The disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard last month sparked a conversation centred on women’s experiences of fear in public places, especially at night. Women have spoken of being afraid to walk alone and restricting their behaviour in case they come to harm.
Sexual harassment in public spaces is depressingly, infuriatingly common. It can be a form of psychic violence: a grindingly pervasive presence in many women’s lives that affects their ability to move freely in the world. But when women speak of their fear at night, they are not primarily referring to cat calls or harassment. The fears are far darker: rape, murder, physical violence. Sarah Everard’s death has sometimes been invoked as evidence that the fear is warranted.
The risk of physical violence from a stranger in a public place is extremely low, however. In the decade to 2018, 1425 women were killed by men in the UK: 185 were killed by strangers, 813 by someone they knew, and in 427 cases no suspect was identified. Even assuming that all of those 427 unsolved cases were stranger killings, that makes for 61 women a year killed by strangers, out of 38 million women and girls in the UK. Every murder is horrifying, and one is too many, but it is very rare. The rates of other kinds of stranger violence, while higher than murder, are also very low. Sarah Everard’s killing does not point to a high level of risk, but rather to the high level of media attention given to a white woman’s disappearance and death.
Women who experience fear are not irrational or foolish. The fear is explicable. Harassment, warnings from an early age, high-profile cases of stranger rape or murder, depictions of violence against women on film and TV, and the widespread assumption that women generally fear walking at night, all contribute to it. Many women have had traumatic experiences of violence. Race, class, location and transgender experience can all affect women’s experiences of violence and fear. Misogyny and violence against women are all-too-real societal problems that require urgent change. Nonetheless, I think the story being told about women’s fear of public spaces is in some ways unhelpful, and in other ways actively harmful.
First, by emphasising the supposed dangers that lurk in public spaces, we risk losing sight of where women face the highest risk of rape and violence: at home and in other private places, with men they know. In the past decade, more than 70 per cent of murdered women were killed in their own homes, at least 57 per cent were killed by someone they knew, and 92 per cent of violent attacks against women were committed by someone known to the victim. If the outside world is conceptualised as a source of intense danger, domestic spaces are implicitly constructed as places of safety and refuge. This controls women by keeping them out of public places, and at the same time confines them to domestic spaces where they are in more danger.
Second, by stressing the validity of fear, we may elide it with risk. The consequences of this elision are evident in transphobic and racist discourses. Some cisgender women report genuine fear of transgender women in changing rooms, public toilets and other gendered spaces. The fear may be real, but it does not mean that trans women pose a risk. Similarly, some white women may have been conditioned into fearing Black men as potential perpetrators of violence, but the existence of such a fear does not correspond to a genuine risk, and does not justify anyone’s changing their behaviour in response. The consequences of validating these fears can be terrible for trans women and Black men.
Third, it is intensely limiting to accept this sort of fear as a constraint on women’s actions. I was saddened to read that so many women will not go for walks in the countryside alone or walk home alone at night, and change their behaviour in significant ways because of the fear of coming to harm at a stranger’s hand. This self-limitation is not required for women to be safe; it is an unnecessary restriction of women’s liberty.
These thoughts are obviously not meant to be the last word on the subject. There is much more to be said, especially on the way that fears of public spaces – and experiences of violence – are affected by race and class. And I know I haven’t offered any solutions here to the very real fears that so many women share. I have simply tried to provide some reasons for challenging the role that fear of public spaces plays in feminist discourse and in women’s lives.