Sex ed and self defense for a recent high school graduate
June 13, 2016 10:11 AM   Subscribe

My younger sister just graduate from high school this year and will be attending a local university in the fall. Although I won't be far away, I'd like to give her some practical graduation gifts. The incidents of campus assault and rape have worried me for some time and I want her to be prepared.

Here's what I want to put in the kit: a frank and honest sex ed book for young adults, pepper spray. A stun gun, drink testing straps and some sort of handheld self defense device.

I haven't been able to find any books as of yet and Ive looked at tons of self defense tools but I want to get something small, light and easy to use. Any advice or suggestions? What else should be in the kit?
posted by CosmicSeeker42 to Human Relations (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As a younger sister myself, please don't do this. If you want to give her a practical graduation gift, give her some condoms, gift cards to the grocery store and her campus bookstore, and a 1 TB USB drive. Pepper spray and stun guns are both illegal on many college campuses in the US.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:22 AM on June 13, 2016 [48 favorites]

The best protection for her is knowledge. The most common type of campus sexual assault is by a known offender at a social event like a frat party or a get together. Pepper spray, etc. are absolutely no defense if you are very intoxicated and/or being overpowered by someone you trusted. I'd buy her a copy of Missoula, and hook her up with a savvy advocacy outfit like UltraViolet.
posted by bearwife at 10:25 AM on June 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

Instead of tools or devices, perhaps have her attend a self-defense training course. Depending on where she's located, there could be some designed specifically for women. Good self-defense courses will teach more than just how to use tools to defend yourself. They'll teach communication and deescalation skills, how to carry yourself when out and about, and, of course, how to physically defend yourself. She will learn that just because she may be smaller than someone who might attack her doesn't mean she can't defend herself against that person.

If you're in an area that has IMPACT classes, that's a good start. There are feminist-run martial arts schools in Austin, the Bay Area, Chicago, etc. that have excellent martial arts classes. Feel free to PM me for more info.
posted by smich at 10:27 AM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

A self defense class.

Also, if she has never had alcohol before, maybe share a drink with her. In a safe location, let her understand what alcohol does away from social pressure and a party atmosphere. Take the allure and excitement away from it, just to be informed.
posted by nickggully at 10:41 AM on June 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

Please don't give anyone a stun gun!

You're better off finding out what resources and stats are available concerning the specific school, and putting an information package together. Books are great if she will read them.

You can ask her if she wants to take a self defense class as smich describes.
posted by zennie at 10:41 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Guide to Getting it On is a pretty good book that covers issues of consent (and many many other topics) well. It can go with a positive message that you want her to have a great time out there and minimize mistakes by having advance knowledge.

Maybe test your other ideas with your sister before gifting them. It's hard to gift something like a self-defense class to someone who isn't ready to devote energy to it.
posted by cubby at 10:42 AM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

With respect, I feel like gifting a young woman a box of self-defense items is little more than a reminder that she's going to be held singularly responsible for preventing other people from harming her for the rest of her life.

IME many women who carry weapons like stun guns and pepper spray aren't doing it because we truly believe having them decreases our chances of being assaulted, but rather because if we are assaulted, the first thing everyone is going to ask is whether we were armed and/or trained and ready to kill the guy (previously). And if she's not specifically trained on how to use a given tool or weapon, it could be turned around and used against her in an instant.

I'd send her a link to Susan Schorn's "How to Kick a Guy in the Balls: An Illustrated Guide," perennial AskMe favorite The Gift of Fear or a printout of something like this, a personal safety alarm like this or this, and a copy of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corrina (a/k/a Scarleteen).
posted by amnesia and magnets at 10:48 AM on June 13, 2016 [18 favorites]

I actually asked at my uni orientation if stun guns were permitted on campus and was told that they were DEFINITELY NOT.

I personally carried pepper spray given to me by my dad - security-grade shit in a three inch black canister, none of this keychain nonsense. I never did have occasion to use it, though I will say I appreciated having it sometimes when walking home late.

