It started with an invitation to dinner. Or perhaps it started with a gift of flowers from an anonymous admirer. Or perhaps it started with the threat, “You can’t leave me, bitch!”

However it started, you now feel uncomfortable every time the phone rings, every time you have to be out alone at night, every time you reach for your mail. He’s out there, somewhere, and his continual unwanted attentions make your skin crawl and your hands clammy.

You never thought it would happen to you, but you are being stalked.

What is stalking?

Generally, a stalker is anyone who engages repeatedly “in a course of conduct that would place a reasonable person in fear for his or her safety, and that the stalker intended, and did, in fact, place the victim in such fear.”

The actual behaviors that stalkers use are as varied as their warped personalities. Some may make unwanted phone calls (pleasant or unpleasant, frequent or occasional, demanding, pleading, questioning, or threatening). Others write letters (which can also run the gamut in frequency and tone). Some use email, on-line chat groups, or other computer aids to harassment. Others physically follow their prey, staying hidden or allowing themselves to be seen. Some vandalize property, or threaten, or kill pets. Less than half make overt threats, but that doesn’t mean they are not dangerous. Virtually ANY behavior can cause the level of fear required to meet most stalking statutes, if it is unwanted and happens repeatedly.

Although a majority of stalking situations last a year or less,, many are longer, and some last for decades!

Why do people do that?

According to John Douglas, former chief of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, profiler, and prolific author, stalkers may be clinically psychotic, or fully functioning, almost normal human beings, indistinguishable from “Mr. Nice Guy”.

Even if able to manage a fairly normal work life, stalkers tend to be lonely people, often socially and/or sexually inept, with strong feelings of inadequacy and insignificance.

Your stalker probably has a robust fantasy life, in which he has cast you as the main role. When you indicate that you do not want any part of a relationship with him, he may become angry.

Like rape, stalking is not about sex, sexual attraction, love, or relationships. It is about controlling and dominating a woman. Period. It makes the stalker feel good to know that he has the power to make you afraid. Period.

What kind of person becomes a stalker?

The National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) says, “Stalking is a gender neutral crime, with both male and female perpetrators and victims. However, most stalkers are men. Best statistics indicate that 75-80% of all stalking cases involve men stalking women. Most tend to fall into the young to middle-aged categories. Most have above-average intelligence. Stalkers come from every walk of life and every socio-economic background. Virtually anyone can be a stalker, just as anyone can be a stalking victim.”

Why did he pick me?

Repeat 10 times: “This is not my fault!” Nobody asks to be stalked, or deserves it. Anyone, absolutely anyone, can suddenly become a stalking victim. You didn’t cause it to happen. You are not at fault.

Be glad you are not a celebrity. The celebrities tend to get the real dangerous crazies as stalkers, while ordinary folk tend to get the less dangerous stalkers.

The NCVC says that about 5% of all women can expect to be the recipient of unwanted, persistent male attention at some time in their life. The Violenve Against Women Grants Office (VAWGO) in the US Department of Justice, using a somewhat looser definition of stalking, estimates that from 8 to 12% of all women can expect to be stalked at some time in their life.

In other words, stalking may well be the most prevalent major crime against women, exceeding both physical assault and rape. Half of all stalking victims are 18-29 years old, but you may be younger, or much older.

You may know your stalker casually or have had a relationship with him in the past. He may be a former husband or boyfriend (whether there was domestic violence in the relationship or not), or someone you’ve rejected for a date, or someone you know casually from work or other activities. Just because you know him doesn’t mean you did something to deserve this kind of treatment. Quite the contrary, because men with personalities that make them try to control women often have a charming social facade, it is easy to be taken in by them at first. Don’t berate yourself, thinking “I should have seen earlier that he was weird.” He probably wasn’t weird earlier, and there was nothing for you to pick up on. Concentrate instead on what you can do now.

How much danger am I in?

This is the all-important question, and unfortunately it is quite difficult to answer. There are two major types of stalkers, and several stages of activity that stalkers tend to go through, though it is important to remember that stalkers can change their behavior rapidly.

Let’s go through the types and activities of stalkers, and then come back to the question of danger.

What kinds of stalkers are there?

Although stalking behavior has probably existed for as long as there have been human beings, the study of stalking as a specific, illegal act is quite new, so there isn’t total agreement yet on how to classify various types of stalkers. (Compare this to the crime of rape, which has been so well studied that the popular police reference Crime Classification Manual details more than 50 different kinds of rapes and rapists.)

The federal Department of Justice established a Violence Against Women (VAWGO) program area dealing, and every year (3 so far) a report is sent to Congress summarizing what is currently known about such crimes as domestic violence and stalking, and efforts to reduce them.

VAWGO classifies stalkers into three categories:

1. Intimate or former intimate stalking, where the stalker and victim have some history of sexual partnership, however lengthy or brief. The stalker may be your husband, your ex-boyfriend, or the fellow who figured in an unfortunate one night stand. Some stalkers in this category have well-established patterns of domestic violence, some do not. If your partner is violent, you will be at increased risk when you separate from him!

