Expert Commentary

Many people who are stalked never tell anyone

According to survey data from more than 2100 adults, one-quarter of Americans who have been stalked never told anyone about it.

woman looks at phone

According to survey data from more than 2,100 adults, one-quarter of Americans who have been stalked never told anyone about it. 

The finding comes from a study about stalking published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in July 2018.

The study sheds light on the fact that many who experience stalking never report it; highlighting a parallel with the experiences of people who have been sexually assaulted, many of whom are sharing their stories for the first time, accompanied by the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport on social media.

The research, led by Matt R. Nobles, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s College of Health and Public Affairs, reviewed archival data from an online survey on victimization, sexuality and health conducted from September 2014 through July 2015.

The analysis looked at responses from 2,159 adults who answered questions about stalking-related experiences — receiving unwanted messages or phone calls and being followed, watched or spied on, for example. The participants, who all answered the same survey, came from three different samples: a U.S. nationwide sexual diversity special interest group, as well as college student and general population adult samples. Not all the respondents had experienced stalking.

Separate survey data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicate that stalking is a common, widespread problem.  “In the U.S., 15.8 percent or 1 in 6 women (approximately 19,093,000 women) experienced stalking in her lifetime, during which she felt very fearful or believed that she or someone close to her would be harmed or killed as a result,” according to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.  Among American men, 5.3 percent experience stalking in their lifetime, according to that report.

“Stalking is a very traumatic, very disruptive kind of experience, in the same way people experience sexual assault, physical assault,” Nobles said in a recent phone call with Journalist’s Resource. “Stalking isn’t a triviality.”

Nobles said this is part of the reason why he conducted this research – to come up with quantitative estimates for the prevalence of stalking in the general population, with an eye toward potential public policy, prevention and response mechanisms. To that end, the researchers were particularly interested in the demographics and physical and mental health of people who experienced stalking as compared with those who did not.

Here’s what they found:

  • Of the respondents who experienced stalking: 41.2 percent disclosed their experiences to friends; 27.3 percent told nobody; 8 percent told a family member;  11.7 percent told the police; 6 percent told a reporting official such as a college counselor; and 3.7 percent told an attorney.  (Respondents could select more than one answer to this question.)
  • 13 percent of respondents reported that a perpetrator hurt someone close to them for the purpose of intimidation or revenge. 47.9 percent of respondents received unwanted messages.
  • Perpetrators were most commonly ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends (24.4 percent) or strangers (15.6 percent).
  • Traits associated with stalking victimization were: “female gender, Associates/Bachelor’s level of education, more frequent drug use, and poor mental health,” the authors write. People who were stalked were more likely to be bisexual or have another sexual minority orientation. They also were more likely to have physical health diagnoses of diabetes and hypertension, elevated aggression, stronger coping skills and lower acceptance of rape myths like “she asked for it” and “she lied.”
  • Asian Americans, heterosexual people and people with a high school education or less experienced lower risk of stalking.
  • Because the survey represents data taken at one point in time, the authors don’t make causal connections – in other words, they don’t suggest whether people with certain characteristics are more likely to be targets of stalking, or whether certain characteristics arise after the experience of stalking. However, according to an analysis of the data, the strongest predictors of whether someone had been stalked were “older age, elevated aggression,” high coping skills, higher impulsivity, “increased symptoms of suicidality and PTSD re-experiencing, and female and other gender minority status.” The authors write that these latter characteristics “are consistent with understanding victimization from trauma-informed and gender-based violence perspectives.”
  • Though stalking victims commonly had greater mental health concerns, they had greater coping skills, too. In a phone interview, co-author Robert J. Cramer, an associate professor of community and environmental health at Old Dominion University, noted that in this sense, predictive characteristics of stalking victims include both “risk factors” and “resilience” factors.

Cramer noted that front-line health service providers could bring an awareness of these risk and resilience factors to their practice to facilitate prevention and response to stalking.

Cramer and Nobles noted that more research is required to establish causal links between risk factors and the experience of stalking.


For related research, check out our roundups on sexual harassment and online harassment.

About The Author