Many abused women who leave their partners feel threatened and remain in physical danger of further attacks. One form of threatening behavior, stalking, is generally defined as harassment that involves repeated visual or physical proximity; nonconsensual communication; verbal, written, or implied threats; or a combination of these acts that would cause a reasonable person fear. Stalking is a series of actions, usually escalating from legal but annoying acts, such as following or repeatedly phoning the victim, to violent or even fatal actions.
Not all stalking incidents involve abusive couples or intimate relationships. A stalker may fixate on an acquaintance or a stranger as the object of obsession. Celebrity stalking cases have been highly publicized but they account for a very small percentage of stalking incidents. Stalking most often involves intimates or former intimates and starts or continues after a victim leaves the relationship. And it is a widespread problem. In Stalking and Domestic Violence: The Third Annual Report to Congress under the Violence against Women Act (Washington, DC: Violence against Women Grants Office, U.S. Department of Justice, 1998), researchers estimated that 8.1 million women and more than two million men have been stalked in their lifetimes.
Researchers using National Violence against Women Survey data estimate that one out of twelve American women and one out of forty-five American men have been stalked at some point in their lives. An estimated 1% of all women respondents and 0.4% of all male respondents were stalked in the twelve months prior to the NVAWS. These percentages represent more than one million women and 370,000 men who are stalked annually in the United States.
Stalkers: Who Are They?
Although stalking is considered a "gender-neutral" crime, the majority of victims are women and the main perpetrators are men. Young adults are the primary targets—52% of victims were between the ages of eighteen
and twenty-nine. Another 22% were between thirty and thirty-nine years old when the stalking began, and 15% were forty years old or older. (See Figure 7.2.)
As suspected, the survey found that most victims knew their stalker. Only 23% of the female victims and 36% of male victims were stalked by strangers. Most women were stalked by intimate partners. Overall, 62% of the female and 32% of male victims were stalked by current or former intimates. Figure 7.3 shows the relationship between stalkers and victims—female victims were stalked by spouses and former spouses nearly three times as often as male victims.
Most stalkers follow or spy on their victims, place unwanted phone calls, and send unwanted letters or other items. The pattern of harassment is similar whether the victim is male or female. Eighty-two percent of all female stalking victims and 72% of all male stalking victims reported being followed or spied on, or found the stalker standing outside their home or workplace. Sixty-one percent of the females and 42% of the males reported receiving phone calls from the stalker. Twenty-nine percent of the women and 30% of the men reported property damage by the stalker, while 9% of the women and 6% of the male victims said the stalker either killed or threatened to kill their family pet.
When the Violence Occurs
Victims' advocates and counselors have long held that women are at the greatest risk of violence when they end a relationship with a batterer. This assumption is based on findings that divorced or separated women report more intimate partner violence than married women. In addition, interviews conducted with men who killed their wives reveal that the violence escalated or was precipitated by separation or threats of separation from their partners.
Many female stalking victims (43%) reported that they were stalked after ending their relationship with intimate partners, although 36% said they were stalked both before and after the breakup. Twenty-one percent of the victims said the stalking began before they terminated their relationships. (See Figure 7.4.)
According to findings released in Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence against Women Survey (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 2000), separated women are nearly four times more likely to report rape, physical assault, or being stalked by their spouses than women who live with their husbands. In comparison, men who live apart from their spouses are nearly three times as likely to report being victimized by their wives than men who live with their spouses. These findings support the widely held belief that there is an increased risk of partner violence for both men and women once an abusive relationship ends.
While 43% of all stalking victims said the stalking began after they ended their relationship, only 6.3% of
rape victims and 4.2% of physical assault victims reported victimization after they terminated their relationship. (See Figure 7.5.) These findings suggest that most rapes and violent assaults against women by their partners occur during the relationship, but stalking is more likely to occur after the relationship is terminated.
Legal Response to Stalking
About half of the stalking victims in the National Violence against Women Survey (53.1%) reported stalking to the police. In most cases, the victim made the report. Police were significantly more likely to arrest or detain a suspect stalking a female victim (25.1%) than one stalking a male victim (16.7%). Other police responses included referrals to the prosecutor or court (23.3%), referral to victim services (13.8%), and advice on self-protective measures (33.2%). In 18.9% of the cases, police did nothing.
Of those victims who reported their stalking to the police, about half were satisfied with the actions taken by the police, and about the same proportion indicated they felt police interventions had improved their situations or that the police had done all they could. Victims who thought police actions were inadequate had hoped that their assailants would be jailed (42%) and that their complaints would be treated more seriously (20%). Another 16% had wanted police to do more to protect them from their assailants.
