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According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), of all the people who experienced partner abuse in the year ending March 2022, 20.8% experienced stalking. What is more, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated that in the year 2019-2020, a record 2,228 charges for stalking were brought in, which was more than double the number that had occurred half a decade earlier.
However, the CPS also recognises that this may also be driven by improved recognition of stalking among police as part of a wider domestic abuse pattern. Indeed, a random sample of stalking cases in England and Wales showed that 84% of complaints were against ex-partners, with three-quarters of those complaints having previously reported other forms of domestic abuse during the relationship.
What is stalking?
Stalking refers to a pattern of unwanted and repeated behaviour that makes an individual feel afraid or threatened. Victims also describe it as feeling harassed or pestered. It can involve following or watching someone, repeatedly contacting them, turning up at their home or workplace, sending unwanted gifts, sending messages repeatedly, or engaging in any behaviour that can cause fear or distress to the victim.
Stalking is a crime of persistence. The behaviour experienced by victims often seems inevitable and unescapable, which is why it can have such a damaging effect. Whilst the actions of a stalker may seem relatively banal or even harmless, this is often why so many victims suffer for such prolonged periods before reporting it or even do not report it at all.
The police state that many victims of stalking are stalked for years, with the average stalking case lasting for around 15 months. What’s more, more than 30% of people who contacted the National Stalking Helpline reported that they’d been stalked for over two years, with 13% reporting it having lasted for over five.
Stalking is a serious crime and can cause significant emotional and psychological harm to the victim. Stalking behaviour must be taken seriously and those who are victims of it must seek help. It can happen to anyone. Former partners, friends or acquaintances, work colleagues and strangers can all be stalkers.
Types of stalking
Stalking can take many forms and involve different kinds of behaviours.
The types of stalking can overlap and include:
- Physical stalking
- Obsessional stalking
- Celebrity stalking
- Revenge stalking
This type of stalking is what most people presume stalking to be. It involves a perpetrator following a victim, waiting for them outside their home or workplace, or showing up in other places that they know their victim goes such as the gym, the park or a relative’s house.
Cyberstalking is sometimes called online stalking. It involves using online methods to stalk a victim. This could be in the form of emails, social media and messaging apps. The stalker may send messages, images or videos to harass, intimidate, threaten or scare the victim.
Cyberstalking can include posting defamatory or humiliating content online, spreading false rumours or using online tracking tools to monitor what a victim does. In extreme cases, cyberstalkers can hack into devices to gain access to a victim’s accounts or personal information.
Not many people have heard of erotomania. It is a psychological delusional disorder in which the stalker has a false and persistent belief that their victim is in love with them. Most of the time, their victim is of a higher status, a celebrity or someone in a position of authority. The stalker may well believe that their victim is someone sending them secret messages or signals or communicating with them in some way, i.e. through gestures or body language.
Erotomania often leads to stalking behaviour as the individual affected may attempt to contact or pursue the object of their affection in an effort to establish a relationship. This behaviour is quite often dangerous and can cause emotional distress for both the victim and the individual with erotomania.
This type of stalking is where a stalker fixates on a celebrity and engages in a persistent and unwanted pursuit of them, far beyond that of a typical superfan.
This involves stalking someone to get revenge or to ‘get back’ at someone for a perceived wrongdoing. A revenge stalker seeks retribution for something. It’s often driven by a desire to exert control over the victim and to make them feel afraid or vulnerable.
No matter the kind of stalking, it has a huge impact on the victim and can lead to psychological distress including anxiety and depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What are the signs of stalking behaviour?
Many people picture stalkers as unknown men hiding in the shadows or a superfan who follows a particular celebrity. However, the truth is, it’s much more complex than most people believe. Regardless of who is doing the stalking, the behaviours demonstrated are often similar. The signs of stalking behaviour often involve a pattern of persistent and unwanted behaviours over time.
They can include:
- Following someone.
- Turning up unexpectedly where their victim is.
- Surveillance – watching someone continuously or repeatedly. This can include sitting outside a person’s house or place of work.
- Sending repeated unwanted gifts including flowers or other items despite the victim requesting that they stop.
- Monitoring someone’s activities online such as repeatedly checking someone’s social media accounts, emails or phone records.
- Unwanted contact such as receiving repeated phone calls, text messages, emails or other forms of communication from someone despite not wanting to engage with them.
