Since the behavior of stalking was criminalized in California in 1990, we have seen literature on the topic bolstered by dozens of new studies each year. Although definitions of the crime vary, there seems to be a legal consensus that three elements are necessary: an intentional activity, a threat, and the induction of fear in the victim.
The paradox of stalking is best understood as a behavioral expression of attachment pathology: both insecure, and often more specifically, preoccupied. Numerous studies have tested and confirmed that attachment styles were related to jealousy, following surveillance and separation behaviors. For example, college students with insecure attachments as children were more likely to condone behaviors indicative of celebrity stalking. Most salient to the attachment issue is the discovery in a small sample of incarcerated stalkers that the majority had lost a primary caretaker in childhood and had a significant personal loss in the seven months preceding the onset of their behavior.
Large-scale representative studies across three continents indicate that 2-13% of males and 8-32% of females will be victimized by stalking at some point in their adult lives. Females are more likely to be targeted; in half the cases the perpetrator will be a prior sexual intimate of the victim. The average duration of stalking is almost two years, but the modal duration is one month. Most have known their victims in some capacity before the behavior begins.
Adult stalkers are typically males in their fourth decade of life with a variety of psychiatric, criminal, and drug abuse problems. The majority in clinical and forensic settings have both Axis I mental disorders and Axis II personality disorders, demanding a careful and comprehensive evaluation of each case to discern the best approach to treatment and risk management. Psychotic stalkers represent a minority of cases and they are significantly more prevalent when the object of pursuit is a complete stranger. A recent study of 1,005 North American stalkers drawn from prosecutorial, law enforcement and corporate security files found that half had a psychiatric diagnosis and one out of seven were psychotic at the time of the behavior.
Although there is only one theoretical article on the neurobiology of stalking, a few FMRI studies of romantic love suggest that heightened activity of subcortical dopaminergic pathways in combination with low activity of serotonin may biologically support the stalker’s focused attention, increased energy, dysphoria, following behaviors, obsessiveness, and impulsivity toward the victim. The psychosocial and psychodynamic aspects – social incompetence, social isolation and loneliness, obsessional cognitions, pathological narcissism, and aggression are also likely to have neurobiological substrates.
One third of all cases involve physical violence toward the object of pursuit. This is a disturbingly high frequency of violence for any clinical or forensic sample, but is overshadowed by the remarkable finding that the majority of prior sexually intimate stalkers will be physically violent toward their victim in the course of stalking her. This is likely an impulsive response to the emotional upheaval that accompanies a severe attachment disruption where actual intimacy had previously existed. Stalking has also been closely linked to behaviors during an intimate relationship, including domestic violence, jealousy, and domination of the partner.
The crime may be trivialized by both police and prosecutorial agencies, most crassly captured in the words of a prosecutor in the US, “no blood, no crime.” These views tend to reinforce the hesitancy of stalking victims to report to the police. Reporting occurs in only half the cases. They belie the fact that more than one third of stalking victims will incur a psychiatric diagnosis that will persist long after the stalking has ceased. This is not the end of it. Many victims will have their personal and professional lives severely disrupted. In one study, almost one third of psychologists who had been stalked considered leaving their profession.
Directions for the future
The most difficult work, of course, lies ahead: What is the nature of cyberstalking? How do we investigate the psychodynamics involved? Is there a neurobiology of stalking that may be mitigated through the use of existing psychopharmacological interventions? Why are most stalkers in their fourth decade of life, wherein most violent crime occurs in males a decade younger? Is there sufficient empirical evidence to mandate psychiatric treatment for all those convicted of the crime? The questions are many. Research groups across several continents are progressing toward answers.