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Fear of Violence

Why it haunts women in big cities


The greatest fear of young women living in big cities is that of sexual violence. It is not necessarily based on the actual crime rate in the city but often instilled by family and society. As a result, women tend to carefully pre-plan their behaviour and movements in 'suspicious' places based on safety concerns. HSE researchers interviewed a group of young women about certain aspects of their fears and strategies they use to deal with it.

Always on Alert

According to a 21-year-old respondent, ‘Of course, having to walk in the dark through an empty area causes some fear, but not really panic'. Such situations seem to be routine and do not cause particularly strong feelings in the respondents. In potentially dangerous circumstances like these, many women make an effort to act confidently and control their anxiety, but it rarely goes away completely. Women in big cities are particularly afraid of assault and rape.

Their anxiety may vary from a faint sensation, usually relieved by reasonable caution ('It's a fairly safe neighbourhood, but you never know, things happen') – to strong and well-founded fear. ‘And there's that group of drunk men exiting a store, and they quarrel among themselves and appear angry and irrational', a 21-year-old respondent recalls, 'and we realise that we might become the target [of their aggression] any moment.' According to another woman her age, 'I was really scared that [the male stranger] was about to do something [to me]'.

In the cited study by Yana Bagina, the respondents (residents of Moscow suburbs and metropolitan areas outside Moscow, aged 18 to 26) describe their mental state in unfamiliar, poorly lit and empty urban neighbourhoods as being 'on alert'. No matter how much they try to calm down and cope with the anxiety, the 'uneasy feeling' refuses to go away: 'You sort of know that no one can hurt you, because there is no one there; but if someone suddenly appears, there is no one around to come to your rescue'.

Loci of Fear

The interviews reveal that women's anxiety is usually associated with uncomfortable environments regardless of whether any 'suspicious' persons are around and whether they are threatening or indifferent. 'Outside of Sberbank, one can often see groups of suspicious men hanging out <...> They appear slightly drunk or perhaps alcoholic <...> or somehow odd', a 21-year-old explains. Quite often, the perceived danger is exaggerated ('I understand that I am a little anxious and therefore tense'), or just hypothetical: 'What if something happens?'

Certain contexts often trigger anxiety: these are usually areas where social control is weak, specifically:

 Deserted and poorly lit areas at night: streets, parks, underground passages, courtyards, building entrances. A respondent explains, 'There are areas with playgrounds and trees, where everything is dark. When you walk by them and hear someone giggling there, it's really creepy'.

 Unfamiliar routes in residential areas.

 Non-residential: areas around warehouses, industrial buildings.

 Neighbourhoods with a bad reputation. 'My classmates were discussing Chertanovo [a district in Moscow]', says a 21-year-old respondent. 'Once you are there, you immediately know that you need to be extremely cautious'.

 Empty public transport (metro, buses, trains), particularly if some 'suspicious characters' show up. A closed space making it impossible to move around causes additional anxiety.

Even in the city centre, which is usually considered safe, there are places perceived as 'traps'. ‘If you walk along Chistye Prudy and then turn into a side alley, you realize that it is, if only theoretically, much more dangerous', according to a young Muscovite.

In retrospect, anxiety may be dismissed as unfounded: 'What was I afraid of? No idea'. But a nagging fear lurks at the back of her mind.

From 'Invisibility' to Coping

Fear of violence forces women to think through their defence strategies.

 They deliberately avoid risky situations and change their routes accordingly. 'Let's say I am walking down an empty street and see potentially aggressive and apparently drunk men ahead', a 25-year-old explains. 'I know I'd be much better off crossing to the other side of the street than passing by these drunks'.

 Women either try to appear confident or, on the contrary, to be 'invisible'. For example, they might choose not to wear bright and unconventional clothes that make them more noticeable.

