Women, Fear, and Cities


We’re given very explicit instructions to fear strangers and public spaces at night. The news media plays a huge role through sensationalized reporting on violent stranger crimes against women and a relative lack of reporting on intimate partner violence. The whole genre of police procedural shows revolves around portrayals of heinous acts of violence against women, each season escalating the imagined crimes and graphic scenes (I’m looking at you, Criminal Minds and Law & Order: SVU). Sexual assault is a common trope throughout movies, books, and television, often used by authors to illustrate a pivotal moment in a woman’s character development. Taken together, these portrayals imply that stranger violence and sexual assault are always just around the corner. Comedian Tig Notaro has a bit that captures the effects of this perfectly. Every time a man makes her feel uneasy in public, she wonders, “Is this my rape?” We laugh uneasily because it rings true. We do sort of believe that “our rape” is already out there, an inevitability waiting in the shadows.

In contrast, domestic violence, sexual assault by acquaintances, incest, child abuse, and other “private,” yet much more prevalent, crimes receive far less attention. From a feminist perspective, this difference in attention serves to direct women’s fear outwards, away from the home and family, reinforcing patriarchal institutions like the nuclear family and women’s reliance on heterosexual partnership for the appearance of security. In a vicious cycle, this stigmatizes violence experienced within the “safe” space of the home and drives it further out of sight.

Weighing all of these factors—underreporting, harassment, socialization, media—the paradox of women’s fear begins to dissolve. Instead of trying to locate some internal cause or explanation for women’s fear, feminists are more interested in situating it within broader structures, systems, and institutions. And this leads to the question, “why is women’s fear so deeply embedded, socially and culturally?” The only explanation is that it serves some kind of social function.

It’s very Women’s Studies 101, but it bears repeating: the social function of women’s fear is the control of women. Fear restricts women’s lives. It limits our use of public spaces, shapes our choices about work and other economic opportunities, and keeps us, in what is perhaps an actual paradox, dependent on men as protectors. This all works to prop up a heteropatriarchal capitalist system in which women are tied to the private space of the home and responsible for domestic labour within the institution of the nuclear family. It’s a system that benefits men as a group and upholds the status quo very effectively.


There are many hidden costs of fear - the ones that keep women from living full, free, and independent lives in the city. The social, psychological, and economic consequences are substantial. They place a tremendous burden on women’s already over-loaded days: we have the “double shift” of paid and unpaid work, the triple shift of dealing with racism, homophobia, ableism, etc. on top of sexism, and the quadruple shift of constantly managing our safety.

The endless precautionary measures steal valuable time and energy. Every woman has stories of the time she got off the subway or bus at a distant stop because she worried she was being followed, or took a long and winding route home to ensure she was actually alone. We avoid short cuts through laneways and parks. We vary our travel routes and carry our keys in our fists. We pretend to be on the phone. We avoid certain places completely. This all adds up to an exhausting set of both routine and spontaneous safety decisions and the need for a constant awareness and attention to safety issues.

The stress generated by a steady, if usually low key, state of uneasiness in the everyday environment is unhealthy and can have long-term ramifications. Recent research suggests that the high levels of stress affect longevity and may even show up as damage to our DNA. It’s depressing to decline events or leave early because there’s no safe and affordable way home. It’s psychologically draining to second guess our choices, wondering if we’ll be blamed if something bad happens. Sadly, we’re right to worry about this. Studies of media reporting on violence against women—public and domestic—have found that the media implicitly question the survivor’s actions, mental health, history, and habits, especially if the victim is Black, Indigenous, or marginalized in some other way.

Economically, these fears have real material outcomes. A better paying night shift or job in a seemingly dangerous area might have to be declined. Night classes that would lead to more training and higher paying jobs might have to be avoided. Affordable housing might be inaccessible if it’s in an unsafe area. These costs are rarely accounted for, even when discussing things like the “pink tax.” Perhaps more obvious, although still undercounted, are the costs borne when women eschew the cheaper options of cycling or walking in order to avoid harassment. Research shows that in most countries, women walk significantly fewer steps per day than men. It’s not laziness. Surveying women in cities like Jakarta, Semarang, Bristol, and Washington, journalist Talia Shadwell found that women often had to run a gauntlet of harassment walking to school or work, prompting them to pay for cabs, ride shares, and buses, even for short distances. Paying for a car, a cell phone, or a building with security are also added financial burdens. For men, these might feel like nice bonuses; for many women, they’re necessities. And of course, access to these necessities varies greatly across income, race, ability, and citizenship status.

At the end of the day these limitations and costs and stresses amount to an indirect but highly effective program of social control. Our socially reinforced fears keep us from fully inhabiting the city and from making the most of our lives on a day-to-day basis.

Who benefits from all of this? Doesn’t it seem outrageous and even illogical that society would limit women so much? After all, the losses aren’t purely born by individuals. One could calculate the lost economic productivity of women due to fearbased choices and see its wider effect on society. But society doesn’t function on a purely economic logic, or at least not a logic that supposes or desires an equal playing field for all. The economic logic of a sexist, racist, trans-and homophobic, ableist society operates on the unspoken assumption that economic and other forms of power must first be maximized for white, straight, cis, able-bodied men.


