The Truth About Stranger Homicide, and Who's Really at Risk
Stranger homicide is rare, but young men more likely to fall victim than women.
Stranger homicide is extremely rare.
Young men are more at risk than women of being murdered by a stranger.
Women are far more likely to be murdered by man known to them—a family member, friend or intimate partner—than a stranger.
Being attacked and murdered, apparently at random, by person who you do not know is the stuff of nightmares. Stranger-homicide scenarios depicted in films and novels typically involve a lone female walking home after an evening out with friends, traveling home from work one evening, or simply home alone. Usually, a man follows her and drags her into a car or alleyway or breaks into her house and brutally attacks and murders her.
Stranger homicides and stranger sexual homicides (which include some form of sexual assault either prior to or after being murdered), unsurprisingly invoke extreme feelings of fear, anxiety and anger. They are typically widely reported by media outlets and social media, far more than non-stranger homicides. Families and friends of the victim, local neighbourhood representatives and politicians are often involved in publicising and denouncing the murder of innocent women simply going about their daily business. Communities come together to mourn and to try to understand what triggers violent homicide when there was no pre-existing relationship between the offender and victim, such that the victim would not have recognised the assailant the day before the attack.
One recent example of a stranger sexual homicide in the UK that has been widely publicised is that of Sarah Everard. Sarah was murdered in March 2021 by a (then) serving police officer, a man she did not know. Another high-profile example is that of MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in 2016 by Thomas Mair, a man she did not know. Everard’s homicide triggered widespread anger and anxiety among the public, prompting UK Home Secretary Priti Patel to make a series of statements concerning women’s safety when 'walking the streets’. The London mayor was also quick to remark that London streets were not safe for women and girls.
So, just how common are stranger homicides? Are ‘the streets’ unsafe places for women and girls and are women more at risk than men in public places? Homicide statistics are a good place to start. However, they are complex and multifaceted, which must be borne in mind when interpreting them. Nonetheless, a series of consistent trends do emerge, which are exemplified by recently published figures from the U.S and the UK.
In 2020, for example, there were just over 21,000 homicides reported in the U.S. Of these, less than 5% of victims were female. Overall, less than 10% of all homicides were believed to have been committed by a stranger. Of the female homicide victims, the vast majority were murdered by a man known to them – a family member, intimate partner, or neighbour, for example.
In 2020, a similar pattern emerged in England and Wales. Approaching 700 homicides were reported, of which just over 25% were female, which is a notably larger proportion of than in the U.S. Of the female victims, 13% were believed murdered by a stranger. Again, as in the in U.S, statistics reveal that females in England and Wales were far more likely to be murdered by a male intimate partner or ex-partner, or another man known to them, than a stranger.
These 2020 trends mirror previous years. But it is worthy of note that homicide rates in both countries increased markedly in the 2020 sampling period due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, stranger homicide rates as a proportion decreased, presumably since COVID restrictions severely limited people’s movements during this period. Generally speaking, homicide rates remain very low (e.g., 11.7 per million in England and Wales) and stranger homicides where the victim is female are very, very rare – appalling, shocking and unfathomable, but rare.
Therefore, the statistics appear to indicate that ‘the streets’ are likely far safer places for women and girls than their domestic environments. Worldwide, the primary homicide threat to females resides in domestic contexts. Indeed, the United Nations report on the gender-related killing of women and girls revealed that in 2017, 137 women were murdered every day by a male intimate partner or family member. This may well have increased during the pandemic.
Stranger danger is real but rare, and research indicates that avoiding dangerous contexts and settings can reduce the risk of stranger homicide, and that risk management practices when a potentially dangerous situation (perceived or real) cannot be avoided reduces the risks still further. Arguably, we might do better to highlight the risks to young men, who are far more likely to be murdered in the street by a stranger. The circumstances may differ, yet risk management and risk avoidance practices can be just as effective for men as women.
Coral Dando, Ph.D., is a Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Westminster, London. Prior to returning to education, Coral served over 10 years as a London police officer.