What is stalking?

Defining stalking

There are many assumptions about stalking, stalkers and victims. If you were to ask, “what is stalking?”, some people would probably answer along the lines of a mysterious figure clouded in darkness hiding in the shadows. However, this stereotype is rarely a reality.

Many of the clients that we support through our service are unsure themselves as to what stalking is and whether they are being affected – and they are not alone in their confusion. Despite stalking having been made a criminal offence in 2012, stalking does not have a legal definition.

However, the following working definition has been agreed, adopted by most practitioners and academics in the field. This ranges from police and criminal justice system agencies, to voluntary and charitable organisations supporting victims and working with perpetrators across the country. The purpose of the following definition to improve understanding of what stalking is:

“a pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour, which is unwanted, repeated,persistent and intrusive and causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim.”

stalking acronym four sussex

For some, the different elements within this definition immediately speak to them and they can recognise these behaviours as something that they have experienced. For others, the meaning can get lost in the words. Helpfully, however, during National Stalking Awareness Week 2019, the College of Policing introduced the acronym FOUR to make the main characteristics of stalking more visible to everyone.

The context in which this problem behaviour is displayed is of paramount importance so, it is essential to consider these elements by thinking about the following questions:

  • Have there been two or more occasions of unnecessary, unwanted contact in the last six months?
  • Do you think that the perpetrator knows that the contact is unwanted? If they don’t, do you think that another person with the same information would have thought that the contact is unwanted?
  • Are you receiving numerous, unwanted messages, calls, contact requests on social media? This can be directly, through third parties or fake accounts?
  • Are they seeking physical proximity to you?
  • Have they been in contact with third parties linked to you? Either seeking information about your activities and routines, or making false complaints and allegations?

How common is stalking?

In the National Crime Survey 2018, the Office for National Statistics estimated that “between April 2016 and March 2017, in excess of 21 million people in the UK experienced stalking.” When looking at Sussex, a 2019 examination found that reports of stalking have increased exponentially. A HMRC inspection found that Sussex Police had recorded a 98% increase in stalking between September 2017 to 2018, rising from 621 incidents to 1,228. Although this is the second highest rate of stalking in England and Wales, this actually mirrors a national trend. Overall, stalking has risen by 108% across the country. Although this can sound daunting, this does not necessarily mean that stalking itself is on the rise – this figure is more likely showing that people are more aware of stalking and are therefore reporting it more frequently. Additionally, it appears the police are also getting stronger at identifying and recording stalking correctly.

However, similar to many other interpersonal and intimate crimes such as domestic violence and rape, the ‘dark figure’ of stalking is estimated to be very high. This is due to a variety of reasons, notably the increase in online and cyber enabled abuse. For example, many people do not actually realise that they are being stalked – in the modern world, receiving numerous unwanted text messages or friend requests has been normalised and may not always be recognised as stalking. Other reasons for victims not reporting stalking can include fear of repercussions, shame or embarrassment, not wanting to get the perpetrator in trouble, distrust in the Criminal Justice System and more. Research conducted by Lorraine Sheridan (2005) revealed that on average, victims experience 100 incidents of stalking before they first report it – a trend that continues to be reflected by national figures.

Overall, it is clear that no one knows an exact figure for how common stalking is. What we do know, however, is that in an increasingly toxic and cyber saturated society, we can expect the number of stalking victims coming forward to rise.

Who are the victims?

Stalking does not discriminate; it is possible for anyone to be victimised. Although women are recorded more frequently as victims of stalking, men are unquestionable also victimised in this way. Despite this assumption that only women are targeted, stalking remains invasive, scary and life changing no matter your gender.

Similarly, you can be affected regardless of your age, ethnicity and sexuality.

Who are the stalkers?

The simple answer is ANYONE – there is no one type of stalker. Despite stereotypes, stalkers can be any gender, age, ethnicity or sexuality. Although stalkers are frequently portrayed as strangers that have become obsessed a victim – such as in the media, or in dramas such as ‘You’ – according to official statistics the most common stalker profile is actually ex-intimate partners. The many misconceptions about stalkers and their victims means that stalking behaviours are often not identified in the early stages. Resultantly, victims suffer in silence for a long time before reaching out for help.

Research suggests that although stalkers are a heterogeneous group, they can be broadly categorised depending on their motivations. These motivations and the risks attached should be assessed by a trained professional. You can find more information on the stalker typologies in the next blog. The most important aspect of stalking behaviour to highlight at this point is that it should not be normalised, tolerated or accepted from anyone.

Stalking is a problem behaviour that is experienced by 1 in 5 women and 1 in 12 men during their lifetime. This can be the result of a variety of relationships or situations. The list below is not exhaustive, but it can offer an idea of how diverse stalker-victim relationships are:

  • Former partner,
  • Previous ‘fling’,
  • Former partner’s new partner,
  • Parent,
  • Child,
  • Neighbour,
  • Colleague,
  • Employer,
  • Employee,
  • Client,
  • Acquaintance,
  • Friend,
  • Stranger.

It is important to remember is that stalking is unacceptable. No matter who the perpetrator is, you do not have to suffer in silence. Help is available – see our website for details of where to get help in your local area.

This is what it’s like to be stalked for 10 years | ITV News

What are the dangers of stalking?

Stalking is problematic and can be dangerous for many reasons. These risks range from psychological to physical. Often the emotional impact of stalking is overlooked, however this must not be underestimated.

The risks associated with stalking can quickly escalate to physical harm if left unchecked. Although rare, the tragic murder of Shana Grice exemplifies the dire consequences that can occur when stalking is not appropriately responded to. In fact, Jane Monckton-Smith’s research found that stalking is present in 94% of ex-intimate partner homicides. Positively, recent research, the ‘Homicide Timeline’, has highlighted that tragedies like this are preventable – but this is only possible if stalking is treated with the priority status that it deserves.

Shana Grice murder: Michael Lane harassed 12 women before killing ex

Stalking legislation

Stalking became a criminal offence on 25th November 2012, introducing two offences amending the Protection from Harassment Act 1997:

  • Section 2(A): pursuing a course of contact that amounts to stalking.
  • Section 4(A): a course of conduct causing someone to fear violence or to cause serious alarm and distress that has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities.

This acknowledgment was greatly welcomed by survivors, with their experiences finally being validated in the eyes of the law. Not only was this significant on an emotional level, but such legislation allowed for greater legal protection for victims and opened the opportunity to discuss and device treatments for perpetrators. In England and Wales, perpetrators convicted of Stalking can receive custodial sentences of up to 10 years, other initiatives and legislation has also been developed, i.e. stalking protection orders to afford more options to the criminal justice system to ensure victims and their families are safe.

What to do if you think you are being stalked?

Don’t keep it to yourself! Talking to someone is always the first and most important step. If you believe that you are being stalked, report it on 101 or online. If you are in imminent danger, call 999 immediately.

We can offer support and advice whether or not you have reported to the police. Our service is independent, free and confidential, with specially trained advocates to discuss your situation. If you would like to know more, discuss your case further or get some advice, you can check our website for further details. However, if this step still feels too daunting, we recommend that you talk with a trusted individual, such as friends, family or a GP.

national stalking awareness week 2024