Stalkers are often portrayed in the media as strangers or celebrity worshippers, sometimes with mental health issues. While stalkers can be all those things, they are much more likely to be someone the victim knows, and stalking is much more common in the general population than is typically represented or perceived. Stalking is a form of domestic violence. It is often treated as its own issue with separate laws and organizations addressing it apart from domestic violence.  January is National Stalking Awareness Month, the perfect time to explore more details of stalking: its prevalence, impacts on victims, relationship to other forms of domestic violence, and suggestions for increasing safety.

Stalking Definition

The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, & Resource Center (SPARC) defines stalking as, “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.” This may involve repeated visual or physical proximity; non-consensual communication; verbal, written, or implied threats; or a combination thereof. It is a consistent and intentional repetition of behavior, as opposed to one or two isolated incidents, and persists after the stalker has been asked to stop. It is a form of domestic violence in itself and, in an abusive relationship, is often used as a tactic to facilitate other forms of abuse or escalate into different abusive behaviors.

Infographic with a smartphone and the words, "A survey of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 85% reported that a partner or ex-partner had called them crazy, 73% said that a partner or ex-partner had deliberately done things to make them feel they were going crazy or losing their mind, 50% reported that a partner or ex-partner had threatened to report to the aurthorities that they were crazy as a way to keep them from getting certain important goals such as custody of the children, medication, or protective orders

Stalking frequently overlaps with harassment. In fact, harassment may be part of a stalking pattern of behavior. The difference is mainly with the fear factor. Victims of harassment are typically irritated and bothered by the harasser’s behavior, perhaps feeling sad, angry, anxious, and/or uncomfortable.         They are not afraid of the perpetrator and do not believe the behavior will escalate or harm them. It becomes stalking when the victim is fearful of the perpetrator in some way, often believing the behavior will escalate or become harmful. Fear can be contextual as well. Receiving a bouquet of roses, for example, is not scary on its own. However, if they are from an abusive ex-partner whom the recipient had moved to get away from and thought were unaware of their new address, the innocuous, ”nice” act of sending a gift takes on a threatening and terrifying context. Thus, laws often include the phrase “a reasonable person” to generalize subjective reactions such as fear and “emotional distress”.

Stalking by the Numbers

An estimated 13.5 million people are stalked in the US each year. About one in three women and one in six men experience stalking at some point in their lifetimes, very similar to rates of domestic violence in general. While people of any demographic profile can be a stalker or a victim of stalking, most (78%) stalking victims are female and most (87%) perpetrators are male (USOJP). The vast majority of stalking victims are stalked by someone they know. 42% are stalked by acquaintances and 40% by current or former intimate partners, versus only 19% by strangers. 72% of stalking victims are threatened with physical harm by their stalkers. Slightly more male victims experience threats of harm than female: 69% of women and 80% of men. Technology is an increasingly widely utilized means of stalking, with twice as many victims being stalked with technology than without. Almost half of stalking victims experience at least one unwanted contact per week, and two thirds of stalkers pursue their victims at least once per week, often daily. (SPARC FAQ) The average length of time victims experience stalking is one to two years (SPARC IPV FAQ), with 11% stalked for more than five years. One in three stalkers have stalked before. (SPARC FAQ)

mature woman lying curled up on her side in bed, covering her face with her hands

Certain populations have a higher likelihood of experiencing stalking with slightly different statistics than the general population. LGTBQIA+ individuals are more likely than heterosexual and cisgender individuals to experience stalking (SPARC LGBT+ FAQ). Younger people are also stalked at a higher rate than the general population, with more than half of stalking victims indicating they were stalked before age 25 and nearly a quarter before age 18 (SPARC FAQ). Among adolescent and college student stalking victims, the perpetrator is most likely (33%) to be a former (intimate) partner, followed by a known person – often a fellow student (23-31%). Females, students of color, LGTBQIA+ individuals, and those with disabilities have an increased risk of stalking. Younger college students and those living off campus are also at a higher risk to be stalked than older student and those living on campus. Teens and college students are extremely likely to be stalked with technology, either exclusively or in combination with in-person stalking, and for their stalkers to utilize tech in specialized ways (see tactics below). (SPARC Teen Info) (SPARC Campus FAQ)

mature woman lying curled up on her side in bed, covering her face with her hands

While younger people form the majority of stalking victims, people of any age may be stalked. Stalking victims over 50 years old often face ageist biases and are less likely to be believed, which is perhaps why they are the least likely subgroup to be aided by family and friends. Older victims may also have age-related vulnerabilities (such as mobility issues, health issues, memory loss, isolation, and limited proficiency with technology) that both make them a prime target for stalkers and make it more difficult for them to respond how they may wish to. (SPARC Older FAQ) American Indian/Alaskan Native women are significantly more likely to be stalked than women of any other racial or ethnic background (USOJP). In Native communities, relationships are often more intertwined, meaning it may be more difficult or impossible for victims to avoid or cut off communication with their stalkers. Some may choose to maintain contact with perpetrators in order to keep track of their movements and state of mind so as not to be caught off guard.

