Have you changed your travel or walking route because you are afraid ? Have you avoided going out in the evening because you did not know how to get safely home ? Do you get nervous, late at night, when a man walks towards you, or when you hear footsteps behind you ? Have you avoided arguing with a man because you were worried about what he might do ? Have you in any way restricted your life because you were afraid of sexual assault, rape or any other form of male sexual violence ? Is your life constrained by a fear of being raped ? If yes, then you are not alone.
In recent years an intensified demand for security, safety and crime prevention has created an industry and generated business all over the world. While this growing industry is a response to the increased number of people who express feelings of insecurity and who regard violence and other forms of crime in public space as a serious problem, we might wonder whether the safety and crime prevention projects are aimed at the people who are most exposed to crime and violence, or whether safety has become a luxury for those who can afford it.
Governments all over the world are trying to gain control over the problem of crime and fear, and have adopted safer cities’ projects and crime prevention programmes to alleviate the fear of their citizens. The ‘built environment’ became during the 1980s an important aspect in these safer cities’ projects.
The focus on the built environment was part of an approach that involved a broad spectrum of crime-preventing agencies, including planners, architects and community groups, as well as the police force. Most crime prevention today is however focused on protecting property. Less prevention measures are undertaken to address peoples’ fear, and very few projects address fear as a result of, or in the context of social relations in general and gendered social relations in particular. The city has always been an important place for women’s empowerment and it still is. Hence, it is important that this safety work does not stigmatise urban life or keep women indoors, out of the streets.
When women’s fear of crime is discussed, different protective measures are considered as a means to alleviate women’s fear : Women should be protected as if they were a kind of property. More guards, more cameras, better locks or other forms of surveillance and protective measures will however not in a longterm perspective decrease women’s fear, as these measures will not increase the accessibility to the public space or create a more democratic society. Moreover, when solving the problem of fear by increased surveillance, we have to beware of who is being controlled, and who should be controlling whom. If we instead regard fear as a problem associated with power relations between men and women the focus will be different and we will be discussing accessibility instead of control, and a deeper understanding of how relations in public urban life are constructed will be gained. It is important that this shift of focus happens now before we have created a society where women become secluded to the private sphere and excluded from the public life.
Women need to take back the night and to take back the streets of their cities in their own way.
Fear is a subjective and ambivalent feeling. Sometimes, for example when we watch a horror movie, we want to experience fear. However, often we are afraid because we experience a threat to our lives or because we feel unsafe (and unable to protect ourselves). This perceived threat can become an obstacle in our everyday lives. When a woman experiences this kind of a threat, when she is afraid of sexual assault, rape or other forms of male sexual violence then the individual solution suggested to her by men tends to be protection by a man.
I argue that women’s fear of sexual assault has to be analysed in a structural way. Fear of sexual assault, rape or other forms of male sexual violence is the outcome of asymmetric power relations between men and women. This fear oppresses and subordinates all women. The solution cannot be for women to be protected by men. It is not a solution to be protected by the same power that induces the fear and that oppresses. This ‘solution’ only perpetuates women’s experience of being powerless.
Underestimation of Women’s Experience of Fear
Traditional statistical crime surveys from many parts of the world show that women fear crime more than men do, at the same time as women are less often victims of violence than men are. These macro-scale surveys indicate that while women fear sexual abuse or harassment, very few women are actually victims of sexual abuse or harassment. However, as women’s fear does not correspond to an actual real-life threat, women’s fear is often treated as ‘irrational’, and better information is proposed as the best response to the fear expressed by women.
Feminists have criticised these macro-scale crime surveys in terms of their definition of sexual violence and their interpretation of the fear experienced by women. Feminists have for example criticised these statistical surveys and argued against the common assumption that men are most often the victims of violent crime, and that therefore women’s fear is ‘irrational’, because much sexual violence is never reported. In addition, when women themselves are allowed to define what is sexual abuse, and when women’s experiences are used as the basis for the definitions the amount of reported sexual violence tends to rise. Feminists have also argued that as men go out more they expose themselves to more crimes, and that women - if they went out as much as men - would be just as likely as men to become victims of crime. Feminists have therefore used other methods to reveal the actual problems and consequences of women’s fear. Local surveys and interviews have for example revealed much higher rates of victimisation than macro-surveys show. Local victim surveys show that women are, proportionally, more likely to be the victims of crime than men ; that women experience a wider spectrum of crime and threat of crime than men and that women are the focus of particular kinds of crimes and threats.
Women often regard this fear and restriction of mobility as something normal. They develop coping strategies such as changing routes, or avoiding dangerous places at dangerous times, they also tend to dress in certain ways to look less vulnerable. The responsibility lies on the women. The ‘public blaming of victims’ who are regarded as having behaved in ‘dangerous’ or ‘inappropriate’ ways, through for instance, going to certain areas at night, also increase the fear and the restriction of mobility that women tend to put on themselves.
Women fear rape, and rape is a crime most likely to be committed by a man and affect a woman. This fear of rape leads to a spatial exclusion of women and it concerns all women despite career success and economic independence, ethnic background, age or sexual preference. In addition, this fear of male violence deters the majority of women from being socially independent of men. When women depend on men, patriarchy is maintained and perpetuated. This also means that women not only perceive space differently to men, but also experience the environment differently, when the space of women is invaded.
The Right Not to be Protected
It is sometimes argued that discussing women’s experiences of fear increase women’s subjective feelings of fear, and that it might also reinforce cultural stereotypes of women as anxious, victimized and in need of protection. However, if we ignore women’s experiences of fear, we perpetuate the silence and the social phenomenon that restricts women’s lives. When discussing women’s experiences of fear we should be aware of the danger of reproducing the structures that construe women’s experiences of fear and that construe women as powerless victims.
I argue that the cycle that produces and reproduces women’s experiences of fear can only be broken through the empowerment of women and not by increased protection (by men). That is, working with ‘fear and safety’ seems to be a balancing act between empowering women and breaking the empowering experience of men as protectors of women against other men.