Stalkers and Their Victims


Stalking is defined as repeated and persistent unwanted communications and/or approaches that produce fear in the victim. 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.

April 2001, Vol. XVIII, Issue 4

“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&337; 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

Zona et al. (1993) were the first to systematically study assault in stalking. They suggested a low risk of overt violence, with only two out of 74 stalkers physically assaulting their victims. In contrast, Harmon and colleagues (1998) reported that 46% of stalkers exhibited violent conduct. The majority of stalkers who threatened their victims subsequently acted upon their stated intentions. Kienlen and colleagues (1997) reported that 32% of stalkers in their study committed assaults, with assault higher among the nonpsychotic subjects with personality disorder or substance abuse. Mullen et al. (1999) reported over a third of the victims in their study were attacked by their stalker. In addition, 6% of stalkers assaulted third parties whom they believed were impeding their access to the target.

These studies are based on samples of stalkers. Victims, however, are in our view the most reliable source of information about intimidation, threats and violence. Hall (1998) reported that 41% of the 145 victims studied had been threatened, 43% had their property damaged, 38% were hit or beaten, and 22% were sexually assaulted. In addition, 11 subjects were kidnapped and two were victims of arson attacks. Path and Mullen (1997), in their sample of 100 victims, reported that 58 had been threatened, 36% were assaulted and 7% suffered sexual attacks. Threats preceded assault in 70% of cases. Assault was significantly more likely for victims who had had a former intimate relationship with the stalker. Meloy (1999, 1998) concluded that approximately half of all stalkers threaten the victim. The majority of those who threaten do not proceed to subsequent violence. Nonetheless, threats should be taken seriously, as those who proceed to assault have usually threatened previously. Violence occurs in approximately a third of the cases, yet rarely results in serious physical injury.

Stalker Types

There have been several attempts to describe the different types of stalker (Harmon et al., 1995; Mullen et al., 1999; Zona et al., 1993). No generally accepted classification has yet emerged.

Mullen et al. (1999) proposed a multiaxial classification. The first axis was a typology derived primarily from the stalker's motivation, the second from the prior relationship to the victim, and the third a division into nonpsychotic and psychotic subjects. This attempted to capture the stalker's behavior in terms of both motivation and the needs and desires the stalking itself satisfies. They described five subtypes:

  • The Rejected respond to an unwelcome end to a close relationship by actions intended to lead to reconciliation, an extraction of reparation from the victim or both. For the stalker, the behavior maintains some semblance of continued contact and relationship with the victim.
  • The Intimacy Seekers pursue someone they have little, if any, relationship with in the mistaken belief that they are loved, or inevitably will be loved, by the victim. The stalking satisfies needs for contact and closeness while feeding fantasies of an eventual loving relationship.
  • The Incompetent are would-be suitors seeking a partner. Given their ignorance or indifference to the usual courting rituals, they use methods that are, at best, counterproductive and, at worst, terrifying. The stalking provides an approximation of finding a partner.
  • The Resentful respond to a perceived insult or injury by actions aimed not just at revenge but at vindication. The stalking is the act of vengeance.
  • The Predatory pursue their desires for sexual gratification and control. The stalking is a rehearsal for the stalker's violent sexual fantasies and a partial satisfaction of voyeuristic and sadistic desires.

When the typology, relationship to the victim and psychotic/nonpsychotic dichotomy were combined, the result predicted the duration and nature of the stalking, the risks of threatening and violent behavior, and, to some extent, the response to management strategies (Mullen et al., 1999; Mullen et al., 2000).

The rejected used the widest range of behaviors, such as following, repeatedly approaching, telephoning, letter-writing and leaving notes. In contrast, the predatory stalkers concentrated almost exclusively on furtively following and maintaining surveillance. Intimacy seekers were the most prolific letter-writers, and they also sent the most unsolicited gifts and other materials. Duration was longest in the rejected and intimacy seekers and shortest in the predatory. The psychotic subjects were most likely to send unsolicited materials, and the nonpsychotic to follow and maintain surveillance.

The psychotic and nonpsychotic were equally likely to threaten, but the nonpsychotic were twice as likely to proceed to assault. The rejected were the most likely type to assault and the resentful, although often issuing threats, were the least likely to resort to overt violence.

The best predictor of stalking duration was typology. Also best predicted by typology were assaults. When assaults were combined with substance abuse and a history of prior convictions, they accounted for most of the explained variance.

Intimacy seekers were largely impervious to judicial sanctions, and often regarded court appearances and imprisonment as the price to be paid in the pursuit of true love. They often had a treatable psychiatric disorder, however, that when effectively managed, ended the stalking.

In contrast, the rejected, who could usually calculate their own advantage, often responded to the threat or imposition of judicial sanctions by curbing their behavior. The rejected type, however, do have significant levels of psychopathology, particularly connected to personality disorder, and therapeutic interventions can play a role in preventing a relapse.

The incompetent type could usually be persuaded to abandon the pursuit of their current victim with relative ease. The challenge is to prevent them from harassing the next victim who catches their fancy. The predatory were generally paraphilics. Management of their sexual deviance is central to the prevention of stalking recidivism.

The resentful, who all too often were both self-righteous and self-pitying, can be very difficult to engage therapeutically. Unless they have an overt paranoid illness, they rarely benefit from mandated treatment. They will, however, usually abandon their harassment if the cost to them, in terms of judicial sanctions, becomes too high.

Victims' distress can only be relieved by stopping the stalker. Stalking is criminal (in most jurisdictions), but is a behavior in which mental disorder can often play a role. In managing the stalker, the choice between criminal sanctions and therapy is not either/or. Rather, the choice should be pragmatic, selecting the appropriate balance of judicial sanctions and therapy that will best end the stalking and reduce the chances of future recurrences (Mullen et al., 2000).


Stalking, once established as a social problem, evoked a rapid response from the criminal justice system. Knowledge about the nature and impact of stalking has been less forthcoming but is gradually accumulating. Hopefully the combination of appropriate criminal justice and therapeutic interventions will soon be able to relieve the distress of both victims and stalkers, the latter often prisoners of their futile and self-damaging pursuits.

Dr. Mullen is professor of forensic psychiatry at Monash University in Australia and clinical director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health. Dr. Path is assistant clinical director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health.


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