Note: I began drafting this blog several days ago, before the news of the violent deaths of Karina Vetrano and Vanessa Marcotte garnered national attention. My heart breaks for their families. I am angry to the point of shaking for every woman who wants nothing more than a nice afternoon run. And I am terrified for my own safety. But I will not be terrorized. This blog is for me, as reminder to be brave. As a declaration that I am powerful. As a refusal to ever let fear make my choices for me.
I was on a run a couple months ago in the middle of the day in my happy little suburban neighborhood when a gray Chevy truck stopped in the middle of the road and the driver seemed to be staring at me.
Fuck. I was running behind a high school, so perfect sex predator hunting ground. I immediately looked to start memorizing the plates, which I do any time I feel threatened by a vehicle. Dealer plates. Double fuck. He was already facing the opposite direction of the way I was going, so I decided to just keep going. I picked up my pace a little. Then he turned his truck around and started heading my direction. Holy shit. This is not a drill people.
I immediately headed off the road and into a small field. If you want to kill me, Chevy truck guy, you’re gonna have to drag my fat ass through 40 feet of tumbleweed and dirt first. I paced the field near a chain link fence, trying to decide at what point it was time for me to jump it and make my escape through the high school. I had zero confidence in my ability to jump this fence uninjured, but in my mind, I’m fighting for my life. I’m a trapped animal, ready to gnaw my foot off to get away.
As it turns out, Chevy truck guy was dropping something off at the house I happened to be passing. He probably didn’t even see me, at least not until I started pacing a random field like a crazy person. And I got socks full of foxtails as a reward for my little detour.
This is not the first time I was almost kidnapped in this manner. In the fourth grade, a friend and I were walking to the park, and a car slowed in the middle of the street and stared at us. I was wary, and then he waved at us. I screamed at my friend to turn the other direction and run. Then he turned his car around. Holy. Shit. We moved as fast as our 10-yeard-old legs could carry us. We were nearly two blocks away when we stopped to look back. He was hugging a friend and heading into the house we happened to be standing in front of.
I stand in front of the most dangerous houses.
Probably the most dangerous stranger situation I have ever been in was in my first week of college. I went to a bonfire on the beach with a bunch of girls I had just met and got too drunk. It was freezing, the girls wanted to stay on the beach, and I wanted to go sleep in my car, a few hundred yards away. But it was too dark and I was too drunk to safely navigate my way to my car. A man in his mid-twenties said he was leaving, and he could help me to my car. I was a drunk 18-year-old, so obviously I said sure, I’ll head off into the secluded darkness with you, kind stranger. He got me to my car, made me promise not to drive, left me sitting in the back seat, and began to drive away. But at the end of the parking lot, he began to circle back around. If I hadn’t been so drunk, this is when I would have gotten scared, but all I thought was ‘what the fuck are you doing dude?’ What he was doing was checking on me. I had left the car door open for a few minutes, and he was worried I had passed out like that. He made me get all the way in and lock the doors before he left. For safety.
I know that everyday women are raped and killed by strangers (but far more often by acquaintances and lovers). Stranger danger is real, and I don’t mean to dismiss it at all. But it’s not my reality. In my life experience, guys in cars are just delivering packages and visiting friends. Guys at college parties just want to make sure I’m tucked away safe for the night. In my life experience, I travel through my world literally unmolested. So why am I so afraid? Why is every man I pass automatically a possible threat? Why, when hiking alone, am I more afraid of other hikers than I am of possibly running across a rattle snake?
Because I’ve been taught to be, of course.
Because “Stranger Danger” is a phrase and a philosophy that has been taught to kids since at least the 1960s, possibly as early as 1949. It’s a little tricky to track, and varies throughout the world, but sometime after WWII, we all starting being afraid some stranger was going to snatch up our kids. There is no question most kidnappings and child molestations are committed by people the child knows – usually a relative – but the public message has long been focused on teaching kids to wary of strangers. For women, that message never goes away. We never graduate into an adulthood where we are taught we are now powerful enough to travel to the world safely. In this way, we remain scared, powerless children forever.
Because sometimes women really are taken, raped, and killed by strangers. And those stories echo in your head forever. Because in 2010, 17-year-old Chelsea King went on a morning run through a park, and was raped and murdered by a man who had abducted, raped, and murdered a 14-year-old who was on her way to school about a year before. And every single time I go for a run by myself, I think about those girls. And I think about Penny Beerntsen, the woman who went for a run on the beach and was raped in 1985, and whose story was the start of the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. Because Google Kari Swenson. Google Sherry Arnold. Hell, just Google ‘female runner murdered.’ Because THIS WEEK Karina Vetrano AND Vanessa Marcotte were found dead after going for a run. Because my imagined battles were real for them, and there but for the grace of God go I.
Because these stories of violence against women are everywhere, and they are terrifying. Literally. They cause terror. And this makes me wonder, is the terror founded in a likely reality? Or is it a means of social control, a parable designed to teach us all that good girls don’t go out alone? Good girls stay home, take care of their families, don’t venture far and wide, don’t talk to strangers, don’t experience new things. You better be good little girl, or the big bad wolf is gonna get you. Are we constantly re-telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in a deeply rooted attempt to keep women in their place?
