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Talking stalking

Lorraine Sheridan, University of Leicester Lecturer in Psychology, first became interested in the much-highlighted issue of stalking as an undergraduate. 

The mid to late 1990s saw increased media interest in stalking. Realising the potential for her PhD thesis, she decided to study stalking - an issue scarcely researched at that time – working closely with Leicester psychologists Professor Graham Davies and Dr Julian Boon.

Her experience, talking with hundreds of victims, some of whom were celebrities, has established her as a well-recognised expert, frequently quoted by countless national newspapers. Her practical work with the police, and, of course, her research studies, are invaluable, since even today too little is really known on the subject.

[Photo: Lorraine Sheridan]

Stalking takes on many forms: from loitering outside someone's house, to sending unwanted flowers, or writing constant 'fan-mail'. Such seemingly 'normal' acts may not appear to constitute harassment to the same degree as physical violence, bugging, or breaking and entering, but however it is perpetrated, victims of stalking generally experience the same feelings of fear, infringement, anger and desperation.

Of all the incidents Dr Sheridan has studied or heard of, two particularly disturbing cases stand out. For her, the worst case is of a woman who has been stalked for forty-four years and is still suffering. It is hard to imagine the extent to which her life is no longer her own, irretrievably destroyed.

The most dramatic case of Dr Sheridan’s career was that of a 'sadistic stalker'. A widow formed an acquaintance with a man, a friendship that grew when she believed someone was regularly ‘visiting’ her home. The stalking finally hospitalised the woman when the unearthed remains of her dead husband were deposited on her doorstep. Police discovered that her 'friend' was in fact her stalker, and had desecrated the grave. Although an extreme case, this shows the frightening lengths to which stalkers can go.

Stereotypical images of stalkers are not always accurate. Not necessarily shadowy, lonesome figures, they are often plausible people who may get unwitting help with their stalking from their own family and friends, and might target more than one victim at a time. 

We readily assume that women are the victims, but in five per cent of all cases, men are stalked. Women are generally stalked by men, whereas, men are stalked equally by men and women. Wondering whether our typical conceptions of men and women have actually changed, I asked Dr Sheridan whether female stalkers could be just as vicious as male stalkers. She has found that this is generally not the case. The worst stalking campaigns she has known were perpetrated by men.

How does stalking continue under our justice system? Dr Sheridan emphasises that it is an extraordinary crime, often consisting of the targeted repetition of seemingly ordinary behaviour. The acts committed against an individual can include engineering 'chance' meetings, sending over a hundred letters a day expressing affection, and even just frequently walking past the victim's house. 

This is not to make light of a victim’s suffering, for stalking is a very serious crime. It is precisely because of its nature that it is hard to legislate against. Dr Sheridan knows that stalkers are persistent and often very clever. Banning a suspected stalker from coming within a hundred yards of a victim's house would not solve the problem - the stalker may simply stand a hundred and one yards away. 

Currently, stalking is classed as 'harassment' in legal terms. An act which is repeated just twice counts as harassment, and it is a law which protects against infringement on human rights. It is evident that the current law is very widely drafted. Dr Sheridan’s main desire for change centres on the aftermath of stalking and its effects. She sees the need for better support networks for victims, their family and friends, who are often also targets. 

Stalking can continue relentlessly, on a daily basis, for many years, so victims have different needs from a victim of assault or sexual attack, whose trauma is usually due to one isolated incident. As always, more public education on stalking would be beneficial. 

One major improvement Dr Sheridan would like to see is better communication between the police and prison staff, because even from jail, stalkers often continue their campaigns through letter writing and with help from people they know. One victim's chilling experience highlights this problem. After her stalker was jailed the woman changed her bank. He wrote to her from jail quoting correctly her new pin number. The man had established a contact in the woman's bank.

Victims are often left in the dark once their stalker has been jailed, often not informed about the release date. Madonna's encounter with stalking famously highlights problems within the judicial system. She had to appear in court opposite her stalker, giving him the gratification of being close to her. The battle to end her misery had ultimately given her stalker what he wanted.

Celebrities are more likely to be taken seriously than the average citizen when complaining of stalking. They are also in a better position to protect themselves, having bodyguards and houses with advanced security. Being in the public eye, though, makes them more likely to be targets for stalkers. 

