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Unraveling the Fear of Victimization Among College Women: Is the "Shadow of Sexual Assault Hypothesis" Supported?

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 20 Issue: 3 Dated: September 2003 Pages: 633-659
Date Published
September 2003
27 pages

This article explores the “shadow of sexual assault” thesis and the factors that heighten women’s age specific fear of rape.


In face-to-face confrontations with offenders, women fear that a rape may occur and this fear “shadows” their fear of other forms of personal victimization that may not involve an actual or attempted rape or sexual assault. The shadow thesis advances the understanding of why women are more fearful than men of criminal victimization. No published study of fear of victimization among college students has explicitly tested the utility of the shadow thesis to explain women’s fear of victimization. Rape is the crime most feared by women, even more than the fear of being murdered. Younger women are at a greater risk of experiencing rape than are older women. This study tested whether the shadow thesis was supported in the campus domain and across temporal considerations. Data were taken from a larger project that examined the victimization experiences of a representative sample of 3,472 undergraduate and graduate students that were enrolled at 12 randomly selected 4 year colleges and universities in the United States during the 1993-94 academic year. Measures included ecological, neighborhood, demographic, and individual characteristics; direct-victimization measures; and perceived risk. Five dependent variables were used: fear of larceny/theft, fear of rape, and fear of three nonsexual violent crimes (robbery, simple assault, and aggravated assault during the day and at night). The results generally supported the shadow thesis. College women’s fear of rape was an inseparable companion to fear of other offenses while on campus during the day and at night. Women’s fear of rape shadowed their fear of other offenses, principally those involving face-to-face contact between victims and offenders. The results showed strong relationships (regardless of age) between perceived risk of rape and fear of rape among college women, and that increased levels of constrained behavior significantly enhanced the fear of rape. 4 tables, 6 footnotes, 23 references, appendix

Date Published: September 1, 2003