How Fear Became Common Sense for Women
Why do we teach women to be afraid? For years now, I’ve seen articles and social media posts discussing how #yesallwomen live in constant fear of violence. This fear means women refrain from many enjoyable routine activities like exercising, going out at night, or traveling by themselves.
This idea bothers me every time I see it. The fear is grossly outsized compared with the actual risk. For example, Wikipedia states:
Although fear of crime is a concern for people of all genders, studies consistently find that women around the world tend to have much higher levels of fear of crime than men, despite the fact that in many places, and for most offenses, men’s actual victimization rates are higher. [emphasis added]
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So men are actually more likely to be victims, but women have more fear of being victimized. That seems odd, until you realize that fear is normalized for women, as if it’s just good sense. As comedian Amy Schumer states “One in 6 women reports being sexually assaulted, but really it’s 1 in 3 women. So we’re not even like, is this gonna happen? We’re like, when?”
So let’s follow along. 2/3 of women will NOT face sexual violence ever in their lives, but ALL women should live in trepidation.
It doesn’t quite make sense.
How Men and Women Are Taught to Respond to Fear
Statistics from the Department of Justice show that from 2014-2018, the rate of men being victims of threatened or actual violent crimes ranged from 0.94%-1.21%, compared to 0.98% to 1.16% for women. So the likelihood of men or women being victims of violent crime is similar (and low), yet the messages we send to men and women could not be more different.
These differing attitudes are summarized neatly by Jodi Lane, a University of Florida sociology professor:
We socialize girls to be terrified. We socialize boys to be tough.
What If We Taught Men To Be Afraid?
The statistics show that men and women in the U.S. face similar crime victimization rates. But even if you don’t believe these statistics, let’s compare ordinary women to men in the most dangerous jobs. 1.2 women are murdered per 100,000 in the U.S. (Keep in mind, more than half of these are committed by someone the woman knows – most of these murders are not random, unlike the murders for the following professions). Nearly four police officers are murdered for every 100,000 (women make up 12% of the police force). Eight taxi cab drivers are murdered for every 100,000 (just 1% of taxi cab drivers are women). Death and injury rates are even higher for the military (but vary on the year). 80% of military members are men.
Can you imagine if we taught men to be as afraid as women? We wouldn’t have many taxi cab drivers or police officers or soldiers left. Also, I just can’t imagine people telling men not to do a job because it is dangerous, no matter how dangerous that job is. People would think, well he needs to take care of his family. And someone has to do it. And buck up, don’t let fear control your life. It’s a brave and admirable thing he is doing.
This is not the message we tell women.
Teaching Healthy Levels of Fear
Yes, women can be superheroes. Yes, women can be scared. But most live life between those extremes.
Men are certainly encouraged to live life in the middle. If they worry too much, they’ll be told to get a grip. If they’re too reckless, they may be warned, but honestly, I think men would be encouraged to be courageous and adventurous.
I think it would be better to encourage courage over cowardice. In my opinion, over the long run, excess fear is worse than excess bravery. Most of our fears never come to pass, and even if they did, our fear often does not effectively protect against them. A life of adventure seems risky, but saves us from the dangers of fear and worry, which are multitude.
The Problems with Excess Fear
When operating correctly, your sense of fear keeps you alive and safe but it shouldn’t keep you holed up in your house.
It’s a personal issue for me, because my mother’s fear was often used as a method of control. I wasn’t allowed to do extracurricular activities, hang out at friends’ houses, or go on field trips. It was too dangerous! Of course, my mom never restricted my brother – only a year older than me. He didn’t know how to operate the washing machine, but my mother believed he could fend for himself at our (allegedly very dangerous) neighbor’s house.
I hated that fear was used as a reason to keep me from doing the things I wanted. I also hated that it wasn’t about the actual danger or my preparedness- it was only about my gender. The fear wasn’t keeping me safe, but it was interfering with my life. This is just one of the many problems with too much fear.
Excess Fear Doesn’t Give Credit to Badass Women
Simultaneous with the talk that women are all afraid, I have also seen people emphatically state that women are as tough as or tougher than men. The past few years have given us kickass female characters in Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Dark Phoenix, Atomic Blonde, Lara Croft, Ocean’s Eight, Black Panther, Annihilation, and Star Wars. Women in male-dominated professions have also gotten their due in the movie Hidden Figures. Countless media have touted the toughness of RBG.