Dr Sheridan has found that stalkers of celebrities are mostly young people aged 17-25 years, who tend to be lonely and who write letters to a particular star, pouring out their heart and their life stories. In one case a man was averaging twenty to thirty pages each day. 

Her findings have led her to the conclusion that these people have experienced – or are afraid of - rejection from a member of the public. If they express feelings of love or desire for a famous personality, they are unlikely to experience direct rejection, for if their victim does not reply, this can be easily blamed on agents and record companies. There are however, more dangerous celebrity stalkers who do intend harm towards their victim. Disturbingly, in the early stages of a stalking case, it is often very difficult for a non-specialist to differentiate dangerous from non-dangerous stalkers. 

Dr Sheridan’s investigations have provided information which has helped the police and supported victims. With Dr Julian Boon she has co-written a book, entitled Stalking and Psychological Obsession, which was published in 2002. 

In spite of heavy teaching commitments, she can still be relied on by the media, the police and those plagued with stalkers, to help wherever possible. In the future she intends to continue her research, providing a typology of a 'celebrity stalker', building on databases, and working alongside detectives to find out what motivates stalkers. 

The work of Dr Sheridan and her colleagues has been ground-breaking. She said: "If I can help to alleviate the position of just a small number of victims, and aid the police, then my work has been worthwhile." 

Stalker Typologies:

Simplified from data supplied by Dr Lorraine Sheridan and Dr Julian Boon, from research covering over a hundred real-life stalking cases.

Typology 1: Ex-partner Harassment/stalking (50%)

Characteristics:

bitterness/hate linked to the past relationship
new relationships engender jealousy and aggressive behaviour
third party abuse (verbal and physical)
high levels of physical violence/verbal threat/property damage
anger drive and impulsive activity leads to lack of concern about potential police attention


Advice/action:

unnecessary retaliation (financial/legal/physical/verbal) should be kept to an absolute minimum
avoid wherever possible frequenting the same venues as offender
relocation with physical distance is even more important than secrecy


Typology 2: Infatuation Harassment (18.5%)

Characteristics:

target is 'beloved' rather than 'victim'
world events interpreted in relation to beloved
beloved is focus of fantasy
low levels of danger
perpetrator age typically teenage or mid-life

Advice/action:

Young love:

careful and thorough explanation of the law and how upset the victim is
sympathetic stance when explaining how the relationship has been misconstrued 

Mid-life love:

possible exploration of placing physical distance between parties, eg. work transfer
address possible discord in existing relationship through counselling


Typology 3: Delusional Fixation Stalking (15.3%) 

a) Dangerous:

Characteristics:

high risk of violence and sexual assault
perpetrator likely to be known to police and mental health professionals, with a history of stalking and sexual offences
belief in relationship although no prior contact
stalkers tend to couch their statements of love in terms of sexual intent towards victim (i.e. romantic stance instead of infatuated harasser)

Advice/action:

not responsive to reason or rejection
refer to a forensic psychiatrist for assessment (although likely to have been assessed already)

b) Less Dangerous:

Characteristics:

delusional conviction that there is an actual relationship
activity not characterised by threats
rationalisation that it is someone else's fault when things do not work out according to perpetrator's deluded perception
victims tend to be female professionals

Advice/action:

victim should seek legal remedy and not respond as far as possible
legal agencies should be aware that the stalker is not responsive to reason or rejection


Typology 4: Sadistic Stalking (12.9%)

Characteristics:

can target family and friends in an attempt to isolate victim and further enhance control
initial low level acquaintance 
communications are blend of loving and threatening (not hate)
progressive escalation of control over all aspects of victim's life (social/historical/professional/financial/physical)
offender is sadistic: gratification rooted in desire to extract evidence of victim's powerlessness with inverse implications for his own power
emotional coldness, deliberateness and psychopathy
stalker could be highly dangerous
victim made to feel fear, loss of privacy and of a social life, lack of confidence, humiliation, disgust and general undermining of self-esteem

Advice/action:

stalker very difficult to eradicate
victim should carefully consider relocation where offender least likely to find victim
police should bear in mind that the stalker is devious, likely to minimise the risk of intervention by authorities, and impervious to intervention as overcoming of obstacles demonstrate victim's powerlessness

Clare Yau
February 2003

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Last updated: 28 February 2003 10:55
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