Women, Safety Anxiety, and The Rise of True Crime Podcasts // Jaclyn A. Siegel

Content Warning: Physical and sexual violence against women

Over the past few years, true crime-related podcasts have become a part of the zeitgeist. The popularity of podcasts as a medium can arguably be attributed to the investigative journalism series Serial, in which NPR reporter Sarah Koenig revisited the details of Hae Min Lee’s murder and the case against Adnan Syed. Other investigative journalism podcasts, such as Finding Cleo (the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women, particularly Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine), Cold (the murder of Susan Cox Powell and her two sons), In Your Own Backyard (the murder of Kristin Smart), Root of Evil (the murder of the “Black Dahlia”), and Man in the Window (the tactics and strategies of the Golden State Killer), have also topped the charts in recent years. Millions of listeners tune in each week to five-star-rated podcasts such as Crime Junkie and My Favourite Murder to “get their fix” of true crime. These podcasts are not just entertaining: in some cases, they have actually played a role in identifying victims (e.g., Bear Brook) and solving cold cases (e.g., Up and Vanished).

A few months ago, I took a deep dive into the true crime podcast world and have since become quite the “true crime junkie.” Not only do I listen to the podcasts, but I also subscribe to two of them on Patreon for bonus content and am a member of a Facebook group for listeners. I even recently purchased tickets to a live show in New York to see my favourite podcasters (Gillian Pensavale and Patrick Hinds, True Crime Obsessed) provide their commentary on a true crime documentary (note: I live and study in Canada). The combination of intrigue and horror created by these stories has left me completely engrossed in the world of true crime. I am not alone in this: more and more people, and women in particular, find themselves drawn to crime-related media content (Tuttle, 2019; Vicary & Fraley, 2010).

Survey research consistently shows that, while men listen to podcasts marginally more regularly than women, women comprise the overwhelming majority of true crime podcast listeners (Joyce, 2018). Various explanations have been proposed for this phenomenon: (1) although most podcasting is done by men, the hosts of true crime-related podcasts are often women, (2) in some cases, female hosts infuse personal anecdotes into the narratives, making them relatable to women, and (3) other podcasts are specifically geared toward male-typed topics (e.g., sports, politics) while murder is less gender-specific. Perhaps the most compelling explanation for women’s attraction to these stories, however, is that (4) true crime stories validate women’s fears about experiencing violent crimes themselves.

Women – particularly women with marginalized identities – consistently report higher rates of personal safety anxiety and vigilance than men (Riger & Gordon, 1981; Riggs & Cook, 2014). This may seem somewhat paradoxical, as men are more likely to experience nearly all forms of violent crime (Cotter & Savage, 2019). Yet, women (especially those who are transgender or queer) are disproportionately victimized by crimes of a sexual nature (Cotter & Savage, 2019; Stotzer, 2009). College-aged women report a variety of situations in which they are afraid of being raped and engage in numerous safety-related behaviors out of fear of rape (e.g., “avoid accepting help with my car from guys I don’t know”, “avoid walking through parking lots”, “carry something to use as a weapon”, “refrain from drinking around guys I don’t know”; Hickman & Huehlenhard, 1997).

The “shadow of sexual assault hypothesis” (Ferraro, 1995) proposes that, given the “ever-present” concern of sexual assault, women’s fear of being raped “shadows” their fear of experiencing all other forms of violence (Fisher & Sloan, 2003). Research has supported this hypothesis: According to survey research, although women express more fear of experiencing nearly all forms of violent crimes – and perceive themselves to be at a higher risk of experiencing violent crimes – women’s fear of rape can help to explain their concerns about potentially being victimized by myriad types of crime (Fisher & Sloan, 2003).

Notably, women report experiencing unwanted sexual attention or behavior in public, private, and online places and spaces more often than men, and thirty percent of Canadian women report lifetime experiences of sexual assault (Cotter & Savage, 2019). All of these experiences, from catcalling to unwanted touching to sexual violence, occur along a spectrum of sexual objectification, a common and uncontrollable experience in women’s lives. As proposed by Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), experiencing sexual objectification can remind women that, regardless of their other personal attributes and characteristics, they walk through the world as bodies, bodies that can be harmed and violated. Women may even adopt an objectified self-perspective to anticipate and control their social treatment (Roberts, 2004). The threat of sexual violence is inherent in all experiences of sexual objectification, even those that may seem benign or flattering. Research suggests that experiencing sexual harassment can not only increase women’s self-objectification but also can increase their fear and perceived risk of rape (Fairchild & Rudman, 2008). The fear of being raped produced by experiencing sexual objectification can explain, in part, women’s fear of experiencing all forms of crime (Watson, Marszalek, Dispenza, & Davids, 2015).

Listening to true crime podcasts is a way that women can have their fear of rape and crime validated. For many of us, these gruesome stories do not merely serve as entertainment: they remind us that our fears are legitimate and in many cases can provide tips and tricks for staying safe (e.g., “Crime Junkie Life Rules”). These strategies may not protect us in practice, but they can help us feel more prepared and empowered to protect ourselves. While consuming crime-related media content may actually increase perceptions of crime risk and fear of crime (Callanan, 2012), we are drawn to them because these are our stories: our friends’, our families’, and – if we are not careful – our own.
“Stay sexy and don’t get murdered” (My Favorite Murder). “Be weird, be rude, stay alive” (Crime Junkie). More than merely catchphrases, these slogans are our warnings, our hopes, and our prayers.

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