Stalking or, as the Criminal Code defines it, “criminal harassment” is a crime that affects the quality of life of its victims and their families. There are two general types of stalkers: those who are obsessed with a stranger and those who are obsessed with someone they know. Most stalking occurs in the context of established or past relationships such as dating and married couples, friendships, or workplace relationships. Many stalkers know their victims and try to control them. They may have been in romantic relationships that ended and left the stalker feeling wronged or mistreated. Stalkers obsessed with strangers may believe their behaviour will eventually lead the victim to fall in love with them. Some hold delusions that their victims passionately love them but cannot show it because of some external influence.

What Is Stalking?

There are varying perceptions of what constitutes stalking. Some believe that any harassing behaviour constitutes stalking, others believe that the behaviour must be threatening for it to be defined as stalking. Some believe that stalking is based solely on infatuation, others believe it has nothing to do with sexual attraction but rather power and control. Some definitions of stalking include:

“Generally it consists of repeated conduct that is carried out over a period of time and which causes you to reasonably fear for your safety or the safety of someone known to you” (RCMP, 2007).

“The Bureau of Justice Statistics defined stalking as a course of conduct, directed at a specific person on at least two separate occasions, that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009).

Characteristics of Stalking Behaviour

All victims of stalking report multiple forms of harassment, with a trademark of the behaviour being that it can continue for years. A 1997 article from the British Journal of Psychiatry separates harassment into two general types: intrusions and communications – “The intrusions can involve following, loitering nearby, maintaining surveillance, and making approaches; the communications can be through letters, the telephone, e-mail, graffiti, or a note attached, for example, to the victim’s car.” Stalking behaviour can range from “surveillance” type behaviour to harassing behaviour to threatening behaviour to aggressive or violent acts:

  • Making repeated unwanted calls to another person
  • Leaving harassing or threatening messages
  • Visiting another person’s workplace without reason
  • Following someone by any means of transportation
  • Making rude or obscene gestures to another person
  • Repeatedly driving by a person’s house or workplace
  • Damaging property belonging to another person
  • Making threats of what will occur unless a relationship is resumed, e.g. suicide
  • Making threats of harm to the victim or someone close to them
  • Leaving unwanted gifts
  • Watching a person, their home or their workplace
  • Repeatedly visiting, following, calling, or writing to a person, either directly or indirectly
  • Making contact with someone’s neighbours or co-workers
  • Grabbing, kidnapping
  • Aggressive or violent acts

The activity listed above can occur in relatively normal relationships between individuals. Some of these acts alone cannot constitute stalking but when done together they do, as there is a cumulative effect. While this repeated pursuit of an individual resulting in the disruption of their personal life can, and does, occur in situations where there was no prior intimate relationship, the majority of stalking relates to failed intimate relationships. The romantic relationship may have ended to the dismay of the perpetrator and stalking may be an attempt to seek revenge or to win the partner back. Women are at higher risk of being the focus of repeated, unwanted attention and harassment from her former partner. Often in these types of situations the woman has ended the relationship because of abuse. It is a rather sick irony that it is when the woman leaves an abusive relationship to stop the cycle of violence that she is the most vulnerable to extreme acts of violence. Ruth Micklen, director of Virginians Against Domestic Violence, estimates that as many as 90% of women murdered by boyfriends or husbands have been stalked prior to their deaths (Stalking Behaviour and the Cycle of Violence, 1997). Not only are the women from these relationships in great danger of injury or death but, in many cases, innocent parties and the target’s circle of friends and associates can become victims of the stalker’s behaviour.

Prevalence of Stalking

Stalking is not rare in North America. In 2009, the Statistics Canada Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics conducted a survey on Criminal Harassment which revealed that over 20,000 cases of stalking were reported across Canada (a 7% increase from 2008) and that three quarters of the victims were female.

  • 59 Canadians per 100,000 reported a criminal harassment incident to the police. The rates are highest in the eastern provinces, while the western provinces are less severe.
  • A Family Violence study conducted in 2005 revealed that the most common form of criminal harassment reported to police involves obscene phone calls to female victims.
  • The majority of stalking victims know their stalker.
  • Female victims stalked by ex partners were more likely to experience physical violence compared to stranger or acquaintance stalking.
  • A 2008 study found that stalking and uttering threats make up large percentage of crime in Québec.
  • A survey conducted in 2004 found that 80% of stalkers were men and 62% of victims were women. The same survey reported that as age increases, the risk of being stalked decreases. Rates among Aboriginal peoples are double those of non-Aboriginal people.

