Philobiblon: Women and fear: time to tackle the pathology

Monday, December 12, 2005

Women and fear: time to tackle the pathology

A weekend report suggests that about 20 per cent of women in the UK keep a weapon by their bed to defend themselves against intruders. Now these sorts of surveys can be pretty dodgy, but even if the figure is half of that it is a worry.

Firstly, because in the extraordinarily unlikely event of them encountering an intruder who attacks them, the odds of the weapon being turned against them must be very high. Ditto in the rather more likely event of them being attacked by a domestic partner.

But beyond that, it suggests a level of fear that can only be described as pathological.

Sarah Barker, 42, a nurse who lives in Manchester, won't sleep unless she has barricaded herself in her bedroom with a stepladder. "When my next-door neighbour is away I use something heavier - my bookcase in fact - because there would be no one to hear my screams. I've always done this. To me it's completely normal.
"When I get home at night I check every room, even the shower, the cupboard under the stairs and the wardrobes," she said. "And while I'm checking one room I'm keeping an eye on the others in case someone slips out of one and hides in another."

For a small child to worry about bogeymen in the wardrobe is one thing; for a grown woman to do so is another.

The fact is that crime in the UK is declining, and the risk of being attacked in your home by a stranger is probably about the same, if not less, than being struck by lightning. Yet women are putting time, energy and even changing their life because of fear of crime.

Why? Certainly the media has to take some of the blame - all of the sensational reporting of crime that goes on.

But I suspect there's something deeper going on. I used to live in Australia beside a widow in her late 50s who lived in a veritable fortress, and if she visited me for a late afternoon coffee I had to walk her the 50 yards home because she was too frightened to be out on her own. She had been widowed a couple of years before, after nearly 40 years of marriage in which she'd taken no responsibility for her life. She didn't know what a chequebook looked like, had probably never been in the house on her own at night. Suddenly she was on her own, and she had concentrated all of her fears and uncertainty about being alone on the "risk" of being attacked by a stranger.

More and more women are at all stages of life living on their own. Nothing wrong with that - but what I suspect is causing the problem is their lack of experience at doing this, the lack of preparation they have received.

I can trace the end of my fears to being 17, and going to "revise for the HSC" (equivalent of A levels) in an isolated family holiday house, probably a mile or more from any other inhabited dwelling, although situated on a main (for Australia) country road. It was an old rickety house, the walls rattled and shook, one night the garage door blew open with a tremendous crash, another time two biker men in full leathers came down the driveway (they were lost and wanted directions); at times I was terrified. But I survived, coped with it, and after that being on my own held no real fears.

But I suspect - cossetted and protected by their parents - large numbers of women never have such an experience. They go from home to a university college or shared house, then into live-in relationships(s), then perhaps in their 30s or 40s or 50s find themselves living alone for the first time. All of the general amorphous fears that raises become concentrated in one, comfortably external concern - an intruder.

So, if you've got a daughter, for the sake of her future, don't be over-protective, encourage her to do things on her own - go camping maybe, or on holiday on her own, or walking on her own. You'll be equipping her well for the future.

And if you are alone, and frightened, ask yourself what are your real rational fears, and which are the irrational ones? Then try to put them in perspective, and take sensible steps to deal with them. Improve the locks if that is the right thing to do, but don't leave an enormous knife in your bedside drawer.


Anonymous dware said...

Here in the US the weapon beside the bed is often enough a whacking big pistol or revolver, and both boys and girls are too often encouraged to "be very, very afraid" of things that might possibly go bump in the night (as a late-blooming first-time parent I've been listening to my daughter's friends' parents, two decades and some my junior). So, we're afraid, and potentially quite damaging...not a good or healthy combination. Your observations are much to the point.

12/12/2005 03:50:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks. And as for a thought of a gun in the bedside drawer - words fail me at the craziness of it. So many must end up being used in impulsive suicides, or domestic murders that would never have happened without the weapon's presence!

12/12/2005 07:06:00 pm  
Blogger Ally said...

I've always been very aware that because of the physical strengh issue, any weapon I choose to use against an attacker has a high chance of being turned against me.

I've lived on my own at various points over the years, quite happily. When I was living in South Wales and left my relationship to live alone again, I was astounded that so many of my friends and neighbours thought I was doing something brave and unusual. And then I thought about it and for the area, it *was* unusual.

Various men (twice my age) also made the assumption that because I lived alone, I was 'available'. It was a real eye-opener.

12/13/2005 01:18:00 pm  
Blogger RJ said...

Just to amplify on what dware said, I wrote my dissertation on firearms and masculinity in the US, and for what it's worth, men behave in very similar ways--but actually with less reason. If you're talking about white males (who make up the backbone of US gun culture) the most likely way for them to die from a firearms wound is suicide. Following that is an accident. Coming in a distant third is a deliberate injury by another person. And even those rarely, rarely rarely happen as a result of "drug-crazed [and racially coded] gang members kicking in the door at 3:AM" which is gun culture's favorite boogeyman.

Yet I've talked with men who calmly explain to me why they keep a loaded firearm not by their bedside, but in every single room of their house. I've read endless articles about how to defend yourself from those "intruders" who will almost assuredly never, ever come.

Somehow, these men who are so obsessed with "safetly" and "self-defense" seem blithely unconcerned with the much more likely ways for them to die like heart disease, cancer, and car accidents. Just once I'd like to hear an NRA member say "Yes, I do keep a loaded Glock 17 by my bed for safety. But more importantly, I monitor my cholesterol, don't smoke, and absolutely always wear my seat belt."

So yeah, it seems like it's mostly about concentrating fears onto an external [and thus more acceptable] "intruder"--literally someone who exists outside your normal life (from where the real threat is most likely to come). Women who are interested in protecting themselves would do well to ignore most of the specious self-defense advice out there and concentrate on watching their ex-husbands, their boyfriends, their pastors and their co-workers a little more closely.

12/21/2005 05:02:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Good advice! Thanks. The figures you give about the most likely use of guns correspond with what I've read in general terms elsewhere.

And indeed, when I lived in the Australian bush (where guns are necessary for practical purposes) I seemed to write this sad little brief at least once a week: "The body of a man aged XX was found in a paddock/shed/bedroom. A gun was beside the body. Police said there were no suspicious circumstances."

12/21/2005 06:02:00 pm  
Anonymous LC said...

I think this is a good postbut I completeleydisagree that the weapon willprobably be turned on the woman. In fact mostwomen who try defend themselves with a weapon or otherwise are successful. It is a big cultural construction attackers areinvolnerable to womens attempts to defend themselves and cmes out of the cnstruction of women as delicate and men as inpenetrable. Fora god discussion of this try reading 'Real Knockouts' a book about women and self defense. The author specificallyaddresses the issue about women being afraid to arm themselves because the weapon will be turned against them when this is almost never the case.

12/21/2005 09:56:00 pm  

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