While gender-based violence may be a common denominator, other markers of social location always shape the particular kinds of violence, harassment, and danger that women encounter. And these aren’t separable. A woman who has her hijab ripped off cannot be asked to choose whether it was sexist or Islamophobic violence. The massive scale and historical longevity of violence against Indigenous women isn’t reducible to just one of racism, colonialism, or sexism. As Indigenous women and women of colour have long argued, gendered violence is a key tool of settler colonialism, one that continues to be wielded by both the state and individuals within the nation.

In the city, public violence and fear of crime are often addressed as single-issue problems, e.g. as “women’s problems.” This creates limited forms of intervention, some of which are doomed to fail because they lack consideration of women’s multiple social locations. Efforts to increase policing, add lighting, and install CCTV are likely to make the streets more dangerous for sex workers, who not only risk arrest and violence from the police, but who are pushed into less safe locations to work. Women without formal immigration status or who don’t speak the local language well may not feel comfortable accessing services or spaces designed to make women safer.  Even asking to be let off the bus in between stops could be a huge hurdle. And the widespread lack of physically accessible spaces for disabled people means that disabled women are highly constrained in the kinds of choices they can make about safety. Thus, any policies, practices, and design changes meant to increase safety must take a hard look at how different members of society will be affected.

It may be impossible to find a one-size-fits-all solution, but we still have to take an intersectional approach whenever possible.

Making cities seem safe for women also tends to make them less safe for other marginalized groups. Efforts to “clean up” downtown areas and “revitalize” residential and retail districts are typically accomplished through a combination of aesthetic measures (beautification projects) and the active removal of groups of people that have been marked as symbols of disorder, danger, crime, or disease. Historically, entire communities of people of colour, especially Black people, were razed in the name of urban renewal, including Halifax’s Africville and Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley. Today, less overt practices involve the targeting of homeless people and sex workers through criminalization. Youth, particularly youth of colour, are heavily policed via carding practices and overarrested. Spaces that serve disadvantaged communities and recent immigrants are closed, moved, or underresourced in order to push the poor, working class, and racialized out of these “regenerating areas.”

The readiness of white folks, including white women, to call the cops on people of colour makes them effective agents of this policing. What has come to be called “carceral feminism” is partly to blame: a version of anti-violence work that calls for harsh punishments and relies on the police and criminal justice system to solve gender-based violence.  In her book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation,  African American Studies professor Beth Richie notes that while some women have seen their safety improve over the last few decades, women with less power are “in as much danger as ever, precisely because of the ideological and strategic direction the antiviolence movement has taken during the buildup of America’s prison nation.” In a context where the criminal justice system is deeply racist and classist, a carceral approach can only serve to deepen inequalities and continually re-stigmatize and overly target the households of Black and Indigenous people and people of colour. Carceral feminism unwittingly participates in a system where police and cities are actually doing very little to improve women’s safety, but can use women’s safety as a justification for policies and practices that target other vulnerable groups and make them more susceptible to state and street violence.

In my research on gender and condominium development in Toronto, I found that developers and real estate agents enthusiastically marketed condos to women with the idea that the 24-hour concierge and security staff, as well as technical features such as handprint locks, CCTV, and alarm systems, made condos the safest option for women living downtown. These features were highly touted when condos were arriving in “up and coming” neighbourhoods that had previously been stigmatized or seen as abandoned, industrial areas. I argued then that by making condos “safe” for women, developers were smoothing their path to expansion into neighbourhoods that might otherwise have been risky real estate investments. This expansion certainly wasn’t going to make life any safer for the women who would be displaced by this form of gentrification. Nor does it tackle domestic violence in any way. Furthermore, asking women to “buy” their safety through condo ownership contributes to the trend of privatization, where people are held responsible for their own well-being, even their safety from crime. Making safety a private commodity in the city means that it becomes less and less available to those who lack the economic means to secure themselves. This is certainly a long way from an intersectional feminist vision of a safer city for women.

We may not know exactly what a safe city looks like, but we know that it won’t involve private safety measures. It won’t rely on the police to prevent or adequately investigate crimes. It won’t throw sex workers, people of colour, youth, or immigrants under the bus to create the appearance of safety. It won’t be centred on the needs and desires of privileged white women. And it won’t expect physical changes to undo patriarchal dominance.

At a minimum, an intersectional approach that starts from the needs and perspectives of the most vulnerable will be required. Listening to and believing women will be standard practice. An understanding of the interconnections between private and public violence will increase. Rape myths and rape culture will be dismantled. Fear will not be a tactic of social control. In a safe, feminist city, women won’t have to be courageous just to step outside the door. Our energies won’t be wasted on a million and one safety precautions. In this city, a feminist city, the full extent of what women have to offer the world can be realized.

- this is an edited excerpt taken from Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World by Leslie Kern.

The ebook edition of Feminist City is now available to download for free - click on the ebook tab below or here.

Leslie Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. She is the author of Sex and the Revitalized City: Gender, Condominium Development, and Urban Citizenship.

In Feminist City, through history, personal experience and popular culture Leslie Kern exposes what is hidden in plain sight: the social inequalities built into our cities, homes, and neighborhoods. Kern offers an alternative vision of the feminist city. Taking on fear, motherhood, friendship, activism, and the joys and perils of being alone, Kern maps the city from new vantage points, laying out an intersectional feminist approach to urban histories and proposes that the city is perhaps also our best hope for shaping a new urban future. It is time to dismantle what we take for granted about cities and to ask how we can build more just, sustainable, and women-friendly cities together.