2. Acquaintance stalking, where the stalker knows the victim casually, but they have not been sexual partners. The stalker may be your coworker, your mail carrier, the bagger in your grocery store, or someone you dated a few times.

3. Stranger stalking, where the stalker and victim do not know one another at all. Victims in this category are often famous — movie stars, local television personalities, politicians, or other public figures.

John Douglas has a different classification of stalkers into just two types, Love Obsession stalkers (who develop a love obsession or fixation on a person with who they have little or no personal relationship), and Simple Obsession stalkers (who had some previous personal or romantic relationship with the victim before the stalking began).

Simple Obsession stalkers account for up to 80% of stalking cases, so this is the type of situation you are likely to be involved in. This kind of stalker has a strong need to boost his fragile self-esteem by controlling and dominating others, especially you. Especially if your stalker has a history of violence or anti-social behavior, he may become extremely dangerous. This is true whether or not he has a criminal record.

Love Obsession stalkers account for only 20-25% of stalking cases, but celebrities attract this type a lot more than us ordinary folk. They may be “attachment seekers” wanting to form a relationship with a famous person, “rejection based” folk who are looking for revenge for their perceived rejection by the star, or “delusion based” stalkers who think some force (God, or the voices they hear) is leading them to their goal. Rejection based and delusion based stalkers tend to be the most unpredictable and dangerous.. Be glad you are not a celebrity.

What are the stages of stalking?

Douglas says that stalkers tend to go through 3 major stages of activity.

1. The early stage consists of behavior that may seem a lot like wooing. He may ask you out nicely, send you flowers, give you gifts, and so on. Depending on his level of social sophistication, these efforts may be more or less “normal”, but the main characteristic that distinguishes this from normal behavior is his refusal to hear you say “No.” At this stage, you may still be wondering whether what you are experiencing is truly stalking, but take it seriously, because it is easier to deter him at this stage than later.

2. In this stage, he may switch to intimidation to try to get what he wants. He may exhibit jealousy toward other people in your life. His letters, calls, and “gifts” may start to take on a dark, uncomfortable tinge.

3. As he grows more frustrated by your actions, he may step up the harassment, and may start to issue very explicit threats of violence. At this point, it is absolutely impossible to “negotiate” with him; don’t even try. When you act to get rid of him at this stage, he may see it as his last chance to assert control over you, and he may become violent.

Douglas says, “The pace at which the offender’s emotional dependence blossoms into full-blown obsession can take anywhere from years down to weeks – or even just a few dates. And dangerousness can escalate remarkably quickly.”

Remember that not all stalkers go through these phases. Women have been stalked for years, decades, in fact, without getting into any situations of extreme danger.

So, how much danger am I in?

Every case is different, but, very simply, if you know your stalker and, based on his prior actions with you, you think you are in danger from him, you probably are! If you don’t know your stalker, but his actions are frightening you, get some professional help evaluating your level of danger!

According to VAWGO, around 25-30% of stalkers become violent. Those most likely to be violent are those who have had an intimate relationship with the victim, those who have a history of violent behavior, and Stranger Stalkers who mental disturbances include delusions and other extremely abnormal characteristics.

What can I do?

Nothing can absolutely guarantee your safety, but here are some things that most experts agree will increase your safety:

Don’t interact with him. At all. Ever! Get an answering machine (with a male voice on the answering message) and let it screen your calls even when you are home.

Don’t try to reason with him – it won’t work, and it will be rewarding him for his persistence.

Keep detailed records of all contacts and attempted contacts, detailing date, time, and what happened. Remember, this document may appear in court someday. Take photos of destroyed property, perishable gifts, your injuries (if he hurts you), and anything else you can’t keep. Get a lot of answering machine tapes — they are inexpensive — and save ones with his messages on them. Keep copies of harassing email messages in both digital and hard copy. Keep all of this documentation in a place that is safe from theft, such as a safe deposit box.

Treat any and all threats as serious, and report them to the police, every time, even if the police don’t seem very interested.

Get an unlisted phone number, and give it out to only a few trusted friends. Another good tip from the NCVC is to use a “dummy” answering machine connected to your published phone line, and establish a private unpublished line for close friends and family — the stalker may not realize you have another line.

Get a cell phone small enough to carry with you everywhere. There are some very inexpensive calling plans if you are going to use the phone only in an emergency.

Keep as full a tank of gas as possible in the car.

Find local experienced resources to help you deal with this problem. Don’t think you can do it alone. Also tell your family, friends, and employer what is going on, so they can help to watch out for you.

