CLEVELAND, Ohio — Every day, women live with fear. It’s not paralyzing, but it’s omnipresent — whether you’re walking out of work in the dark or asking a friend to watch your drink.
“Ask any woman you know. You always have a plan,” said Mary Dickson, who worked on a PBS documentary about women and fear in 1996. Nothing’s changed since then, she says.
The fear is low hum beneath the music of your regular life, implanted in your teenage years. You’re afraid a strange man will attack you.
So you don’t run at night.
You don’t park in a public garage.
You don’t enter an elevator already occupied by a single man.
You don’t leave a party without your friends.
Violent crime victims are more often men than women, according to the National Institute of Justice. But women are more scared — likely because of their fear of rape bleeds into their fear of all crime.
Society “puts the burden on women to be really afraid,” said Jodi Lane, a University of Florida sociology professor.
Women feel “like it’s all my fault if something happens to me. Because I wore the wrong clothes or went to the wrong place or didn’t take a friend with me or I didn’t have Mace. We’re not focusing on the real problem, the men who victimize them,” she said.
How women can protect themselves online dating
Sociologists have been studying women and fear since the 1980s. The recent Netflix series “Unbelievable,” about the investigation of a serial rapist, has refreshed fear as a talking point.
“Women don’t walk around this country feeling safe,” Hillary Kelly writes in New York magazine. “We hold our keys between our fingers on dark streets and wonder if we’ll have to use them to wield off attackers. We keep our drinks pressed tight to our bodies at parties and bars. We fake phone calls to keep strange men at bay. We take longer routes home to walk under streetlights. We text friends from bus stops and after we’ve locked our front doors. We turn on location-sharing lest a date turn ugly or violent. We reconsider running shorts when it’s blazing hot just to keep the catcallers silent. We do a goddamn ton of the work to keep men from touching us in the ways we don’t want to be touched. Frankly, it’s exhausting.”
Women, you’re probably nodding along. Men, maybe this will be enlightening.
What are women afraid of?
A 2003 academic study, which used the Canadian Violence Against Women Survey, found these statistics:
- 53.1 percent of women reported violent incident in last 12 months
- 66.4 percent of women were followed in a way that frightened them
- 32.4 percent of women received unwanted attention from a stranger
- 10 percent of women stated they had taken a self-defense course over their lifetime.
- 31.5 percent of women reported they avoided walking by boys or men
- 61.6 percent reported usually or always checking the back seat of their car before driving away
See an editorial cartoon about the perspective of a man and woman walking into a parking garage at night.
Maybe nothing would have happened with the women being followed, or receiving unwanted attention. But women still fear the encounters. And they’re not about to call out men on their behavior because they don’t want to make them angry.
Why do women try not to make men angry?
As author Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Women avoid making men angry, so they don’t get hurt, Jennifer Wright wrote in Harper’s Bazaar.
“We learn to pacify men whenever possible. We tell them that we have a boyfriend rather than saying we’re just not attracted to them. We avert all eye contact with people catcalling us from their cars so as not to encourage them. We certainly don’t yell that they’re being inappropriate back at them,” Wright wrote.
Women focus on getting through a bad situation, rather than correcting a man’s behavior. The avoidance is self-preservation.
“Ask a man to tell you about his worst date and he’ll tell you a funny story about a lady who showed up dressed as a cat,” Wright writes. “Ask a woman to tell you about her worst date and she’ll tell you about a man who followed her home shouting that she was a whore.”
Why are women afraid?
Women’s experiences, obviously, influence their level of fear.
Women are more likely than men to be domestically abused. So if they’re hurt by men they love, they’re afraid strangers could hurt them, too, Lane said.
There are other reasons, though, that women live with more fear than men do.
- Women are scared any crime could lead to rape. “The fear of sexual assault is shadowing every other fear,” Lane said. Men are not nearly as likely to be raped as women.
- Women are physically weaker than men. Women fear they can’t fight off an attacker, especially as they get older.
- Women are socialized to be afraid. “All the things parents tell their children socializes them that they should be responsible for their own safety,” Lane said. “We socialize girls to be terrified. We socialize boys to be tough.”
Violence may be relatively rare, but news stories – such as one in 2015, when a woman was raped in Cleveland’s Edgewater neighborhood while jogging at 5:30 a.m. or this week, a man accused of groping at woman at a concert – are horrifying. Women don’t want to be the next victim of a random crime.
What are women taught?
Some of the socialization of fear is so common it’s become common sense, Dickson said. Women are taught not to draw attention to themselves. They’re taught to walk fast, call a friend while they’re walking alone, arrange to meet a first date in daylight, in a public place.
“It does sort of alter some of your plans,” Dickson said. “It doesn’t mean you have to stay home. It just means you’re a lot more sensible and aware.”
Does teaching women to be cautious, though, put the onus on them to not get victimized? Is there another solution?
Dickson believes we have an opportunity to teach men to be more cognizant of their actions and how they affect women. Colleges are addressing the issue of consent by teaching “Yes means yes.”
“We need to make them more sensitive and empathetic, to tell the men in our lives, this is why women are afraid,” she said. “If we want it to be better, it’s up to honorable men to call out other men.”