The Fear of Rape: A Study in Social Control


Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwestern University, 2040 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60201.


Feminists argue that the threat of rape acts as an instrument of social control of women, keeping them in a state of anxiety and encouraging the self-imposition of behavioral restrictions in a quest for safety. This assertion is tested with survey data from residents of Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Women fear crime more than men, and engage in more precautionary behaviors. However, these fears and behaviors are not randomly distributed among women. Those with the fewest resources to cope with victimization, the elderly, ethnic minorities, and those with low incomes, carry the heaviest burden of fear. Psychosocial and environmental factors associated with high fear levels among women include perceptions of high risk of one's own victimization of a multitude of violent crimes (including rape), a sense of physical powerlessness, and weak feelings of attachment to the neighborhood. Fear levels are strong predictors of the use of either of two types of safety strategies, isolating oneself from danger by limiting one's movement through time and space, and risk management in the face of danger by using “street savvy” tactics. Reliance on isolation is associated with women's beliefs about their own physical competence, while use of “street savvy” tactics is related to women's attitudes about the extent of danger in their neighborhoods. The implications of these results for the quality of women's lives are discussed.