But the much much MUCH more common occurrence was feeling uncomfortable with guys I already knew and was hanging out with. Resources on dealing with that would have been very useful for me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:52 AM on June 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

There's a number of young-person sex ed books out there. Make sure they are "understand that allllllll these things are sex and you get to say yes or no to each of them individually and that's awesome" books and not "don't get raped because it'll be your fault" books.

Talk to your sister before giving her something that'll get her kicked out of school. Maybe instead of giving her something that can be turned on her and used to assault her, you could find her a fighting arts class that will provide her with a) local IRL community, preferably of badass ladies b) strength and skills c) exercise that can help ward off the depression and health issues that can plague freshmen in particular and also make them more vulnerable to predators physically and emotionally. Those things are far better tools than fear and a tiny squirt of pepper spray that'll invariably go off in her purse and gas a perfectly harmless English class. I have a couple of friends who are very into Krav Maga for these purposes, but it can be kind of intense and she might prefer something like Tae Kwon Do or kickboxing.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:53 AM on June 13, 2016

How about ask how she feels about a gift like this?

If she seems neutral to positive, how about offering as a gift to get both of you into a self-defense class and do it together.

Then give her something else she'd be enthusiastic about as the other portion of your graduation gift, if you can afford it. Gift card to a place you know she likes to shop, or to a fun looking cafe close by her dorm in her new town, etc.
posted by arnicae at 11:08 AM on June 13, 2016

It's been a long time since I was a college freshman, but honestly, this seems like the most depressing graduation present ever. Congratulations, graduate! You're heading off to an exciting new time full of sexual threats requiring constant vigilance and a comprehensive toolkit!

If I were you, I'd get her a small gift certificate to somewhere fun as her graduation present and then, separately, get her a good book (The book from Scarleteen: S.E.X is well reviewed and covers safety and consent) and offer to pay for a self-defense class if she wants one. Don't get her weapons that will get her suspended or worse if she is caught with them.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 11:24 AM on June 13, 2016 [16 favorites]

The best gift I could gotten in terms of self-defense was a Krav Maga class.

Giving someone, especially someone untrained, a self-defense weapon, is an absolutely boneheaded idea, for a bunch of reasons. Legal issues aside, they still have to find it in their purse/pocket (I know I'd lose mine PDQ) and then deploy it effectively (what if the wind is blowing towards her) without having it taken away and turned against her (at which point she is now doubly screwed.)

The things I really appreciated about Krav were that a) it taught me to be aware of my surroundings b) showed my how to use my body to defend myself and c) gave me the confidence to do so.

The thing is, most young women? Aren't socialised to take up space, be physical. The best thing you can do for your sister is help her overcome that socialisation.
posted by Tamanna at 11:25 AM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I... uh... oof. Yes, please ask her first. I would find this very depressing and inappropriate. At best I'd laugh and go "oh, CosmicSeeker42, heh. You." She's going to college, she's probably very excited (and should be!), and I think most women weigh the risk of violence on campus against spending a bunch of time preparing for that violence and decide they'd rather live free than spend a huge portion of their time trying to prepare for their impending rape.

I'd prefer a normal graduation gift + links to some of the fine articles others have suggested above, but no specifically self-defense related gift. If you ask and she WANTS krav maga lessons, then sure, that's cool.

I think more important that weapons to ward off scary attackers in the bushes is good literature about consent and saying no when you're uncomfortable. I was lucky and didn't deal with direct sexual violence in college, but I got pressured or almost pressured into doing things I didn't want to because it was hard to say no to someone cool you just met and slightly want to impress.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:33 AM on June 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

You'll be nearby? Tell her to put your phone number on speed dial and promise to come get her, night or day, if she calls and says she needs to be picked up, for any reason, no questions asked. And then do it. That's not a small promise - you would need to always have your phone on you and powered up/taking calls, you would need to always be sober, you would need to put a backup plan in place if you went out of town. But having someone she trusts who will without fail always come for her if she needs them will help a lot in situations where she's feeling trapped or scared.