- Trespassing – the stalker may enter the victim’s property or workplace without permission.
What all of these behaviours have in common is that the perpetrator is fixated and obsessed with the victim and their actions are both unwanted yet repeated.
The police outline four warning signs of stalking, which summarise the behaviour of it:
- F – Fixated
- O – Obsessive
- U – Unwanted
- R – Repeated
Who is at risk of being stalked?
According to a stalking charity, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, for about 45% of those who contact their stalking helpline, their stalker is an ex-partner. Aside from those, a further third of victims say they have previously known their stalker in some way, perhaps even just as a brief encounter.
This means that anyone can be a victim of stalking. Dr Lorraine Sheridan’s report for the Network for Surviving Stalking found that the stalking victims surveyed were between 10 and 73 years of age. Both men and women were affected and victims were from the whole socioeconomic spectrum. Indeed, 38% of victims classed themselves as professionals. Dr Sheridan concluded, therefore, that almost anyone can find themselves a victim of stalking and the only way of avoiding it completely would be to become a social recluse.
The charity Paladin – a trauma-informed service that assists high-risk victims of stalking – agrees. Indeed their website homepage states boldly,
“Anyone can be a stalker. Anyone can be stalked.”
Having said that, there are some things which may increase a person’s risk of being stalked.
- Sex: Women are more likely to be victims than men. According to the Office for National Statistics, the March 2016 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) showed that across all the sub-categories of intimate violence, estimates for women were statistically significantly higher than estimates for men, including that 20.9% of women had experienced stalking since the age of 16 compared with 9.9% for men.
- Age: The same CSEW survey showed that women aged between 16 and 19 (9.7%) and 20 to 24 (6.6%) were more likely to be victims of stalking than women in other age groups. The same trend was noted in male victims of stalking, with 4.2% and 4.4% in the age categories quoted above respectively.
- Single and divorced adults: Stalkers are often ex-partners or former acquaintances who are unable to let go of the relationship and become obsessed with their victim. The CSEW survey showed that this is the case for both men and women.
- Occupation: People in certain professions may well be at higher risk of being stalked due to the nature of their roles. This may include law enforcement, social workers, or those who work in public office.
- Social media use: People who post a lot on social media, especially in a public way and share personal information, may be more at risk of becoming a victim of stalking behaviours than those who refrain and are more private.
- Geographical location: Those who live in cities or densely populated areas and engage in public activities may be more at risk than those who live rurally.
- Celebrities or public figures: Celebrities or those in the public eye are at much more risk of being stalked due to their public presence. They are particularly vulnerable to erotomania.
What leads to stalking behaviour?
Essentially, stalking is led by a wish to exert control. What drives that desire is often complex. Each stalker will have a unique underlying socio-cognitive model – what drives them to their actions and feelings. Overall, stalking behaviour appears to come from obsessive thinking and something called ‘relatedness’.
Relatedness is an elementary psychological need for belonging and connection. It is possible, therefore, that stalking behaviours emerge from this overrunning desire and need for connection that has somehow been thwarted.
Psychologists believe that stalking may come from a combination of thwarted relatedness with negative fantasies. Negative fantasies (as opposed to positive ones with which we’re more familiar) are those where a person fantasises about negative experiences such as loss or imagining a partner leaving.
We have already established that those who have been in a romantic relationship that has ended may be more vulnerable to stalking from their ex-partner, particularly if the relationship was abusive.
It could be that it has emerged from the end of a romantic relationship whereby a perpetrator wants to win their former partner back or ward off any potential new love interests. This kind of stalking is driven by a dependency that is known as ‘relationship contingent self-esteem’. This means that an individual only sees their worth via the relationship and therefore they respond with intense jealousy and anger when that relationship breaks down. This can then lead to the obsessive pursuit of their former partner.
According to Psychology Today, a study showed that personality disorders were present in over half of the evaluated stalkers, including narcissistic, histrionic, antisocial or borderline personality disorders. Borderline personality was said to be particularly prevalent in women who become stalkers. Additionally, erotomania is said to be more prominent in women than in men.
Those with borderline personality disorder often experience intense anxiety when they are separated from (or even ‘abandoned’ by) those whom they care about. They are often thought to be ‘needy’ and dislike being alone, craving attention, communication and time from their family and friends. It is not difficult to imagine how this disorder can become extreme to the point of stalking.
