When Women Stalk Women

Copyright © 2016, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

Sadly, we're all too familiar with tales of stalking.  One needs only to turn on popular movie channels to see fictional tales of obsession, menace, and intrigue.  Many of these stories appear on women's network programs and may involve men stalking women or women stalking men.  A tragic real life case of stalking was that of Rebecca Schaeffer.  Schaeffer was a rising young actress (best known for her role in “My Sister Sam”) who was shot and killed at the entryway to her apartment in 1989.  Her murderer, Robert John Bardo, had been stalking her for three years.  He had tried unsuccessfully to approach her on the Warner Brothers set where she was filming.  He eventually hired a private detective to obtain Schaeffer's home address, went to her apartment and was asked not to return.  He returned an hour later and shot her at point blank range.  Interestingly, Bardo had previously stalked another actress who died in a plane crash.  It was then that he turned his attention to Schaeffer.

Most of us are also familiar with the movie, “Fatal Attraction”, in which Glenn Close becomes infatuated with Michael Douglas and ends up stalking him and his family, with predictably disastrous consequences.  The movie serves as a morality play for Douglas' character, in that what he thinks will be a brief torrid affair while his family is out of town ends in tragedy.  Glenn Close plays the prototypical “woman scorned” in this film.

Technical definitions of stalkers emphasize that the behavior is intentional, that it is malicious, intended to cause harm or distress, and that it is repetitive.    Other studies have extensively profiled both the perpetrators and the victims of stalking in terms of age, gender, education, history of abuse, and drug use, among other factors.

But what about women stalking women?

There can certainly be sexual/romantic motives when one woman stalks another.  An obvious example of this would be a lesbian attraction to another woman.  In this sense, there's a similarity to heterosexual stalking.   The primary motivation is to have an intimate relationship with the person being stalked.  The thinking often goes something like this:  If only she really knew me/if only I had the chance/I could make her take me seriously and she would love me.  The messages can be conveyed by phone, email, text, or face-to-face in a workplace or social situation.  The stalker may drive by the home or office of the woman she's obsessed with.  She may follow her to her gym or the grocery, etc.  In other words, she may become quite familiar with the woman's routine in order to observe her or even “accidentally” run into her and appear pleasantly surprised.

A notorious example of a woman stalking another woman is the case of Lisa Nowak and Colleen Shipman.  Nowak was an astronaut who participated in the 2006 space shuttle Discovery mission.  On this assignment, Nowak was responsible for operating the robotic arms of the shuttle and the International Space Station.

Nowak was married and the mother of three children.  She engaged in a two-year affair with astronaut William Oefelein, who was divorced.  Oefelein ended the affair and began a relationship with Air Force captain, Colleen Shipman.  The story of Nowak's cross-country trek, supposedly wearing diapers so as to avoid stops along the way, received major media attention.  Nowak did, in fact, confront Shipman in an Orlando airport, but Shipman escaped physical harm.  Nowak had with her a significant number of items that suggested she intended to at least harm—if not worse—Shipman. 

The outcome of the “astronaut in diapers” story had a predictably sad ending.  Nowak was dismissed from the Navy under “other than honorable conditions.”  Oefelein's relationship with NASA was severed, and Shipman, after having her Air Force responsibilities reduced, retired in 2008.  Richard and Lisa Nowak divorced in 2008.

Another notorious stalking case was that of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old who committed suicide after being repeatedly harassed online by the mother of a friend.  Lori Drew, the mother of Sarah Drew, created a false Myspace account and posed as a boy who expressed interest in Megan.  In point of fact, Lori Drew used the content of the messages to glean information about Megan with the intent to use it to humiliate the girl.  Drew believed that Megan had spread gossip about Sarah.

Megan committed suicide shortly before her fourteenth birthday.  In spite of attempts to keep the story quiet during police investigation, news of Drew's use of the fake Myspace account and her intent leaked out, with the result that she and her business were shunned by the local community.  Her daughter, Sarah, began attending school in another town.  Based on laws in place at the time, Lori Drew was not prosecuted, but the high-profile case led to extensive evaluation of laws against harassment and cyberbulling.      

Other types of female-female stalking might include envy which is expressed in passive-aggressive fashion.  An example would be workplace behavior designed to sabotage another woman's professional reputation or job security.  This could be accomplished via malicious gossip, misplacing critical documents, failing to relay important messages, not informing a superior of important meetings, etc.  The common denominator here is one employee intentionally undermining another's status and position.  And while the stalker's behavior may be fueled by intense envy, the intent is always negative and malicious, designed to destroy or deprive the victim of something of value to her, in this case the perception that she is highly competent, costing her her reputation and perhaps even her job.

Another example of female-female stalking might be in a strictly social setting.  For example, a new family moves into a settled neighborhood.  There is a group of women who have been friends for several years.  The established group is curious about the newcomer, wants to get to know her and welcome her to the neighborhood.  Understandably, less attention is directed toward longstanding members of the group for a while.  One woman in particular seems a bit jealous about this and perhaps even perceives the new neighbor as a threat to her status in the group.  She may develop vengeful feelings toward the “intruder” in her social network.

This group member may respond in a number of ways, ranging from ignoring the new member to becoming intrusive and even harassing.  For example, she may show an inordinate interest in the new woman's family and lifestyle, paying close attention to when she's at home, perhaps even rifling  through her mailbox.  She may google the woman, her husband, even her children.  She may track her and her relationships on Facebook and other social media.

The role of technology and social media can't be overstated here.  In years past, stalking and harassment may have taken the form of phone calls in which the caller never identified herself, but perhaps just listened to the victim asking, “Who's calling?  Who is this?  What do you want?”  Or the stalker may have delivered a threatening message such as, “If you know what's good for you, you'll stay away from my boyfriend,” or “I'm watching you and can find you any time,” or “I'm parked outside your kids' school right now,” or “I know you're having problems at work; I could take your job any time.”  The role of various electronic devices and social media in stalking has grown exponentially. 

A word of clarification is in order here.  Note: People often use the terms “jealousy” and “envy” interchangeably.  In fact, however, they refer to different kinds of experiences.  “Jealousy” refers to the perceived threat of loss of something of value, often a spouse or partner.  An example would be a spouse who feels threatened by a husband's or wife's relationship with a coworker.  “Envy”, on the other hand, has to do with an individual's desire to acquire the perceived characteristics or status of another, for example, a job, a family situation, appearance, accomplishments, etc.  So, the fundamental difference is fear of loss of what one has (jealousy) versus desire to acquire what another person has (envy). 

In summary, stalking is a deliberate act which is fueled by obsession with another person.  It may be an obsession with the target's personal or professional life and may be driven by the desire to damage some part of the target's life, or perhaps by a fantasized relationship with the target.  There are now anti-stalking laws in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

1.  J.R. Meloy (American Journal of Psychotherapy.  Spring 1997; 51(2):  174-84.)
2.  J.R. Meloy and C. Boyd (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law.  2003.  31(2):  211-219.)