Against Fear

Simone Webb

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.


  • 15 April 2021 at 1:39am
    philip proust says:
    'Against Fear' raises some interesting issues around personal risk management.
    Imagine it transpired that, some time in the future, 122 (61 times 2) people each year were dying suddenly as a result of eating a navel orange. Given how many oranges are eaten each year, the occurrence could still be classified as 'rare'. In such a scenario, it might plausibly be argued by the citrus industry that it would be unwise to abstain from orange consumption because the risk of sudden death was minimal compared to the pleasure and nutritional value that were afforded by eating their product. However, these circumstances, it would be hard to maintain that desisting from orange eating was irrational, given the possibility, albeit rare, of sudden death. Additionally, the pleasure that nowadays attaches to orange eating would be heavily compromised by the knowledge that sudden death might occur if one happened to be an unfortunate victim. If one were a parent, how would one feel about giving our children oranges?

    Of course, not only women need to make calculations of this kind when it comes to safety. Men and women of Asian or African heritage need to be very careful in venturing out alone in certain parts of not only the UK but also the US, just to take two examples. The existence of xenophobia is appalling; however, like misogyny, it is a social fact which needs to be factored into how we advise others to behave.

    • 15 April 2021 at 8:58am
      Simone Webb says: @ philip proust
      Surely, then, the most sensibly safe thing to do would be for women to avoid men altogether, particularly romantic relationships with them? After all, women are far more at risk from men they know--so isn't the appropriate safety measure simply not to enter into friendly or romantic relationships with them?

      If that suggestion seems too silly, or too limiting, to contemplate, I urge you to think about why limitations on women's personal freedom do feel acceptable to you.

    • 15 April 2021 at 11:17am
      Rory Allen says: @ philip proust
      The implication is that all we can do is factor this social fact into how we advise others to behave. But there are other possibilities: including taking steps to change this 'social fact' into a social ex-fact. I don't claim to know how this will be done, but unless we get away from the fatalistic view that something is simply a fact, with the unconscious implication that facts can't be changed, we will not solve the problem short of curfews for women and people of colour. And that is no solution at all.

  • 15 April 2021 at 10:12pm
    Eddie says:
    Thank you for this article. It seems very sensible. Why published so late in the day? I recall an interview with a female academic on the Today programme at the time who described the reaction as hysteria but she was ignored or worse.

  • 16 April 2021 at 3:28pm
    neddy says:
    "That makes for 61 women a year killed by strangers, out of 38 million women and girls in the UK. Every murder is horrifying.... but it is very rare." Is all the women and girls in the UK the appropriate denominator for calculating the risk of attack by a stranger in a public place? Surely a more realistic denominator would be the number of women out and about, principally at night, in relatively isolated circumstances? that number would likely be quite small relative to 38 million implying, I suggest, that women in fact have a very realistic perception of the risks they face. It is axiomatic that women should walk the streets, alleys and laneways in total safety. No-one questions that. But the risks are very real, and the consequences very serious. I have no answers to the problem. But I would most certainly increase the punishments meted out to transgressors meteorically.

    • 16 April 2021 at 4:23pm
      Abigail Watson says: @ neddy
      Your apt revision of the likely actual denominator shows that the risk is higher than commonly thought and risks perceived by women are realistic.

      As an older woman, who walked home alone along the streets of Leeds during the years when the Yorkshire Ripper was still at large, I have some experience of the balance between experiencing risk and wishing to live my life.

      Risk is real even if merely crossing the road, and I was able to deal with it in my own mind. Maybe I was just lucky, but the same could be said of childbirth. Life is not a perfectable scenario.

    • 19 April 2021 at 10:46am
      Simone Webb says: @ neddy
      "Is all the women and girls in the UK the appropriate denominator for calculating the risk of attack by a stranger in a public place? Surely a more realistic denominator would be the number of women out and about, principally at night, in relatively isolated circumstances?"

      This is a really good point! The issue is that I'm not sure how we'd calculate this (and it makes the assumption that violence primarily occurs in isolated circumstances at night, which itself requires more evidence). I'm not convinced that the numbers of women in that position are low enough that the chances become all that much more worrying, especially in relation to the risk of violence within the home, or by known men.

  • 17 April 2021 at 11:24am
    philip proust says:
    "If that suggestion seems too silly, or too limiting, to contemplate, I urge you to think about why limitations on women's personal freedom do feel acceptable to you."
    Do we criticise those who advise us not to smoke as people who are limiting our personal freedom? The phrase limiting 'women's personal freedom' sounds as if I had advocated the imposition of a curfew for women, or something like it. I did not. Warning women about venturing out at certain times in certain places has exactly the same status as warnings to men, young and old. If you read travel guides, they will often point out that it is dangerous to enter nominated parts of cities at risky times. Do you suggest that the guides should not do this because it limits the freedom of the tourist?
    In some countries women who dress in the Western manner are persecuted and even prosecuted: are you suggesting that guides and governments should not warn females travelling in these places and not advise that they should adopt the habits of the locals because their freedom would hence be limited?
    You write: "Surely, then, the most sensibly safe thing to do would be for women to avoid men altogether, particularly romantic relationships with them?" This might be adjusted to state that the safest thing to do is to train boys and men to behave civilly, and also to educate girls and women to recognise and reject as associates toxic boys and men. This is one strategy which might begin to change the social fact of predatory violence.
    Unfortunately, we live in an era where small sectors of the population are cheerleaders for violence against minority groups, gays, females and others. This is a social fact that needs to be resisted; however, its existence cannot be wished away and must be taken heed of by those who are potential victims.

    • 17 April 2021 at 2:41pm
      neddy says: @ philip proust
      Well said M'sieur Proust. Good writing too!
      I tips me hat.

  • 18 April 2021 at 2:10pm
    JonathanDawid says:
    Whether or not one thinks that women’s fears of going out alone are justified or not, there appears to be unanimity among commentators that this is a feminist issue. Yet twice as many men as women are murdered in the UK each year, and the disparity is larger still if you consider those murdered outside their home by strangers. Except in rare cases (such as Stephen Lawrence), their deaths pass unheralded in the media and no one frets publicly about the rights of young (and old) men to walk home without fear. Why is that?

    • 20 April 2021 at 8:25pm
      Jacqueline Redcliffe says: @ JonathanDawid
      As far as attacks in public places is concerned I notice that no-one has mentioned the lack of help offered by people passing nearby . Lack of a sense of community makes people fearful of intervening on their own. Looking away is too easy.

    • 21 April 2021 at 1:00am
      Paul M says: @ JonathanDawid
      While it's true that men are more likely to be murdered, women form the majority of victims of violence overall, and the imbalance in sexual offences is greater than that of homicide.

      Violence is not solely an issue for women, but regardless of the offence, men form the great majority of perpetrators. Male victims of violence are most likely the victims of other men. It is this disparity which illuminates the most.

      Victims of violence tend to cluster in the 16-24 age range and the connections with alcohol are well known. The latest ONS statics also measure against the frequency of visits to nightclubs and perhaps not surprisingly show a correlation.

      It's been a while, but as someone who was a frequent visitor, the awareness of the potential for violence was never absent. It was also clear that the things to most watch out for , as a man ( and occasional victim) were often intimately tied to behaviour that sought to police the boundaries of gender and masculinity, or as the cliché would have it. Are you looking at my bird?

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