Make a contingency plan for what to do if things suddenly get very, very bad. The NCVC suggests a) knowledge of, and quick access to, critical telephone numbers, including: Law enforcement numbers and locations; Safe places (such as friends, domestic violence shelters, etc.); and Contact numbers for use after safety is secured (such as neighbors/family, attorneys, prosecutors, medical care, child care, pet care, etc.). b) Accessible reserve of necessities, including: Victims may wish to keep a small packed suitcase in the trunk of their car, or at another readily accessible location, for quick departure; Reserve money may be necessary; Other necessities — such as creditors’ numbers and personal welfare items such as medication, birth certificates, social security information, passports, etc. — should be readily available;

To that list I would add:

Have a qualified person examine your living space and recommend changes, such as new locks (particularly if there is ANY chance the old keys might have been compromised), deadbolts, window locks, outdoor lighting, a security system, timers on lights, and so on.

Vary your travel times and routes. Watch your rear view mirror to see whether you are being followed. Make a contingency plan about what you would do if you were harassed on the road (for example, don’t stop or get out of the car, know the location of police and other safe areas to drive to).

If your stalker is using email to harass you, work with your Internet service provider to stop him. Change providers if necessary, but check the privacy policies of the provider before signing up.

Be careful posting to Usenet newsgroups; much personal information can be obtained from the archives of Usenet postings. Don’t create an on-line biography which is available for other users to screen, and use a gender-neutral on-line ID.

Talk with a local legal expert about what constitutes stalking where you live, and what your legal options are. To find someone who is truly knowledgeable and up to date (laws change fast), try getting referrals through local women’s shelters or other women’s organizations.

Get training in physical defensive tactics and other self-defense skills, such as pepper spray and firearms.

If you choose to arm yourself with a gun — 17% of stalking victims do make that choice — be SURE you also acquire the requisite level of skill and judgment training from an appropriate source.

Should I move, or change jobs?

Experts vary on this one. Some advise staying put, as moving is expensive and time consuming, and no guarantee he won’t find you again, particularly if you keep the same job. If the stalker knows your home, but not your work, moving might be a good choice, but if you do, be sure to get lots of help on how to avoid leaving a paper trail for him to follow. Did you know that if someone is using your social security number to harass you, you can ask for a new SSN to be issued?

If you move, don’t leave the post office with a mail forwarding order (advise all of your organizations of the change yourself), do get copies of your medical records to avoid leaks, and do get a post office box at your new location; use only the PO Box address on your checks and for all your correspondence.

What will the police do?

Sadly, the VAWGO survey showed that fully half of stalking victims are dissatisfied with the way their cases were handled by the police.

This DOESN’T mean that you should not go to the police, just that you should be prepared to educate them, if need be, about why this is a serious crime. Many stalking victims attribute the successful resolution of their stalking problem to informal police actions, such as warnings, rather than to arrest and prosecution. So, try to convince the police to assist you early, as well as to arrest your stalker if he violates a restraining order. Prosecutions of stalkers are rare, as the criminal justice system seems not to have yet figured out how to handle these cases effectively.

What about a restraining order?

Experts are divided on this question. For some stalkers, a restraining order is a strong reminder that they face arrest and prosecution if they don’t stop bothering you. Stalkers who are on the mild end of the obsession scale and who have a lot to lose (job, family, social status, etc.) may be most likely to respond well to restraining orders. But for stalkers who are extremely angry, “crazy”, or obsessed, the restraining order may be the trigger that pushes him to a higher level of activity, or even to violence.

Unquestionably, a restraining order is valuable in that it gets the criminal justice process started, and usually makes it easier for police to intervene on your behalf.

Get advice from several knowledgeable sources before deciding whether a restraining order is likely to be more helpful than harmful. If you decide to get one, local women’s groups and victim witness advocates (sometimes associated with the district attorney’s office, or the local police) can tell you what fees if any are involved, and can help you through the process of obtaining it.

If you get such a court order, expect him to violate it (nearly 70% of stalkers do). Keep a copy of the court order with you at all times to show the police, if necessary. Most jurisdictions don’t have any way for police to know who has a restraining order out against whom. If you are getting good cooperation from the police, be sure to let them know that you have a court order.

It’s Not Fair!!

John Douglas is quite direct: “For the victim to improve her situation, she must change her behavior.”

The Anti-Stalking website says it, too: “Stalking victims don’t like to be called victims. They will say, “I won’t let myself be victimized,” or “I’m not going to change my life because I’m being stalked.” Sorry. Your life has changed. Forever. And unless you accept that, you will actually be helping the stalker. You are a crime victim. The crime happens to be stalking.”

Yes, it is unfair for you to have to go to all of this trouble. Welcome to the real world. Yes, he should be locked up, but he probably won’t be (and if you get him locked up, be sure to find out when he is up for parole, as he may pick up right where he left off).

No, you can’t count on police, courts, restraining orders, employers, security personnel, or anyone else to protect you completely (though you should take full advantage of all of those people and organizations as part of your personal protection plan).

You will feel better, and you will be safer, if you take control of your own safety, and take positive steps to protect yourself.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns Mar-Apr. 1999, Copyright © 1999, Lyn Bates