There's a bogeyman who's been used to scare women going back throughout recorded history: The stranger who jumps out of the bushes or breaks into their houses and rapes them.
Sure, women are also frightened of being murdered or mugged and robbed, but fear of rape by a stranger is why people say women shouldn't go out alone and counsel them to put triple locks on their doors and bars on their windows.
And it happens: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (link to PDF file on that page), there were 203,680 rapes and sexual assaults in the United States in 2004, and 64,040 of those attacks were committed by strangers.
Now 64,040 is a significant number of attacks, especially if you think about the amount of pain and suffering each of those victims experienced. Rape attacks by strangers are not something to be ignored.
But still, they amount to 31 percent of all reported rapes and sexual assaults, which means 69 percent of those crimes are being committed by someone the victim knows. Using the BJS statistics, that's 136,550 rapes and sexual attacks.
Now many people jump to the conclusion that the other attacks are by intimate partners and relatives of various descriptions, and those attacks certainly happen. Intimate partners were responsible for 17 percent of rapes (35,340) in 2004, and other relatives accounted for another 3 percent, or 5,600.
But that still leaves a large gap, not counting the 2 percent of rapes in which the statisticians couldn't figure out the relationship of the attacker to the victim. It turns out that 47 percent of sexual assaults in 2004 -- 95,610 attacks -- were committed by people the BJS labels as "friend/acquaintance."
Now before every woman reading this starts worrying about her co-workers, neighbors and the guy they always speak to on the bus to work, let's look at this a bit. We don't have a study to back this up, but I would guess -- based on the ideas in Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear -- that in many of these cases, the women who were attacked at one point or another had a bad feeling about these so called friends and acquaintances. But they didn't act on those instincts, out of politeness or self doubt.
After all, women are raised to be polite, even to creeps, and "women's intuition" is still considered a good joke, in spite of scientific studies showing its value.
But the easiest way to protect yourself against an attack by people you know is to trust your instincts. If you don't like someone -- and particularly if he gives you the creeps in some way -- avoid being alone with him. Don't take a ride with him to avoid hurting his feelings. Don't let him walk you to your car. Don't go party with him and his friends. Avoid him. And don't worry about it if people make fun of your "female intuition."
By the way, many people think rape is an underreported crime, and that's probably true. Intimate and family rapes present particularly sticky issues, and data on those may be inaccurate. Friend/acquaintance rape may also be underreported, especially when the woman thinks she's done something foolish. I wouldn't take the overall number of rapes as a completely accurate assessment.
But I'd speculate that the stranger rape statistics are pretty accurate, because that crime is the one most likely to be reported. If the rape incidence is higher, then the number of stranger rapes is an even lower percentage of the crimes. It's important for all of us to recognize that the crime we all fear the most is not the most prevalent type of rape.
Everyone should take reasonable precautions to avoid stranger rape -- including paying attention and picking up some basic fighting skills. (Rapists tend to prey on people they think won't fight back, so a swift kick can often give you time to run.)
But here's the bottom line: Don't worry so much about stranger attacks that you let a guy who gives you the creeps walk you to your car.