Victims who chose not to report their stalking to the police said they felt their stalking was not a police matter (20%), they believed police would be unable to help them (17%), or they feared reprisal from their stalkers (16%).
Not unexpectedly, because women were more likely to be stalked by intimate partners with a history of violence, female victims were significantly more likely than male victims to obtain protective or restraining orders. According to Stalking and Domestic Violence: The Third Annual Report to Congress under the Violence against Women Act (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, July 1998), of those who obtained protective orders, 68.7% of the women and 81.3% of the men said their stalker violated the order.
Carol E. Jordan, T. K. Logan, Robert Walker, and Amy Nigoff studied the disposition of stalking cases and published the results in "Stalking: An Examination of the Criminal Justice Response" (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 18, no. 2, February 2003). They examined the cases of 390 males charged with stalking from fiscal year 1999, and found that most misdemeanor and felony charges of stalking were dismissed. Only 28.5% of the charged stalkers were convicted. The authors concluded that although the majority of stalking cases are dismissed, those cases that are not dismissed have a fair chance of resulting in conviction.
All states and the District of Columbia have laws making stalking a crime, but whether it is a felony or a misdemeanor varies by state. In 1996 the Interstate Stalking Punishment and Prevention Act, part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 1997, made interstate stalking a felony. This federal statute addresses cases that cross state lines. In the past, interstate offenses were difficult for state law enforcement agencies to take action against.
Several state legislatures have amended their antistalking laws after constitutional challenges or judicial interpretations of the law made it difficult to prosecute alleged stalkers. For example, in 1996 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in Long v. Texas, ruled that the 1993 Texas antistalking law was unconstitutional because it addressed conduct protected by the First Amendment. Legislators amended the statute in January 1997 to stipulate that to violate the statute, an alleged offender must knowingly engage in conduct that he or she "reasonably believes the other person will regard as threatening."
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, the variation in state stalking laws has to do with the type of repeated behavior that is prohibited, and whether by definition stalking must include a threat. Laws also are based on the victim's reaction to the stalking, and the stalker's intent. The U.S. Department of Justice
legal series bulletin Strengthening Antistalking Statutes (January 2002) detailed state legislative changes to better define prohibited conduct so that supreme courts would not find the statutes "unconstitutionally vague." For example, the Oregon legislature removed the term "legitimate purpose" from its statute when its Supreme Court determined it did not adequately describe the prohibited behavior. Similarly, the Supreme Court of Kansas sought increased precision when it requested that the state's stalking statute provide measures of behaviors such as "alarm, annoy and harassment," arguing that actions that alarm or annoy one person may not alarm or annoy another.
Criminal justice officials and victim service providers continue to develop and refine programs, strategies, and protocols to address stalking with an emphasis on enhancing victim safety. According to Domestic Violence and Stalking: The Second Annual Report to Congress under the Violence against Women Act (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1997), intervention strategies must strike a balance between stopping the stalking and protecting the victim.
"Suspect intervention" and "victim intervention" are important aspects of the Los Angeles Police Department Stalking and Threat Assessment Team response to stalking cases. Suspect intervention is the process of gathering, documenting, and analyzing information to assess the potential danger of the stalker. It also includes arrests, protection orders, confiscation of weapons, and face-to-face meetings with stalking suspects.
Victim intervention includes educating the victims about stalking, instructing victims about self-protective measures and how they can assist police to establish and pursue cases, and recommending therapeutic interventions, such as support groups or self-defense training, to help the victims regain control over their lives. The Los Angeles Police Department Stalking and Threat Assessment Team and a comparable program in New York City have been lauded for their effective training for personnel and for dedicating resources to pursue and combat stalking crimes.
As police departments and victim service agencies implement new and modified strategies, those that prove to be effective deterrents to stalking will serve as models. The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to supporting basic research to better understand intimate partner violence and stalking. Evaluation of these efforts will better inform public policy decision makers and guide officials to develop effective prevention and intervention programs.
Cyberstalking—online harassment and threats that can escalate to frightening and even life-threatening offline violence—is a relatively recent phenomenon. Brian H. Spitzberg and Gregory Hoobler's study of college students, "Cyberstalking and the Technologies of Interpersonal Terrorism," found that almost a third responded that they had experienced some degree of computerbased harassment and pursuit (New Media & Society, vol. 4, no. 1, 2002). The authors wrote that "it stands to reason that if there are classes of people who elect, or are driven obsessively, to pursue intimacy with others that these pursuers will seek whatever means are available that might increase their access to the objects of their pursuit, and that people's increasing exposure on and through the computer will make them more accessible as victims."
