Fear | Cast Out Fear | Professionelle

By Nicola Rowe

Fear

(A mantra for 2013)

Mid-century, when my mother was a child, her parents never locked their inner-city Christchurch house unless they were leaving the city on holiday. When I was a child, growing up a few kilometres away in the northwest suburbs, we locked the doors at night, but never otherwise, provided we were home. Now, a generation on in that same house, my mother keeps the doors locked constantly, and she activates the infrared alarm every night. Which is understandable, because things aren’t as safe as they used to be, right?

Safer now

Wrong. Fact is, they’re safer. I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a thumping, magisterial tome dedicated to proving that violence has declined through millennia, and that the modern era may be the most peaceful yet.

This made me curious, so I looked at Statistics New Zealand’s historical figures for crime, and indexed them to NZ’s population for the year in question. Though I only had figures back to 1994, a pattern was clear: breaking and entering, theft, and acts endangering people are all just below two thirds of their 1994 level. Homicide hovers a little above that (figures for 1994 were abnormally high, which makes us look extra good now).

Last year, the number of reported sexual assaults dived below 1994 levels for the first time, with 1.28 offences reported per thousand head of population, down from a high of 1.72 in 2004, and considerably lower than the 1.46 reports per thousand capita in 2010.  (These figures are unlikely to reflect the true number of offences, since people’s willingness to report sexual assault fluctuates.)

Where’s the danger?

Yet who commits sexual assault – who rapes – really, and where?

Should we be hypervigilant about strangers in dark parks and unlit alleyways?

I couldn’t find New Zealand figures, but, according to Australian government statistics, just 8% of women who are raped are raped by a stranger (the UK Home Office says it’s 11%; US figures are higher). That is, ninety-two percent of Australian women who were raped already knew their rapist. The greatest risk comes from a current or former sexual partner (56% of rapes in Australia). The remaining  assaults are by another relative (10%), or a friend or acquaintance (27%). And few of these assaults are happening on the streets at night: only 7% of rapes in Australia occurred on a street or footpath in 2011, but two thirds happened in a private dwelling.

Young and vulnerable

Approximately 60% of females who were assaulted in Australia in 2011 were under 15; around 90% were under 25.  What does this mean for you? Statistically, if you’re old enough to buy alcohol, your risk is already below peak: horrifically, girls between 10 and 14 are most at risk, assaulted more than five times as often as those over 25.

It’s not quite what we’re led to believe when we think of the don’t-do-that-don’t-go-there message that tells us: safety through fear!

Who’s afraid?

Indeed, a 2011 Gallup poll showed that 50% of women felt safe walking through their local area at night, while 85% of men – a whopping 35 percentage-points more – could say as much. Yet over half of all rapes are committed by a current or former partner.  Oddly, I’m still waiting for the police campaign that tells me that it isn’t the dark alley I should avoid walking through, but what awaits me behind the front door when I reach home. Telling women to fear the dark – telling us that something out there wants to get us, and is so dangerous that we must protect ourselves against it – telling women that message feeds a culture of fear, where our anxiety becomes so disproportionate to the actual threat that it keeps us from being free.

The reality is this: New Zealand is a safer place than it was when you were small. However old you are, if you’re old enough to drink, you’re safer now than you were a year ago. So here’s a mantra for 2013: Cast out Fear.

 

Sources:

  • Stats NZ, National Annual Recorded Offences for the Latest Calendar Years (ANZSOC); population figures from Stats NZ, Estimated Population by Sex, 1926-2011
  • Australian crime: Facts and figures 2004 and 2010

Acknowledgment

Based in Christchurch, Nicola Rowe is a strategy consultant with a strong focus on healthcare.

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