Safe Conduct: Women, Crime, and Self in Public Places

Carol Brooks Gardner

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Gardner, C. B. (1). Safe Conduct: Women, Crime, and Self in Public Places. Social Problems, 37(3), 311–328.

Crime prevention , Fear of Crime , Men , Popular literature , Public Space , Rape , Rhetoric , Self defense , Stranger relations , Women

In this essay, I paint a portrait of women in public places and their concerns with crime prevention, based on a survey of the literature and in-depth interviews with women. I argue that there is a situationally appropriate self that crime-prevention advice literature suggests women adopt and that women attempt to adopt. This situated self, however, is sometimes constrained by the general character of public places and by the particular character of the belief system that women have and that the literature recommends with regard to crime prevention. In particular, I view normative beliefs about crime prevention as a "rhetoric" that involves negative contingencies for the woman's situated self in public, including frequent reliance on others, self-profanation, and lengthy or consuming preparations.

Main finding
Women's beliefs about crime prevention in public spaces and the advice women receive concerning their navigation of public spaces spoils the experience of public space for women and men. The belief, supported by popular literature that women are physically safer at home and less so in public, drives women to develop crime-conscious behaviors. Women are often advised to mentally and physically practice anticipatory preparation and maintain a casual self-contained involvement when going out. Such beliefs limit women's experience of public spaces to an exercise in self-defense and affect broader areas of women's lives, such as purchasing homes. The image that crime-preventive beliefs paint of men is also harmful. Men are portrayed as potential and constant threats, which undermines women's trust in innocent men. As a result, innocent men are overly conscious of their behaviors and over-engage in practices that assure women they are not potential threats.

Description of method used in the article
This article reviewed popular literature on crime prevention and women's experiences in public spaces and conducted in-depth interviews with 25 middle-class women living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Respondents were asked questions about their perceptions of public spaces in the city, their experiences with crime and possible distasteful events that occurred to them in public spaces, their beliefs and understanding in regard to what to do in the case of street crime against them, and whether they have put these beliefs into practice. Finally, the interviewers asked for the women’s sources of information.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression
Physical types
Geographic locations