know that many individuals who experience stalking experience a toll on their physical and mental wellbeing,” says Landhuis. “Many survivors feel very isolated and finding someone to support them is vital to their wellbeing.”

    Research shows that victims of stalking suffer much higher rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia and social dysfunction than people in the general population, especially since nearly a third of stalking victims say they fear the stalking will never stop. 

    Finding a support group, a therapist or even just a trusted friend or family member to talk to can make a world of difference. Practice self-care methods that alleviate stress for you, whether that’s music, yoga, meditation, journaling, or something else. 

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    What If No One Believes Me?

    To an outsider, stalking can sometimes look like a partner who’s just persistent—they send nice gifts, sweet card or elaborate flower arrangements; they show up at your workplace unexpectedly to surprise you. Certainly, movies have led us to believe that someone who doesn’t give up on their love interest is a “hopeless romantic.” Unfortunately, if these efforts are unwanted and the person making these efforts has been told to stop but continues anyway, this person is going to fall into the stalker category. 

    If you’re a survivor of stalking, it’s not your fault. Continue to remind yourself that it’s not in your head—if your gut feeling says something is off or you’re not safe, it’s important to listen. Keep speaking up, logging each incident and reporting the stalker. If the stalker is a former partner, reach out to an advocate at your local domestic violence program who can be a nonjudgmental sounding board for what you’re going through. 

    Creating both a physical safety plan and an emotional safety plan will help you feel more prepared for future incidents. Plan out who you can turn to and where you can go if you feel like you’re not safe at home. Talk with children who live in your home about what steps they should take if they see the stalker or feel unsafe at any time.