Stalking Tactics/Behavior

Examples of common stalking behavior include perpetrators texting, emailing, or sending the victim unwanted mail; leaving/sending them gifts; showing up places or waiting for the victim where they know they will be (such as home or work); and following the victim or spying on them – in person, via common acquaintances, and/or online. Unwanted communication and being followed or watched are the most frequently experienced stalking tactics. 75% of victims receive unwanted phone calls and 57% receive unwanted emails, texts, and/or social media or other messages. 57% also experience their stalker showing up and/or approaching them in places where the victim does not want them or expect them, and 52% are followed and/or watched. A relatively lower 26% were sent gifts, cards, and/or letters by their stalker. One in five stalkers use weapons to threaten or harm their victims. (SPARC Info) Of stalkers who wielded weapons, 42% used a knife or other sharp object, 38% used a blunt object, and 23% used a handgun (BJSR).

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Stalkers often stalk both in-person and through technology. 80% of stalking victims report being stalked through technology (SPARC Tech Info). Tech-facilitated stalking can be just as invasive and threatening as in-person stalking. Unwanted phone calls, texts, emails, and/or social media messages are by far the most common method of technological stalking. Monitoring activities via social media (32%) or other technology (22%), posting or threatening to post inappropriate or personal information (29%), and tracking a victim’s location (14%) are other ways stalkers commonly use technology. (SPARC Tech Info) Creating fake profiles pretending to be the victim, spoofing (calls/texts/emails that appear to be from someone else), doxing (private/identifying information published publicly online), and nonconsensual sharing of intimate images are specialized uses of technology that are particularly used to stalk college students (SPARC Campus FAQ). 78% of stalkers use multiple tactics (SPARC FAQ).

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Impact on Victims

Experiencing stalking can be extremely taxing on victim’s emotions and mental health. 84% of stalking victims report feeling fearful, threatened, or concerned for their safety (SPARC Info). 46% of victims fear not knowing what will happen next and 20% fear it will never stop (SPARC FAQ). More than half fear bodily harm to themselves or a family member (BJSR). Stalking victims suffer much higher rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and social disfunction than people in the general population (SPARC FAQ). They may also lose their appetite or experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, and avoidance (Psych). Some stalking victims become distressed enough to contemplate suicide. In a 2019 study, female stalking victims indicated the two factors that exacted the greatest psychological toll are whether the pursuit is active (following, showing up) and aggressive (threatening, violent).

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Cyberstalking victims often find the inability to see/identify their stalker and the unpredictability of tech stalking to be extremely distressing and anxiety-inducing (Psych). Victims of tech stalking often report higher fear than those of in-person stalking, with just as much concern for safety (SPARC Tech Info). LGBTQIA+ stalking victims have higher rates of mental health issues compared to heterosexual, cisgender stalking victims. Researchers posit that this is because the stigma, prejudice, and discrimination many LGBTQIA+ people experience lead to heightened stress levels and predisposes them to adverse health outcomes. (SPARC LGBT+ FAQ)

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

In taking measures to protect themselves, victims also often make alterations or even fundamental changes to their lives. One in seven stalking victims relocate in order to get away from their stalker. Victims often find experiencing stalking negatively impacts their job or education, sometimes with financial implications. Student stalking victims frequently have difficulty concentrating on school work,  miss meetings and/or extracurricular activities, have lower grades, drop classes, consider dropping out of school entirely, and change their living situation (such as moving out of dorms) (SPARC Campus FAQ). In a 2009 Bureau of Justice Special Report survey, one in eight employed stalking victims lost time from work as a result of their victimization, with more than half losing five days or more. Over 50% of victims reported less than $1000 in lost wages, though 8% reported lost pay of $5000 or more. About 30% of stalking victims accrued out-of-pocket costs for things such as attorney fees, damage to property, childcare costs, moving expenses, or changing phone numbers. (BJSR)

Stalking and Intimate Partner Violence

There is a significant correlation between stalking and domestic violence, particularly intimate partner violence. 40% of stalking victims are targeted by current or former intimate partners. Women are significantly more likely to be stalked by an intimate partner than men, 59% versus 30% (USOJP). Stalking can occur before, during, and/or after the relationship. 74% of those stalked by a former intimate partner report violence and/or coercive control in the relationship. Stalking can be a way to exert that control during or after a relationship. SPARC IPV FAQ

Stalking is often an indicator of other forms of domestic violence in an intimate partner relationship. Abusive partners who stalk are also more likely to verbally degrade, threaten, use a weapon to attack, sexually assault, and/or physically injure their victims compared to abusers who don’t stalk. Intimate partner stalkers are also frequently more aggressive and dangerous than other stalkers. They are more likely to use the widest variety of stalking tactics, contact/approach victims more frequently, assault their victims and third parties, follow through on threats of violence, threaten victims with or actually use weapons against victims, escalate behavior, and reoffend, compared to non-intimate partner stalkers. 41% of victims stalked by a current intimate partner and 35% stalked by a former intimate partner experience threats of harm, compared to 24% stalked by a non-intimate partner. (SPARC IPV FAQ)

