Stalking in America

Stalking is a violent crime that has terrorized countless women for years, yet only recently has the criminal justice system and the public recognized stalking as a distinct crime.  Beyond highly publicized cases involving celebrities and political leaders, there is still little understanding of stalking and how it affects “ordinary” people.  The national Violence Against Women (NVAW) survey reports that an estimated 1,376,000 men and women are stalked annually in the United States.[1]

Women are the primary victims of stalking (78 percent) and men are the primary perpetrators (87 percent). [2] In contrast to highly publicized cases, the majority of stalkers know their victims; only 23 percent of all female victims are stalked by strangers.[3]

Stalking most often occurs within the context of domestic violence.  Many criminal justice practitioners now advise that every domestic violence case should be treated as a potential stalking case.  The NVAW survey found that 59 percent of female victims were stalked by current or former intimate partners. [4] The survey also revealed that intimates who stalk their partners are also more likely to physically and sexually assault their victims before the termination of the relationship.[5]

There are numerous cases in which stalking is a precursor to homicide.  A recent study of the relationship between stalking and intimate partner homicide found that 76 percent of cases in which female victims were murdered and 85 percent of cases of attempted murder of a female partner involved at least one incident of stalking within one year of the murder. [6] Victims in 69 percent of female homicide cases were stalked while in a relationship with their stalker, and 88 percent of victims were stalked after the relationship ended.[7]

Stalkers may be charged under a variety of traditional criminal statutes, including harassment, battery, trespass, violation of orders of protection, forcible entry, or assault laws.  Anti-stalking laws afford law enforcement the rare opportunity to intervene in cases before those cases escalate to more violent or even lethal tragedies.  The persistence and potential lethality of talking behavior have become primary considerations in shaping strategies and protocols for investigating and prosecuting such cases.  Everyone involved in systemic response, from police dispatchers to prosecutors to judges, must come to understand the complexity of stalking and know how to intervene effectively through a victim-centered approach.  A primary goal of any intervention is safety for the victim

[1] Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, “Stalking in America:  Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey,” National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington, D.C. (1998).  Editor’s note:  While victims and offenders of sexual assault are both women and men, the vast majority of victims are female and offenders are male (see Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, above).  For this reason as well as for consistency of style, this webpage refers to victims as women and offenders as men.