Why we need to start talking about rape anxiety

The unspoken anxiety that affects millions of people every day

Have you ever walked down a dark street, clutching your key between your knuckles as your pace quickens to reach home? Do you feel terrified walking home alone, constantly checking over your shoulder in case somebody is following you? Do you feel uncomfortable getting into taxis alone? Are all of these actions and feelings based around the idea that you may get attacked, violated or raped at any one moment? Congratulations, you are one of many who experience rape anxiety.

Let’s get one thing clear. You do not have had to be raped to experience rape anxiety. Rape anxiety is the feeling of being threatened in public spaces and is a fundamental part of many people’s daily existence. From a young age, women specifically (and some men too) are fed stories about “stranger danger” and how to avoid this (usually by dressing appropriately, carrying a rape alarm and knowing what to do if someone is following you etc.)

Whilst this advice can be helpful, some parents become increasingly explicit in their stories and warnings. They may not realise it, but they are making us constantly fearful of rape and assault.  It is a lingering fear that is always in the back of our mind that can surface via certain triggers such as verbal harassment like the now common jeering and whistling, poor lighting in isolated spaces, or sexually overt comments by a group of strangers. All of these things are heightening the stigma of rape.

We should feel safe wherever we go

Obviously, it’s important to stay safe and stay together but it’s also imperative to try and break down these stigmas. I do not think that rape anxiety is discussed openly enough. Whilst there is awareness about the risk of verbal and physical harassment, there is not a discussion about the constant, evasive fear that many people have. There is even less discussion about what someone can do to help this. Measures can be taken to alleviate rape anxiety by offering to drop someone home, to stay on the phone with them as they walk back, to pay for their taxi so they get home safe or even just to invite someone who is clearly frightened and alone to stay with your group.

We need to look after each other. This means we cannot dismiss rape anxiety as a “silly” or “attention seeking” fear. It is about recognising how rape anxiety can be an overwhelming sense of terror and dread. It is also about beginning a new conversation about how people can be relieved and helped, and how we can stop this anxiety from spreading even further.

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University of Birmingham