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Gender, Fear, and Public Places: How Negative Encounters with Strangers Harm Women


Research repeatedly shows that women are frequent targets of sexual harassment in public, ranging from catcalls to sexual assault. However, we know very little about the impacts of less obviously gendered rude behavior. Using nationally representative survey data from Australia (N = 1621), we investigated gender differences in the experience of generic public incivilities such as tailgating, pushing in crowded spaces, and yelling or cursing. We employed a series of logistic regression models to assess the relationship between gender and stranger incivility and to adjust for key demographic and event attributes. Results demonstrated that women were significantly more likely to report recent experiences of public incivility than were men and that women were significantly more likely to report negative impacts on their emotional well-being, particularly when the rude stranger was a man. Findings also showed that women were significantly more likely than were men to report limiting their use of public places as a result of experiencing public incivility. Much like sexual harassment, generic forms of uncivil behavior exact a gender-specific tax on women’s access to public places, compromising women’s capacity to fully engage in the public sphere. Implications for research and policy are discussed.

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We would like to thank Christopher Wildeman, Rene Almeling, the participants of the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course Workshop at Yale University, and anonymous reviewers for very thoughtful comments on this work. Any errors are our own. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the University of Vienna’s Marie Jahoda Summer School on Public Spaces in Transition, Vienna, July 2014, and at the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society, New York City, February 2015.

The data used here come from a survey funded by the Australian Research Council [Australian Research Council Discovery Grant Number DP0208637].

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sara Bastomski.

Ethics declarations

All analyses for this study were conducted using secondary data. The data used were drawn from the 2005 Everyday Life Incivility in Australia Survey (ELIAS), which was funded by the Australian Research Council [Australian Research Council Discovery Grant Number DP0208637].

Details about the ELIAS study are documented in the following book: Smith et al. (2010). Incivility: The rude stranger in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Conflict of Interest

The study authors, Sara Bastomski and Philip Smith, certify that they have no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, related to this study.

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Bastomski, S., Smith, P. Gender, Fear, and Public Places: How Negative Encounters with Strangers Harm Women. Sex Roles 76, 73–88 (2017).

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  • Gender differences
  • Incivility
  • Uncivil incidents
  • Rude behavior
  • Street harassment
  • Victimization