Many victims are stalked by someone who they have previously had an aggrievance with. This could be a former employee or co-worker, a former spouse, a vindictive family member or a neighbour holding a grudge.
Obsession is all part and parcel of what defines a stalker. Influencer and celebrity stalking is on the rise. This is no doubt partly due to the rise of the culture across multiple platforms that fit neatly into our hands in the form of mobile phone social media apps.
Celebrities and influencers can communicate with their followers more easily and directly, often sharing intimate details about their day-to-day life. This visibility of the celebrity or influencer each day may lead to someone believing that they have a real, closer relationship with them than they actually do.
What is the difference between stalking and harassment?
Given that stalking and harassment are both behaviours that involve unwanted and repeated contact with another person, it may be difficult to know what the difference is between the two.
Stalking generally involves a pattern of behaviour that is directed at a specific person and is intended to cause fear, anxiety and distress. Stalking behaviours, as outlined above, are often motivated by a desire for control or power over the victim and can cause significant psychological harm.
Harassment, on the other hand, can refer to a much broader range of behaviour that is intended to annoy, bother or intimidate another person.
Harassment can include behaviours that are not typical of stalking, including:
- Verbal insults.
- Bullying at school or in the workplace.
- Anti-social behaviour.
- Unwanted physical contact.
- Sending abusive text messages.
- Unwanted abusive calls, emails, or messages.
There is also the subsidiary of sexual harassment (which is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010). This includes any unwanted behaviour that violates your dignity and creates a hostile, degrading, offensive or humiliating environment either in person or online.
Harassment can also be motivated in a similar way to stalking but may not involve the same level of targeted, repeated behaviour as stalking.
In general, the key difference between stalking and harassment is the pattern and intensity of the behaviour. Stalking is in a more targeted and repeated pattern while harassment may be more sporadic and random. However, both harassment and stalking can be considered illegal and have serious consequences for the perpetrator.
What to do if you are being stalked
If you are being stalked it may be difficult to know what to do about it. It’s vital that you protect yourself and ensure your safety.
There are a number of initial steps that you can take to help:
- Do not engage with the stalker in any way. This means that you should not respond to messages, talk to them in person or answer their calls.
- Talk to friends and family about what is happening. Talking to your colleagues or manager at work may also be advised if the stalker is likely to affect your workplace. They may also be able to help you in collecting evidence or by putting things in place to protect you.
- Be sure to lock down how much personal information you’re sharing. This could be on social media, public reviews you leave online or your location settings on your phone apps.
- Keep copies of any evidence of stalking including copies of messages, letters, emails, and screenshots of messages.
- Keep a diary of what is happening including the dates, times and locations of any stalking incidents. It is also a good idea to write down who witnessed it so that they can confirm what has happened in the event the police need it.
- Remove yourself from any public directories that share your name and number.
If you’re being stalked physically or are at risk of being there are additional things you can do to ensure your safety:
- Carry a personal alarm that can alert others if needed.
- Vary your journeys and routes. Try not to allow your routines to become too predictable so that you cannot be followed as easily.
- Be familiar with safe locations such as police stations or even local supermarkets that have good coverage of CCTV should you feel at risk.
- Talk to the police about installing a panic button in your home or a CCTV system.
- Install an alarm system in your home and ensure that all windows and doors are locked properly when you leave your home or go to bed.
If you’re being stalked online, there are certain things that you can do to protect yourself:
- Have a professional check your computer for key-logging software or malware.
- Ensure you change any passwords you use frequently and do not use the same password across different accounts.
- Limit what you share online including on social media. Ensure that your privacy settings are as tight as possible and do not share more information about yourself than you are comfortable with a potential stalker knowing.
- Review any tagging settings on social media that would allow others to inadvertently share your location.
- Use anti-virus software on your device and keep it up to date.
- Google yourself to see what appears and attempt to remove anything public if it is within your control.
- Report any suspected stalking activity to website administrators and/or the web hosting company.
- If you are receiving unwanted calls or messages, you can block the number.
Contact the police
Stalking is a crime.
In November 2012, two new criminal offences were introduced under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012:
- Stalking where there is a fear of violence
If you are in immediate danger from a stalker, you should always call 999. If it is not an emergency situation, you should contact your local police.
There are a number of organisations that can help if you are being stalked:
There is also The National Stalking Clinic which is a service that provides assessment and consultation for stalkers or those who have engaged in stalking behaviours.
