Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Stalking, Its Victims, and Its Effects

January is the 18th annual National Stalking Awareness Month.

Legal definitions of stalking vary from one jurisdiction to another, but a good working definition is a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. Each of those highlighted terms is important because those are the factors that shift legal behavior to the crime of stalking. In other words, context matters in assessing what behavior is considered part of a romantic pursuit and what pattern of behavior qualifies for the crime of stalking. For example, if your partner were to surprise you and have your favorite coffee drink sitting in your cup holder when you get into your car at 8 am to head to work, you might think this to be a romantic gesture. However, imagine you have moved to another city to get away from a stalker and, one morning, you get into your car to go to work and your favorite coffee drink is sitting in the cup holder with your pet name on the cup. You would most likely be scared to death because you would know that your stalker had found you.

Stalking Is a Crime

In 1990, California became the first state to establish a stalking law after several high-profile stalking cases that ended in murder. By 1995, stalking had become a crime in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Territories, the Federal Government, the military justice system, and many tribal codes. However, there is no real consistency between states as to what constitutes stalking so understanding your state law and what it takes to establish the crime of stalking is key to building a stalking case. Stalking is typically classified as a misdemeanor upon first offense. However, the legal system does consider aggravating factors, such as the possession of a deadly weapon and violation of a court order, in determining whether a stalker is charged with a felony. Stalkers employ multiple tactics to instill fear, intimidate, surveil, and exert control over the people they target. My advice? Document, document, document: Every phone call, every text, every unwanted gift, every behavior, and every date these incidents occurred. This will demonstrate the pattern necessary to establish a solid case.

Who Gets Stalked

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of stalking victims are stalked by someone they know. Many victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner, or by an acquaintance. According to the most current statistics, approximately 1 in 6 women and 1 in 17 men have experienced stalking behavior at some point in their lifetime, although I believe that the rate at which men are stalked is highly underreported. Individuals aged 18-24 have the highest rate of stalking victimization. There are a few reasons for this: Young people are still developing impulse control. Also, many people in this age group live on college campuses, where geographic proximity makes stalking easier for a perpetrator. Finally, this age group of individuals has fewer experiences with romantic (and sexual) relationships and ways of responding when those relationships end.

Stalking Effects

On average, a woman has experienced stalking behavior or been threatened 19 times before she contacts the police. Here’s why: They think and want the stalking to go away on its own; they believe it’s their fault; or they feel no one is going to believe them. As a result of the repeated pattern of stalking behaviors, along with the fear it induces, stalking tends to infect all parts of a victim's life. Victims suffer much higher rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and social dysfunction than people in the general population. Finally, stalking doesn't just end when the perpetrator leaves the victim alone; it can have a lifelong and damaging impact on some victims' mental and physical health.

If you know anyone who is being stalked, remind them that stalking is a crime, provide them with resources (see below), and help them create a safety plan.

More from Mary Beth Wilkas Janke PsyD
More from Psychology Today