How to Avoid Being a Victim
November 12, 2012 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Women's self defense. I'm curious about things that can be done before you get to a point where you've got to physically defend yourself. In particular, I'd be interested in first hand experiences from women about how you avoid these situations and if you've ever had to fight someone off.

In the past, when my girlfriend tells me about creepy dudes who verbally harass her on the subway it annoys me. Less frequently, on a crowded train, someone has copped a feel and it infuriates me. Still she can handle herself and these things are minor on the spectrum of potential things.

Recently, she told me about being followed into an isolated subway and feeling really scared. This is the point where things get dangerous.

We've decided to start Krav Maga together, but I'm curious about things that can be done before you get to a point where you've got to physically defend yourself.

Obvious answers might be "avoid isolated places, don't stay out late, cry for help,carry pepper spray," but I'm hoping the AskMe hive can uncover some clever, effective strategies that are often overlooked.

In particular, I'd be interested in first hand experiences from women about how you avoid these situations and if you've ever had to fight someone off. My focus isn't about dealing with rape/assault, but more with the menace/threat/concern of potential rape/assault.

Thank you in advance.
posted by rambletamble to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The biggest thing that I took from the self-defense classes I've taken, and the one thing that I feel makes me FEEL the most safe out in the world, is just making eye contact assertively with anyone who's nearby or passing by, or turning around to let someone know I see that they're walking behind me on the sidewalk, etc.

The act of simple eye contact or acknowledgement will let a potential attacker know you're not a good target because you're not passive. You are aware that that person is there, you're watching and assessing and sizing up what they might do in relation to the space you're possessing. I get a lot of catcalls/disrespectful bullshit shouted at me, and I don't verbally respond to it EVER, but I make eye contact with the person as soon as someone tries to say something to me, not smiling, just looking at them with whatever facial expression I'm having (probably a "what's wrong with you??" face, honestly). I used to be afraid and I would just turn away or try to ignore the person, and I can tell you this: there is absolutely a difference in the way that making eye contact stops someone from continuing to try to cross a social line. But if it's someone who's going to try to hurt you, at the very least you're communicating to some degree that you're not a likely candidate to just quietly and easily submit to anything they're going to try to do.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:16 PM on November 12, 2012 [25 favorites]

I think an underrated habit is to look at people, and look around. Keep your head up and look aware.

Not that that will always help you see the danger ahead of time, but I think it does make you look more... I don't even know how to explain it. Street smart? Confident? In any case, if I'm the bad guy, I'm probably looking for the people who are completely unaware of their surroundings and/or looking lost like a tourist.

Disclaimer: I am not a woman. I am also not, though, a big intimidating guy. I have spent time in areas people seem shocked that I would venture into, and never had a problem while others have. I also don't claim that this is simple, and that's all there is to it. It seems to have worked for me to some extent, though.

On preview, same thing so_gracefully said.
posted by ctmf at 10:25 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

My rules of thumb:

Walk fast and with purpose.

Scowl/look serious and closed off. Don't make eye contact. Don't deliberately shift your glance away passively, but don't face the world with an open demeanor, if you know what I mean.

Don't be afraid to be rude or look foolish. If you don't like where a conversation is going, shut it down. If you don't like the way someone is touching you or looking at you, do anything you can to break contact. Put distance between you, RUN if you have to.

I also have invented So Many Husbands. I have a husband waiting for me in every bar, hotel, and restaurant in the world, at this point.
posted by Sara C. at 10:28 PM on November 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Two things my martial art training has taught me are:

1. Situational awareness. When I'm out and about, I get into a rhythm of looking forward, looking left, looking right, looking behind me. This is done in a relaxed, movin' and groovin' kind of way, not a paranoid-twitchy way.

This ties into:

2. Body language. I study how athletes and fighters move -- their animal grace -- and try to emulate them. Lowered shoulders, open chest, arms relaxed, calm face.

