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.