 Always on alert, they make sure to hear and see as much as they can. 'I always turn off sound in my headphones in order to be able to monitor the situation', says a 20-year-old undergraduate. 'I tend to look around and pay attention more than usual'. A 21-year-old feels a need to control her physical and mental state: 'I never drink [alcohol] with people I don't know very well. And of course, I never drink if I don't know how I'm going to get back home'.

 Women prefer to move around as part of a group and sometimes pretend they are talking to someone on the phone.

 Some use self-talk to rationalise the situation and convince themselves that there are no objective reasons for anxiety.

 Some proactively learn self-defence or arm themselves with pepper spray. 'My female friend and I were followed by a group of strange men', recalls a 22-year-old. 'At some point, I grabbed a pepper spray can and held it covered under my sleeve. They were walking behind us and saying things like, “Let's grab them by the backpacks” or something. And I thought, no way; if you grab me, you'll pay for it'.

Provocateurs and Defenders

When moving around the city, women tend to rank other people around them in terms of safety, based on visual characteristics and behaviour, into three broad groups:

 'Suspicious persons'. For most respondents, these include men whom they perceive as 'alien' (by ethnic group, social status, behaviour, etc.), such as drunk or untidy men, those covering their faces (making them impossible to assess), and noisy and potentially aggressive groups of men, including teenagers. They were perceived as scary even if they did not do anything in particular.

 'Safe others'. These are strangers who look trustworthy. 'You know, when people get off a bus', a 22-year-old explains, 'a few of them, about five percent, are those whom I will join if they go my way. < ... > These may be men and women of any age, apparently coming home from work and carrying grocery bags, backpacks, whatever. Just ordinary people going home <...> and they do not behave provocatively'.

 'Companions'. These include friends and acquaintances who can help in a difficult situation or ward off danger just by being around. Their appearance, physical fitness and social skills matter. 'Even if my companion is [a young woman] like me who cannot do much [to help me], still I feel safer with her than if I were on my own', a 20-year-old says. Another respondent explains why she feels safe around some of her [male] friends: they are 'street smart' and have 'sufficient physical strength and dexterity to resist real danger'.

But companions do not always guarantee a feeling of safety and some may even provoke danger. 'I tend to feel really, hugely unsafe [around a particular female friend]', a 21-year-old admits, 'because if she is not totally sober <...> she enjoys getting involved in [potentially dangerous situations]'.

Fear as Norm

Anxiety is partly a social construct induced by others – often by parents who teach their daughters to be cautious – and not necessarily based on one's own traumatic experience. According to a 25-year-old, 'Mum has always said, "don't stay out long and never come home alone late at night, because things do happen."'

Society's attitudes and stereotypes support these fears. '[Where I live,] people do not have much respect for girls who are out and about late at night', says a 20-year-old. 'It is never considered acceptable'.

Mass culture and media further contribute to women's anxiety. A 21-year-old student recalls, 'The movie Irréversible includes a long, detailed and very naturalistic scene of the main female character being raped in an underpass. It makes a pretty powerful impression'.

In such situations, women are perceived as extremely vulnerable to male aggression. This essentially reflects a patriarchal value system and a gender hierarchy placing women in subordinate position. While women try to tip the balance of power, their strategies are often defensive and incapable of achieving a radical change.

Culture of Phobias

Gender stereotypes are not the only source of anxiety. According to sociologists, modern Western societies are generally characterised by anxiety. A culture of fear which creates a certain emotional climate and regulates everyday life is pervasive. Both imaginary and real risks can trigger fears: accidents, crowd injuries, animal attacks, terror acts and others, which also include the risk of assault and rape.

Women are sensitive to potential dangers and tend to modify their behaviour in response to feelings as well as actual events. They are forced to manoeuvre and to limit their physical and emotional experience of living in a big city to feel safer. However, the study respondents seem to perceive this situation as routine, sustainable and unlikely to change any time soon.


Study author:
Yana Bagina, Doctoral Student, Department of Analysis of Social Institutions, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, October 27, 2019