#205      26 min 30 sec
Someone's following me: Stalking, stalkers and their victims

Forensic psychologist Rosemary Purcell discusses stalking, the different types of stalkers, and suggests ways for victims to deal with unwanted attention. Presented by Jennifer Martin.




Associate Professor Rosemary Purcell
Associate Professor Rosemary Purcell

Rosemary Purcell is an Associate Professor and Forensic Psychologist at the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne. She has extensive experience working with the victims and perpetrators of stalking, and has researched and published widely on stalking, including why people stalk, the impact onvictims, and specific forms of stalking (eg. female stalkers, juvenile stalking behaviour and the stalking of  health professionals). Her current research interests also include the relationship between violence and mental illness in young people, early intervention with young offenders and predictors of mental illness progression in young people.

Related publication, co-authored by Rosemary Purcell: Stalkers and Their Victims (2008, Cambridge Medicine)

Other selected publications

Credits

Host: Jennifer Martin
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER COOK 
I'm Jennifer Cook.  Thanks for joining us.  Stalking, it’s a word that’s charged with emotion, fear and as today’s guest will explain a lot of misconceptions.  Perhaps you think of the crazed fan pursuing a movie star or the obsessed stranger.  Then there’s the image of the jilted woman, the bunny boiler, made famous by the film Fatal Attraction, but how accurate are these stereotypes?  What is stalking?  Who does it?  If you are victim, how do you deal with it?Today’s guest is associate professor Rosemary Purcell, a forensic psychologist at the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne.  Rosemary has extensive working with the victims and perpetrators of stalking and has researched and published widely on the topic.Rosemary says, stalking was not discovered or uncovered but constructed as a way to conceptualise particular forms of behaviour.  This becomes clearer when we consider that by today’s standards it could be said, Agamemnon used his friends to stalk Helen by proxy and what about 14th century Italian poet Petrarch who penned 364 poems a day to a woman called Laura.  These were held up as a romantic ideal not a crime.So Rosemary, thank you for joining us.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
My pleasure.

JENNIFER COOK
Look, first of all I would like to begin by defining what stalking is.  You have described it as this new word for odd behaviour.  

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Look, in simple terms stalking is either persistent forms of harassment or just intrusion.  The person doesn’t have to feel like there’s any violent intent which might be more present with harassment but it’s someone who’s just constantly intruding in their life and doesn’t take the message that their contact is unwanted.

JENNIFER COOK
Now, there’s also an element of fear isn't there involved in the official definition of stalking?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
That’s right.  In most legal jurisdictions you have to have these persistent behaviours that cause fear in the victim.  I think that’s where it’s interesting your reference to Petrarch that Laura obviously welcomed all of those letters and that’s where to some extent stalking is a construction and it is in the eye of the beholder in terms of what is upsetting and what is welcome behaviour, I guess. 

JENNIFER COOK
I would like to take that and just point to some of the problems that you have found in your own research in gathering the data.  This element of feeling fear has actually led to some skewing of results.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
That’s right.  If you look at the prevalence of stalking, the majority of victims are women and the majority of perpetrators are men.  That’s probably in some respect inflated by this requirement of fear.  So we know when we have asked men, have you experienced someone harassing you, keeping you under surveillance, phoning you all the time?  They will have that experience.  They just don’t say that they were frightened by that.  So they might couch it more in terms of irritation than fear and that’s especially if it’s a woman doing the stalking of a man.

JENNIFER COOK
What are the ramifications of that for your research and if you could talk to us a bit about your process of gathering your data?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
A lot of our research is either via survey or face to face interviews with victims.  So we are very careful to really elicit exactly what sort of behaviours that they have experienced and what impact it has had on them.  So that’s where we will ask about, did it cause fear or irritation or some other outcome that way?  Look, I think it’s reasonable that we do consider that fear is present when we define stalking because otherwise virtually all of us would be exposed to some level of this behaviour in the community, but while most stalking laws require that the victim experience fear, the exception is here in the state of Victoria in Australia where they’ve actually eliminated that requirement from our law.  They have basically said, if someone is intruding on your life with these behaviours then that is stalking.  We don’t have to have the victim being compromised in terms of their fear which personally I think is a good development because we have some amazingly resilient victims who otherwise wouldn’t have recourse under these laws.