When I'm entering a situation where there is a bit of a heavy vibe, I intentionally slow my roll -- drop my pace, deepen my breathing, and put an ever-so-slight pimp-roll in my stride (hard to describe).

Also: I go for Placid Face rather than Bitch Face, and that seems to work for me.
posted by nacho fries at 10:42 PM on November 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have had two living situations where I felt very unsafe in my neighborhood. In the first case, there was a man hung out on the street near my apartment who took a special interest in me-- he would follow me and yell at me. I was in college and working as a nanny at the time, and he was particularly menacing when I had the baby with me in her stroller. In the second case, a neighbor in my shitty apartment building started following me around in his car and making threatening comments.

- Things I did: I was absolutely not afraid to duck into any business or front-desked building at any time, and often did. Just having another person around adds a layer of protection.

- I carried pepper spray. When I moved to Alaska, I started carrying bear spray. You never know what kind of animals you might run into...

- I carried (and still carry) an extremely loud whistle.

- If I'm wearing clothing or shoes that would make it difficult to run, I am even more careful.

- Ixnay on the iPod-ay. You want to maintain as much situational awareness as possible when out and about.

I am super thankful that I no longer live in either of those places. It can really wear on you. Not to say that you don't always have to be alert, but there have been places where I have felt overall eons more comfortable.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:44 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing the eye contact. I have also noticed repeated success in meeting unwanted attention with eye contact, and some variation of annoyed/irritated facial expression. I don't think it's necessary to scowl at the whole world, but if someone is being weird, turning to look, and not looking scared or compliant is really helpful.
posted by thylacinthine at 10:47 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I use what I call the "Bus Face." This is similar to what thylacinthine describes - looking kind of bored or annoyed, very neutral face and no smiling. I pretend that I'm not interested in people at all. Also nthing the no iPod or distractions suggestions. And know where you're going or walk with purpose even if you don't. Find a well-lit place near other people to stop and get oriented. Keep your cell phone charged and have emergency numbers in it to call.
posted by Red Desk at 10:55 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a guy who had been stalking me grab me from behind in an alley. His plans are not clear to me to this day but he had been more or less chasing me for blocks so I don't think it was anything good.

When he grabbed me, I started screaming my head off. As loudly as I possibly could. I wrenched myself out of his grip and screamed and screamed and the guy ran away.

I knew someone who lived in the building and asked him if he had heard me screaming, and he said no. Basically, I think when a woman is screaming her head off loudly and making a big scene, it's easy to overestimate how far that will carry. No one heard me (at least, no one came to my aid), but it broke my attacker's nerve and he ran away.
posted by ZeroDivides at 11:05 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I live across the road from an open psych ward and a publicly funded drug and alcohol rehab clinic. It's an exciting neighbourhood.

The thing that works for me is to let everyone who sees you know that you are a fucking god, in your fucking environment, and to fuck with you is to invite death. Walk tall and proud. Walk like you can fucking cut a bitch. Make eye contact. You don't have to be cruel or aggressive - you can be a friendly wrathful god, just so long as it's clear that this is your fucking patch. This also requires you know where things are, where people are, so keep your eyes open.

You have a right to feel safe and you need to believe it so strongly that it's part of your body language. Attackers who are strangers will look for someone who does not fight back, who will whimper and most, cry, and just let whatever happens to them happen to them. Be ready to scream. Be loud. They don't want anyone noticing you, or them. I've found that the loud drunks and the mental patients, while scary, are actually not usually the problem. Everyone remembers them. It's the drab quiet dudes you gotta watch for. They don't want to be remebered, so give everyone else something to remember.

I also have the advantage that I am a tall woman, and I dress in a fairly "hard" sort of way - big flat stompy boots, lots of chunky rings (you know, the type that will fuck your face up if you mess with me) and a length of chain on my bag that I could fuck up a bitch with in a pinch. I'm not a violent person and prefer to reason my way out of a situation, but if I'm walking alone at night you better believe I walk like a monster.

