Fear of violence and gendered power relations Responses to threat in public space in Sweden

University dissertation from Umeå : Kulturgeografiska Institutionen, Umeå Unversitet

Abstract: Several cases of single repeat offenders in urban space have raised public concern in Sweden during recent decades. Few studies have been conducted on consequences of the kind of ‘hostage situations’ that emerge when one individual offender causes fear and affects a larger group of people in a specific place. The concern of this thesis is to examine consequences of the Haga Man phenomenon: the case of a serial rapist operating between 1998 and 2006 in Umeå, a medium-sized Swedish city. This thesis explores some of the ways not only women but also men in Umeå responded to this specific situation, the threat from a single repeat offender, and how fear of crime and changing public crime discourses influenced gendered power relations. The thesis examines different aspects of fear and safety in public space, such as the views of those who are fearful; of those who are feared; perceptions of both women’s and men’s bodies; their emotions and experiences in relation to fear of violence in public spaces; and the significance of space and place for our understanding of fear. The empirical data of this thesis consist of in-depth interviews with a total of 47 women and men in Umeå.The thesis is based on four empirical studies. The first (Paper I) sought to identify similarities and differences across narratives in terms of the major components of young people’s talk about fear.  In their stories women positioned themselves as fearful and in need of protection, while men in their stories positioned themselves as fearless protectors. Men and women reproduced ways of speaking considered appropriate to their gender, thus performing masculinity and femininity through their talk. Paper II, examines consequences of the Haga Man phenomenon on constructions of white masculinities. Three masculine positions; the dangerous stranger, the suspect and the protector were identified. These three constructions of masculinity were not clear-cut or ‘belonging’ to specific men – several of the interviewees articulated various forms of masculinities but stressed them in different ways depending on, for instance, age and/or ethnicity/race. Paper III, focuses on changing perceptions and representations of female and male bodies, and illustrates how a change took place; from a focus on how women should conduct themselves to be safe, towards men’s bodily behaviour in order to present themselves in non-threatening ways. In Paper IV, women’s fear of violence is discussed in relation to Swedish gender equality discourses and contextual constructions of femininity. The results show the difficulties of claiming the official position of a gender-equal femininity. Several female respondents expressed an ambivalent attitude about their own fear; they felt afraid, but also felt that as (equal) women they should be able to do what they wanted, whenever they wanted.  Result from this thesis shows that this situation produced a shared approach to fear for women of different ages, classes and ethnicities in Umeå. The similarity in the women’s responses to the threat from the Haga Man is as an expression of a normative femininity. The male respondents did on the other hand express complex emotional positions as they talked about their own fears, women’s fear of unknown men and how they felt they were under suspicion and compared to the perpetrator. As this thesis provides an understanding of how men and women responded and reacted to the threat from the Haga man, it contributes to a better understanding of how fear of violence affects people in their everyday lives.