JENNIFER COOK
Now you talked about it’s in the eye of the beholder this notion of stalking and different perceptions of it.  Stalking as a cultural construct is interesting isn't it?  Because of the continuum you say, we can actually recognise the behaviour having experienced it and maybe done it ourselves to degrees.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Yeah, I think that’s why this topic sort of touches a lot of people or it rouses a lot of interest because at some level we have probably all had an infatuation on someone, whether it is a celebrity or a real person.  We are all familiar with the concept of a crush, for example.  So that’s where there is some normal level of these behaviours in the community but then as you said, it crosses that continuum where it’s now causing people fear for their safety and that’s what we are talking about with stalking.

JENNIFER COOK
And stalking has a very interesting history doesn’t it?  Can you tell us how it first became prominent in western English speaking cultures?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Look, it’s been a behaviour that’s undoubtedly been around for centuries but it really started to gain attention in America in the 1980s, precipitated by a young actress being murdered by an obsessed fan and that’s what really brought about stalking legislation first in California.  Within about four years every state in the US had passed stalking laws, but it’s interesting that this behaviour was being experienced by women who had left abusive relationships for example or just people with their neighbours or at work but it was the celebrity that really crystallised this notion of stalking. 
JENNIFER COOK
Now Rosemary, you have some interesting statistics.  You say approximately one in 10 adults will be subjected to protracted stalking which is less than a month and a median of six months which causes significant fear and disruption.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Yeah, it’s interesting.  If we look at just the legal definition of stalking that requires two or more unwanted intrusions and that’s pretty broad.  So we are looking at figures of about 25 per cent of the population would have that experience, but when we try to drill down and look at these more upsetting situations, then you are right, it’s about one in 10 people and that’s borne out not just by our research but research in the US, Germany and the UK for example.  So it does seem to be a pretty consistent number.

JENNIFER COOK
Could you describe for us the different behaviours of stalking?  You say there's two.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Yeah, there are two main types.  What we see is a group of people who are subjected to a very short but intense burst of harassment.  This is the feeling of someone following you in the street or silent phone calls, those sorts of things.  They are overwhelmingly perpetrated by strangers and in most cases they are over in one or two days.  Stalking will generally last for two weeks or more and if it hasn’t stopped within two weeks you can almost guarantee it will go on for months and months unless something is done to stop that stalker.  We think that’s a really crucial point for people to understand because often people live in hope.  I just hope this man will get the message.  I hope this woman will leave me alone but hope is not a plan.So if you are still being harassed after two weeks that’s a good sign that you need to get some help with this.

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I'm Jennifer Cook and our guest today is forensic psychologist Rosemary Purcell and we are talking about stalking.Now Rosemary, you have also developed a multi-axial classification of stalking which includes titles such as the rejected suitor, the incompetent suitor.  We have the resentful suitor.  Could you talk us through these distinctions and just explain why it is so important?  

ROSEMARY PURCELL
So we recognise five different types of stalker and why we came up with this classification was to understand what motivates them and what will work in stopping them.  So the biggest two groups, the first is called the “rejected”.  So this is predominantly men who are stalking women that they have been in an intimate relationship with.  The stalking is often a combination of wanting to punish the person for leaving them as well as trying to win them back.  These are unfortunately the most persistent of all stalkers.  They are the most likely to be violent.  They are just not a pleasant group of people, unfortunately.The second group and what really differentiates these from the rejected, it’s a group we call “intimacy seekers”.  They are wanting to start a relationship with someone and in most instances the perpetrators here are mentally ill.  So they will often believe that a relationship already exists with a person and just you can see from those two examples, if we have got someone who is a mentally ill stalker, we are going to need a different response to deal with that person than an angry ex partner for example.  

JENNIFER COOK
And the effectiveness, have you done some study into the effectiveness of different responses?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
There’s not a lot of research to be honest.  There is some research going on in New York that is testing which treatment works for what type of stalker.  In our experience here in clinics in Melbourne, it’s going to really be a very individual approach to whatever that stalker is doing and why, that’s what we will try to target in the treatment.  

JENNIFER COOK
What about apprehended violence orders where they are told to stay away from the person by the court?  Are they successful?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Again, it will depend on the type of stalker.  So they are particularly good if you are being harassed by an acquaintance or a workmate for example but generally the greater degree of intimacy you have had with the stalker the less likely they are to work.So with a rejected stalker for example we find they are often spectacularly bad.  They will actually provoke violent situations because of this notion of how dear you try to put a reign on my behaviour for example?  They will unfortunately be irrelevant to a mentally disordered person.  They will simply see an apprehended violence order as just another hurdle they have to overcome to get in contact with their victim.