Worst case? Act a little crazy yourself. Babble. Scream about the lizard people, or baby Jesus, or whatever. Spit and hiss and curse them unto Ereshkigal to the fifth generation. Agressors do not want unpredictable. I had a guy follow me out of a bar who kept promising me "you're going to love this" and he only fucked off after I waded into a large body of water while chanting in a vaguely Babylonian droning while waving my hands about like a crazy person. It worked.

But the most important part? Very few people out in the wild want to fuck with you. Your biggest threats are always people you know. The vast majority of crime in rough areas is attacks by people known to them (disclaimer: I am in Australia here, ymmv). Self defense classes are teaching you to fight because the odds are good if you're ever in danger, it won't be from a random stranger. It'll be from someone who took the time to gauge all the shit I listed above and worked out how to get beyond it.

It sounds bleak, but ultimately what that means is you are far, far safer in public than you think you are. Let that inform you enough that it shows in your body.
posted by Jilder at 11:11 PM on November 12, 2012 [17 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice above.

Also, Gavin de Becker says that many assailants will test women to see how they'll react: they're pushing to see if you have boundaries, and whether you're afraid to make a scene. So a good trick is to not let people push you. Talk if you want, but stop as soon as you want. Don't let them touch you, or your stuff. Don't seem meek.

For me, this has rarely meant being rude or even very blunt. I usually do fine just by being kind of crisp and purposeful. Like, I might smile but then go back to reading, or if I'm walking, say something friendly but not slow my pace. Not seeming scared is big. Demonstrating awareness with a brief direct gaze is good too.
posted by Susan PG at 12:56 AM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

My self-defense instructor always taught us to confuse/disorient/hurt the attacker and then run away. Never stay and fight them. Do not for a second think you can "win" the fight after getting a few self-defense/martial arts lessons. Just go for the dirtiest tricks you can manage (kick in the nuts, open-palmed hit on the nose, stomp on the back of the knee, etc) and then run away. Attracting attention (screaming, yelling, going where people are, etc) is always a plus.

Also, what everyone else said: self-confident pose, being aware of your surroundings, no "open" expression on your face.
posted by gakiko at 1:14 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I see a lot of people saying to be aware of your surroundings. I'm going to take it a step further and say:

Trust Your Gut

My gut has saved my ass a few times.
posted by victory_laser at 1:17 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a certain bodyweight and strength differential between opponents where martial arts training is not going to make a difference. Unfortunately this is the case between most male and female altercations, save ones where the male is particularly untrained and the female is Ronda Rousey or the equivalent.

I have, however, managed to avoid more serious physical harassment by immediately and forcefully responding to the initial stages (but over-the-top). A guy started grabbing me in an isolated subway car. I immediately stood up and removed his hand, loudly staying stuff like "Back off, leave me alone" etc, then moved to another area of the car. When he followed me I pushed him into the seat, where he stayed. And then masturbated in front of me, but at least it wasn't a physical assault (and after the train stopped I got off the car and started yelling my head off).

So I didn't invite a possible fight by actually hurting the guy, but I was assertive and provided physical resistance. Also, he wasn't much bigger than me and I am pretty heavily built.

A caveat: the guy was not violent in his movements. At no point did he attempt to cause me harm outside of groping. If he'd decided he wanted to pin me down instead of just corner me to grab at my boobs I don't know if pushing him away would have been enough to stop him.

There have also been opportunistic gropers whose arms I've twisted pretty good, but I don't count that as physical altercation as they weren't trying to do more than cop a feel in a club.
posted by schroedinger at 1:26 AM on November 13, 2012

Putting your phone to your ear, either as a fake or calling someone and asking them to just hang out on the phone with you for a few minutes.

