Last updated January 18, 2019

Stalking is a pattern of harassing or threatening behaviors. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) defines stalking as “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others or suffer substantial emotional distress.”[1] In a 2012 report, the DOJ provided the following list as examples of stalking behavior:

  • making unwanted phone calls
  • sending unsolicited or unwanted letters or e-mails
  • following or spying on the victim,
  • showing up at places without a legitimate reason
  • waiting at places for the victim
  • leaving unwanted items, presents, or flowers
  • posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth

Other behaviors that can qualify as stalking include, but are not limited to, interfering with the victim’s property, taking the victim’s property, collecting information on the victim, or taking pictures of the victim.

Naming these behaviors as “stalking” is useful in a number of ways. First, it acknowledges that the stalking itself, and not just a subsequent physical assault, is a form of violence. The offender is taking specific actions, such as calling or appearing at a place of work, that are designed to intimidate and coerce his former partner. Second, the term “stalking” identifies a pattern of behaviors that often leads to serious or fatal attacks. Identifying the pattern of behaviors can therefore be useful in taking steps to prevent an assault. Third, naming this pattern of behaviors helps to convey the seriousness of these behaviors. Individually, the acts that constitute stalking, such as telephone calls, may appear to be relatively innocent. Taken together, however, they indicate the presence of a severe threat to the victim. Stalking may lead to abuse or death, and thus should be taken seriously by authorities and quickly addressed.

Rates of Stalking in the U.S.

7.5 million people are victims of stalking every year in the United States.[2] There are certain visible, though not universal, trends in reported instances of stalking. Whereas the majority of stalkers are male, the majority of victims are female. Although stalking of strangers does occur, in the vast majority of cases, the stalker and victim know each other. More than 80% of women who have been stalked in the U.S. knew their stalker. This number includes the nearly 25% of women who were stalked by an acquaintance and 6% who were stalked by a family member.[3]

Stalking can be characterized as a form of domestic violence, as it may also be motivated by power and control. Stalkers and their victims are often current or former intimate partners. In the U.S., over 60% of women who have been stalked reported their stalker was a current or former intimate partner.[4] Male stalkers who target former intimate partners are likely than others to become violent. The most well-known study on rates of femicide and stalking by an intimate partner found that 76% of women murdered by an intimate partner had been stalked within a year of their murder. Additionally, 85% of women who had survived attempted murder at the hands of former or current intimate partners.[5]

A 2014 report by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that a majority of women who have been such victims were first stalked before they were 25 years old. An alarming 16.3% of women were stalked before they turned 18. In another study, more than one third of 14–21 year olds reported engaging in at least one stalking-like behavior—including hyper-intimacy, following, intrusive pursuit, aggression, threats, and surveillance. Around 1 in 6 persons reported engaging in two or more stalking-like behaviors.

Mental Health Consequences of Stalking

In addition to the risk of escalation to physical violence and homicide, stalking can have numerous negative effects on a victim’s mental health. Victims of stalking experience higher rates of PTSD, psychological distress, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Further, stalking victims report experiencing higher levels of significant fear, including fears that their stalker “would physically or sexually assault them, harass them and their loved ones, threaten their children, cause financial problems, or humiliate them publicly.”[6]

[1] Stalking, Office on Violence Against Women, DOJ (last updated July 23, 2018),

[2] National Center for Victims of Crime, Stalking Fact Sheet (2015).

[3] Matthew J. Breiding et al, CDC, Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization — National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011 (2014), at 9,

[4] Id.

[5] Judith M. McFarlane et al, Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide, 3 Homicide Studies 300, 311 (1999).

[6] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 2014 Report to Congress Grant Funds Used to Address Stalking (Jan. 2017), at 4,