“There’s a really dark road here, and a few friends of mine they’re not allowed to go over it. And I cannot understand. My partner will never say that. So I say to my partner ‘Hey, you never say to me that I’m not allowed to go there!’ And then he says ‘The person that meets you will have a bad day!’ And I think, is he not worried about me then? But he is. He’s just like, ‘you’ll be fine.’” (woman, 33).
The view that women are vulnerable and should be cautious, while men are strong and should be fearless, appears to be dominant in shaping how women and men talk about and manage fear and victimization risks in public space. Many studies have shown that these rather traditional gender norms still play a role in gender socialization, which in turn could explain why women report higher levels of fear and practice avoidance and other ways of safekeeping more often than men do.
While the continuing importance of traditional gender norms is evident from these studies, it is remarkable that studies on the relation between gender and fear have paid little attention to the role of increasing gender equality and changing gender norms. Women’s emancipation, increasing equality on the labour market and shifting roles in caring mean that women’s lives and positions have changed. This could alter the perception of differences between women and men.
Women may still hear that they are more vulnerable and should be cautious, but they also hear that they should and can be independent and that they are equal to men. At the very least, gender norms are ambiguous and often contradictory. An understanding of the role of gender socialization in managing fear and risks should thus take into account how socialization of gender norms has changed.
Furthermore, initiatives around the world such as ‘Take Back the Night’ marches since the 1970s and world-wide ‘Slut Walks’ in 2011, in addition to organizations that empower women in order to increase their safety in public space (e.g. Women in Cities International) demonstrate that women do resist traditional norms that work to restrict their freedom of movement.
However, such acts of resistance have been largely absent from studies on the relation between gender and fear. If safekeeping and showing vulnerability are ways for women to demonstrate ‘respectable femininity’, demonstrating courage and boldness – walking the streets at night, alone – could be interpreted as ways to demonstrate independence.
Between risk and resistance
In an article in Feminist Criminology, titled Between Risk and Resistance: Gender Socialization, Equality and Ambiguous Norms in Fear of Crime and Safekeeping, I focus on the complexities and contradictions in how gender, socialization and fear are related. Using in-depth interviews with 28 heterosexual couples living in the Netherlands, I explore how changing and ambiguous gender norms shape how women and men manage fear and risks.
Investigating heterosexual couples furthermore provides new insights into how gender socialization is an ongoing process that extends into adulthood as couples negotiate fear and risks in relation to different gender norms.
In order to fully understand the impact of gender equality and the potential for shifting power relations, and to encourage women’s emancipation through policy initiatives, studies on fear and gender could benefit from more detailed data and insights that appreciate that gender norms are ambivalent and that women do resist traditional gender norms in managing fear and risks.
Note: The article is based on interviews carried out by five criminology students who completed their bachelor thesis on gender and fear in 2013. Many thanks to them for their engagement and effort.