Also teach her how to drive stick, if she doesn't know already. I got stuck more than once depending on a drunk friend for a ride because I couldn't drive their car. We got lucky, but we'd have been a lot safer if I'd been able to take the wheel.
posted by current resident at 11:42 AM on June 13, 2016 [12 favorites]

I'd give her The Gift of Fear but maybe after you read it first and can tell her about it. It's something that could be viewed negatively - I didn't see it that way and it is kind of scary but I think it's a good thing for young women to read. Maybe, for the purposes of balance, I'd give her another book that's definitely positive, like Lean In or Yes Means Yes. You know your sister. Those are just ideas. And perhaps I should have just assumed this but I really would have appreciated someone telling me, as a first year going off to college, "no, really, call me ANY TIME."
posted by kat518 at 12:07 PM on June 13, 2016

Oh yeah, to clarify my answer and agree with what others are said, these might be workable "going off to school" presents or "I can't help but worry about my little sister" presents but these are not graduation presents.

If you want to give her a three-pack of Essential Adulting books, give her The Gift of Fear, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:16 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Excellent idea to give her an "essential adulting" library. I love that.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:24 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I totally get where you are coming from, and while I think you have great intentions, I agree with other posters that this gift could be viewed as very depressing, and signals that it's her responsibility to make sure she doesn't get assaulted. When I was in undergrad, my school offered a free self-defense class that was informative, but it was more about self-defense against a stranger who attacked you on the street. That being said, if your sister is interested, you can offer to look up any minimal fee or free self-defense classes for women in her school's area. The police officer that ran the class I took cautioned against carrying a weapon, as it is can be used against you fairly easily. He esp. cautioned us against pepper spray, as it needs to be within the use date, shaken, and you need to spray in such a direction that it doesn't impair you as well.

I carry a little taser/flashlight combo with me when I dog-sit for friends in unknown neighborhoods, but to be honest I mainly use the flashlight to see dog poop. Where I live, it is legal to have a taser that is under a certain voltage, but it is absolutely illegal to have a stun gun with the wires that shoot out, so please make sure to check state ordinances concerning type/voltage. A whole range of small tasers/flashlights are available on Amazon, but of course, they can still be used against you if your assailant wrangles it away from you, they often don't fit in small purses easily, and then it takes probably 5 seconds to get everything where it actually goes off.

That being said, I think it's great for you to talk to her about stuff like this, because it's really important to feel informed, empowered and safe when you go off somewhere new. Nthing the Guide to Getting It On, I highly recommend it. Gift her something fun for graduation, then over the summer take her out a few times and have some good conversations about consent, safe sex, etc. Knowing that someone has her back, and will be there for her is a gift in itself.
posted by gollie at 12:38 PM on June 13, 2016

I am assuming you are a woman. Ask her if she wants to take some Krav Maga classes over the summer for some sisterly bonding time. Don't make that her graduation gift.
posted by Ruki at 12:46 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

These keychains are cute and have a self-defense element without being madly illegal. That might be something to put in the gift kit.

I think getting a big bag of JUST things like pepper spray and self-defense books sounds a little grim, but if you get a wide enough array of college goodies/essentials, you could probably slip in a couple of the safety essentials without that being the theme of the gift. Maybe a shower caddy full of flip-flops, useful gift cards for local places (Starbucks, Target, etc.), some favorite candy, some fun pens/notepads or other desk supplies, some Easy Mac, a thumb drive AND ALSO a little self-defense keychain and a useful sex-ed book for co-eds.

In addition, maybe writing her a nice letter would help explain the intent of the gift. Tell her you want her to feel safe and confident as she enters this new chapter of her life and that you're here for her, whatever she needs.

Also, a lot of colleges offer self-defense courses for college credit. If she needs to take a Phys Ed credit, you might be able to encourage her to take advantage of this, if she doesn't already have something in mind.
posted by helloimjennsco at 1:05 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Eeep! I'm going to nth the chorus of "This sounds like a really depressing graduation gift to receive." It also doesn't really sound like a good way to defend herself against rape, because rapists are much more likely to be someone you know and trust than some stranger in the bushes you can hit in the face with your handy key-thing. Even the self defense classes sounds like a really depressing, scary gift to get to me.