Who Is A Stalker?

A stalker may be a former friend, lover or spouse, an acquaintance, or someone you have never met. They are not necessarily outcasts; some are well-dressed and groomed with a university education and a solid career. Many do, however, have a psychological disorder of some kind such as a personality disorder or severe mental illness. There are celebrity stalkers such as those that killed John Lennon and Rebecca Schaeffer. Other celebrities targeted by stalkers include Steven Spielberg, whose stalker fantasized about raping him and had discovered his address by buying a $4.50 tourist map of star’s homes, Madonna, whose stalker was an obsessed fan that overwhelmed the singer and tried to get into her home, and David Letterman, whose stalker was a woman who invaded his home on at least 6 occasions but committed nonviolent acts such as eating food from his kitchen. Public figures are among the most easily targeted for stalking, their stalkers dreaming of making contact with them.

Much more common are stalkers that target ordinary victims. Some investigations have begun to differentiate types of stalkers according to the presence or absence of delusions and the types of delusions. Others have begun to differentiate between domestic and non-domestic stalkers.

Domestic Stalkers

For these stalkers there is a historical relationship between the offender and the victim. They are typically of the non-delusional type, that is, although their behaviour reflects an abnormal and disturbed personality, it does not necessarily indicate a detachment from reality. The domestic stalker is initially motivated by a desire to continue or re-establish a relationship but can evolve into an attitude of “if I can’t have her, no one can”. In cases of domestic stalking, researchers find a history of prior abuse or conflict between the stalker and his target. Thus, these stalkers are seen by some as posing a more significant risk – the domestic stalking case often culminating in a violent attack directed at the target. Harassment really has little or nothing to do with love. There are a variety of psychological factors that cause an individual to stalk someone. However, the need for control and power to create fear in another are two main factors that fuel this criminal behaviour.

Non-domestic Stalkers

There is usually no actual relationship. Rather, a relationship exists only in the mind of the offender. In the case of the delusional stalker, the stalker, “can be motivated by fantasies or voices directing him or her to target a particular individual”, and, “the stalker almost always surveils or physically stalks the target preceding the encounter with the target” (A Typology of Interpersonal Stalking, 1996).

In between the stalkers that have had a historical relationship with the victim, and the stalkers that have had no prior relationship with their victim, are another kind of stalkers with whom, “the offender may have dated his target once, twice, or not at all; the target may have only smiled and said “hello” in passing or may in some way be socially or vocationally acquainted” (A Typology of Interpersonal Stalking). The victim may have crossed paths with the stalker, but most likely without noticing them. The stalker targets and communicates with the victim through hang-ups, obscene or harassing phone calls, or unsigned letters. The manner of communication may progress from declarations of admiration, to declarations of love, to annoyance at not being able to make personal contact, to eventually threatening or terrorizing behaviour. Although anyone can be a victim of stalking, Statistics Canada data show that approximately 8 out of 10 victims are women and 9 out of 10 stalkers are men.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Threat Management Unit developed a typology of stalkers that is used as a theoretical framework in threat assessments done by the Behavioural Sciences Branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as the Behavioural Sciences Section of the Ontario Provincial Police. This typology proposes three types of stalking behaviour: simple obsessional, love obsessional and erotomanic stalker. The simple obsessional stalker is essentially an intimate partner stalker; most of these stalkers have been in some sort of relationship with the victim – the contact may have been minimal but usually it is more prolonged. The stalker refuses to acknowledge or admit the relationship is over and attempts to either get revenge or convince or coerce the victim back into the relationship. Most simple obsessional stalkers are not mentally ill but many have personality disorders. They are highly obsessive and, as psychologists D.A. Andrews and James Bonta suggest in The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, are likely to have an antisocial personality disorder (APD) but their personalities are more likely to be characterized by an obsessive-delusional disorder. Research done by the Department of Justice Canada found that of 601 cases examined 91% of the accused were male and 88% of the victims were female. The love obsessional stalker can be obsessed out of their love for the victim without believing that the victim loves them back. These stalkers usually suffer from a major psychiatric illness such as schizophrenia or mania and want to “win” the love of the victim. The erotomanic stalker is convinced that their victim, usually someone of the opposite sex, loves them passionately and would return the affection if it were not for some external influence. The victim is usually put on a pedestal by the stalker.

