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True Crime: Fear is a Feminist Issue

Jenna Luxon on the reason behind true crime's predominantly female audience as the genre hits an all-time high

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A ‘PDL’ or ‘Personal Development Learning’ day was the one day each term that my secondary school dedicated to covering all the PHSE content the teachers had been avoiding over the past seven weeks. Instead of covering the topics little by little each week, they crammed them all into one tedious day. A torturous routine that resulted in something that felt a lot like a teenage equivalent of your infant school circle time, but with a depressing twist and no teddy bears.

Like all instances of teachers breaking free from their subjects to try and impart some ‘real life’ knowledge, PDL days had the power to evoke in you a unique mixture of boredom, despair, embarrassment and hilarity. And while most of these sessions that I once laughed and cringed through I have long forgotten, there is one that still sticks in my mind.

Imagine a secondary school science classroom. The year group has been split by gender and so you’re sat on a graffitied wooden stool in a room full of 14 year old girls. At the front of the classroom stand two community support officers. They give a short talk about being safe when out in town,stranger danger, the usual. And then they start to mess about with something on the computer screen and you’re hopeful this might mean there’s going to be a break in them speaking, at least for the length of some poorly produced video.

But what is played to you next is not a video. It is a recording. It is a recording of a woman phoning the police after having been raped.

Through all the nonsense they spoke about on those PDL days each term, it is only the memory of sitting in that science classroom and listening to that women’s voice that has stuck with me. Listening to this anonymous voice as she tried to explain through her tears what had happened to her. She was in a room, but she didn’t know where. She had been attacked but she did not know by whom.Her attacker had gone, but she did not know if they were coming back.

The recording ended and the bell rang.We all stood up, filed out of the room and that was that. That was what? What happened to this woman, did they find her? Did they find her attacker? We were never told. But what I remember to this day, in even greater detail than the recording itself, is the feeling I had walking down that science corridor toward my next session of the day, the feeling of my life shrinking around me.

Within the time it took to listen to that recording, my life had shrunk. And I felt embarrassed. I felt stupid and naïve. I had never stopped to consider before how many of the things I hoped to do in my life relied upon the basic principle that I was not at risk by simply leaving my house. But now that it had been pointed out to me, now that I thought about it, it seemed that my life had suddenly become very small.

I was fourteen and, like most fourteen year olds, the boundaries of my life did not stretch much beyond my walk to school and the bus route in to town. So, I don’t suppose I stopped to consider how every other woman in the world lived her life up against this supposedly all-encompassing danger. As far as I was concerned, two people dressed like police officers had just made me listen to the cries of a woman raped. And then just like that they’d sent us on our way. No reasoning given; no lessons imparted.

I guess, looking back, there must have been some assumption on the part of those officers that further explanation of this recording was not required. That we would draw our own conclusions;and I certainly did.My adolescent brain took this newly imparted knowledge and drew the logical conclusion that if doing nothing wrong except for leaving your house could result in being abused like this woman had been, then it would be wise to cut down the amount I leave my house alone to a bare minimum.

Six years on, and I’d like to say I’ve grown out of this logic. And for the most part I have.But then I think about the thought processes I go through when I leave my house at night.Walking when it’s dark, so at the moment anytime after five, is one of my least favourite activities. I will walk the not-so-mean streets of York alone at night, but not without a scowl on my face. A set jaw, a fast pace, a direct route. I keep my earphones in so no one will speak to me but with the music volume low so I could hear someone walk up behind me. I cross to the other side of the road if someone walks towards me. I make escape routes and plans of places to hide. I engage in this vast range of paranoid thinking, under the misguided notion that it might make the blindest bit of difference to my safety.

I recently started listening to a podcast called ‘My Favourite
Murder’, which was what got me thinking about all this again. Presented by American
comedians Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, My Favourite Murder is a ‘true-crime
comedy’ podcast that had over 19 million downloads a month. Each week the two
female presenters discuss a murder each. They go over the details of the case,
its handling by the police and its coverage in the media.

It didn’t take long, for me to become obsessed with this
podcast and it was through this that I began to research the true crime genre
in general. Which was when I realised the huge gender imbalance in true crime
audiences. No matter the medium, be it podcasts, books, television shows or
films women are the ones consuming true crime across the board and there are
countless articles and research projects trying to work out why. From the
psychological, to the evolutionary. Blaming the 24 news cycle or it’s just for
the adrenaline rush; everyone has got a theory.

And yet, I find nothing about the gendered audience
statistics for true crime surprising. Because as soon as I began to read about
the number of women interested in true crime like I am, my mind cast back to
being fourteen, sitting in that science classroom and listening to woman cry.
Like a montage from a bad teen movie my mind then went to an overhead shot of
me walking down that corridor,  slowing
realising what a bad idea it would be to ever leave my house again.

Women are more interested in true crime than men you tell
me? Well, of course they are. Because when you’ve been brought up in a society
telling you to be scared of something, to prepare for it, to expect it, you’re
naturally quite interested in knowing some specifics about it.

Growing up in this environment is much like being told there’s
a monster out after you. No one can describe to you exactly what this monster
looks like and so it looks like no one and at the same time looks a little bit
like everyone.  No one can tell you where
the monster is, and so the monster could be anywhere. No one can say if or when
the monster will appear, so best to always be prepared. But no one can tell you
what to do if you see the monster. You don’t know what you’re looking for and
you don’t know where you’re looking. Which is just as well because by the time
you’ve worked out if what’s stood in front of you is a monster, it will
probably be too late anyway.

But then you find an account of someone who’s experienced
the monster. In fact, you’ve found a podcast where all they talk about are
people who’ve seen a monster, people who have been hurt by the monster, and
even worse people who the monster has killed. And you’re interested. Not
because you’re perverse or macabre. But because you’re scared of the monster
too and you have been since you were told to start being scared at fourteen, if
not earlier.

Knowledge is power. And fear mongering is just fear
mongering. Being scared does not protect you, being educated doesn’t
necessarily either, but it empowers you. There is nothing empowering about
being made to sit and listen to a call to 999 after a sexual abuse incident.
Nothing what-so-ever. I can’t see that that entire exercise had any purpose beyond
the shock factor. It simply aimed to scare, and it succeeded.

I don’t know what the boys did during that hour’s session
when we were listening to that tape. I never asked at the time, but in the
years since I’ve so often wondered. The interest in true crime is gendered not
because of a 24-hour news cycle, we all fall victims to that influence. It is
not because of wanting an adrenaline rush either, we all have adrenaline in us.
The interest in true crime is gendered because we live in a society that makes
fear gendered.

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