Stalking is an old behaviour, but a relatively new criminal offence.


The First Formal Stalking Law

The first formal stalking law in North America was not passed until 1990 in California in response to the highly publicized murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer. Initially, the law stated:

  • A stalker had to make a “credible threat of death or great bodily injury” toward the victim, placing the victim in reasonable fear of the same.

The Canadian Criminal Code

Section 264 Criminal Harassment

Criminal harassment is comprised of four interrelated behaviours:

  1. Repeatedly following another person from place to place
  2. Repeatedly communicating with, directly or indirectly, the other person
  3. Besetting or watching a place where the other person is living or working
  4. Engaging in threatening conduct directed at the other person or family members

These behaviours must cause the persons to fear for their safety or the safety of others

Common Legal Elements

While specific laws in different jursidictions will vary from one another, there are three common elements found in most stalking laws:

  1. A pattern (course of conduct) of behavioural intrusion upon another person that is unwanted;
  2. An implicit or explicit threat that is evidenced in the pattern of behavioural intrusion; and
  3. As a result of these behavioural intrusions, the person who is threatened experiences reasonable fear.


In the academic literature, stalking has alternatively been referred to as harassment or obsessional following (Kropp, Hart, & Lyon, 2002; Meloy, 1996; Spitzberg & Cupach, 1993, 2007; Westrup & Fremouw, 1998). According the Oxford English Dictionary, to harass or harassment is to “torment [someone] by subjecting them to constant interference or intimidation.” The DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) defines obsession as “persistent ideas, thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety of distress.” Definitions in the literature that have referred to stalking as “obsessional harassment” conceptualize it as an abnormal or long-term pattern of threat or harassment directed toward a specific individual (Meloy, 1996; Meloy & Gothard, 1995; Zona, Sharma, & Lane, 1993). Tjaden (1997) defines stalking as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated physical or visual proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats sufficient to cause fear in a reasonable person” (p. 2). Across these legal and academic definitions, a few commonalties arise. Generally, stalking is conceptualized as a pattern of persistent behavior on the behalf of a perpetrator that is intended to instill a sense of fear in another individual.



To examine what factors are used by people to distinguish stalking incidents from non-stalking incidents, Lorraine Phillips and her colleagues at John Jay College (Phillips, Quirk, Rosenfeld, & O’Connor, 2004) administered a series of six vignettes to a random sample of undergraduate students. Each vignette described an ambiguous stalking scenario in which a doctor receives persistent phone calls, letters, and gifts, from a potential suitor. Two independent variables were manipulated in the study. The first independent variable was the gender of the perpetrator. In some vignettes, participants read about a male doctor being stalked by a woman, while other participants read about a female doctor being stalked by a man. The second independent variable was the nature of the victim/offender relationship. The victim and offender were (a) former intimate partners, (b) acquaintances, or (c) strangers. Participants were then asked to indicate whether the behaviors in the vignette constituted stalking and whether the victim should be worried for his or her safety. When there was no prior relationship between the victim or target and the stalker, participants were significantly more likely to consider the actions described in the vignette to constitute stalking. On the other hand, when the victim or target and stalker had previously been in a relationship, participants failed to characterize the same behaviors as stalking. Phillips et al.’ study shows that the context in which stalking occurs may influence people’s perceptions of the behaviors and raises some serious questions about the ability of the law to identify and prosecute stalking. This finding is also particularly surprising in light of an emerging pattern in empirical research which shows that in a large proportion of identified cases stalkers pursue former intimate partners