Stalking is an ongoing and usually long-term crime. As stalking can go on for weeks, months or even years, the question of how likely is it that stalkers will become violent is long and nagging. Due to the unpredictability of stalkers and their behaviour, that question is nearly impossible to answer. In order to assess that risk, you should contact the police for help. Less than 1% of stalking cases involve injury to the victim but when it is a continuation of a family violence situation the risk is greater.

Effects of Stalking On the Victim

“Do you know what it is like to be watched, followed, your every move monitored? Do you know what it is like to hear the phone ring and hope that there is someone at the other end and not just dead silence? This happens at home, so you have your phone number changed to an unlisted number – but it continues to happen to other family members and friends when you are there and at work and not just once a day but anywhere from four times a day to as many as fifteen times a day.

Do you know what it feels like to see headlights in your rear view mirror and have fear grip you or to hear footsteps behind you and be apprehensive about turning around to see who it is?

Have you ever had a sick sensation just from the familiar smell of a man’s cologne?

Do you know what is like to be afraid to have your window blinds or curtains open or to have a male friend over because you just never know who is watching you?” (Letter from Victim of Stalker, 1992)

Stalking is a serious offence and a crime with major mental health consequences for the victim, which is often poorly understood by society. Just as with any victimization, there are psychological (e.g. lowered self-concept, distrust), emotional (e.g. fear, anxiety), behavioural (e.g. sleeplessness, loss of appetite), and physical effects. Although relatively little is known about the resulting symptoms of stalking, research does suggest that many victims become more distrustful of relationships in general, significantly alter their lifestyle, and experience various degrees of heightened stress, anxiety, paranoia, and fear.

In an excellent study conducted in Britain in 1997, Michele Pathe and Paul E. Mullen outline the effects stalking can have upon the victim:

  • Most report major lifestyle changes
  • Victims describe becoming wary drivers, constantly checking their rear view mirror, pulling over to allow cars to pass, and driving home by varied routes
  • Some forbid their children to answer the door or the telephone
  • Stalking often prompts additional security measures – obtaining unlisted phone numbers, some even change their car or their surname, some install elaborate security systems, buy guard dogs, take self-defence courses, or obtain weapons
  • Many victims limit their social outings and many lose contact with friends as a consequence
  • School or work performance is greatly diminished
  • Some victims move
  • A deterioration in physical and/or mental health
  • Heightened anxiety, sleep disturbance, loss of appetite
  • Some report flashbacks (can be caused by a knock at the door or the phone ringing, or by people whose appearance or voice resembles the stalker)
  • Some report post-traumatic stress symptoms

While not all victims of stalking experience physical harm, all stalking victims are at risk. As one victim of stalking reports,

“As a stalked woman I know the mental anguish that the constant fear brings. Maybe this man will never hurt me physically – Maybe? My children worry about me. They look after me as though I am the child and they are the parent. They panic if I’m not where I am supposed to be. I have seen this man do some very violent acts – like pointing a gun at a neighbour, or trying to run other drivers off the road – all because they did something that he did not like. It’s scary – he says he loves me and that no man will ever have me. Stalkers have only one goal in mind and that is to fulfill their objective of gaining the affections of and controlling the person who they stalk.”

Quite clearly, the harm associated with stalking does not need to be physical to ruin lives. Even in cases where no physical harm has been done, victims are still violated – it is no way to live. Mental abuse is “just as much a crime as ‘physical abuse’. The hurt is as much or more excruciating as a slap or punch for the abused person must keep the ache within herself – it is within the fragile fragments of her mind and tears at the very centre of her heart. It is a bruise that cannot heal until the pressure is released” (“Letter from Victim of Stalker”). One study found that victims of stalking had a high incidence of mental disorders and comorbid mental disorders, mostly major depression and panic disorder. Victims also reported higher current use of psychotropic medications (Kuehner, Gass & Dressing, 2007). Even if the stalker loses interest, the victim is never quite the same.