The rhetoric about strong women is a little jarring. Women are too afraid to go out at night, but also, women kick ass (I guess, in the daylight hours). Ladies are too terrified to be alone with a man, with the exception of ninjas and assassins. Females are too afraid to run outdoors, but also chase bad guys.
The truth is that women aren’t so afraid. Women are brave and courageous – we take on dirty, dangerous jobs. If we only think of women in terms of how afraid they are, we are giving short shrift to the many women who are running into the front lines of danger. We are neglecting the women saving others and not needing to be saved.
Excess Fear Stops the Incredible Work Women Do
The plight of women progresses when other brave women step up to the plate. The first women to do anything – yeah, it’s scary, but it paved the way for other women to do the same. Harriet Tubman had a bounty on her head when she risked her life to save other slaves. Margaret Sanger started the first birth control clinic, which she eventually had to close after multiple legal threats. Rosa Parks’ resistance to change seats led to the civil rights movement. Activist Malala was shot in the face at age 15, and that didn’t stop her from advocating for girls’ educations. It would have been easy to say, Hey Malala, it’s really dangerous, you should stop. And millions of girls would never get educated. The work women do is too important to be stifled by fear.
So stop telling me that men are the only ones who can do things because of how dangerous the world is! The world is dangerous, but women are also dangerous.
It’s rude and inaccurate to see women as damsels in distress. Further, this stereotype makes women seem like easy prey. If we were instead perpetuating the stories of kickass women, then would-be criminals might think twice before harassing a woman.
Excess Fear Puts Women in Danger
This image of the terrified woman puts women in danger. One, if women are too afraid or too week to fight back, this emboldens criminals. Second, many of women’s fears are channeled into many ineffective and misguided rituals aimed at minimizing their risk of being hurt by strangers. Women are often told to keep their keys in their hands to use as a weapon but in interviews with rapists and self-defense experts, this proves ineffective. This only works in close proximity – so by the time it can be employed, it’s too late.
Women also believe avoiding eye contact or talking on the phone will make them safer, but these actions actually make them look weak and distracted, respectively. Thus, many of the exact methods women use to stay safe actually signal them out as easy prey. If women were less afraid, and presented a confident, aware demeanor, they would ironically have less reason to be afraid.
Further, what’s a woman to do if she can’t go out at night? Stay home. But a woman’s home is actually the most dangerous place for her to be with half of all female homicide victims killed by an intimate partner. So much for fear keeping women safe.
Being afraid is not the same as being safe – you can take precautions without being in fear and you can be afraid and act in ways that put you in danger. Ironically, being afraid can actually harm more than it helps.
Excess Fear Prevents Women From Handling Bad Situations
Caroline Paul, a firefighter, wrote an intriguing oped for the New York Times, “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to be Scared?” She notes that many parents encourage little boys to be adventurous and brave, but they caution little girls to avoid similar activities for fear they will get hurt. That explains why even though she’s a firefighter and a former athlete, she often gets asked if she’s afraid (to perform her job). Her male colleagues just elicit admiration.
Paul notes that parents are more likely to caution girls or to assist them in “risky” behaviors like sports or playing outdoors. This might seem like a nice thing to do, except that taking risks builds confidence and helps children develop new skills. Little girls who are cautioned from playing outside are less confident playing outside. They may also learn that being outside is dangerous and may not develop the skills that would make them safe being outside (i.e. making eye contact and being aware of surroundings). Though we are trying to protect our little girls from risk, we are really raising women who don’t think they are able to fend for themselves. These women also may not actually have the skills to do so.
Last, when we are afraid, we make bad decisions. Our brains don’t operate as well under stress as they do when calm. Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor, relates a time when he almost let his fear lead to a terrible misdiagnosis (I won’t ruin it here). [Rosling’s book Factfulness is actually all about how we don’t need to be as pessimistic or scared in the world as we tend to be. It would be a good jumping off point for educating our minds to conclude that excess fear is the wrong response for our lives today.]
