After the murder of Sarah Everard in London, our culture had frank debates about the safety of women.
These entailed women sharing about how unsafe they felt in their lives. The extreme measures they take when walking home alone at night. The harassment and violence they have experienced.
While it’s great that we’re looking at this collective problem, there is also an overlooked danger in these debates. That danger is making women more afraid than they need to be and thereby unintentionally limiting their freedom to move around in public spaces.
There are other dangers we need to confront, such as the false narrative that only women get sexually victimized and that only men are perpetrators (and never the victim). However, that’s a different article.
Why the current discussion about violence against women might limit women’s freedom
The ongoing conversation about violence against women tends to create the impression that we’re all constantly under threat. And while that’s sadly true for far too many women (and people from all across the gender spectrum), it’s not the case for all of us.
Every day, women walk home alone at night, travel by themselves (well, when there’s not a pandemic going on…), or hang out with strangers without anything bad happening.
I know, I know… as I’m writing these lines, I’m imagining the uproar. How dare I say that women are perhaps safer in some places worldwide (not everywhere) than the news might have us believe?
Why we often overestimate risks
The news and humans in general have a negativity bias. For evolutionary reasons, we tend to pay more attention to negative than to positive things.
We dramatically overestimate some rare risks (such as the risk of dying from a terrorist attack) while underestimating other more common ones (such as the risk from driving).
I also recall a lesson from criminology class back when I was a law student where our professor talked about why many people thought the crime rate was higher than it actually is.
Basically, if one person gets murdered, that story doesn’t make the news just once. It gets reported when the murder happens, when potential suspects get arrested, when someone gets charged with the crime, when the person gets tried in a court of law, and and and…
It’s one incident but that’s not how it registers in the minds of people. In our heads, it registers as half a dozen homicides. And the result of that is that people think the world is a scarier place than it is, especially for women.
The reality is that murder is thankfully pretty uncommon in many places worldwide. As Tom Chivers describes it:
“… on a longer timescale the trend is clear: you were many, many times more likely to be murdered for most of human history than you are now in the UK, or in most other countries.
To carry on in the same stereotyped vein, if you are a woman, you are even less likely to be murdered. Of the 695 people murdered in England and Wales in the year to March 2020, 506 of them were men. And for the specific issue of murders on the street, by strangers — the fear we’re dealing with — the disparity is greater still: 154 men were murdered by strangers, and just 23 women.”
Tom Chivers calls this form of reasoning “stereotyped” but I would call it something else — logical and data-driven.
Based on the data, I would feel pretty safe if I lived in, say, the UK. In contrast, if I lived in South Africa (where about 57 people are murdered every day), I would feel much, much more concerned about my safety.
Women’s safety and “stranger danger”
When it comes to the safety of women, people tend to overestimate “stranger danger.” In most places worldwide, women are much less likely to be killed by strangers than men.
As the Melbourne-based psychologist and criminologist Dr. Michelle Noon put it:
Men in Australia (and most places in the world) are at much higher risk of being stabbed, shot, and beaten-up by strangers. In fact, the most recent statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology indicate that men are 11.5 times more likely than women to be killed by a stranger.”
That said, Dr. Noon notes that women are “at much higher risk than men of random sexual harassment and sexual assault in public.”
That brings me to the next point:
The prevalence of sexual assault in different groups
Contrary to how it is often portrayed on TV where rape victims are predominantly straight, cisgendered women, this group is not the highest risk group for sexual assault.
While the exact numbers differ from country to country, here’s some data from the US:
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. The CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 46% of bisexual women have been raped (compared to 17% of heterosexual women and 13% of lesbian women).
For men, the same survey found that 40% of gay men, 47% of bisexual men, and 21 % of heterosexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime.
And, according to criminologists Richard Felson and Patrick Cundiff a 15-year-old male is considerably more likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman over 40.
My own experience
That some parts of the world are a safer place for women than the news would have us believe has been my experience in life.
Almost all my friends were guys when I was a student and I sometimes got rather drunk around them. Guess how often I was sexually assaulted by them? Never.
To the worry of my mother (who many years later told me that she sometimes couldn’t sleep when I was gone because she was so worried), I spent hundreds of hours biking long distances back and forth by myself at night. Guess how often I was sexually assaulted doing that? Never.
I’ve also traveled by myself on a few different continents. Guess how often I was sexually assaulted during that time? Never.
I’ve even done things that people would probably find extremely reckless and that had people around me worried. They all turned out fine.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean much. Many things in life depend on where you’re born and things such as coincidence and dumb luck. I’m pretty sure that my own experience could be a lot bleaker if I had been born elsewhere… or if I had just been less lucky.
I also want to add that I’ve had my share of icky encounters and experiences that weren’t okay at all.
In writing about my experience, I don’t want to downplay anything. I just want to add another perspective that I believe is important. One that I believe can be liberating. One that counterbalances the other discussion we’re having.
And that perspective is that there has probably never been a safer time to be a woman.
We don’t live in a perfect world. And yet, in many places worldwide women (and humans in general) are safer now than they have been for most of human existence.
While we as a society must talk about how bad things are to create change on the collective level, on the individual level a different approach is warranted.
I don’t want to have to wait until I live in a perfect society to do things I want to do. If I waited for that, I’d never get to travel or go out even in low-risk places.
The reality is that some amount of danger has and always will be a normal part of life — for all humans, not just women.
I realized this one day while I was watching a bird in Berlin. I noticed how jumpy the bird was and how it always seemed to be aware of every movement around it. It’s as if the bird never got to relax.
Suddenly, the brief moments of hyper-awareness and agitation I had while, say, walking home from the train station at night seemed so small in comparison to how this little bird seemed to experience the world — as a dangerous and scary place.
It helped me realized that I was lucky enough to live in a time and place where I could pass through the vast majority of my days without ever being afraid for my safety. And that matters, because as writer Frank Herbert so aptly put it in his novel Dune: “Fear is the mind-killer.”
Of course, fear as such isn’t a bad thing. Warranted fears keep us safe. But unwarranted fears keep us imprisoned.
Back when I was an adolescent, my wonderful mother spent many nights being afraid for me even though I wasn’t in any situation that felt dangerous… unlike many of my male friends who actually did get physically assaulted while being in public spaces.
I wish she hadn’t lost sleep because she was concerned about my safety. Unfortunately, taking an emotional (as opposed to a data-driven) approach to assessing risk often leads to unwarranted fear. It doesn’t increase safety but it decreases well-being.
My equally wonderful father had an approach that was more conducive to a good night’s sleep: sign up your kids for martial arts class and then trust that they can take care of themselves.
Both approaches got the exact same result: kids who are alive and well. My father just got a bit more sleep along the way.
If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere relatively safe and to not suffer from a trauma response, you might not need to lose sleep worrying about violence, either.
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