Girls, Boys, and Violence: Who's Really at Risk?
I was in a hotel elevator recently, heading down for breakfast. The doors opened on a floor and there were two women and about eight girls who looked to be around the ages of seven or eight. To the side was a man who gestured them to enter the elevator and follow them in. The women declined his offer and gestured for him to go ahead and one said that they would catch the next elevator. He continued to gesture them towards the elevator, the women did their best to stop the girls from entering and said very politely to him, “No, you go ahead.”
Eventually he laughed and said as he continued to gesture, “Hey, I’m not one of those, I’m not one of those guys on the post office wall, I’m OK! Really, I’m an OK guy!”
When he said this, the girls seemed oblivious to his meaning but the women recoiled and put their arms around the girls and pulled them back while the one woman said louder and with emphasis, “No, really, you go ahead, we’re fine.”
He got on the elevator, the group of girls did not, and we rode down to the ground floor.
I was a bit creeped out by his response and turned to look out the elevator windows and away from him. Later I asked my spouse, who was with me for that exchange, if he had noticed it and thought anything about it. He hadn’t really paid attention to the content of the interaction, since he was ready to get breakfast and didn’t care who got on the elevator as long as someone did! (He’s not a sociologist although he has developed a sociological imagination from living with me for the last 24 years!)
Later at the family gathering we were attending, I asked my relatives their opinion about the exchange. All the women were as appalled as I was at the man’s comments.
Our reactions had strong commonalities: why did the man choose to define himself as a non-predator? Why did his mind go there so fast when there were a myriad of other things he could have said? And, why was he laughing about such a premise, when his comments had made the women visibly uncomfortable?
In our society, we socialize women to be aware of threats, especially from strangers. Girls are kept closer than boys when they are playing outside. Women don’t tend to go out alone at night, and there are a host of other protective behaviors that constrain what they do on a daily basis. We are taught these things to stay safe. In general, men don’t learn these things and they don’t grow up thinking about how safe they are at any given moment.
Whether or not there are real threats, girls and women often assume that we must not trust strangers and not expose ourselves to outside dangers, especially when we’re young.
Let’s look at the data on violence and assault to see if these protective behaviors are useful for women and girls. The National Violence against Women Survey, published in 2000 and sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, validates what we know from other studies on these issues.
In Exhibit 12, from the NIJ/CDC study, among those victimized as a minor, physical assault by a caretaker is the most likely threat for both gender groups while rape (by any perpetrator) is slightly more likely for women compared to men. This data show that 40% of women and 53.8% of men have been physically assaulted by a caretaker before they were eighteen; 9% of women and 1.9% of men were raped before they were eighteen.
Exhibit 14 illustrates that relatives and acquaintances are the most likely perpetrator of rape for both men and women prior to the age of eighteen. Stranger rape accounts for a smaller portion of rapes for females than for males.
If you’re wondering about the age distribution of rape victims, Exhibit 13 shows us that 21.6% of female victims and 48.0% of male victims are less than 12 years old. Note how the pattern is different for females and males: rape becomes less likely for males as they get older while for females, there is a more gradual distribution and the most prevalent ages are 12-17 years old and 18-24.
Exhibit 21 illustrates the adult victimization types and shows that, compared to childhood and adolescence, the rates of physical assault decline for both men and women while the stalking threat increases along with the rape risk for men – and only slightly for women.
If our main question is the source of the threat and from whom should be protecting ourselves, let’s take one more look at the data: what are the victim-perpetrator relationship patterns for adults?
Exhibit 27 shows that once we are adults, the source of the greatest threat changes-- although the most radical change is for men. Adult males are much more likely to be raped or assaulted by strangers while women’s threat comes primarily from their intimate partners.
If we socialize girls and women to suspect strangers and people outside their families, does that work effectively to protect them since most of the real threat comes from people they know?
If we socialize boys and men to assume they are safe from outside threats, are they adequately prepared to protect themselves in childhood and adolescence from people they know and from strangers when they are adults?
In any case, should we be socializing people at all to be fearful of attack? If we do that consistently, what might happen to the fabric of our society? Will we retreat from social life, as we fear people we know and those we don’t?
It is not effective to teach people to fear those who are less threatening and to trust those who could be a threat, but this is exactly what we socialize women to do. It is also not effective to teach people they are not at risk and can do just about anything they want, yet this is how we socialize men.
If you were crafting a social policy and educational plan to effectively reduce violent behavior, what would you focus on?