Carrying a rubber chicken, which I did in my early twenties in the Tenderloin. People don't want to deal with someone who's carrying around a rubber chicken.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:51 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nobody's yet mentioned the AskMe fave, The Gift of Fear. It's pretty much what you're looking for although it deals with a broad array of situations including stalking by intimates. Author Gavin de Becker basically says that you need to have situational awareness and listen to your gut instinct that tells you something may be wrong (the meaning of the title). As a crime victim myself, twice in the last decade, I only realized after each incident how I was dealing with someone who was already prepared to do me harm and this fact allowed them to get me to alter my own behavior to where I was more at risk.
posted by dhartung at 3:05 AM on November 13, 2012

On preview: Oh no. It's a book. I tried not to write one. But then I did. I'm sorry.

So: yup - what Jilder said. Statistically, women are in far more danger around people they know and in our own homes or very near to them. And we're also in the same amount of danger during broad daylight as we are at night. And while every woman is taught to live in fear of it, all the time, that boogyman in the bushes is rare indeed.

That said, I ran into one a few months ago jogging in Central Park, conveniently in exactly the same place that the whole infamous Central Park Jogger Gang Rape that went down a while back. I was stretching and getting ready to take off when a dodgy-looking dude who had followed me and a couple of other people up the path, and now seemed to be simply taking in the beautiful scenery, asked me what the place was called in broken English and an apologetic smile. I told him the name, and that the view was best from the north end, and promptly started off on my run. He called out, and I stopped*. He launched a choppy sob story about coming from X with no money, nothing but the clothes on his back, knows no one... And then he asked my name, and that's when I knew I was probably in trouble.

I run at around 9PM by myself - no headphones, no phone, no distractions. I'm not afraid to be there. I don't want to talk to you, I'm not there to meet anyone but the raccoons, and I'm definitely not interested in being hit on in the dark in the same place as the Central Park Jogger Gang Rape. No thanks. So when this dude asked my name, I shook my head, started running, and called back a 'Sorry, but I need to get my jog in while I’m warmed up!”. He started to run after me, saying he'd keep me company (in ultra baggy, low belted jeans and a leather coat. Great idea.). I stopped short, faced him fully, put my hand out in the universal language of BACK THE FUCK OFF, and told him I wasn't interested in company, that I prefer to run alone, and he is in no way going to be running with me. And I was very thankful in that moment to find myself not afraid so much as very, very pissed off, and staring him down with my hand still out in full STOP. And I actually made sure to take in his face and tattoos just in case I wasn't about to be murdered and actually might have to identify this jerk later (hooray for being subjected to entirely too many cop shows). And then I just turned around again and started my jog. But that time he raced after me, grabbed my arm, and then a big handful of my ass. And then he looked me up and down and told me he thought "it" (I do love being dehumanized!) looked nice, and how I clearly "wanted it", aka, the litany everyone knows from every rape / sexual assault on every tv show and movie ever made. And right about then I'm 100% positive I was in a super bad situation, and I was either going to have to run or physically fight this guy.

So I jerked away, very loudly and very clearly barked “Don’t Touch Me!”, and backed off a few feet trying to guess what’s up next as he chuckled and strolled my way. And then I turned around, again, and started jogging again, slowly, because I figured that would tell me in about three seconds if he was really going to try to attack me. And while I listened for his footsteps to follow, I internally geared up with enough adrenaline to FLY. He kept walking after me, and I kept calm enough to not look back and stick with an entirely disinterested, loping jog, but when I got the fifty feet or so far enough ahead to leave the trail and thus his line of vision, I hauled ass. Right out of the park, right to the nearest doorman building, and then I turned around and waited for him. And he did not appear. So I walked a very looping and not-remotely-direct way home, and that was the end of that.

I went back to run the next night, ran right into half the Central Park Precinct in the middle of a drill, and told the nearest cop the whole thing and asked him how I could've handled it better. And apparently, aside from calling the police right when I thought I might be in trouble (alas, I don't run with a phone, because I am not interested in getting jumped for it, and I probably wouldn't have called anyway, because... well, see the asterisk torrent downstream), I apparently did all the right stuff, which is to say: confront the person, make some serious eye contact, do not submit, but if in doubt or immediate danger, just get the fuck out of there. Ah – and that you should always report it, because they can't do anything about crime they don't know about.

