What is the difference between Harassment and Stalking?

Philip Grindell
Written by Philip Grindell
what is the difference between harassment and stalking?

There is generally a good deal of confusion about the difference between harassment and stalking, including by law enforcement and lawyers.

This report will provide some clarity, based on UK legislation, on the differences with some greater details focussed on stalking which generally poses the greater risk.

Both harassment and stalking are criminal offences in the UK and are covered by The Protection of Harassment Act 1997. The fact is that the Stalking offence was added to this Act and done poorly, and unhelpfully stalking is not defined, with constant referrals to harassment not making it any easier to define.

Section 2 offence – Harassment

The elements of section 2 offence are:

  • a course of conduct;
  • which amounts to harassment of another; and
  • which the defendant knows, or ought to know amounts to harassment of another.

Section 2A offence – Stalking

The elements of the section 2A offence are:

  • a course of conduct
  • which is in breach of section 1(1) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (i.e. a course of conduct which amounts to harassment) and
  • the course of conduct amounts to stalking.

The first thing to recognise is that both offences require a ‘course of conduct’. In essence that means it has to happen on at least two occasions. Clearly, the more it happens the more serious it may be considered.


Harassment includes repeated attempts to impose ‘unwanted communications and contact’ upon someone and which is likely to cause distress or fear in them. It has to be targeted at that person (or a group) and the person harassing is likely to know that what they are harassing the other person. Naturally, they are likely to deny they knew that, so this excuse is removed by the term ‘ought to now’ added. Good evidence of this is that the person being harassed can evidence that they have asked that the unwanted communication stops, and it then continues.

In real terms this will be unwanted emails, text messages, phone calls or letters send from one person to another, and that unwanted communication causes the recipient to be distressed by this. There is an excuse for this should the contact be for a lawful purpose, as in to collect a debt or enforce a law.


As stated previously, this is poorly defined. In essence is says that it must be harassment and it must be stalking…helpful!

Suzy Lamplugh Trust defines stalking as ‘A pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent, intrusive and causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim.’

In simple terms, stalking is following a person, watching or spying on them or forcing contact with the victim through any means, including social media. The effect of this behaviour is to cause a change in behaviour on the part of the person being stalked, because they feel they are being watched – think of how you’d understand an animal stalking its prey and that goes some way to understand the difference.

The other difference between stalking and harassment is that stalkers are significantly more dangerous, and their behaviour had led to a number of murders.

In general terms roughly 80% of victims of stalking are female, this does mean however that despite only 20% of victims being men, men do get stalked. In terms of those who stalk, 86% are men. Both sexes can be both victims and stalkers.

The sort of behaviours that may be seen include;

    • unwanted or malicious communication
    • assault
    • unwanted attention from somebody seeking a romantic relationship
    • violent predatory behaviour
    • sending gifts which are unwanted
    • persistently following someone
    • repeatedly going uninvited to their home
    • monitoring someone’s use of the internet, email or other form of electronic communication
    • loitering somewhere frequented by the person
    • interfering with or damaging their property
    • watching or spying on someone
    • identity theft


Cyber stalking is conducting stalking online, and will often be part of other tactics used to stalk offline, behaviours may include:

  • Identity theft
  • Posting false profiles online
  • Publishing material relating to the victim online
  • Direct threats through digital means e.g. texts, messages, phone calls, faxes, social media etc.
  • Using technology to track their victim.

Stalking can occur over short periods or over years and even decades, so any investigation must be seen as a possible long-term investment and it should be understood that the ‘stalker’ might be considered to have stopped when in fact they have just paused. Stalkers rarely just stop! Risk assessment must be subject to regular and ongoing review.

Another challenge with stalkers is that they often move their focus from their initial target to others, such as the investigator, lawyer or friend who is seen to intervene.

Types of Stalkers

 Study of Stalkers‘ (1999) Mullen, Pathe, Purcell and Stuart identified there to be 5 types of stalkers, each driven by a differing motivation.

  • the Rejected Stalker commences stalking after the breakdown of an important relationship that was usually, but not always, sexually intimate in nature. In this group the stalking reflects a desire for reconciliation, revenge, or a fluctuating mixture of both; This is common among domestic relationships and has resulted in a number of well publicised murders.
  • the Intimacy Seeker desires a relationship with someone who has engaged his or her affection and who, he or she is convinced, already does, or will, reciprocate that love despite obvious evidence to the contrary; this is common among celebrities  and are usually strangers to the stalker who believes they know and love.
  • the Incompetent Suitor also engages in stalking to establish a relationship. However, unlike the Intimacy Seeker, he or she is simply seeking a date or a sexual encounter; Their behaviour is driven by loneliness or lust and targets strangers or acquaintances
  • the Resentful Stalker sets out to frighten and distress the victim to exact revenge for an actual or supposed injury. Resentful are differentiated from Rejected Stalkers in that the cause of their resentment does not lie in rejection from an intimate relationship. They feel as though they have been mistreated or that they are the victim of some form of injustice or humiliation.
  • the Predatory Stalker engages in pursuit behaviour in order to obtain sexual gratification. Stalking is foreplay; the real goal is sexual assault. The stalking may have a sadistic quality to it. For example, some predatory stalkers mess with their victim’s minds by leaving subtle clues that they are being followed without revealing their identity


Risk Factors:

The risks to a person from a stalker should never be underestimated. There is a number of cases where evidence of stalking existed and yet was not recognised, and resulted in a preventable murder being committed. It is for this reason why it is important to recognise the difference between harassment and stalking. Misdiagnosing stalking as harassment can have fatal consequences.

The stalker’s previous behaviour towards the victim is key to their future behaviour during the period they are stalking.

Risk factors that are specific to the relationship between the stalker and victim should be key elements of any stalking assessment, include

  • previous violence towards the victim(s) (during the stalking episode or before),
  • threats or fantasies of harming them,
  • delusional beliefs incorporating the victim,
  • damage to the victim’s property, and
  • behaviours that put them in close proximity to the victim.
  • beaching of any injunctions or orders

These issues are relevant to the person being stalked but not necessarily to the wider community.

Stalking Protection Order:

An SPO is a civil order which will include prohibitions not to do certain things, requirements to do certain things – as well as notification requirements to provide their name and address, and if required, their fingerprints, DNA or photograph within three days of the service of the order.

It is intended to prevent a defendant from carrying out acts associated with stalking.

Philip Grindell, founder and CEO has a multi-faceted background which includes threat intelligence, risk management, protective security, and expertise in analysing and predicting the behaviour of stalkers including qualifying in Stalking Risk Profile.

Dr Lorraine Sheridan, a partner in Defuse, is a Chartered Forensic Psychologist. She completed Europe’s first PhD on stalking. Lorraine has so far published five books and more than 80 academic research papers on a range of topics relating to stalking and other forms of threatening behaviour.


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