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Current and former intimate partner stalkers also stalk their victims for about twice as long a period as non-intimate partner stalkers (2.2 years compared with just over 1 year). Intimate partner stalking made victims more likely to want to leave the relationship than other factors, including psychological aggression and physical harm. They report more separation attempts than intimate partner violence victims who were not stalked. (SPARC IPV FAQ)

Stalking increases the risk of intimate partner homicide by three times. 85% of attempted and 76% of completed victims of femicide by male intimate partners were stalked in the previous year. 46% of attempted homicide and 54% of completed homicide victims had reported stalking before the attack, most commonly to the police. If a victim interacted with the criminal justice system prior to an attempted or completed intimate partner homicide, it was most commonly to report intimate partner stalking. (SPARC IPV FAQ)

Identifying Stalking Behavior

As stalking overlaps with harassment and other forms of domestic violence, it can be subtle or appear innocuous from the outside, may be spread out over a substantial period and involve multiple tactics, and it may be difficult for victims and others to identify stalking behavior. Whether due to a lack of information, a higher basis of interaction through technology, different perspectives, romanticization of stalking behavior, or other factors, there seems to be a disconnect among a significant number of college students as to the nature of what is happening to them. 43% of college victims who meet the legal criteria for stalking do not identify their experience as “stalking” (SPARC Campus FAQ).

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

A useful tool for identifying stalking may be SPARC’s stalking behavior screener questions, which concentrate on four key areas: surveillance, life invasion, intimidation, and interference through sabotage or attack. Multiple examples of each type of tactic are given, asking if the offender is guilty of each, as well as general questions about frequency, fear, and concern for safety. For a detailed and secure web-based assessment, victims may find the Stalking and Harassment Assessment and Risk Profile (SHARP) questionnaire helpful. It was developed from empirical research, clinical literature, stories from stalking victims, and case studies, and provides a situational risk profile that consists of 14 factors associated with a wide variety of harms.

Safety Strategies

Safety planning can be a way for stalking victims to regain some control in their lives and have a thought-through framework for how they might deal with various situations. For more information, check out DVSN’s August/September 2022 two-part blog series, “Safety Planning: Reducing Risk & Exploring Options” and “Safety Planning: Different Circumstances & Special Considerations”. SPARC has developed documentation logs of stalking incidents and behavior for general victims and one specific to college students. Documenting incidents can help victims identify stalking, keep track of frequency and tactics, and can be used as evidence should they decide to pursue legal recourse. In order to increase safety, stalking victims may also choose to cease all communication with the stalker (even negative responses can reinforce their behavior), vary their routine and routes, tell friends/family/neighbors about the stalker and what they would like them to do if they see the stalker, educate themselves on technology security, seek assistance from a domestic violence agency, notify the police, and/or seek a protective order. Check out SPARC’s Safety Strategies packet for additional tips for safety planning at work, school, home, and/or around technology, as well as some excellent safety planning resources.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Seeking Help

Safety planning can be a way for stalking victims to regain some control in their lives and have a thought-through framework for how they might deal with various situations. For more information, check out DVSN’s August/September 2022 two-part blog series, “Safety Planning: Reducing Risk & Exploring Options” and “Safety Planning: Different Circumstances & Special Considerations”. SPARC has developed documentation logs of stalking incidents and behavior for general victims and one specific to college students. Documenting incidents can help victims identify stalking, keep track of frequency and tactics, and can be used as evidence should they decide to pursue legal recourse. In order to increase safety, stalking victims may also choose to cease all communication with the stalker (even negative responses can reinforce their behavior), vary their routine and routes, tell friends/family/neighbors about the stalker and what they would like them to do if they see the stalker, educate themselves on technology security, seek assistance from a domestic violence agency, notify the police, and/or seek a protective order. Check out SPARC’s Safety Strategies packet for additional tips for safety planning at work, school, home, and/or around technology, as well as some excellent safety planning resources.

upset young woman sits in a chair crying while her boyfriend stands over her yelling aggressively

Supporting a loved one who is experiencing stalking can make a huge difference in how they are feeling and whether or not they pursue other help. Like with any form of domestic violence, listening to and believing the victim are vital. Validating the victim’s experience and focusing on the stalker’s actions rather than the victim’s response are helpful to make victims more comfortable sharing and to avoid victim blaming. Loved ones can present resources and help the victim think through options, empowering the victim to make their own choices about how to proceed and what they want to reveal to whom. Domestic violence agencies, including DVSN, can provide resources and information, and assist stalking victims with determining their course of action to increase their safety.

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