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Stalking

Stalking is an obsessive behaviour, where attempts at contacting and connecting with the victim become the primary preoccupation of the stalker. A benign phone call may soon become an all-pervasive undesirable phenomenon, in the calendar of the victim, jeopardizing their schedule and constructive pursuits. Incidents of stalking, motivated by rage and vengeance can potentially engender fear and anxiety in the victims. They may result in immense emotional upheavals in the victims and devastate their personal and professional lives. The term gained popularity. with flashes of celebrity stalking highlighted by the media. It is intruding into the private spaces of an ever increasing section of people, invading them with threatening calls, texts and mails, threatening their safety and peace of mind. The advent of the internet and availability of personal data over networking sites have made it easier for stalkers to find out facts about their target of interest and wreak havoc on their lives. Studies have demonstrated the likelihood of the stalker being a former or current acquaintance, rather than a random anonymous person.

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Stalking: its nature and classification

Stalking is an intrusive act, with the obsessive urge, on the part of the stalker, to constantly follow and keep track of their target. Stalking involves monitoring the activities and movements of the target, designing pre-planned surprise meetings or unwanted appearances around the target's home, school, or workplace, making their presence felt, and alarming the target. Stalking also involves repeated attempts to communicate and connect with the targeted victim. The stalker leaves no stone unturned, to make himself visible through phone calls, texts, letters and messages over the internet. The attempts at establishing communication with the target often amount to harassing them, with the absurd pattern of multiple blank phone calls, threatening or undesirable messages, eccentric letters and bizarre gifts, found at the most unexpected places, and attempts at connecting with the target at odd hours. The extremely undesirable side of stalking consists of aggression and violence towards the victim and his/her family members. The aggression may consist of tarnishing the reputation of the victim, damaging their belongings and property, physical assault on the victim and in the most extreme cases, murdering the victim.

Categories of stalkers

Zona et al have categorized stalking behaviour into three groups. This categorization is based on the perceived relationship between the stalker and his or her target. The first group consists of simple obsessional relationship, where there are evidences of prior relationships between the stalker and his victim. The second group comprises of the love obsessional category, where there is no prior relationship between the stalker and the victim. This category may include celebrity stalking, and is often perceived to be emanating from psychological disorders. The third category of stalking is based on an erotomanic relationship, where the stalker, in this case a woman, hosts the unrealistic fancy that an older man belonging to the upper crust of the society, is in love with them.

The motives behind stalking may range from revenge and control over the victim to the search for love and intimacy. Forensic research into the profiles of stalkers, with the propensity to be violent to the extent of murdering their victims, demonstrate that aggressive or violent stalkers are usually unemployed men, in their thirties, possessing a moderately high intelligence quotient, and have a criminal record behind them. The extremely aggressive stalkers have been reported to be suffering from personality disorders. However the forensic reports do not take account of the entire gamut of stalkers - i.e. the less severe, non-criminal stalkers.

Mullen et al have categorized stalkers into five distinct categories. Their classification is more specific, regarding the motives behind stalking. The rejected group of stalkers is motivated by their desire for revenge and reunion with the victim. The stalkers guided by their search for love and intimacy have a close resemblance with erotomanic stalkers, where the stalking is based on the illusion of establishing an intimate relationship, with a perfect stranger. The incompetent groups of stalkers are ignorant of the rules of courtship and inadvertently woo their prospective partners in an aberrant manner, with terrifying impact on their object of interest. For the resentful groups of stalkers, stalking is merely a mode of retaliation, for a perceived humiliation in the past. The predatory group of stalkers is conspicuous by their desire of violent sexual advances towards the victim, with the strong impulse to enact their sadistic tendencies on the victims. A unique genre of stalking has been identified by social scientists, where the victim feigns to have been stalked, in their bid to attract attention. Therefore, the stalkers are a diverse mix of people with different motives and objectives. Their typology determines their motive as well as the degree of damage they can inflict on the victims.

