Discourses of danger: the construction of gender through talk about violence
Women report far more fear of violence than do men; however, crime statistics show that men are victimized more frequently than women. Explanations proposed for this paradox include the underreporting of violence against women, women's fear of rape, the effects of sexual harassment, and media sensationalization of violence against women. I argue that in addition to these factors, everyday conversations construct particular meanings of gender that sustain women's heightened fear of violence, as well as men's relative lack of fear in the face of substantially higher risk. I use survey data and transcripts of focus group discussions to address three questions. First, what is the social organization of fear and vulnerability? In other words, who is fearful, of what, in what situations, and with what effects? Second, are cultural conceptions of vulnerability and danger linked to particular social groups? Finally, how are these meanings constructed, transmitted, maintained, and transformed? I find that in general, women report being more afraid, perceive themselves to be more at risk, and have less confidence in their ability to defend themselves than do men. This gender difference tends to be greatest for those strategies that most limit one's normal life activities. Other less privileged groups (those with less education, lower incomes, and those in the youngest and oldest age categories) are also more likely to practice highly limiting strategies. On the conceptual level, analysis of the focus group transcripts demonstrates that women are consistently associated with vulnerability and men with invulnerability. Moreover, men are associated with potential danger, while women are believed not to be threatening to others. In both cases, gender interacts with other social statuses, including race, class, age, and sexual orientation. Finally, I identify five discursive strategies that are used to construct these conceptual associations between gender, vulnerability and dangerousness: story-telling, warnings, offers of and requests for protection, teaching and learning danger management strategies, and collective strategizing. I also note, however, that these tools can be used to challenge dominant conceptualizations of gender as well as to reinforce them.
- Sociology