If I was sincerely worried about this, I would slip a book about personal boundaries or recognizing abusers into a larger set of gifts, or present a similar book along with some other practical stuff to her as a "going off to college gift" (and pick something fun for the graduation one). I'd probably choose either The Gift of Fear or, more likely, Lundy Bancroft's Why Does He Do That? which is about abusive partners but is invaluable for directly and clearly laying out cues for her to spot about someone who is entitled about sex.

I'm suggesting books because I think information is the most important tool she can use to protect herself, and certainly it is the most important tool that will keep her agency as a budding adult in mind. It cannot be taken from her and used against her or get her in trouble with the campus police. Knowledge will give her tools to react in the middle of a situation and recognize warning signs ahead of time, which is much more useful than fanciful combat planning for a simple, black-and-white assault situation. It will let her keep an eye out for people who shouldn't be trusted and give her ideas about how to network with other women to keep each other safe at parties. Most importantly, though, knowledge about how to spot a person who is trying to manipulate you or coerce you is transferable to many places and much more broadly useful than pepper spray. It's certainly a more practical gift for an eighteen year old, too.
posted by sciatrix at 1:08 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Anecdata - I had a keychain style pepper spray in uni that my mom gave me. I was completely untrained in its use and really only carried it around to pacify her fears, and so that if anything were to have happened, I couldn't be blamed for being "unprepared" (as amnesia and magnets states). The only time it was ever used was when my keys accidentally fell out of my pocket at a party and a guy sprayed it into the air. I was lucky it just fell into the hands of a dumbass, instead of a dangerous person.

Nthing hydropsyche's recommendation, and everyone else's comments on either seeking out a book/resource tailored toward consent or getting her a general, non-gender-violence-themed "college toolkit".
posted by Paper rabies at 1:09 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I heartily recommend this book by Scarleteen founder Heather Corinna. It is written for exactly the two age groups your sister straddles, has a very inclusive definition of sex, and is guided by consent.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:21 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

A stun gun, pepper spray, self defense classes and the like would be most effective against a rapist hiding in the bushes. Most sexual assaults that occur on campus are committed by people the victim knows (and people that the victim is unlikely to use a weapon on).

That's why I like the book The Gift of Fear. A big part of it is recognizing how women in particular are socialized to go along with it when, for example, a male friend from class gets pushy. It encourages readers to listen to the voice inside that tells them when something doesn't feel right.

The Gift of Fear also deals with non-sexual assault situations that may come up in college and life. For example, I had an ex-boyfriend in college who decided to start calling me 25+ times/day. The Gift of Fear explains how to deal with that.
posted by kat518 at 1:44 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Agree with others that a "rape package" including weapons sends the message that she is responsible for physically defeating rapists, but I love the idea behind this.

Can you gift her a car service app like uber or lyft under your card (or a special emergencies only credit card) that she can use to escape dicey situations?

Can you assure her that she can call or text you at any hour for any reason and you will not judge her? That you will be on her side and believe her?

I found Gift of Fear to be subtly life-changing and I recommend it to everyone, especially women. But then again, I had a TON of coursework, more reading than I had ever done before, the first week of college and definitely didn't get to any personal reading. Do you have Netflix? You could watch The Hunting Ground together; it's a doc about campus rape.


The drink testing strips are a GREAT idea! It could also spark some great discussion about drinking and consent and how men can be. Some REAL TALK sister time is the greatest gift of all.
posted by kapers at 1:52 PM on June 13, 2016

The best gift you can give her is your time and your trust. Tell her how excited you are for her going to college, and ask to spend some time with her/go shopping for stuff with her since you know she'll be busy with school and you'll miss her. Tell her if she has any questions or needs advice, about how to stay safe, or enjoy herself, things she can't ask mom and dad she can ask you, and it will stay just between the two of you, and that goes now or if anything happens.
posted by gryftir at 2:05 PM on June 13, 2016

If mefi2book still works, gift her a book of this Ask.