Stalking and the Law

“’Anti-stalking’ legislation is a recent criminal law response to certain threatening behaviours directed largely against women, largely by persons known to them, frequently resulting in violence that may be fatal, and viewed as inadequately addressed by other criminal sanctions.” (Bill C-27 legislation summary)

The stalking law (referred to in the Criminal Code as “criminal harassment”) was introduced in 1993 and closed a gap that used to exist in the Criminal Code. There was nothing to stop someone from following, waiting for or simply watching a person. To face any kind of criminal charge, the stalker would have to either threaten or assault the victim. The law was designed to prevent tragedies such as the November 1991 crossbow murder of Patricia Allen, who was shot in broad daylight by Colin McGregor, her estranged husband, on an Ottawa street. Allen’s lawyer had written to Ottawa police about McGregor’s obsessive behaviour – the constant telephone calls, the attempts to break into her house – but McGregor had not broken the law as it then stood. The law as it stands today reads:

§ 264:
  1. No person shall, without lawful authority and knowing that another person is harassed or recklessly as to whether the other person is harassed, engage in conduct referred to in subsection (2) that causes that other person reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them.
  2. The conduct mentioned in subsection (1) consists of
    1. Repeatedly following from place to place the other person or anyone known to them;
    2. Repeatedly communicating with, either directly or indirectly, the other person or anyone known to them;
    3. Besetting or watching the dwelling-house, or place where the other person, or anyone known to them, resides, works, carries on business or happens to be; or
    4. Engaging in threatening conduct directed at the other person or any member of their family.
  3. Every person who contravenes this section is guilty of
    1. An indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years; or
    2. An offence punishable on summary conviction.
  4. Where a person is convicted of an offence under this section, the court imposing the sentence on the person shall consider as an aggravating factor that, at the time the offence was committed, the person contravened
    1. The terms or conditions of an order made pursuant to section 161 or a recognizance entered into pursuant to section 810, 810.1, or 810.2; or
    2. The terms or conditions of any other order of recognizance made or entered into under the common law or a provision of this or any other Act of Parliament or of a province that is similar in effect to an order or recognizance referred to in paragraph (a).
  5. Where the court is satisfied of the existence of an aggravating factor referred to in subsection (4), but decides not to give effect to it for sentencing purposes, the court shall give reasons for its decision.
Defining Stalking in the Criminal Code

According to the Criminal Code, the behaviour is criminal harassment if (1) it caused you to fear for your safety or that of someone known to you, and (2) your fear was reasonable in all the circumstances. The law also requires that the behaviour must happen more than once for it to be considered an offence.

Sentencing of Stalking in the Criminal Code

As the section reads, the law can treat stalking as a serious offence with a maximum prison sentence of five years. However, criminal harassment has tended to not to be prosecuted as a serious offence (an indictable offence). It is most often treated as a minor offence and first time offenders commonly receive a probation order, which can include ordering the offender away from the victim. Some findings from a report on stalking reflect that, even when charges of criminal harassment are laid, the law may be ineffectual:

  • Most Canadians found guilty of stalking get probation; jail time is uncommon
  • Jail time was part of the sentence in only 26% of cases and those sentences were short. The median length was 31 days. In violent cases it was 75 days
  • Probation sentences were relatively lengthy, with a median length of 545 days. For violent cases it was 365 days (CBC News, 2000-2009)

Peace Bonds

As reflected in the above findings, the majority of “criminal harassment” cases that come before the courts are dropped before than can reach a trial, frequently as a result of a peace bond (§ 810 of the Criminal Code). A peace bond is an order from a court, the legal term for it is a recognizance. A peace bond orders the person who is harassing you to keep the peace and to be of good behaviour. It can also order the person not to contact you or your family and to keep a certain distance from your home, school, or workplace. The bond can last up to twelve months and the judge decides its terms. If the defendant refuses to enter into the peace bond or breaks the terms of the order he or she can be arrested and sent to prison.

Criticisms of the Law

These “punishments” hardly seem appropriate for an offence that causes immeasurable psychological and emotional damage to the victim, such damage that is likely to haunt them and their loved ones for the rest of their lives. Not only that, but these punishments hardly seem to be of the kind that will protect these victims from future harm and perhaps future violence. The legal system’s lack of understanding of the causes and consequences of stalking and its inability to enforce the law have therefore made the anti-stalking legislation rather inadequate. Randy Kropp, a forensic psychologist from Vancouver warns that a good proportion of these stalkers will re-offend, and the monitoring of them once they leave prison, are given probation or agree to a peace bond is incredibly ineffective. This ineffectiveness of the court system furthers victims’ fears that the law cannot protect them. Many victims thus do not report the harassment. It seems very clear that the justice system has not delivered the intended message that criminal harassment will be dealt with as a serious offence.

