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Stalkers and Their Victims

Stalkers and Their Victims

 

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"Stalking" is defined as repeated and persistent unwanted communications and/or approaches that produce fear in the victim. The stalker may use such means as telephone calls, letters, e-mail, graffiti and placing notices in the media. A stalker may approach or follow the victim, or keep their residence under surveillance. Stalking is often associated with other forms of harassment, such as ordering goods on the victim's behalf, sending unsolicited materials and initiating spurious legal actions (Mullen et al., 1999). Stalking intrudes on the victim's privacy and evokes a fear of violence. Such fears are justified, as threats, property damage and assault occur all too frequently in association with stalking.

Community surveys suggest that each year between 1% and 2% of women and 0.25% to 0.5% of men are stalked (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996; Tjaden and Thoennes, 1998). Although these behaviors have been documented for centuries, stalking has been recognized as a social problem only during the last decade (Meloy, 1999; Mullen et al., 2000). The media began using the word stalking in the late 1980s to describe persistent following of celebrities. It was soon generalized to include a wide range of recurrent harassments and an equally diverse range of victims. Successful media campaigns established stalking as a public issue and stimulated legislative changes to allow the more effective prosecution of stalkers.

California passed the first anti-stalking statute in 1990, followed shortly by the rest of the United States as well as Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and now some European countries. It was only after stalking became a specific form of offensive behavior that behavioral scientists and health care professionals began to systematically study stalkers and, equally important, the impact of their conduct on the victims.

The Stalker's Victim

Stalking is predominantly a victim-defined crime. The victim's fear changes the perception of the behaviors from inappropriate, intrusive and inept, to damaging and criminal. This is not to trivialize being stalked, but to place the experience of the victim in its proper place as the defining characteristic.

A criminal offence usually requires both criminal intent and an action. A significant proportion of stalkers, however, have no obvious criminal intentions. For example, they might wish to initiate a new relationship or restore a lost one. It is the way in which they pursue their apparently benign goals that a reasonable person might find distressing and frightening. Anti-stalking laws, if they are to be effective, have to define the offence in terms of the victim's reactions and not the perpetrator's intentions (Gilligan, 1992; McAnaney et al., 1993; Sohn, 1994).

The impact on the victim's psychological and social well-being is considerable. Path and Mullen (1997) studied 100 victims of persistent stalking. The majority had to severely restrict their lives by changing or abandoning work, curtailing all social activities, and becoming virtual recluses. Over 80% developed significant anxiety symptoms. Sleep disturbance was common, and many resorted to substance abuse. Over half had symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Feelings of powerlessness and depression were common, and nearly a quarter of the victims were actively considering suicide as a means of escape. Similar levels of distress and disturbance were reported in Hall's study (1998).

Several classifications of victims have been proposed, usually on the basis of the stalker's relationship to them (Fremouw et al., 1997; Meloy and Gothard, 1995; Zona et al., 1993). Harmon and colleagues (1995), for example, separated prior relationships into personal, professional, employment, media, acquaintance or none. Personal victims are most likely to be stalked by an ex-partner. These victims often reported having been subjected to domestic violence prior to the end of the relationship (Tjaden and Thoennes, 1998). They are typically exposed to a wide range of harassments and are the most likely to be assaulted (Harmon et al., 1998; Meloy, 1998; Mullen et al., 1999). Professional victims (such as health care providers, lawyers and teachers, who come into contact with the lonely, the inadequate and the aggrieved) are particularly vulnerable. When stalking first emerged as an issue, it was thought to be a problem peculiar to celebrities. Now it is recognized that virtually anyone can fall victim to a stalker.

The Violence of Stalkers

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