Don't give her weapons or project your fears onto her situation. This will go very bad places. She shouldn't have "HE COULD BE A RAPIST" foremost in her mind for every single social encounter she has on campus for the next year because you planted the idea that she should be terrified of rape at all times. That will not help her have a positive college experience.

She should be prepared to protect herself. Doing so will go a lot better if the vast majority of it involves things like turning down invitations she doesn't really want rather than things like waiting until some drunken asshole is trying to get her clothes off and then trying to decide if now is the right time to use the mace she was gifted.

Also, get her a graduation gift that is a lot less dystopian sounding than what you are currently planning. Slip her this book as a "hey, wanted to make sure you get off on the right foot at college" type thing. Do not call it a graduation gift.
posted by Michele in California at 2:10 PM on June 13, 2016

Thanks for all the responses, especially the book suggestions, those were awesome.

I guess I should clarify that my sister has already used these tools before and even has some cheap ones of her own but I want to buy ones that are better quality , easier to use and or safe for campus.

As a woman and her older sister she can always come to me for help but I want something that can provide physical protection or a deterrent when no one else is around. In the bounds of our relationship this wouldn't be considered an unusual gift or act from me. I've already looked into the self defense classes, which I totally agree with and will sign up for. Also, I've already gotten her a normal grad gift (cash) but I am really looking for specific for specific product and/or book advice.
posted by CosmicSeeker42 at 2:28 PM on June 13, 2016

For the sex ed book, why not get her a gift certificate to somewhere like Good Vibrations? They have lots of books, so she can pick the kind of sex ed she wants, and they have other options too.
posted by salvia at 5:22 PM on June 13, 2016

Nthing the self-defense class instead of tools. I took a self-defense class, and one of the first things I learned was just how quickly I could be disarmed of the very things I had with me to protect me, and how they could be used against me. Learning how to defend myself using only my body and my voice, just enough to get away, gave me way more confidence than the tools ever had. In addition to being more actually useful, I think one of the things it did was remind me that *I* was capable of taking care of myself, while the products made me feel defenseless and like I needed protection.

The drink test strips are a really good idea, though.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:46 PM on June 13, 2016

Unfortunately, most rapes and sexual violations do not occur in dark alleyways and are not committed by clearly identifiable creepsters. They are often committed by those that the victim trusts and/or in situations where they are not expecting to be accosted. Additionally, I think it is far more common of a danger for a person to become involved with a narcissistic manipulator and not recognize toxic relationships than it is to be randomly sexually assaulted. If practicality is your concern, resources on how to spot abusive behavior in a relationship, especially the much less talked-about emotional abuse, is what you should really try to provide your sister with. These can be googled or asked for in a multitude of places so I won't go into that now.

What I DO want to comment on is the dangers and false sense of security that a "self-defense course" would give your sister. Most would do more harm than good.

of all nthing the sentiment that it is not your sister's responsibility, or even necessarily in her best interest, to focus at all on defeating an attacker physically. Again, you can see time and time again (anecdotally, admittedly) from people's experiences, that sexual assault has a "deer in headlights" effect for a lot of people. People freeze up and are just shocked that (person they previously trusted) is assaulting them, or are simply drunk/drugged. Pepper spray does nothing when your roommate or friend is assaulting you after a night out and you are half asleep on their couch and said weapon is 10 feet away. People often believe that they DESERVE the assault, that they are at fault, and come up with all sorts of rationale to blame themselves. You can see these unfortunate stories relayed time and time again on sites like this, reddit (twoxchromosomes etc), and other sites. Again, if you are looking for practicality, a talk or book that mentions that you are NEVER obligated to any sexual act and strong boundary-setting/assertiveness/how to spot someone that doesn't respect those boundaries is more useful. Preventing the type of situation that often leads to this sort of shit is much more practical than pepper spray or a tazer IMO.

