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Tolbert’s Research Aimed At Helping Stalking Victims

Published: October 3, 2011

Criminal Justice’s Tracy Tolbert pursues research aimed at helping the 3.4 million Americans over the age of 18 who find or have found themselves victims of one of the most deadly and predatory forms of criminal behavior—stalking.

“According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, three in four stalking victims are pursued by someone they know. Thirty percent are pursued by a current or former `intimate partner,’” said Tolbert, a member of the university since 1997. “Only 10 percent are stalked by strangers. Persons between 18 and 24 experience the highest rate of stalking. Eleven percent of victims have been stalked for more than five years. Forty-six percent of victims experience at least one unwanted contact per week. One in four victims reported they were stalked through the use of e-mail or instant messaging. Ten percent of victims report being monitored by global positioning satellites and eight percent by video, digital cameras or listening devices.”

Tolbert believes these statistics constitute only the tip of the iceberg. Forty-six percent of stalking victims fear not knowing what will happen next and 29 percent fear it will never stop. One in eight employed stalking victims lose time from work as a result of their victimization and more than half lose five days of work or more. One in seven victims relocated as a result of their victimization. “It is interesting to note, then, that the prevalence of anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction and severe depression is much higher among stalking victims than the general population, especially if the stalking involves being followed or having one’s property destroyed,” she added.

Tolbert dates her interest in the stalking phenomena to a 2008 conversation with a male colleague who revealed he was victimized by a female stalker. Until that conversation, she, like so many, adhered to the idea that the stalker was male. Tolbert cited the 1980s murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer who was gunned down at her front door by a love obsessed stalker.

“All evidence of this predatory act directed our attention to the stalker as a male,” she said.”Stalking does not occur in a vacuum. Stalking, like robbery, homicide and pedophilia, is a ‘direct contact predatory crime which comes together in time and space to form temporal relationships. This is where motivated offenders select suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians.’ This school of thought, which is very much influenced by the theory, Routine Activities Approach by Lawrence E. Cohen and Marcus Felson in 1979, leaves little room to assume that predatory patterns of these types are the domicile of girls and women.”

Yet the series of events described by her colleague provided an epistemological shift in Tolbert’s thinking, particularly since the female stalker exhibited the same, if not greater, degree of sexual terrorism and psychopathic manifestation as any male stalker on or off the record. “Since stalking is a predatory act committed by both genders, I feel it is a much more complicated phenomenon than previously thought,” she said.

Her research now seeks to overturn gender stereotypes relating to the victimology of stalking. “Criminal behavior is just that — and nothing more than criminal behavior. Violence is violence no matter who commits it,” she said. “It is essential that we advance into a broader range of discourse on the issue of stalking as a non-gendered form of predatory behavior.”

Tolbert suggests that the criminal justice system in the U.S. is stuck in the 20th century.

“Much of what we know about criminal behavior is grounded in theories and methods that emerge as part of a post-industrial mindset,” she explained. “Here the criminal class is represented by men who stand at the periphery of society, i.e., the mad and the bad, and are therefore the only group capable of violent crimes. The academy needs to address stalking from a 21st century perspective. While the stalker stereotype continues for the most part to be male and the victim is female, it is obvious that the roles can reverse and that men can be just as afraid as women. This phenomenon speaks to the true nature of the predatory mindset.”

Tracy Tolbert
Tracey Tolbert

She also feels that a worldwide crisis is already in motion when it comes to stalking. “It happens in all nations and all cultures,” she said. “Stalking is a crime under the laws of 50 states, D.C., the U.S. territories and the federal government. Yet less than a third of states classify stalking as a felony upon a first offense. More than half of the states classify stalking as a felony upon the second or subsequent offense or when the crime involves aggravating factors.”

She suggests that researchers in the new century must look at stalking from an entirely different perspective.

“We used to understand predators from certain sociological and psychological parameters. However a new school of thought related to forensic psychology provides a more critical pathway to understanding the cause and effects of stalking as a non-gendered phenomenon,” she said. “While we are careful to eschew theories of biological determinism as a cause of predatory behavior, the field is now open to examining physical characteristics such as brain chemistry, DNA and hormones on the development of human personality.”

Tolbert believes that stalkers are created by more than just environmental forces. “New technology related to MRIs and brain mapping, for example, give researchers the ability to develop a language and understanding of how to predetermine anger, aggression and predatory tendencies in both women and men,” she said. “Although the technology is still in developmental stages, studying the pathology of the potential offender, regardless of gender, provides a much needed framework for preventing future acts.”

A major weapon against stalkers is education. Tolbert suggests that educators need to understand how to recognize temporal relationships where stalking manifests as a daily occurrence. These patterns are readily seen in our day-to-day activities, at home, at work, at school, church, parties and social life in general. “We all want to be loved,” she laughs, “but it’s one thing to pursue the object of your love within the context of normal relationships but it’s another when the pursuit is rife with obsession and an inability of the object to take no for an answer. Yet we fail to interpret this behavior as predatory in nature, thus mistaking it for love, when it is nothing more than obsession, which can be fatal. We want to build research models and media designed for prevention and intervention before someone else dies.” While much work is needed in this area, she feels certain that education is the key to curtailing future acts of stalking.

Tolbert is a native of Cleveland but spent many years in Chicago and South Bend, Ind., where she served as a police officer (1986-92) and earned her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees at Indiana University in 1992. She went on to earn her master’s degree in sociology in 1995, her graduate certificate in the study of women and men in society in 1996 and her doctorate in sociology from USC in 2002.

Tolbert has received several awards for outstanding teaching in academia and practices a pedagogy of critical thinking and empirical research within the classroom. She is the author of The Sex Crime Scenario from Kendall/Hunt in 2006. She has presented her research on stalking before the Association for Criminal Justice Research, the Western Society of Criminology and the American Criminal Justice Association. Currently, she is researching a paper titled “Love or Obsession: A Symbolic Interaction Approach to Research on Stalking.”