Am I really statistically more likely to be the victim of violent crime as a woman? I decided to spend a couple hours trying to answer that question.
First, a butt load of caveats. Finding reliable, clear statistical information on these kinds of questions is not as simple as it would seem. This is the Age of Information, right? Can’t I just punch the question into Google, and the FBI will tell me the exact number of murders reported up until today, and that’s my answer? Not so much. The information I’m going to share below comes my review of the info compiled by the National Center for Victims of Crime (http://victimsofcrime.org). Their info in turn comes mostly from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). I’ve included links to the primary sources where I can.
So number one caveat: I’m not a statistician. In fact, I failed stats the first time I took it in college. It was at 8 in the morning. That was just a bad idea from jump. I did get an A the second time I took it at 5 pm, for whatever that’s worth. The good news is these are some pretty straight forward numbers, so no advanced math degree required.
Second, violent crime is nuanced issue that encompasses a wide variety of crimes. Murder and rape are obviously the two biggies. What about robbery? If you’ve ever had a gun held to you as some took your wallet, you’d probably feel like you’d been the victim of violence, even if you didn’t have a scratch on you. What about if someone beats the shit out of your car when you’re not there? That’s a pretty violent act, but you were never in danger. Does that count?
Third, the violent crime that had me running into the field, the one most women are probably most afraid of, rape, is wildly under reported. The estimates are only about 27% are ever reported. And complicating matters further, the definition the FBI uses for the purposes of crime stats reporting changed in 2013, and some departments are still using the old definition. The old definition, btw, was “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” Which means up until 2013, a man or young boy could not legally be raped for purposes of FBI crime stats. The world is fucked up y’all.
Fourth, I want to make the argument that women don’t really have to be more cautious than men because the numbers, as you will see, don’t support the notion that we are in more danger than men. Except women ARE more cautious than men generally. And by being more cautious, very probably avert and prevent danger. So there are fewer crimes against us than there would be if we weren’t cautious, which makes the argument that we don’t need to be as afraid as we are a house of cards. Look ma, a paradox!
Finally, as suggested in the third caveat, this info is coming from hundreds of departments from across the country. There is still shocking variation in how and when departments across the country report the info. There are well-run, organized departments, and there are, let’s face it, hot mess departments. Whether it’s under-funding or a run-of-the-mill inept administration, some info just never makes it to the feds.
So with all that said, here’s the truth bomb y’all knew was coming. I’m safer out there than you are. That is, if you are a male.
Men are more than 3 times as likely to be murdered than women. And everyone is more likely to be killed by someone they know. In 2012, for example, of 12,765 murders, only 1,557, about 12%, were committed by strangers. Far more frightening is that in 5,757 cases, the relationship is unknown. Which means the perpetrator is unknown. Which means in 2012, 45% of murderers got away with it.
Of those 12,765 murders, only 15 listed rape as the surrounding circumstances. Compare that to 148 which happened after an argument over money. Or 26 times a babysitter killed a kid. All that is a drop in the bucket to the 720 murders of juveniles in gangs. See UCR 2012 Violent Crime by Relationship and Circumstance
Women are way less likely to die from violent crime, but that’s not the only thing we have to fear, right? Over their lifetimes, women are roughly 14 times more likely to be the victim of rape. One in 5 women will be raped. But only about 13% of those rapists will be a stranger. A woman is just about equally as likely to be raped by a family member. Just over 45% of rapists are current or former intimate partners. And women suffer wildly more aggravated assault from intimate partners than men. But men are 15-20% more likely to be assaulted by a stranger than women.
In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics dumped all violent crimes together and looked at violent victimization overall. Men are about twice as likely to be attacked by a stranger than women are, and have been every year since 1993. And btw, EVERYONE is getting safer. There were almost 17 million incident of violent victimization reported in 1993. That number was just above 5 million in 2014. See Violent Victimization 1993-2014 – Quick Tables
So here’s the takeaway. Statistically speaking, strangers are more dangerous for men than women. Men are more likely to be assaulted by strangers than women are. When men are attacked, the attack is more likely to be fatal. The news may be telling me to be afraid to run in the park, but the true danger to women happens in their homes.
If this is true, why do we hear so much about stranger violence against women? Why are we as a culture so insistent on telling girls they’re fragile and need to stay inside? Stay at home. Don’t go out alone. We tsk and shake our heads disapprovingly at cultures around the world that don’t let their young women out to do simple tasks alone. How barbaric, we think, that these women can’t even go to the store without a chaperone. How lucky we are to be free in this country. But aren’t we using fear to the same effect? I’m afraid to go for a run in the middle of the damn day. My movement is restricted because I am told repeatedly about the price I pay for failing to be cautious.
Look out little girl, the big bad wolf is coming. If he gets you, it will be your fault for going into the woods alone.
Today I am in mourning for Karina Vetrano and Vanessa Marcotte, but also for every mile that will not be run by every women who is too afraid. Today I will be sad and afraid. But tomorrow I will be angry for Karina and Vanessa. I will be faster and stronger for me. I will be powerful for every women who is still afraid. And I will demand change. For all of us.