An underlying fear of rape

“A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool must be held in awe, for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness born of harmful intent.” – Susan  Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape

Today is day one of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence. In commemoration, I want to briefly touch on the direct connection between gender violence and street harassment (I explore it in depth in my forthcoming book on street harassment).

Most women worry about rape, particularly when they are alone.  For example, in their book The Female Fear: The Social Cost of Rape, Margaret T. Gordon and Stephanie Riger found that one-third of the women they studied reported worrying at least once a month about being raped. A third of the women said that their fear of rape is ‘part of the background’ of their lives and ‘one of those things that’s always there.’ Another third claimed they never worried about rape but still reported taking precautions, unconsciously or consciously, to try to avoid being raped.

Women fear stranger rape the most. While women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by people they know than by strangers, 27 percent of reported rapes are perpetrated by strangers (see RAINN stats). Add to this reality the fact that male stranger-perpetrated rapes are the type we hear about the most in the news and see on tv shows or movies (see The Female Fear) and they are the type that tend to be random, and it is no wonder women fear them more.

The fear of strange rape impacts how women feel in public. A study by Canadian sociologists Ross MacMillan, Annette Nierobisz, and Sandy Welsh of over 12,000 Canadian women showed that stranger harassment and assault has a more consistent and significant impact on women’s fears in public than non-stranger harassment and assault. This fear significantly reduces women’s perceptions of safety while walking alone at night, using public transportation, walking alone in a parking garage, and while home alone at night (p 315, 319).

Women’s fear of stranger harassment and assault came up many times in  stories written by women who took my 2008 informal online survey, which I conducted for my book on street harassment. For example, one woman wrote:

“I always feel uncomfortable when I am out alone at night in my neighborhood. As every man walks past me, I silently evaluate how likely he is to rape me and what I would do if that happened. I always notice how many people are around, what their gender is, etc.”

Also contributing to women’s fears of stranger assault is the fact that rapists don’t wear signs. Marilyn French wrote in The War Against Women, “Women are afraid in a world in which almost half the population bears the guise of the predator, in which no factor – age, dress, or color – distinguishes a man who will harm a woman for one who will not” (197).

Consequently, women do not know which man who approaches her in public is a threat. Cynthia Grant Bowman, author of “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women,” found that when women discussed their feelings about street harassment, they usually cited their fear of rape. In her book Back Off! how to confront and stop sexual harassment and harassers, Martha Langelan wrote that for women, an underlying tension is always wondering how far the harasser will go, will he become violent? (p 41) In the conclusion to Gardner’s book Passing By: Gender and Public Harassment she wrote that “it is impossible to state too strongly how constant the theme of fear was” among the nearly 300 women she interviewed in Indianapolis regarding male harassment (p 240).

This underlying fear of rape is particularly acute in several circumstances:

  • if the woman is alone
  • if the man approaches the woman in an isolated area
  • if it is dark out
  • if the man is larger than the woman is or is otherwise in a position of power (for example in a car while she is on foot)
  • if there are several men versus one woman
  • if the woman has been assaulted or seriously harassed in the past
  • if the woman knows that another woman has been raped or assaulted in the area

Even if the man has innocent intentions, a woman does not know that and may be wary, particularly in the circumstances outlined above. (Incidentally, most men harass women when women are alone and may do so in packs, so already they are creating a circumstance where women are more fearful.)

Men, this is the reality that many women live in. As it relates to how you interact with women in public, try not to approach or talk to a woman who is alone (or in the other circumstances listed above). Also, be respectful of her as a person. She may be occupied or in a hurry and have no desire to talk to strangers so make sure approaching her is absolutely necessary before you do so (such as to ask directions). If you are trying to “pick her up,” note that not all women are interested in men, many women are already in a relationship, and many of the remaining women are wary about giving out information to complete strangers they see on the street. So please consider not doing so (and I’m not talking about bars or clubs but places like streets, bus stops, subway cars, grocery stores, and malls). And if you do try to pick her up and she ignores you or does not agree to go out with you etc, do not call her a bitch or a ho or stuck up.

Please see “How to Talk to Women in Public” (which includes a link to the most excellent blog post on Shapely Prose, “Schrodinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced”) for more.

On other days during the 16 Days, I will write on this year’s theme, Commit, Act, Demand: We CAN End Violence Against Women!, about the ways we can work to end male harassment and assault of women strangers in public spaces.

2 Responses to An underlying fear of rape

  1. Jay says:

    As a guy, I fully understand a woman’s concern for safety. No woman has a right to feel uncomfortable doing her daily errands and such.
    Men that catcall, follow women around, make crude and demeaning comments are emotionally stunted boys that never learned proper manners growing up.

    With that being said, I don’t think its fair to generalize all women not wanting to be approached. From my experience, women have generally been warm to me talking to them in public places….ironically the more attractive ones also. I enjoy interacting with people in general so I never go in with expectations with anything more than just a friendly chat. If something romantic or intimate comes out of it, cool. Otherwise, I chalk it up to making a new friend.

    I know I am probably in the slim minority of guys that “get it.” I really get pissed when a bunch of losers have to give the rest of us good guys a bad rap. Too much ego and male entitlement in our gender, sorry ladies…

  2. Great points by both. It is sad that such a few guys give all guys a bad rap, but it is even sadder that a few guys make almost all women afraid!

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