*But here's that asterisk. I'm proud of how I acted. But I'm extremely pissed that I even stopped and stuck around to respond to this man after his initial question, because unfortunately, I know better. The guys who are predatory have always preyed on my (and my girlfriend's, and my sister's) constant-from-day-one female training/brainwashing to Always Be Nice and Helpful and Not Make a Fuss. So the best thing I can recommend to any woman for her own preservation is to largely GET RID OF THAT SHIT.

This was far from the first time a man threatened me, grabbed me, or made me quite scared about what he was going to force on me. And on literally every one of those occasions – at least, on those occasions where I did not already know the man in question - I was without fail stopped and asked for directions or some other such completely innocuous question, and my female training to Always Be Nice and Helpful kicked right in, smoothing the way like butter, because I was taught that that was basic human politeness. And this blows, and is a terrible catch-22, because personally, I really, really don't want to be that human being who won’t respond to someone asking for directions, or whether I know if that's parsley or dill in the produce aisle (I got followed home by a very creepy, very old guy for my trouble - because apparently answering that question means I definitely want to have sex with you). I’d really prefer not to be randomly rude or mean, distant, chilly, and constantly on my guard, but the bad guys almost never announce themselves or wear bad-guy masks, and they're usually really quite exceptionally good at using that deeply ingrained Always Be Friendly training to get you in a very rough spot, so it seems to me that I, as a woman, am kind of completely screwed there.

So fuck it: the single most useful thing I'd tell women is to stop being so fucking nice and accommodating to random men. Or at least learn to radically switch gears REAL FAST. Because the split second your gut tells you something's off, you truly need to be ready to GO OFF. I've watched women, minding their own business, suddenly scream at men on the subway who tried to cop a feel under the pathetic cover of an overly crowded train, women who've grabbed men’s hands in seemingly innocuous situations and demanded that they stop touching them, women who continued to fight when the man in question outright threatens them, or, more usually, just tries to make them look like crazy bitches getting all het up about nothing. I cheer those women in my heart every time. And when a totally random guy in a suit grabbed my crotch, twisted, and then snapped his fingers under my nose with a fucking smile and a WINK as I was politely waiting on the subway platform away from the doors so he and everybody else could get off the train, I became one of those furious, screaming women. Because really, that’s how you stop being a victim. You stop being quiet. You stop being compliant. And you stop being afraid.
posted by involution at 3:31 AM on November 13, 2012 [48 favorites]

Any martial arts class will probably help with self confidence, but your girlfriend might also consider taking a specific women's safety/defense class. I say this because in the one that I took (and a brief google suggests that this is pretty standard for a course labeled 'women's self defense') we worked on just some very basic physical moves, and a huge amount of the stuff you do to avoid getting to the point of having to fight off your attacker (which on re-reading is exactly what you ask for)- essentially, they trained us to respond exactly how involution did in the park:

[previously] my female training to Always Be Nice and Helpful kicked right in

yeah. As dumb as it felt, it was actually very helpful to *practice* switching to BACK OFF mode in a safe environment. We did a lot of shouting and running away and practice confrontations to go along with the hold breaks.
posted by heyforfour at 4:35 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "the single most useful thing I'd tell women is to stop being so fucking nice and accommodating to random men."

Hoooboy. Between sounding like I'm blaming women for their own harrassment / assault and additionally (and so delightfully!) inferring that women should probably be assholes to possibly every random man, I'm thrilled to have penned that gem. Yay, me.

