Report explores intimate partner stalking

Tue 15 Oct 2019

A new research report by the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges explores intimate partner stalking.

The research examines victims' experiences of stalking including how stalking manifests, harm from stalking, responses from frontline workers and police, and the effectiveness of the legislative and judicial system responses.

The report, Relentless not Romantic; Intimate Partner Stalking (2019) summarises findings from a survey of 712 victims (96% of whom were women), 18 interviews with victims and four interviews with advocates.

The detailed report starts with an overview of stalking and current challenges in effectively addressing stalking behaviour. The research findings are then outlined in six parts:

  • victims' experiences of stalking (including context, connections to other types of abuse, tactics, and the stalkers)
  • impacts on victims
  • pathways to safety and justice
  • tha language used to talk about stalking, including myths that contribute to the problem and that prevent victims from seeking or obtaining effective help
  • legislative context and judicial responses
  • support services.

The report combines data from the survey with quotes and examples from respondents. 

Stalking and impacts

Findings included that talking tactics occurred on a wide continuum and included both subtle and overt stalking, often escalating to physical or sexual violence. The authors group the wide range of tactics used into categories: intrusive contact, monitoring/surveillance, intimidation and violence, and life sabotage. Features that were common across victims' experiences include "... insidious regular contact, jealousy and control as the orienting features of perceived motivation." This was often part of a broader range of behaviours related to power and control.

Victims experienced negative impacts on their mental and emotional health, economic instability and social exclusion from personal relationships and online connections. The impacts of stalking often led victims to return to abusers:

"Staying in the relationship or returning to the relationship was often regarded as safer than leaving. In living with the abuser, victims could to some degree anticipate stalkers’ abuse and found comfort in the predictability. Conversely, staying out of the relationship with stalking ex-partners meant constant vigilance, vulnerability, and the feeling that danger could erupt at any moment."

Responses to disclosure and help-seeking

Findings included that victims reported some positive experiences of seeking help, but in many cases described "overwhelmingly negative" experiences. They identified a number of barriers to disclosure:

"... including a fear of escalation, the belief that it would not change anything, feeling responsible for adverse outcomes the stalker may face, and concern that telling people what was happening would not engender a supportive response."

When victims disclosed or sought help, they often described responses that minimised, denied, or legitimised the stalking. These experiences occurred among service providers, police and the community including family and friends. The researchers identify a set of five common myths about stalking which they argue contribute to these responses and need to be systematically deconstructed:

  • “He just contacts you out of love.”
  • “His anger is just romantic jealousy.”
  • “It’ll go away if you don’t feed the fire.”
  • “The hysterical/paranoid woman.”
  • “If it was that bad, victims would call Police.”

Just over half of the respondents reported the stalking to police. Both victims and advocates identified positive and improved responses from police over time. However, they also identified that the police responses commonly put the onus on victims to provide evidence and were less likely to pursue criminal action when the stalking “… either followed unreported physical violence or which was manifestly insidious in nature and did not feature specific and explicit threats."

Support services were often considered valuable, particularly family violence specialist services and counsellors, but the researchers identified that service providers need specific training in understanding stalking and the complexity of risk and managing safety, particularly in relation to technology-facilitated stalking. Victims discussed what responses would have been helpful, which grouped under the following categories: "belief and validation, social work support, practical safety help, better investigation and monitoring, and counselling/psychotherapy."  

The findings also summarise the features of helpful services and key actions for advocates to effectively respond to victims. The researchers use findings from the study and other research related to risk and safety to develop a risk matrix that identifies risk factors related to the stalker, victim, and the stalking pattern and relationship context.

Systems for addressing stalking

Victims describe challenges with inadequate systems when they sought help to stop the stalker including:

  • the sometimes subtle nature of stalking behaviour can make it difficult to document adequate evidence for criminal action
  • the challenge of being able to demonstrate sufficient severity across a range of experiences to obtain police involvement
  • the responsibility often falling on victims to implement safety strategies
  • the arbitrary split between digital harassment and other forms of abuse, e.g. the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 and Netsafe address digital harassment, but other forms of stalking must be addressed through the Harassment Act 1997 or Family Violence Act 2018.

The researchers highlighted challenges with the legislation: 

"Stalking is not explicitly referenced in Aotearoa’s harassment legislation, but many stalking-type behaviours are prohibited by way of the Harassment Act 1997. However, the greater part of this legislation is civil; it sets out victims’ rights to obtain a restraining order. This is unobtainable by victims of partner violence, who must instead obtain a protection order, for which the threshold of harm is significantly higher. Victims’ reports to police were rarely met with court charges against the stalkers, and many were unable to access protection orders on the basis of stalking alone. Those who did have protection orders found these were unreliably upheld and consequently not usually effective at curbing the stalking. The legislative framework covering stalking could potentially be strengthened by introducing a new stalking offence that better captures the dynamics typical of intimate partner abusers or by reconsidering the artificial split between protection and restraining orders." 

The report's discussion of the legislation explores the overlap and challenges of addressing stalking in the Family Court, as well as considerations in anti-stalking legislation.

For related research, search our NZFVC Library using the keyword 'stalking'

Update: Also see the article The criminal justice system response to intimate partner stalking: a systematic review of quantitative and qualitative research (2020) published in the Journal of Family Violence.

Related media

The stalking was so bad, she thought he would kill her. The law couldn't help, Stuff, 22.08.2021

Family violence tech stalkers are about to be caught out, Sydney Morning Herald, 20.02.2021

Christchurch night stalker: Police considering appeal against community detention for man who 'stalked' ex wife for two years, NZ Herald, 17.02.2021

Justice Minister open to reviewing laws affecting victims of stalking, RNZ, 20.08.20

Calls for stalking law as lockdown raises concerns for victims: "We have no protection.", RNZ, 19.08.2020

I complained about my stalker, over and over again. Then he killed, The Spinoff, 11.08.2020

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Alison Mau: The cycle of silencing victims is beyond frustrating, Stuff, 10.11.2019

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Survey prompts call to add stalking to Harassment Act, RNZ, 15.10.2019

'I'm going to die without you': Stalkers' reign of terror, Stuff, 15.10.2019

Sean Plunket: Listener shares nightmare story of how she was stalked by an obsessive and abusive partner, Magic Radio, 15.10.2019 (content warning)

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Calls for better protection for women being stalked by an ex-partner, Newshub, 14.10.2019

Dunedin hockey umpire's breach of protection order ends sport career, NZ Herald, 09.10.2019

Image: Skitterphoto from Pexels

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