Although the extent of the problem is difficult to measure, by 1999 cyberstalking had generated enough concern to warrant the report from the U.S. attorney general, Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry, to then vice president Al Gore. The attorney general's report cautioned that although cyberstalking does not involve physical contact, it should not be considered less dangerous than physical stalking. In fact, the ease and anonymous nature of online communication coupled with increased access to personal information may pose a greater threat because potential stalkers unable or unwilling to confront victims in person may not hesitate to send menacing electronic mail messages. Finally, although there is no research to support or refute the contention that cyberstalking leads to more serious violent relationships, recent incidents investigated by representatives of the media and reports from law enforcement agencies underscore the potential for dire consequences.
CASES MAKE HEADLINE NEWS. The attorney general's report recounted three of many serious instances of cyberstalking that attracted attention in the media and among policymakers. The first successful prosecution under California's cyberstalking law was in Los Angeles, where a fifty-year-old man stalked a twenty-eight-yearold woman who had refused his advances. He posted her name and telephone number online along with messages saying she wanted to be raped. The Internet posts prompted men to knock on the woman's door, often during the night, in the hopes of fulfilling the fantasy her stalker had posted. In April 1999, the accused pleaded guilty to stalking and solicitation of sexual assault and was sentenced to a six-year prison term.
Another California case involved an honors graduate student at the University of San Diego who entered a guilty plea after sending, over the course of a year, hundreds of violent and menacing e-mail messages to five female university students he had never met. He also faces up to six years in prison. The third case cited in the report was prosecuted in Massachusetts, where a man repeatedly harassed coworkers via e-mail and attempted to extort sexual favors from one of them.
In July 2002, the CBS News program 48 Hours investigated a lethal case of cyberstalking that shocked the nation. In 1999 a twenty-year-old New Hampshire resident named Amy Boyer was killed by a cyberstalker she had met, but never befriended or dated, years earlier in the eighth grade. Unknown to Boyer, her stalker had apparently obsessed over her for years and had constructed a Web site that described his stalking of Boyer and his plans to kill her. He used an investigation service to discover where she worked and ambushed her as she left, shooting her and then killing himself. Boyer's death inspired her parents to speak out and champion anti-cyberstalking laws, which as of July 2002 were in place in twenty states.
Law Enforcement and Cyberstalking
Cyberspace has become a fertile field for illegal activity. By the use of new technology and equipment, which cannot be policed by traditional methods, cyberstalking has replaced traditional methods of stalking and harassment. Because cyberstalking has led to offline incidents of violent crime, police and prosecutors have cooperated to devise strategies to resolve these problems through the criminal justice system."
—Linda Fairstein, chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, Manhattan District Attorney's Office
Cyberstalking presents some unique law enforcement challenges. Offenders are often able to use the anonymity of online communication to avoid detection and accountability for their actions. Appropriate interventions and recourse are unclear because often the stalker and his victim have never been in physical proximity to one another. Complicating the situation, the identity of the stalker may be difficult to determine. In Dallas a judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop an alleged offender from stalking his victim over the Internet. According to an October 1996 article that appeared in the Dallas Morning News, because the alleged stalker's address was unknown, the restraining order was served through e-mail and posted on the Internet.
Furthermore, in many jurisdictions law enforcement agencies are unprepared to investigate cyberstalking cases because they lack the expertise and training. The attorney general's study found that some victims had been advised by law enforcement agents to simply "turn off their computers" or to "come back should the offender confront or threaten them offline."
Finally, some state and local law enforcement agencies are frustrated in their efforts to track down cyberstalkers by the limits of their statutory authority. For example, the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 bars the release of cable subscriber information to law enforcement agencies without advance notice to the subscriber and a court order. Because a growing number of Internet users receive services via cable, the act inadvertently grants those wishing to remain anonymous for purposes of cyberstalking some legal protection from investigation. The attorney general's report called for modifications to the act to include provisions to help law enforcement agents gain access to the identifying information they need while maintaining privacy safeguards for cable customers. "It may be ironic," wrote Spitzberg and Hoobler, "that to combat the risks of cyberstalking, law enforcement may need the very tools of electronic surveillance and intrusion that are currently the source of many citizens' fundamental fears of privacy invasion."