Re-do: Essentially, go for the root, not the symptoms. Perhaps the single most useful thing you can do to kill this dynamic and help women avoid victimization is to let women and girls, help women and girls - and please god, all the men in their life as well - entirely get over women's drowning, overpowering, brainwashing socialization to be pretty and available and quiet and helpful and ladylike and smiling and perfectly pleasant to anyone and everyone. Because that adds up to some highly, highly exploitable vulnerability (Don't cut off someone talking to you and just leave! Don't make a scene! Don't call the cops! Don't scream! Don't get angry! Don't say no! Don't fight! Play nice!). Tell her (and reinforce) that it's fine to make a scene in these scenarios. To be a bitch. To shove someone away if she needs to. To not be pleasant and accommodating. To fight. Women's die-hard programming on these issues is maybe getting a little better, it's definitely not remotely gone yet, and it's really not doing anyone any fucking favors. It needs to stop.

And echoing Susan PG, its not remotely necessary to be an icy pinnacle of jerkdom to every passing male. However, you sure as hell do need to be readily able and willing to cut things short at the first rumble of trouble, or, if that doesn't do the job, escalate without hesitation to being a mean, loud, menacing, forceful and demanding commando bitch the split second you think that's called for. And that means you have to get past the very ladylike idea that that kind of behavior is NEVER called for. That's a real toughie. So help women really trust themselves and their reactions and not second-guess whether the situation was maybe just an accident or a misunderstanding that we shouldn't get all worked up about. And since none of us owe anyone our time or sparkling personality, reinforce that if women don't want to smile, listen politely as someone chews their ear off, or answer their questions... they simply don't. The end. None of this is actually bitchy, but we're kind of told quite a lot that it is, because it's women being assertive, and having rock-solid boundaries, and making a few demands of their own, and that shit ain't ladylike. Without avoiding the pun, we're EXPECTED to be penetrable. It's quite often demanded of us.

So my actual point: Help your girlfriend feel, right down to her toes, that actually, despite all the exactly contrary messages, she doesn't need to put up with any of this shit, or to temper her own reactions and try to play nice with anyone she doesn't want to - and particularly not with anyone making her uncomfortable. And since practice makes perfect, you could even try practice scenarios where she tries out telling you (as her attacker or subway harrasser) off, tries different approaches to handling and escaping a few staple bad situations, polishes off some snappy retorts or conversational shut-downs, pushes you away, feels a sense of successfully deflecting unwanted contact - so that she actually physically knows it in her body and equates it with safety of your (male!) support and love, and with well-justified, practiced, clear-headed, immediate reaction. Really knowing, both physically and mentally, that she does not have to take any crap she doesn't want from any random guy that tries to pull something on her cannot help but better her ability to respond if the time ever comes when she really NEEDS to handle a bad situation. So let her really experience that confidence and knowing - with you.
posted by involution at 6:49 AM on November 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

Most women are socialised to passivity. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves, or make a fuss, or make anyone around us uncomfortable. Therefore our manner of avoiding the type of conflict you and your girlfriend wish to avoid is often about as un-useful as it can be. Learning how to be assertive, to confront, to take up space and to be able to forcefully project the words "BACK OFF MOTHERFUCKER" is where self-defence for women really excels IMHO.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:35 AM on November 13, 2012

I feel like I should add -- as others have said, I am generally not afraid of strange places or random dudes, even after being assaulted by a stalker in an alley. I try to keep the statistics at the front of my mind -- the odds of me being raped or assaulted or anything at all by a random stranger are very small. Even after sharing my story, this whole question has a whiff of the just world fallacy to me. I'm all about sharing tips and trying to minimize risk when it's reasonable and not restrictive to do so, but at the same time, so many of these situations are not easily avoidable, and the risks involved are minimal compared to other risks that people take without thinking every day. In some ways, it feels like coming up with a list of things to do to minimize risk can also in a small, unintended way, be putting the responsibility of avoiding violence on the victims of violence.