Impact of being a stalking victim
The experiences and impact of being a victim of stalking will be different for everyone. The impact of it will vary depending on the victim’s characteristics, circumstances, past experiences and who their stalker is or was. Despite many complexities in this area, there are some common response patterns among stalking victims. Both males and females report similar experiences and symptoms following stalking.
Mental health impact
Often, the biggest toll on a victim of stalking is on their mental health.
They may experience:
- Confusion, self-doubt, denial and questioning themselves on whether it’s really that bad or if they are overreacting.
- Guilt and self-blame.
- Fear or apprehension of being alone.
- Fear that loved ones or pets may be harmed.
- Symptoms of depression.
- Panic attacks and anxiety.
- Agoraphobia – being frightened to leave their home and never feeling safe outdoors.
- Concentration and memory difficulties.
- Insomnia and ruminating whilst trying to sleep.
- Irritability and anger.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, including hypervigilance, heightened startle and flashbacks.
- Feeling insecure and unable to trust others.
- Personality changes, including becoming more introverted, aggressive or suspicious.
- Turning to alcohol or drugs to cope.
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Physical health impact
Many people who have experienced stalking also report some physical effects:
- Fatigue due to insomnia and/or hypervigilance.
- Headaches and/or hypertension from chronic stress.
- Gastrointestinal problems such as IBS.
- Weight gain due to comfort eating or feeling wary about leaving home for exercise.
- Weight loss due to not eating as a result of stress or anxiety.
- Shortness of breath.
- Exacerbation of existing conditions (or development of them) such as gastric ulcers, psoriasis or eczema.
- The impact of alcohol or drug overuse.
- Heart palpitations.
- Increased sweating.
- Sexual dysfunction.
Impacts on work, social life and finances
Aside from effects on a person’s health, stalking also impacts a person’s ability to function well in society:
- Worsening performance at work (or school).
- Increased number of sick days and potentially loss of earnings as a result.
- Being sacked or having to leave a job.
- Changing career.
- Dropping out of university or college.
- Insecurity in trusting others so unable to maintain or create friendships and romantic relationships.
- Problems with intimacy, both physical and emotional.
- Avoiding usual activities such as going out or going to the gym.
- Becoming more isolated (including to supposedly protect others).
- Other people withdrawing their support through a lack of belief or due to an inability to cope with the victim’s situation or mental health, and sometimes due to the direct action of the stalker.
- Having to move to a new area, change jobs, phone number and even name and physical appearance, and the financial implications such as breaking tenancy agreements, removal costs etc.
- Increased expenses on personal and home security systems.
- The impact of a legal battle including legal fees.
When to report stalking
Many victims of stalking often delay reporting it. This may be for a number of reasons including them not understanding what was happening or believing that they should be able to handle it themselves. Also, many people also think that they’ll be able to make the stalker see sense eventually and don’t want to get them into trouble.
Some may believe that they’ll lose their job if the stalking is reported, especially if their stalker is someone they work with. Additionally, some stalkers make threats against their victims which prevents them from reporting it.
However, stalking is a serious crime and it should always be reported. The Police website has the facility to report stalking and harassment crimes online as well as being able to do so by ringing 101. Organisations such as Victim Support and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust also help victims and advise them on reporting the crime.
Reporting stalking to the police is important because the longer a victim waits, the more time the stalker has to escalate their behaviour and potentially become more dangerous. The police do not only deal with the perpetrator; they also offer support and guidance to victims and can help fit security systems and panic alarms should someone need them.
Criminal consequences for stalking
If someone is convicted of stalking in the UK, they can face up to ten years imprisonment depending on the severity of the stalking and any other related criminal activity. Stalkers may also be issued with fines, depending on the severity of their stalking offence.
Aside from prison sentences and fines, stalkers can be issued with a restraining order. The court may impose an order on the offender which prohibits them from contacting or approaching their victim. Some courts also impose a community sentence where the offender must complete so many hours of unpaid work and/or attend a rehabilitation programme.
Any conviction of stalking will result in the perpetrator getting a criminal record. This may affect their ability to secure employment and even obtain a visa to travel to certain countries.
Final thoughts on stalking
Stalking is a serious crime with far-reaching consequences for victims and their families. The emotional and mental impact of being stalked should not be underestimated. The criminal justice system takes stalking very seriously and if you are being stalked, it is important to report it to the police as soon as possible.