The practicality of defeating a (lets face it probably adult man) physically using the absolute garbage that is often taught in any sort of brief self-defense course is absurd. Martial arts of the type that would actually give your sister an advantage over a likely larger, stronger opponent takes many months-YEARS of practice and dedication to fitness. Advice like "kick him in the balls" or "go for the eyes" is more likely to enrage an attacker and get your sister hurt worse or killed rather than deter the attack, in the unlikely case she would have the intense bravery it would take to do such a thing/was sober/ and was in the position required. Hokey BS courses in which the pretend attacker falls down after being karate chopped in the neck or whatever else they try to sell you is even worse, as it gives a totally distorted view of physical conflict and gives a false sense of security.

Second, subsection 1
Now, If she actually wanted/you want her to pursue the aforementioned actually effective martial arts that would give the aforementioned advantage over a (likely) larger opponent, you do have options with caveats.

First, you must throw out any delusions of a quick (less than 6 months-year) of training having any value whatsoever, with the possible exception discussed below. Your sister would have to throw herself into training pretty intensely and dedicate a chunk of time/money to it.

Second you must be willing to do what actually works, and in the martial arts world what actually works is the stuff that works for people that know what they are doing and fight for a living, like those in the UFC. Why I mention this is that the UFC has filtered the BS martial arts from the stuff that is actually effective, and from the beginning it became clear that there are some core ones that work. Among them, the one that is probably considered the most essential and the one that is most practical/applicable in your sister's situation or those like it is Brazillian Jiu Jitsu (often abbreviated BJJ). It is not magic, it is not a quick fix and at best it will give your sister a chance against someone larger. But it is the only one that is likely to provide any such chance especially in the close-quarters situation your sister could face. Additionally, it is the only one that whose effective practice does NOT involve being repeatedly punched/kicked and is probably the martial art that will most quickly actually give perspective on just how helpless the average person is, WITHOUT having to be punched in the face. It will additionally give the ability to stay calm/confident when pinned on the ground/under someone (a concern for our hypothetical scenario), and is perhaps the only one that teaches how to effectively fight/escape in that situation.

Third: learning BJJ will take time and money. The benefits, especially psychological, will be immediate and amazing, but gaining enough training to gain the aforementioned upper hand against a larger person will take months or years. BJJ is awesome in that you can actually practice it against resisting, real opponents without much risk of injury and you can gauge your progress pretty easily. Initially, what will happen is what happens with everyone: your sister will realize she is absolutely helpless against a trained opponent, especially a larger/stronger one. However, very soon she will overcome this feeling, gain confidence, skill, and likely have a lot of fun.

Now, I know I just spent awhile knocking self-defense courses, and I make no guarantees about this one, but it seems like it is the only thing I would ever recommend that would fit your bill. It just so happens that very soon there is an opportunity to attend an exception perfectly suited for your sister. On Saturday, July 16 at 3pm, members of the Gracie family, founders of BJJ, are holding a free seminar "Women Empowered Self-defense." Here's the link. They have several locations, mainly in California, but see if any are near you/you could drive there.

Let me say that I am in no way affiliated with the Gracie family or business, have never attended this seminar or any hosted by them, and do not vouch for what this seminar is or its content. However, I know that these guys are legitimate masters of the art, have incredible knowledge, train police officers and members of the military to do this stuff, and are part of the family that started the whole thing. I only know about this seminar because I randomly watched this video: here

ANYWAY that was a huge amount of text for something that you will not likely try, but I would highly encourage you to do so in lieu of the tons of BS that is out there as it seems like it could be a legit and non-scary intro to BJJ taught by some of the best. If you happen to do so I would be interested to hear how it went.

TLDR: "self-defense" courses are mostly BS and harmful, but if you do anything do Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu and attend
this. Above all make sure your sister's head isn't full of the shaming "you deserve blah blah if you blah blah" BS, and teach her about what a good relationship looks like and boundary setting.
posted by hypercomplexsimplicity at 7:49 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

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