JENNIFER COOK
So Rosemary, you have mentioned the rejected suitor and the intimacy seeker, what are the other classifications?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
It’s interesting that both those first two kinds are all about relationships and the third group that we call “incompetent suitors”, that’s also about trying to start a relationship with a person but the difference between an intimacy seeker and this more incompetent group is one thinks that a special unique loving relationship exists with a person, that’s the intimacy seeker.  The incompetent person, they just want a date.  They just want to meet a woman and they don’t have the social skills to successfully do that so they basically embark on stalking.It was interesting that there was a case in America of a man who was charged with stalking but he was basically an incompetent person and his surname was Costanza and I think that’s the kind of thing actually that you get the incompetent inadept person like a George Costanza there.The last two groups have nothing to do with relationships.  There’s a group that we call “resentful stalkers”.  They are wanting to pursue someone that they believe has harmed or slighted them in some way.  This is basically all about revenge and exacting some form of punishment on then.  We see this a lot in workplace context.And the final group we call “predatory stalkers”.  They are a tiny group in comparison to the others but they arouse a lot of fear and they are one of these archetypal stalkers in the media.  So this is generally a man who is stalking a woman, usually a stranger, for the purpose of some sort of sexual assault usually.  Again, they generate a disproportionate amount of attention in society but that’s not unusual with the level of fear that that sort of thing would arouse.

JENNIFER COOK
Now Rosie, we have examined the behaviours and the people that do them, so can we move now to the victims of stalking and let’s look at the impact that this behaviour has on them?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
The impacts of stalking can be really profound.  If you think of what the behaviour is, someone who just won't take no for an answer, won't get out of your life, it just becomes very wearying on the victims because this is chronic form of victimisation.  So the things that we characteristically see are heightened anxiety, fear, but some people sadly develop paranoia because they start to interpret everything that happens in their life as being related to the stalking.  Taken to extremes, victims often feel homicidal towards their stalker.  They have their own revenge fantasies but many people sadly also can be suicidal because they have lost a sense of hope that this behaviour is going to end any other way.

JENNIFER COOK
Can we talk about the impact it has on the people around the person who is being stalked?  So the people that they look to for help and support those closest to them.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Yeah, it can have collateral effects on others.  If you are a person with a friend who is being stalked, a loved one, then you wear that kind of chronic victimisation as well.  So you can take on all of that fear but sadly we see with stalking some people start to withdraw from the victim because they are kind of thinking when is this going to end?  This just doesn’t seem to stop.  I am now over it.  So it is a sad by-product sometimes of stalking that the victims lose their social supports simply because it goes on so long.

JENNIFER COOK
It’s a real attack on the self isn't it?  And identity? It’s decimating their own sense of privacy and ability to go out in the world and then ruining relationships around?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Exactly, yeah.

JENNIFER COOK
Rosemary, in your research you have talked about organisations that set themselves up to help victims of stalking and you have said that they do have to be cognizant of the fact that they will get false claims of stalking.  Why is that?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon and one that we learned by example really.  We do see in about 10 per cent of cases that involve stalking claims that they are actually false claims.  Most of this isn't malicious or intentional.  It’s a product again of mental illness.So people usually have delusions and just believe that they are being stalked by someone. And as you said, if you set yourself up as an organisation that is assisting stalking victims you need to be prepared for these cases.  And often they are very difficult to treat because the person is adamant they are being stalked.

JENNIFER COOK
What about the risks that the person treating, the professional psychologist has in this area?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
It’s really interesting.  When we started our clinic a few years ago no one wanted to work with the stalkers.  So other offenders, no problem, but there is a fear of working with stalkers and that is that you will be targeted yourself.  And I guess, even working with victims there is that fear that the stalker will somehow intrude into your life there.In my experience that’s not ever been a realistic fear.  The challenge in working with stalking victims especially is really often the burnout of dealing with people who are so highly stressed.  Most stalking victims don’t come for professional help after the fact.  They come while they are being stalked and that’s where professionals need to be able to help them through that experience and the level of fear and anxiety that’s creating.

JENNIFER COOK
On Up Close, this episode we are speaking about stalking, stalkers and their victims with Rosemary Purcell.  I'm Jennifer Cook.Rosie, what can stalking tell us about gender relations?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Well look, an enormous amount.  I don’t think we have even started to scratch the surface really on what this means.  I think we have got a superficial understanding of there obviously being a real sense of entitlement especially with many men, that they are entitled to a relationship with a woman and they pursue it that way.In the beginning when you talked about the bunny boiler.  It’s so interesting that that scene again is a classic example of stalking.  We honestly don’t see many women engaging in that behaviour in practise and it’s something I've wondered about that, when a relationship does end why do men often respond with this angry entitlement need to get the woman back?  Whereas this is just my speculation, do women tend to often retreat more and have that internalising response to the sadness of a relationship ending?  I think there’s an enormous amount that we can still do to explore all of those gender relations.

