Criminology Fear of Rape
by
Adam J. Pritchard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0224

Introduction

Much of the research on the topic of fear of rape is considered to be a sub-area of the broader study of fear of crime. Research in this area is multidisciplinary; however, most researchers in the 21st century are in the fields of sociology, criminology, and psychology. As a result, most theoretical perspectives employed come from these fields. Early work on the topic of fear of rape emerges from the study of gender; feminist critiques of patriarchy and social control included the threat of rape as a unique factor in the gendered oppression of women in such systems. Other major theoretical perspectives used to investigate the fear of rape include the vulnerability perspective and the “shadow of sexual assault” thesis. The vulnerability perspective argues that people with unique vulnerability due to physical, psychological, or social disadvantage have higher levels of fear. The shadow of sexual assault perspective builds on the concept of “perceptually contemporaneous offenses,” meaning that when a person discusses, for example, their fear of robbery, in their minds a robbery situation may be perceived simultaneously as a risk of physical harm or sexual assault. Much of the study of fear of rape has sought to examine the hypothesized “shadow” effect caused by the fear of being raped, particularly for women, and to understand how this fear impacts perceptions of risk, well-being, or levels of fear for non-sexual crimes. Because the vast majority of rape victims are women, understanding gender is central to many of these studies. In particular, scholars have examined how gender stereotypes and narratives inform individuals’ perceptions of their own vulnerability to sexual violence. Significant areas of scholarship centered on the fear of rape have emerged around the study of gender and the role of media in promoting gendered fear narratives. Research has examined both the causes and consequences of fear of rape. Studies examining the causes of this fear have focused largely on methodological development, seeking more precise or inclusive measures of vulnerability, whether those are psychological factors, community characteristics, or components of socialized gender norms. Research examining the consequences of fear of rape include studies examining differential levels of fear for specific populations such as women or racial/ethnic minorities, studies linking fear of rape to fear of other types of crime, and studies linking high levels of fear to particular mental health or behavioral responses. Much of the recent fear of rape research has focused on the population of collegiate women, stemming from the many of the pioneering studies of sexual assault and rape that have focused on college women. Studies in this area have repeatedly tested, supported, and refined primarily the “shadow of sexual assault” thesis among this population, leading to important methodological innovations on how fear and victimization are measured. These findings are not limited to understanding college populations, however, and many of the methodologies and findings have been tested well beyond this population. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries the focus of fear or rape research has been on improving measurement, including gaining a better understanding of the causes and consequences of fear of rape.

General Overviews

Lane, et al. 2014 provides the best single-source overview of the state of research on fear of crime, including a chapter-long discussion of the gender gap in fear, which includes summaries of the shadow of sexual assault, irrationality perspective, vulnerability perspective, socialization theories, and patriarchy/social control theories used to understanding women’s fear of crime. In this chapter from a seminal research compendium on violence against women, Koss, et al. 1994 situates the fear of rape as a critical issue in the study of violence against women in general.

  • Koss, Mary P., Lisa A. Goodman, Angela Browne, Louise F. Fitzgerald, Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, and Nancy Felipe Russo. 1994. Uniting all women: The fear of rape. In No safe haven: Male violence against women at home, at work, and in the community. Edited by Mary P. Koss, 157–176. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/10156-009E-mail Citation »

    From a well-known compendium created alongside the first Violence Against Women Act in 1994, this article highlights women’s fear of rape as an important area within the broader topic of violence against women.

  • Lane, Jodi, Nicole E. Rader, Billy Henson, Bonnie S. Fisher, and David C. May. 2014. Fear of crime in the United States: Causes, consequences, and contradictions. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive review of fear of crime research since the 1970s, with a chapter dedicated to women’s fear of crime theories including the shadow of sexual assault thesis.

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