If this is something your girlfriend wants to do to be more confident, that's cool, and I'm sorry to be a preachy wet blanket. But honestly, the thing that helped *me* the most was to really study all the statistics I could find about violent crime and rape. That really helped me put things in perspective and helped me sort of find a frame of reference for it all. I also wonder where your girlfriend's wishes are in all of this.
posted by ZeroDivides at 7:57 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just a tiny nugget, but one I took to heart when I learned it. If there are other people around, and she needs those people to understand that she is uncomfortable with something someone is doing, the best phrase to use is "I don't know you."

Because people will put up an instant Not My Problem field if they can justify that she's having a domestic incident, and phrases like "leave me alone" or "don't touch me" could just as easily be used between people who know each other. Nobody wants to get in the middle of that. But if she makes it clear that there's a non-personal situation going on, it could turn on anyone in the vicinity, and people will step in or at least pay attention to save their own asses.

But confidence and awareness are the best tools, and not only work on humans but are also effective on animals and good for keeping you out of traffic and other physical dangers. (One of the dumbest things I've ever done, because I wasn't paying attention, is basically walked into two people on the street as they launched into a drunken brawl. No amount of bus face would have helped in that situation.)
posted by Lyn Never at 8:49 AM on November 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

I was riding my bike at three in the morning once; I was out dancing at a "if tumblr threw up on a gay bar" club night, I was dressed like a Power Ranger Insect Creature, I was minding my own business. Some guys came up besides me and started taunting and "complimenting" and making comments; I did what I always do when I get that on my bicycle, which is pretend I don't hear it, stare straight ahead, and continue biking exactly like I would otherwise.

At a stop light, they hung out the window and directed a threat at me in level tones.

This light's got to turn green sometime. If you can beat us, we'll leave you alone. But if nooooootttttt......

Sure. They were joking. I was overreacting. I'm just a 105 lb girl on a bicycle, and they're just two average sized dudes in a SUV that could kill me with a flick of the wrist; I'm just alone at three in the morning; I just was in a neighborhood with plenty of stranger-danger sexual assault stats to refute all those calming "it's almost always someone you know" platitudes. I could vomit out a few paragraphs out, here, about how angry this challenge made me, but I'm pretty sure y'all know that women shouldn't be subjected to vague threats in the middle of the night and honestly my feminist outrage is pretty exhausted these out days from constant overuse.

While they were talking at the red light, I went into the pouch attached to the strap of my messenger bag where I keep pepper spray and a kubotan and pepper spray in easy access. I got out my pepper spray (to juvenile OOOOOOOH catcalls) and calmly palmed it and kept riding when the light blinked green.

I saw some cops head into a restaurant up ahead, so I stopped where the cops were, and I just sat there on my bike with pepper spray in hand waiting for them to try something. They laughed as they passed me, and it burned, but I'm glad I stopped and waited.


-don't engage
-don't assume someone's joking; take threats more seriously than the TSA
-have self defense weapons within easy access; not rattling at the bottom of a cavernous purse, but holstered in some way
-get to a place with people ASAP, stop and stay where there are people present, if they're po po all the better
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:38 AM on November 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have no personal expertise, but you may find the Pyramid of Personal Safety informative. It describes many layers of self-defense that come way before the point of physical self-defense.
posted by callmejay at 10:07 AM on November 13, 2012

Two years ago stranger walked up to me and grabbed my neck, just after I'd left my house and was right at the end of my block. He came towards me mumbling something, and I think I leaned in just slightly to hear what he was saying or to see if he needed help when he reached out and wrapped his hand around my throat. I escaped only by immediately and involuntarily screaming, 'GET OFF ME' at the top of my lungs (although from what I remember, what came out was not at all intelligible). He may have been counting on scaring me into submission so that he could steer me away from the busier street I was headed towards, I don't know. But the advice to make yourself a loud and unwilling target very likely saved my life, and as a 5'0 100lber I would count on that more than any physical defense training I ever go through.
posted by sundaydriver at 10:54 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with the comment upthread about how there's a point after which body size and strength can outmatch a small person with martial-arts training, but there's more advantages to the training than just that. I took a bit of karate about a decade ago, and while I couldn't beat up anything larger than a stuffed animal, it did teach me that I could take hard, bruising blows and keep functioning.
posted by telophase at 1:07 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing the eye contact and the trusting of your gut.

