Who’s really scaring girls?

When politicians bang on about feral boys and wear stab-proof vests, it’s not surprising young women are fearful.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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‘Living in cities can often be liberating. Violence and fear of violence should not be allowed to rule girls’ lives.’ There are very few people outside of the Taliban who would disagree with that statement from Marie Staunton, chief executive of Plan UK. Sadly, however, Plan UK – if its new report is anything to go by – is doing very little to expose and challenge the real trends that are allowing fear of violence to ‘rule girls’ lives’.

Not that Plan UK is violent towards women. No, the problem with its latest report, Because I Am A Girl, is that it seems to reinforce the idea that there is plenty in cities to be scared of and that the fear of violence is directly caused by the routine possibility of violence. So, having surveyed 500 girls and young women under 18 living in the UK’s major metropolitan areas, it reports that nearly half feel unsafe in big cities, 25 per cent feel threatened by gangs, and 17 per cent feared they would be assaulted. Fear seems to have become something thing-like here. It needs to be fought and combatted as if it were reality itself. ‘It is unacceptable that, in cities all over the world, including the UK, girls are scared to go out’, says Staunton.

Of course, the fact that people are scared, the fact that girls are frightened of what lies in the streets outside their homes, can’t simply be dismissed. There is little doubt that people are more fearful today in general. Moreover, there are incidents when people – young women included – are assaulted or robbed. The fear of such attacks is far from groundless.

But, be that as it may, virtually every index suggests that people have never been at less actual risk of attack. There may be a reason to fear, a reason to feel unsafe, but that does not make it rational. Take the recent findings of academics at Cardiff University, for example. They analysed the hospital data of 44 emergency departments across England and Wales and found that violence-related attendances had fallen over 15 per cent between 2001 and 2009 – that is, 410,000 versus the most recent figure of 350,010. Or take homicide figures, which are at their lowest level for over a decade. As Mick Hume pointed out on spiked, the UK has one of the lowest youth homicide rates on earth – 0.9 per 100,000 people aged 10 to 29 according to the World Report on Violence and Health. Even in that biggest of the UK’s big cities, London, the 160 murders in 2007 represented a fall for the fifth year in succession.

Of course, just one murder, just one violent attack, is one too many. But the smallness of the homicide figures, the dwindling of the violence-related hospital visits, and the findings of the British Crime Survey in general, do indicate the rarity of serious crime. So, while the reported fear of the girls surveyed by Plan UK may not be groundless, reality does not justify it either. This does seem to be a paradox. Young females, in the case of this survey, do seem to be mighty fearful at a time when they’ve arguably never been safer.

No doubt the manic media reporting that accompanies each isolated tragedy contributes to the girls’ feelings of peril. Just two years ago, the hyperactive reporting of each and every youth stabbing led newspapers to talk excitedly of ‘a deadly epidemic of youth violence’, or, in the case of the Sun, the ‘fact’ that murders committed by knife-wielding gangs are now a ‘daily occurrence’ (they were not).

More culpable though are Britain’s politicians. No crime is too tragic, no trend too exaggerated, for a politician not to take the opportunity to posture as our protector, our guardian. To appear tough on crime, no matter how rare that crime is, is as politically seductive as it is simplistically virtuous. This year, so determined were the Tories to oppose Bad Things in the run-up to the General Election that they attempted to suggest that violent crime has actually risen substantially under New Labour. That this could appear to be the case owed more to the Tories’ exploitation of National Crime Recording Standard introduced in 2002 than to an actual rise in violent crime. As the NCRS caveat said: ‘Figures before and after [2002] are not directly comparable.’ Britain was not quite as broken as the Conservative Party’s data analysis team.

It’s not just the opposition parties that have been keen to exacerbate the public’s fear of crime. The New Labour government was never afraid to turn an unremarkable number into a damning statistic if it meant that it too could pose as a guarantor of our safety. So while the Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, may have talked nonsensically of a ‘culture of stabbing’, Labour’s then deputy leader Harriet Harman was off touring her knife-rife constituency of Peckham, resplendent in a stab-proof vest. If a government minister flanked by her majesty’s finest is saying, in effect, ‘you can’t be too careful’, little wonder that the nation’s female youth feel more than a little intimated by the big, bad city.

While the government, in lieu of popular support, has certainly found an important form of legitimacy in the form of fear management, this has only been possible because of society’s increasingly angst-ridden social relations. Adults simply don’t trust one another, unless that trust is mediated through the state. Where once there was a high degree of adult solidarity, forged at work and in the community, there is now mutual suspicion. It’s not that people do actually pose a threat, it’s just that there’s always a chance that they could. And it’s here that the state can intervene, not just by stoking and exploiting distrust, but by managing it. Our safety is their paramount concern.

Little wonder, given the political exploitation of this socially generated fear, that many young girls, if asked ‘do you feel unsafe?’, will respond ‘yes’. In this sense, Plan UK certainly captures the anxious, fearful state of mind of young British females. The solution, one suspects, will lie less in greater state intervention, be it more police on the street or some other form of official reassurance, than in re-establishing in new forms the bonds and ties which meant people trusted rather than feared one another. Because, as it stands right now, the more that is done to make people – men and women – feel safe, the more fearful we have become.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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