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What Is Stalking?

Stalking is a pattern of unwanted contact or behavior that leads someone to feel scared, anxious, and upset.

The legal definition of stalking varies by state, but the United States Department of Justice defines the term as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.”

Stalking is a consistent and intentional pattern of behavior as opposed to one or two isolated incidents. It persists after the individual has asked the stalker to stop contacting them.

Stalking behavior can include the following:

  • Repeatedly sending texts, calls, or emails
  • Knowing the person’s schedule, tracking their whereabouts, or physically following them
  • Unexpectedly showing up at the person’s home, workplace, or school
  • Delivering unwanted gifts
  • Stealing the person’s possessions
  • Threatening the person or their friends and family
  • Other behaviors that lead to feeling unsafe, harassed, or monitored

In addition to instilling deep distress, stalking can escalate to a physical attack, sexual assault, or murder. It’s difficult for a target to determine a stalker’s trajectory or identify if and how stalking behavior will intensify.

About 15 percent of women and 6 percent of men in the U.S. have experienced stalking at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, representing 18.3 million women and 6.5 million men.

Stalking constitutes one form of Intimate Partner Violence, according to the CDC, along with physical violence, sexual violence, and psychological aggression.

How to Respond to Being Stalked

Stalking victims often struggle to understand and report the offense. They may believe that such behavior “isn’t that big a deal” or that “it’ll stop eventually.”

If stalking occurs after a breakup, it can be difficult to determine whether the person is struggling to move on or developing threatening tendencies. Society has also tended to romanticize the idea of a dramatic, relentless pursuit of love, which may contribute to the confusion.

Stalking ultimately crosses the line when the victim feels in danger or threatened. If they feel that their life is in jeopardy, they should call 911. Otherwise, they should report it to their local police department.

The victim can also take the following steps:

  • Avoid the stalker as much as possible.
  • Explicitly state that communication should end; do not respond to further communication.
  • Maintain a log of the stalker’s actions, including communication, unwanted visits, and police reports filed.
  • Become educated about technology-related security measures.
  • Find an organization for support, information, and safety planning. To learn more, visit the Stalking Resource Center.

What Is the Psychological Toll of Stalking?

Stalkers seek to wield power and gain control over their victims. Persistent communication, tracking, and threats lead the target to feel unsettled and on edge.

Stalking can lead victims to feel nervous, stressed, and anxious. They may have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares. They may lose their appetite. And they may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression.

Research suggests that many women who have been stalked experienced symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, and avoidance. The unwanted behaviors most associated with those symptoms are receiving threatening calls and texts.

Victims may also take measures to protect themselves that influence the course of their lives, such as taking time away from work or school, changing jobs, or moving away.

What Is Cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking refers to any form of stalking that relies on technology. It is a consistent pattern of behavior and the content is typically disturbing, threatening, or dangerous.

Examples of cyberstalking include the following:

  • Repeatedly sending unwanted messages via email or a social media platform
  • Tracking someone via GPS without their consent
  • Monitoring online activity without consent
  • Releasing sensitive or personal information about a person online
  • Impersonating the individual in chatrooms or online platforms
  • Installing a camera on the person’s computer to record or view them without consent

Cyberstalking can be equally or more distressing than other forms of stalking, even though the perpetrator is not physically present and may even be far away. With the victim unable to see or identify the stalker, or know when they will next act, the unpredictability can be deeply disturbing. It can lead to anxiety, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms of depression or trauma.

In addition to a typical safety plan, victims of cyberstalking may want to investigate technology-oriented security measures, such as changing passwords and PINs, setting up a new email address, purchasing a more secure phone or computer, and turning off GPS tracking on all devices.

Do Men and Women Stalkers Differ?

Stalking is often perceived as a crime committed only against women. Although three times more women than men are victims of stalking, women are also perpetrators of such behavior. About half of male victims of stalking report having female stalkers.

The drive to pursue may differ by gender. Women may be motivated by the desire to prevent a partner from leaving or to win him back. Men may be more motivated by the desire to win over a potential new mate.

Both genders deploy the same tactics, but women may do so more frequently than men. Research indicates that female stalkers commit threats, verbal abuse, property damage, theft, and physical harm more often than males do.

“Even though both sexes grapple with the urge to pursue, we are reluctant to take female stalking seriously,” writes Lisa Philips, the author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession. “Research shows we’d rather give female stalkers a 'gender pass,' perceiving what they do as less serious than if they were male.”

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