Myth Busting: The true picture of gendered violence

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Random street violence is overwhelmingly committed against men. And although women are socialised to fear strangers, their partners are more deadly, writes criminologist Dr Michelle Noon.

We are led to believe that women are at very high risk of being attacked on our streets by lurking creeps. And when night falls, it is a sign of chivalry for “a good bloke” to escort “the fairer sex” to safety.

While women are much more frightened of street crime, men are at much higher risk – this is known as the ‘fear of crime gender paradox’. Men in Australia (and most places in the world) are at much higher risk of being stabbed, shot, and beaten-up by strangers. In fact, the most recent statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology indicate that men are 11.5 times more likely than women to be killed by a stranger. Women are, however, at much higher risk than men of random sexual harassment and sexual assault in public. 

Below are some reasonable explanations for why women are less likely to be violently attacked on the street than men.

The 'Smile and Neutralise' Strategy

Women can be very good at neutralising a threat. There is evidence that introducing more women into policing has resulted in fewer aggressive incidents because of women’s use of non-violent strategies to effectively de-escalate conflict. On the other hand, some men think backing down from a fight is a blow to their masculinity. What's more, men are more likely to endorse violence as an effective strategy for neutralising a threat, even though that is rarely the case.

The 'Hide Away' Strategy

Women may have a lower risk of 'stranger danger' because they choose to stay home. But not getting out and about is a leading cause of obesity, reinforces anxiety. What's more, women who have a higher fear of crime tend to be attracted to "protective" intimate partners. This protection quality actually corresponds with aggression, so it may, ironically, put these women at higher risk. In reality, the rate of violence against women in public is a fraction of the rate of domestic violence against women. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, women account for 79% of all intimate partner homicides.

The 'Gentlemen’s Code'

One of the things that surprises me when I work with men in prison is their adherence to a gentleman’s code where ‘you don’t hit chicks'. As evidence of this, female corrections officers are less likely to be assaulted by a prisoner than their male colleagues; and people who have attacked random women on the street are often looked down upon in the prison social system.

Curiously, men who adhere to the code often hurt women they do know. It could be argued that this is a sign we’re still living in the shadow of the day when women were considered the ‘property’ of men in their family – cultural change tends to lag behind legal reform. It wasn’t until 1976 that marital rape (rape within a marriage) was recognised in Australia, and domestic violence only really started to be taken seriously after that. 

Taken together, there are a variety of drivers for why women tend to be at less risk of 'stranger danger' than men.  Which gives pause for thought: when it comes to a man escorting a woman through the streets at nights, maybe it should be the other way around.  

Dr Michelle Noon is a psychologist and criminologist based in Melbourne.