Self Defense Part 1: Stop It Before It Happens

This is going to be the first post in a SERIES of posts about self-defense and community safety.  I think we can all agree that these are pretty important topics, and if you have ANY questions, please feel free to email me at  Note: for more information, check out Back Off! by Martha Langelan; it has a lot of useful information about street harassment and sexual assault.

It’s an old saying that those of you familiar with sports may know: the best defense is a good offense.  And it’s true: if your opponent is not in control, you don’t have to scramble to recover, you’re not in any danger.  I’m not going to pretend that there is a flashing neon light that will go off indicating that someone is about to attack you, but there ARE things you should be aware of in order to give yourself the best chance of stopping an attack BEFORE it becomes an attack.

Some of these tips are going to feel kind of uncomfortable.  Know why?  Because women are trained and socialized to perform classic victim behaviors when confronted with perpetration, which means that at the harassment level we actually become victims not based on what happens to us but based on how we respond.  That’s awful, but the good news is that WE can change it.  Classic victim responses generally fall into three categories:

  1. Ignoring it.  Unfortunately, this does not work, because pretending it isn’t happening doesn’t stop it from happening.
  2. Getting angry.  This doesn’t work either, because you end up looking like a crazy person.  When this is the response you use in the workplace, you can get fired, but your harasser still has a job.  Don’t let him win that way.
  3. Laughing along with it.  This ALSO doesn’t work, because it’s permission-granting.  When THIS is the response you use at work, it prevents you from ever being able to file a complaint, because it has been interpreted that you were okay with what happened.

So if those responses DON’T work, how do we break out of those classic victim behaviors?  Here’s what the studies have shown are successful tactics for handling sexual harassment and the preludes to sexual assault:


Guess what? There are a lot of places an attack can come from, but the sidewalk is not really one of them.  If you want to spot a potentially attacker, you have to be looking.  Pay attention to what is going on around you.  If you need a more specific plan of attack for this, try…


This is hard.  I am still learning to do this.  Be aware of everyone within a 10 foot radius of you as you’re walking.  That actually includes behind you, as a head’s up.  Try identifying 2 or 3 details about as many of them as possible.  I know that’s really difficult but it will make you more aware of your surroundings, and if you’re more aware, you’re going to feel more secure.  It may take a while, but don’t give up.


Guys, street harassment is not acceptable.  There are a lot of places that actually classify it as public sexual harassment.  Studies focusing on street harassment have shown that, whether you believe me or not, THIS is what should be said when you’re confronting street harassment:

“Stop harassing women.  I don’t like it.  No one likes it.  Show some respect.”

Now, I KNOW that might sound a little silly, but it has been shown to get the kind of response we’re looking for.  And honestly, no one wants to be harassed on the street.  Many women change how they get to work or how they get home in order to avoid street harassers.  And no one should feel like they aren’t safe just walking through a park or to their office.

But if you only remember one thing I tell you in this post, I want you to remember this next tip, because it’s the most important one. 


Did you know that most rapes-~-not just stranger rapes but also acquaintance rapes-~-begin with a planning phase: watching of violent porn, fantasies, etc.  You can’t read people’s minds, of course, but you CAN read their behavior.  And the second phase is the testing phase: a potential rapist will overstep a verbal or physical line.  He (sorry, it’s usually a he) will stand too close, make an overly sexual comment, initiate some sort of inappropriate contact.

So here’s how you should react: SAY SOMETHING.  Say, “You are standing two inches away from me.  Please step back, now”.  Or, “Your hand is on my knee.  Please remove it, now.”  Or, “You just made an inappropriate comment.  Apologize, now.”  BE FIRM AND COMPLETELY SERIOUS.  Use that icy cold voice your mom used when you were in big freaking trouble growing up.  Don’t do that stupid anxiety smile women are taught to use when they’re uncomfortable.  You need to LOOK AT THIS PERSON AND TAKE CONTROL.

Odds are, when you call him out, he will move.  He will take his hand off your knee or your ass.  

But if he doesn’t, I have some bad news: your fight or flight instincts need to be kicking in and fast, because there’s a good chance this is about to turn into an assault.

Most rapists, when interviewed after the fact, say that they were looking for an easy target, someone who wouldn’t give them trouble.  When you put up boundaries and tell them to back off, you indicate that you are NOT an easy target, that they will NOT just get away with it.  And you’re a lot less likely to get into a situation where these non-violent techniques fail and all of the sudden you’re fighting for your life.

There will be more tips to come, but if you want more information faster, again, please email me or look at the book Back Off as it has lots of useful information.

Stay safe.


~ by Randi Saunders on June 20, 2012.

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