Even the most confident and fearless woman occasionally experiences a moment that makes her genuinely fearful. Perhaps it happens as she’s walking home alone—she sees a shadow moving too quickly, a man who gazes at her a little too long, or a small sound that indicates she’s not as alone as she thought she was. Being attacked is every woman’s worst nightmare, and this fear is preyed upon and fostered by hysterical email forwards and news stories that make it seem like we’re at risk every moment of the day.
The sad truth is that one in six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN). Thousands of other women every year are victims of muggings, purse snatchings, and other forms of violence. Contrary to what some scaremongers would have us believe, there actually aren’t psychopaths and potential rapists lurking in every corner, waiting to attack the next woman who walks by, but it’s still smart for women to know the basics of how to avoid being victims, and, if necessary, how to defend themselves.
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times. This is the best way to remain safe. No matter where you are, be vigilant. Keep your eyes and ears open for people in the area, possible hazards, and available escape routes. That means if you’re walking home alone at night, no mindless chattering on a cell phone, and no listening to an MP3 player. Anyone looking to commit a crime of opportunity will be searching for the easiest target, and headphones are a sure sign that you’re distracted and vulnerable. Your hearing is a valuable tool—don’t shut it down when you need it most.
- Project an air of confidence. Criminals seek to target women who look like they won’t fight back. Walk with purpose; even if you don’t know where you’re going, pretend that you do. If someone appears to be following you, don’t meekly avoid his gaze. Turn around and look him in the eye. Not only does that give you a chance to get a good look at a potential attacker (thus making it easier for you to identify him later), but making eye contact is also an aggressive gesture that suggests you’re not afraid.
- Don’t feel pressured to be nice. Many opportunists prey on women’s natural inclination to be helpful. If you’re alone and a stranger asks for directions, the time, or help looking for his keys/car/contact lenses/puppy, it’s okay to say, “Sorry,” and keep moving. While not every man who requests assistance is a potential attacker, many potential attackers do use these tactics to distract their victims.
- Never carry more than you can afford to lose. If you’re the victim of a purse snatching or mugging, don’t risk injury fighting to save your possessions—let them go. A wallet’s worth of cash can make you think you have to put up a fight, but your life is worth more than the contents of your purse. Keep your house keys in a pocket when you’re walking, so that if a mugger or robber gets your purse, you’ll still be able to get into your home, and the assailant won’t have access to it.
- Know the real risks. Beware of email forwards containing warnings like “Rapists prey on women with long hair,” “Rapes usually occur in the morning,” or “The most common place to be attacked is in the grocery store parking lot.” These statements are completely untrue. According to the 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Department of Justice, the majority of rapes (63.7 percent) occur between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 41 percent of rapes take place in the victims’ homes. The survey reveals that assaults and rapes in deserted parking lots or garages are relatively rare (comprising only 2.2 percent of attacks), and no reputable study has ever shown that criminals prefer women with one particular hairstyle over another. Victims of violence are every age, every socioeconomic class, and every race and have every hairstyle. RAINN reports that 73 percent of sexual assaults are actually committed by someone the victim knows, not a stranger, and that women are much more likely to experience violence in or near their home than in a public spot.
- Trust your instincts. If your gut tells you that a situation is unsafe, get out as soon as possible. If your gut tells you that a person has bad intentions, listen. Your intuition is responding to outside stimuli you may not comprehend or even notice, so even if you don’t understand why you feel fearful or hesitant, don’t dismiss the feeling. But remember—your instincts could also tell you that a person means no harm or is not a threat.
To Resist, or Not to Resist?
Most women will never be the victim of the kind of vicious stranger attack that makes the evening news, but those who are must make a choice between running or staying and fighting. In instances in which the attacker has a deadly weapon or threatens immediate violence, sometimes the best course of action is to submit and then try to escape later, since resisting may only bring on more violence.
The Department of Justice reports that in 2008, 80 percent of rapes and 49 percent of robberies were committed without a weapon. In attacks where no weapon is present, it may be possible to fight or run away. Unfortunately, since all criminals are different and all crimes are different, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to knowing whether or not you should fight back.
- If you choose to fight, fight as if your life depends on it. Be prepared to do whatever it takes to get away. Even if you’ve never taken a self-defense course, there are maneuvers that can temporarily incapacitate your attacker, making it easier to escape and get help. These maneuvers might not be fatal, but they could buy you precious seconds in which to flee. The most vulnerable parts of the human body are the eyes, nose, throat, and testicles. Use your thumbs to gouge an attacker’s eyes. Use the heel of your hand to thrust upward and break an attacker’s nose. Forming a V with your thumb and fingers, ram your hand into the attacker’s throat and collapse his windpipe. Kick his testicles as hard as you can. Use your elbow—it’s one of the strongest areas of the body—knees, or feet to do damage, rather than trying to land punches.
For many women, taking a self-defense course based on female empowerment (not based on fear) makes them feel more confident, more assertive, and more secure in the world around them. We live in a world with danger, and while no one should go through life feeling paranoid, we would all be wise to be aware of the possibility of violence and be prepared to handle it, whether that’s by learning to avoid becoming a victim in the first place, or learning to defend ourselves if the unthinkable occurs. Don’t live in fear, but remember that it’s always better to be safe than sorry.