Women and Crime: Fear in suburbia

A hammer, a kitchen knife, a heavy torch, a golf club. One in five women keeps a weapon by her pillow - just in case. Checking for monsters under the bed? Many do that, too. Julia Stuart reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anne Sawyer brushes her teeth, wipes off all traces of make-up and locks the back door. After climbing into bed, the 42-year-old accountant sets the alarm for 6.30am, then carefully checks her weapons: a golfing iron under the bed and a knife with a 15-inch blade in a nearby drawer. She is not afraid to use them, either. Only once she is sure that both are in place will she turn out her light.

What sounds like the beginning of a bad horror film is, in fact, reality for millions of women in Britain. According to a survey carried out by Ideal Home magazine and seen exclusively by The Independent on Sunday, almost one in five women keeps a weapon by her bed to defend themselves against intruders.

It seems an extreme reaction to the nation's obsession with crime, but this is behaviour that seems completely normal to many women. Emma Williams, 30, a designer who lives alone in south London, keeps a heavy torch by her bed - she bought it specifically to defend herself. "It could bring me a couple more minutes," she said. "The torch just gives me peace of mind. You've got something just in case. People should be aware of their safety."

Sarah Barker, 42, a nurse who lives in Manchester, won't sleep unless she has barricaded herself in her bedroom with a stepladder. "When my next-door neighbour is away I use something heavier - my bookcase in fact - because there would be no one to hear my screams. I've always done this. To me it's completely normal.

"When I get home at night I check every room, even the shower, the cupboard under the stairs and the wardrobes," she said. "And while I'm checking one room I'm keeping an eye on the others in case someone slips out of one and hides in another."

Women are not the only ones fearing for their safety in the home. An increasing number of British people are arming themselves against the risk of attack from intruders. Customs officers have seen a sixfold increase in the number of stun guns being seized at ports and airports. Those found carrying them all said that they wanted them for their own protection. Others use the internet to buy CS gas canisters and replica handguns, which can be converted into lethal weapons.

But are these fears justified? According to Home Office statistics, total recorded crime is down by 6 per cent year-on-year. Robbery is down by 12 per cent and domestic burglary by 20 per cent - the biggest fall since 1915. The number of aggravated domestic burglaries - those featuring violence - has been declining since 2002. We should be feeling safer in our homes than we have done for some years. So why aren't we?

Jonathan Jackson, a criminologist at the London School of Economics, believes a tendency within the media to portray women as victims has a lot to answer for. We only have to cast our minds back over the year and a gallery of faces of female victims spring to mind, from TV and newspapers - Abigail Witchalls, Sally Anne Bowman and Mary Ann Leneghan among others. Fiction too plays its part; the scariest scenes in thrillers often revolve around a threat in the sanctity of the victim's home.

"These are the sort of images that people's vulnerability gets latched on to," said Dr Jackson. "The people who have these weapons have gathered a sense that this could happen to them and have gone through the prospect of someone entering their home, which is obviously very frightening.

"They start mulling over that it could happen to them and the seriousness of the consequences, and it becomes a salient and vivid possibility," she said.

Ms Williams knows exactly what he means. "I remember reading a story once about a woman who woke up and saw a man standing there, and that is one of my biggest fears. It would be awful. Then there are programmes like Crimewatch that give you nightmares. I also read stories in the local paper about things that have happened near my home and that's worrying."

Dr Jackson said people's fears are not allayed by statistics that show the rarity of such crimes. "People don't really attend to the probability of risk very much," he said, "they attend to the consequences and the seriousness of the consequences much more. It's called probability neglect.

"People are much more concerned about risks which are very unlikely, but if they happen would be dreadful," he said. So we lie in our beds at night, heart pounding, imagining that the noise on the stairs is someone about to attack us, but give little thought to having a car stolen, which is much more likely.

Ms Barker is well aware that her fears are not likely to be realised. "I know that mine is a perceived fear and has no relation to statistics," she said. "In fact, no reduction in crime rates would make me feel better. I don't feel as though an intruder would be after my belongings, but after me, even though I'm well aware that being raped in your own home is rare. To me, being raped is the worst thing after being murdered."

Dr Elizabeth Gilchrist, a reader in forensic psychology at the University of Kent in Canterbury who has researched the fear of crime in women, believes that these fears are not irrational. She is not surprised at stories of weapons being kept by the bed. "If you look at the routine sub-criminal victimisation that women suffer, for example the derogatory comments in the pub where you are not sure whether that is a prelude to something more serious, and the possibility of domestic abuse that one in four women now suffer across a lifetime, women probably do have good reason to be more fearful than men."

A number of burglars have reported having a sexual fantasy during a burglary, she said. "What might seem a very far-fetched notion - somebody breaking into your house to steal goods having any notion of a sexual encounter or rape - is perhaps less far-fetched than might originally have been thought. But I must stress that the actual incidence of rape during burglary is low and the majority of burglars want to obtain goods and get into and out of a property as quickly as possible and without encountering anyone."