JENNIFER COOK
How does stalking transfer across cultures?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
It’s definitely evident, certainly in most industrialised countries.  So this is behaviour that is documented certainly throughout European countries, in Asian countries, the Americas.  It wouldn’t surprise me that this is a universal behaviour.  How it’s constructed might differ culturally though.So an interesting example of this cultural difference if you like is in Italy they have anti-stalking legislation but really what they conceptualise as stalking is a stranger harassing another person and even more specifically a strange man harassing a woman.  But if you were to ask your average Italian person, is it stalking for an ex husband to pursue his wife, you will start to see a degree of equivocation there.  Even more so if you suggest what about asking or pursuing a woman for a date?  That might just be related to more traditional or patriarchal societies where they struggle with that concept a bit more.

JENNIFER COOK
Rosie, you make an interesting comment on star stalking and culture’s uneasy relationship with fame.  Could you tell us about that?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Look, these magazines that are devoted to celebrities, public figures, your Who weekly’s, all of those sorts of things, they sell by the truckload because people are interested in celebrities.  So we have this interest.  We want to know everything about them but we then have this uneasiness that to do that we have paparazzi, some of who have been referred to as stalkerazzi in the US because their methods are simply so intrusive.We have seen examples of this here with Nicole Kidman in Sydney a number of years ago where she had to and successfully got intervention orders.  So on the one hand, as a society, we want to know everything about these people but we feel uneasy with those intrusions into their privacy. And when the shoe is on the other foot with us, we equally feel that level of unease and conflict.  I think social media is a classic example of how that is playing out now that young people especially, they want to put their lives on Facebook and share all of their information and this has obviously been wildly popular with the scale.  On the same level though, this is giving an avenue to people to take advantage of the level of intimacy we have into people’s lives.

JENNIFER COOK
And then there’s the surprise when that happens, when they have put all their information there and like an outrage that their privacy has been intruded.  Would you say that’s the case?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Absolutely, some of it is probably naivete that when someone posts something they are thinking it’s only being looked at by their close friends or family for example, but it’s the reality that this can be viewed by anyone and some people can have malicious intent in how they use that information.  So there is this uneasy balance now in terms of sharing that but also wanting to have reigns on privacy.

JENNIFER COOK
What can you tell us about cyber stalking?  Does it have its own particular pathology?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Not really.  Our research seems to show that cyber stalking is simply another tool in the stalker’s armour.  So they will continue to harass people offline if you like, but they will be using online methods to gather information for example to learn about the victim’s routine via Facebook or other means.

JENNIFER COOK
So Rosie, if you are stalked, what should you do or what should you not do?

ROSEMARY PURCELL
The number one thing that all victims should do is very clearly communicate as early as possible that they don’t want these behaviours to continue.  We say that because it’s something that often isn't done, usually because of fear.  The victim is frightened, they don’t want to have any contact but it is important that it is communicated, I don’t want this or I don’t want you in my life and I want it to cease.If someone persists beyond that then you know that there are going to be other measures that you will have to take and what we would strongly recommend is seek support from family or friends.  Don’t feel like you have to go this alone or that you are the only one.  This is as we said, sadly not uncommon in our society.  And pursue things like legal avenues.  You don’t always have to involve the police but you can get some advice around that.  And there are a number of organisations online that can direct people to what to do in their particular circumstance.
JENNIFER COOK
And in your research you have said that often the strongest response is no response.  

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Yes, it sounds counter intuitive to some people but often the best thing to do is simply never respond to any of the stalker’s contact.  So one of the classic examples is if you have someone harassing you on the phone, people will often ignore the first call, the second call, the third call, but by the 20th call they might be fed up, answer the phone, scream at the stalker to leave them alone. And unfortunately all that’s done is communicated to the stalker, 20 calls will get a bite out of them.So it’s very important that no contact, no confrontation rule is used after you have communicated, I want this to end.

JENNIFER COOK
So an enormous amount of self possession you have to display and to do that you are going to need support.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
Absolutely, yeah.

JENNIFER COOK
Rosemary, thank you so much for joining us on Up Close today.

ROSEMARY PURCELL
My pleasure again.  Thank you.

JENNIFER COOK
That was Associate Professor Rosemary Purcell, a forensic psychologist at the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne.  Rosemary was speaking with us today on the issue of stalking.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne Australia.  This episode was recorded on Tuesday, 26 June 2012 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Jennifer Cook and until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You have been listening to Up Close.  We are also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


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