Other Recommendations
  1. It appears that early intervention is the key to preventing someone from escalating from stalker to killer. Since stalking involves a series of acts that escalate in their seriousness, perhaps there should be a continuum of charges or sentences.
  2. One thing that is essential to the quality of a law is the attitude of the police, judges, and Crown attorneys towards it. Stalking behaviour is not being given the attention it needs; judges often give slaps on the wrist, police often do not see the behaviour as dangerous and are therefore reluctant to lay charges, Crown attorneys will often plea bargain. Perhaps by educating the public as well as these criminal justice professionals, the reality of the danger stalkers present will become more evident.

There has been some progress: police departments across Canada have begun to establish their own threat-assessment units with specially trained officers and consulting forensic psychiatrists, the Behavioural Sciences Branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as the Behavioural Sciences Section of the Ontario Provincial Police for example. As Sgt. Ed Chafe of the OPP Threat Assessment Unit explains, “we educate police officers to understand the risks. We also devise strategies to ensure the victim is safe.”

What to Do to Protecting Yourself and Others

There are things that people should do if they are being stalked or suspect they are being stalked. Kate Hunter, a woman who was stalked by an ex-boyfriend, feels women need to know how they can deter stalkers and outlines four things that they can and should do.

  1. Try not to feel alone; talk to your friends; keeping everything inside will only make things worse.
  2. Save all evidence; write down the date and time of every incident; keep letters and answering machine messages for proof.
  3. Notify the police as soon as possible; don’t think that you are somehow provoking his behaviour or that you are paranoid; don’t be afraid to be firm with the police if they will not serve you – it is their job.
  4. Protect yourself; obtain an unlisted phone number, make others at your job and apartment building or neighbourhood aware of your harasser, consider moving, take a self-defence course, write to your local council representatives, to your local chief of police, to your provincial and federal ministers of justice.

Other measures that can be taken include:

Protecting yourself in your home
  • Ask for periodic police drive-bys, and a free home security check
  • Call police each time a stalker shows up
  • Ask your police service if they have any personalized alarm systems
  • Screen your phone calls
  • Do not accept unexpected packages
  • Identify people before you open a front door
  • Keep your house well lit
  • Ask your phone company for details of protective devices
  • Consider changing the locks
Protecting yourself outside of your home
  • Carry an emergency number with you
  • Walk in well lit areas
  • If you feel you are being followed go to a safe place like a store or cafe
  • Ask your transit company if a bus can stop nearer your home
  • Avoid empty or quiet places
  • Wear comfortable shoes so that you can run if necessary
  • Tell only family and trusted friends and colleagues about your social, family and travel plans
Protecting yourself when using your car
  • Consider getting a car phone
  • Check inside and around your car before you get in
  • Be cautious if a van is parked nearby as vans are often used for abductions
  • If you feel you are being followed in your car go to a police station, gas station or fire station – do not get out of your car but honk until someone comes to help
  • Keep a pen, flashlight and paper in your car so you can record the license number of anyone following you
  • Change the routes that you normally use

Perhaps the most important thing to do is always report every harassing incident to the police so they can add the information to their file.

If you suspect that someone close to you might be the victim of a stalker, there are also some things you should do:

  • Express your concerns to the victim; be supportive and make sure the victim knows where to turn for help
  • Do not confront the stalker – experts agree that confrontation may place you at risk and, more important, increase the risk of violence to the victim
  • If you are still concerned, contact the police


The dominant view of stalking as a rare phenomenon restricted to celebrity victims has greatly hindered efforts to understand both the nature of stalking and its impact upon its victims. Stalking is more common than most would believe and its impact upon victims is immeasurable. While the introduction of “anti-stalking” legislation in the Criminal Code’s “criminal harassment” section was a very important step in the fight against stalking, there is still more that needs to be done. The public and the criminal justice system both need to understand just how serious a crime stalking is. The emotional and psychological damage done to a stalking victim last a lifetime, greatly altering how these victims go about living their daily lives. Not only is psychological damage done, but there is also a great risk of violence.

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