Average sized girl in a big city with lots of creeps. It's always a love-hate relationship. However, eye contact has saved someone looking like they're going to try and swipe my purse a few times, as well as if I'm in a situation (i.e. empty metro car with a creeper) I get off at the next stop, and if they follow, go talk to the police officers usually stationed around the place. Or, get off at the next stop and move to another car with more people in it.

A trick I've had come in handy once, carry your keys in your hand with a key stuck out from in between your fingers. If you've got more than one key, stick each key out from between your other fingers. Was grabbed from behind once and the guy swung me around to face him (while grabbing my bag), and I screamed at him, managed to punch him in the face with my keys like that and left some damage while he tried to run off with my bag. Strangers came up, saw him running with a bag that wasn't his and chased him, he dropped the bag and kept running, and I got my stuff back. Not pleasant, definitely had some bruises on my hand, but pretty sure he was in worse shape than I was. Now, I carry my keys like that on a walk home in the dark, and walk with purpose.
posted by bleachandink at 1:18 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's better to have a pen handy rather than keys because keys might be lost in a scuffle.

It was later made clear that the Central Park Jogger was attacked by one person ( who claimed that he had been "making love" to her in his confession statment).

For those living in or visiting NYC : the first two numbers at the base of lightposts in Central Park correspond to the nearest street.
posted by brujita at 5:08 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was one attacked from behind, and had to fight someone off-- I credit high school rugby for my quick and rather violent reaction, which ultimately left me shaken but physically unharmed. It had just never occurred to me, in one of the richest and best-kept neighbourhoods in Montreal, that I was at risk walking on a residential street at night.

Since then, and moving to a bigger and stranger city, I've adapted and reacted to that experience by becoming hyper-vigilant. Even when I'm wearing my headphones, I am hyperaware of my surroundings: every shadow, every passerby, every motion around me. I've also developped this sort of unattractive clompy walk when I'm alone on an empty street-- Frumpy and angry. I don't know if that would really deter but I try to walk like, anti-sexy and like I'm in control. And maybe not "bitch-face" but definitely "cranky and I will fucking put up a fight" face.

My tips to anyone who's in a situation that gets physical: if they come up behind you, use your elbows. And go for the eyes! Scream at the top of your lungs, and let yourself get ANGRY. You are protecting your body and your life. The thing that struck me after my attack was how ANGRY I felt in the moment. I went from walking down the street to wanting to kill the guy in what seemed like a split second. If he hadn't run away, I would have kept fighting him. I wanted to inflict pain on another human being for the first time in my life, and I am completely sure his sensing that in me made him let me go and run. ANGER IS YOUR FRIEND.
posted by custard heart at 9:41 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: re: Just World Fallacy, I don't mean to imply rape is something that's the fault of the victim. I'm asking the question more like someone who asks how they can avoid heart disease. It might be unavoidable if outside forces like genetics just about doom you to it, but there's value in trying to minimize risk.

I think any act of people preying on others is abominable, inexcusable, and I don't think any victim is to blame. I think involution really struck the note when she said:

*But here's that asterisk. I'm proud of how I acted. But I'm extremely pissed that I even stopped and stuck around to respond to this man after his initial question, because unfortunately, I know better.

Somethings are unavoidable, but much of the time, the earlier you become aware and take action, the more opportunity you have to avoid it before it becomes unavoidable.

From what I read from people's experiences, it seems like target hardening is the general consensus. By recognizing abnormal behavior early on, trusting your gut, not being afraid to be impolite, being more assertive, and having confidence to send a signal of "Back off" either verbally, with eye contact, or posture, posters have been able to stop some situations from developing.

I really appreciate all the tips, anecdotes, and opinions. There's a ton of great info in here. Thanks everyone.
posted by rambletamble at 8:12 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

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