Excess Fear Hurts Women’s Health
Chronic fear has health consequences. Long-term fear and stress can cause dysfunctions of the immune, endocrine, adrenal and nervous systems and affects the ability to learn. Excess fear in pregnant mothers can even pass down to daughters, altering daughters’ perceptions of reality and increasing their anxiety. Stress literally takes years off one’s life. Not to mention, it’s just not fun.
Excess Fear Robs Women of Joy
I recall reading an article from a mother who stayed up every night worrying. She shamed her husband who slept soundly. She wanted to make the point that women are more invested in the safety of their families and women HAVE TO WORRY. I couldn’t help but think, JUST GO TO SLEEP! The excessive worrying isn’t helping anyone.
A survey of women listed an extensive list of activities that women avoid based on their fear. Women don’t travel alone, they don’t run at night, they don’t even smile. So what does this mean? If women can’t travel alone, that means less or no travel. Can’t run at night? That might mean not running at all. If women are too afraid to smile, well that’s quite a sad existence right there.
You might say, well once you’ve been harassed, you’ll sing a different tune. But I have been harassed, at work and on the streets. I’ve been stalked. I’ve gotten mysterious notes in the mail and phone calls from men who somehow found my parents’ phone number and address (I was still living at home when this happened). I haven’t experienced the worst of it, for sure and it isn’t common in my life, but it’s not like I’ve been oblivious or charmed.
In total, these events dominated my thoughts for a few days of my life. I certainly don’t think back and regret not worrying on all those days I wasn’t harassed. And even if there are more days of trouble than joy in your life- why waste those precious days of joy when nothing bad happened fearing that something would?
Excess Fears Can Ruin Your Financial Life
The same problems with excess fear apply to our financial lives. For instance, fears can keep us trapped. A lot of the fears that people have regarding money (the stock market crashes, you quit the job you hate and then can’t find a new one, you’ll never advance in your career) may happen.
But we have to be careful that our reactions to fear are reasonable and not more harmful than the fear itself. For instance, fear may cause staying out of the stock market, staying in jobs we hate, spending hundreds of thousands on grad school in order to get a small pay raise). Yes, the stock market might crash but inflation will swallow up your savings. Yes, you may have trouble finding a new job after quitting, but you definitely hate every day of work. Maybe you will stall out at a certain level in your career without a graduate degree but you will definitely have to deal with hundreds of dollars of debt to advance just a little bit further in your career.
What if We Stopped Teaching Women to Be Afraid?
Fear can be a good messenger reminding us to be extra careful. But just because our lizard brain is programmed to say “Be afraid!” doesn’t mean you have to keep listening to your lizard brain when it says “Never go out at night! Sell all your stocks! Become a lawyer!”
In the end, it’s all about balancing your risk tolerance and your fears with what you want out of life. If you don’t lean heavily towards your dreams, you easily could be consumed by your fears. Imagine what you could do with your life if you weren’t afraid!
Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty. -Tim Ferriss
Most of us want to be happy, and to get there, we have to get out of our comfort zones. I think of all the things that have brought me joy and a lot of them are uncertain and/or scary. They involved new adventures, new people, new activities.
It’s possible that you might be safer in your comfort zone, but it’s more likely that if you live in fear, that you’ll be unhappy and still unsafe. Don’t give up your life so you can feel safe. You’ll never get it.
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. – Benjamin Franklin
So if the news states that a woman runner gets assaulted, please think twice before saying, well she shouldn’t have been running. Or she shouldn’t have been out after dark. Or she shouldn’t have worn what she was wearing. Millions of women safely run after dark, and it’s far better that millions of women continue to run, then to stay in their homes afraid to live their lives. Further, the more women out there, the safer it is for all women.
Please think twice before saying “Women can’t do [something] because it’s not safe.” Women are not supposed to live in fear. Please stop trying to limit how far a badass woman can go or what she can do. Men have been limiting women for centuries; we don’t need women to start.
I remember a story I read in Carol Dweck’s Mindset where a man acknowledges that he had spent his whole life worried that something terrible would happen to his family. Then his family died in a car accident and he realized that the lifetime of worrying hadn’t helped prepare him for the event one iota. Instead, the fear robbed him of fully appreciating the joyful times that he had spent with his family.
I think about this story when people tell me I should be afraid.
Everything is scary. Bad things happen. But that’s no reason to run away. Be brave, and encourage other women to be the same.