She agrees that the media has a role to play in increasing women's fears. "The type of sensational stories that are reported about women being raped in the course of burglaries add to our fear as well," she said. "The way women are portrayed in TV dramas and films also affect women's fear."

Besides, there is a wider canvas to consider. While burglaries and other crimes are decreasing, violent assaults have quadrupled since Labour came to power in 1997. Wounding is up by 43 per cent and sexual offences by 5 per cent.

Little wonder, then, that according to a survey last week by More magazine, only 5 per cent of young women feel safe in Britain. Nine out of 10 of the respondents said they worried about being attacked or mugged on the street at night and three-quarters said they worried about being raped.

But much depends on perceptions of risk, according to Dr Gilchrist. "If you are fearful you can read the media in a particular way," she said. "If you have a fear of crime you may focus on stories and then use them to explain why you are fearful. People who report less fear may say 'it's unusual, they are not like me and it doesn't happen in my area'. It's an interpretation, affected by many other factors."

So why are some more fearful than others? Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes that how we were brought up plays a vital part. "I think it's learnt either directly as a lesson - the world is very dangerous and mother says so - or mother or father is fearful and risk-averse. And the worst compound would be that that individual has had it all come true because they have been burgled before. I would expect them to have massive security and lots of weapons."

There is, of course, the very serious question of whether arming yourself is a sensible thing to do. Ms Sawyer, who shares her London home with her eight-year-old daughter and an au pair, says she wouldn't hesitate to use her golfing iron or the knife in the drawer by her bed. "If I hear a noise I will get up to investigate it. People always point out that they could wrestle the knife from me. But it feels like my comfort blanket."

The law allows people to use "reasonable" force to defend themselves and their property, such as chasing or immobilising a burglar, but there is no legal definition of what "reasonable force" is, and each case is considered separately by the courts. There can, of course, be serious consequences, as the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin discovered. He served three years of a five-year prison sentence for manslaughter after he shot dead a 16-year-old burglar at his home.

Question marks in any case surround the wisdom of keeping a weapon close at hand.

"I would want people to think very carefully about exactly what they would do with a weapon and what the costs might be," said Dr Gilchrist. "If they are trying to deal with their fears, there may be more appropriate ways such as contacting local police for advice and information, installing panic alarms, having a mobile phone by your bed or having a light that you turn on to signal to a neighbour to call the police for you.

"If you encounter someone in your bedroom, a pretty high level of violence is needed to be effective and I'm not entirely sure people have thought through the consequences," she said.

Armed and Anxious: I sleep holding a baseball bat

Gemma Watts, 23, is a PR executive and lives in Worcester

I live with my parents and when no one else is in I don't feel safe, so I sleep with a baseball bat in my hands. I actually wake up in the same position. I've planned what I would do to an intruder - I'd shove it in their stomach and run away. I won't open the door at night and if the dog needs the loo she has to hold it in because I'm too scared to let her out. When I come back in, I check under the bed, all the cupboards and behind the curtains. I wouldn't walk up the street at night either. I drive up to the door.

I didn't feel this way so much when I was younger because I wasn't so aware. Working in a media-led environment, I'm always aware of everything going on in the news. When I hear stories of people being attacked just seconds away from their houses it really freaks me out. There is always somebody being murdered or attacked. It makes me think that it could happen to anybody. It's always on my mind. I don't blame the media because you need to be aware of these things. It's really scary. When my dad's away, my mum keeps a hammer by her bed. We are surrounded by fields so it's really dark outside and just really, really scary.

I don't leave doors open during the day in the summer either. You always hear about daytime burglaries. The daytime isn't even safe now. I won't move out of my parents' house because I haven't got a boyfriend and all my friends have a partner, so there's no opportunity to move in with anyone. There's no way that I would live on my own. I would be too freaked out. I do feel silly. But I'll never feel safe until everyone capable of attacking people is locked up.

Not Worried: I don't even bother to lock up

Linda Grabham, 28, works in the media and lives in a village in Devon

I always keep my doors unlocked. I'm used to it. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere down a dirt track and there were no keys to any of the doors. I've never been in the habit of closing doors. When I was at university, my flatmates would go spare because I'd go out and leave the doors unlocked. I'm quite laissez-faire when it comes to security. My boyfriend locks the doors before we go to bed, but if he's not there I won't. It wouldn't occur to me. I haven't got much to steal and it's never occured to me that I might be attacked or raped during a burglary.

Women who check their homes for intruders when they come in have been watching too many horror films and reading too much in the newspapers. I wouldn't like to be like that. I've never even worried about sounds in the house at night. I lived in London for four years after university and I was a bit more conscious there. But I never thought that someone might steal into my bedroom at night and try to attack me. I think I've got a false sense of security because of where I live. Everybody knows everybody and you don't read in the papers about anything happening.

You could look for danger at every corner but I really don't think about things until they happen to me. I think keeping a weapon by your bed is crazy. It's over-paranoid. If somebody came into my room at night, I wouldn't have the presence of mind to actually beat off a man, and I wouldn't want to put a knife into anybody. I would hate to be constantly paranoid, it's not a very nice way to live. I realise that I'm an extreme, but I'd rather be extreme this way than the other.