Psychological basis for obsessional stalking

Stalking has been attributed to a wide array of psychological disorders. In erotomania, stalkers harbor the delusional belief that the target, belonging to the upper echelons of society, is romantically interested in them. Being amorous in nature, incidents of violence are fewer. The persecutory delusions, on the other hand, motivated by negative emotions of rage and revenge, result in obsessional stalking of a more violent nature. Patients of persecutory delusions and psychotic disorders are preoccupied with the imaginary notion that the chosen target of obsessional harassment is responsible for all their distress and miseries, motivating them to compulsively stalk their victims, to seek revenge. Psychotic disorders have also been associated with substance misuse, a history of violence and sociopathic behavioural tendencies. Stalkers with schizophrenia become fixated on their victims, and maintain the irrational hypothetical belief that their chosen targets are responsible for their predicament. During diagnosis, they have been reported to ascribe their strange behaviour to spells and witchcraft. Stalkers with real life relationships in the past or present have been diagnosed with personality disorders of various kinds. In dependency personality disorders, stalkers cannot handle rejection and resort to obsessive stalking, in order to reconcile with a former partner. In narcissistic personality disorders, stalkers “ameliorate” their humiliation by devaluing their object of wrath and torturing them. Stalkers with borderline personality disorders, display a strong attachment psychology and sensitivity to object loss/ abandonment, wherein, they have the propensity to cling on to people, even after termination of relationships. The stalkers with psychological disorders are socially isolated, lack impulse control and suffer from distorted perceptions of reality, accounting for the marked tendency towards the quest for relationships and delusional beliefs on one end of the spectrum, to violent anti-social behaviours based on misinterpretation of facts, on the other end of the spectrum.

The impact of stalking on the victims

Psychologists Harmon and colleagues categorize victims of stalking into different groups, based on their relationships with the stalker. Victims of personal relationship with a former abusive husband/partner are vulnerable to being stalked, for revenge or reconciliation. Such stalking incidents often take a violent form, with a high probability of physical assault. Professionals, including medical practitioners, legal advocates or teachers, who regularly interact with a host of people, may fall easy prey to stalking by forlorn or disgruntled people. The definition and severity of stalking can be most accurately delineated by the victim, who is on the receiving end of this obsessional harassment. The constant threat and fear posed by stalking, has a pernicious impact on the psychological health of the victim. It is the fear of being constantly monitored, spied on, mapped and threatened that ingrains a sense of powerlessness in the victims. The fear of being stalked makes it impossible for the victim, to go back to leading a normal life. They often have to change their routines, routes of commute, telephone numbers, even their place of residence and become a veritable recluse, to avoid being tracked or attacked. Stalking has been demonstrated to hamper professional and academic performance, and induce aggression and anxiety in the victims. Studies by Pathe and Mullen have demonstrated that victims of stalking often suffer from depression and some show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They also reveal the prevalence of substance abuse among victims, with approximately 25% developing suicidal tendencies. Findings from USA demonstrate that while half of the incidents of stalking stop within a year, 25% of the incidents continue for 2-5 years. Such a constant and protracted invasion of the private space results in trauma and lingering distress in the victims. Studies reveal the prevalence of violence in 33% of stalking incidents. Violence may comprise of physical/sexual assault, property damage, and kidnappings.

Conclusion

The severity of stalking can be best attested, by the victims themselves, who are on the receiving end of this obsessional harassment. Some stalkers claim to have innocuous motives of initiating or reconciling relationships. However, it is the way they conduct their intention, and the nature of impact it generates, that makes it a destructive practice, and often a criminal offence. Psychologists believe that the definition of stalking should be based on the victim's reactions and that criminal justice, including anti-stalking laws, should take into account the level of psychological impact on the victim. Given the magnitude of psychological unrest and fear it engenders in the victims, and the dangerous impact it may have on the victims, their families, and the society, stricter monitoring and management strategies for stalking need to be implemented. Stalking is more of a behavioural anomaly than a psychological disorder. However studies have revealed the prevalence of psychoses, in stalkers with a history of domestic violence. In most other cases, stalkers are observed to have a range of personality disorders. Effective management and deterrence of this social phenomenon, would depend on reporting the incidents of stalking, treatment of stalkers with psychological and/or personality disorders, and a criminal justice system with clearly demarcated anti-stalking laws. The classification and motives of the stalkers and the relationship with the victim, determine the duration, risk, and response to a combination of legal and psychotherapeutic mediation. The mental agony and distress of the victims can be alleviated only by uprooting the criminal disease of stalking and rehabilitating the stalkers.

References

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