Today is Thursday, January 14, of the year 2021.  Next week Joseph R. Biden will be sworn in as President of the United States, in a ceremony that threatens to be quite memorable. I generally don’t get very political in these posts.  Issues and principles, yes. Today is an exception; we are living through interesting times.

Thanks to last week’s events, some starkly clear lines are truly impossible to ignore.  [If you are reading this way in the future, just look up the events leading to President Trump’s second impeachment.]  Last week the Capitol Building in Washington, DC was over-run by a mob.  Yes, the outgoing President of the United States, at a rally of his most devout supporters, incited them to go after members of the legislative branch.  Among the unruly masses seem to have been some more focused individuals, who had goals of finding specific elected officials, restraining them, possibly physically harming them. In addition, it seems that some individuals who swore to uphold the law instead forgot their oath and enabled the mob. This is not the rule of law.  This is not democracy.

Why am I bringing this up, why is this important for your personal safety? (Yes, sooner or later this does get back to personal safety.) I’ll bet you can answer that question. Your personal safety is only as secure as your ability to rely on social institutions for justice and redress. Frankly, that’s been on shaky ground anyways for a long while. However, the last 4 years have exacerbated and highlighted inequities.

What makes this especially relevant are not just those who incite sedition or commit insurrection. They are the tip of the iceberg. The bulk are the enablers. Those who echo lies, engage in the gaslighting, mislead others usually for their own profit. Those who denigrate facts for their own benefit, and to others detriment.  I’ve written before about enablers (most recently about the documentary Athlete A), and why more people don’t report crimes committed against them.  It’s not just the perpetrators, though they are a critical ingredient.  It’s also those who support perpetrators.  Those who engage in distraction, gaslighting, and threats to intimidate those targeted and garner support from bystanders.    Not just the Trumps, but the Giulianis, Millers, and Bannons, who stand to gain from their support but at the expense of others.

Stay tuned for more living through interesting times.

Today I’m revisiting that hot mess from a couple of years ago that was USA Gymnastics, the organization that trains and selects the Olympic team. Because this weekend I finally got around to watching the Netflix documentary Athlete A.

This disturbing documentary brings to life to the phrase “the banality of evil.” How team doctor Dr. Larry Nassar was enabled by coaches and the USA Gymnastic organization, who themselves were too engrossed in making money and medals to give priority to the welfare of the teenage athletes. But it’s not just the coaches and administrators who bear responsibility. There are layers of staff and volunteers and even some parents around that circle who bought into the idea that athletes needed to be abused and belittled to achieve peak performance.

Perhaps “bought into the idea that abuse is required” is a bit forward. How about “studiously ignored,” or “turned a blind eye” to abuse, as long as it got results. An ideal set-up for a sexual predator to stalk their prey. But it was just business as usual, for them.

“Athlete A” was the alias in early court documents for Maggie Nichols, one of the many athletes sexually abused by Dr. Nassar.  Nassar himself, after an over 25 year career, was convicted of victimizing many athletes and of possessing child pornography (37,000 images on hard drives). One of the film’s major focus is on Nichols, who reported the abuse and was then not selected for the 2016 Olympic team (Nichols’ mother has stated she felt that Maggie’s exclusion from the team, despite having been a favorite, was retaliation).  Several other former athletes are spotlighted, as are the investigative reporters at the Indianapolis Star, the newspaper that broke the story and then dug deeper. Nichols was not the first to report Dr. Nassar, but she successfully spearheaded the effort and because of that many many others came forward.  A lot of this, and more, is also in the excellent podcast Believed.  There is also a Discussion Guide for Athlete A.

The story has a pretty good outcome for Maggie Nichols. She went to the University of Oklahoma, joined the gymnastics team there, and became one of the most accomplished NCAA gymnasts. Many of the former gymnasts, after Dr. Nassar’s conviction, felt the single most important outcome was that they were finally believed. And I’m sure there are many more out there who are still struggling with the aftermath of their abuse.

What can we learn from this film? How easy it is to get away with assault and abuse, so long as the perpetrator is successful and well-liked. How challenging it is for the abused to be taken seriously. An articulate example of the extent of the power imbalance in amateur athletics. When an administrator says “don’t report to the police, we’ll take care of that,” do not take them at their words. And, most importantly, how easy it is for SO many people to not want to see the real human costs of child abuse, as long as there’s some benefit for them.

Stay safe, live life.

Over the last month I’ve written about seeking support (several posts, in fact:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  Finding family, friends, even professionals, who would be supportive should you need help.  Finding safer spaces.  While that help can be material, mostly in our self-defense classes we talk about emotional support.  This post follows Part 3, where at the end I talk about not just finding support but your role in creating a supportive community.

Here is a book that addresses those same concerns:  Making Spaces Safer, by Shawna Potter.  The subtitle says it all.  “A guide to giving harassment the boot wherever you work, play, and gather.”  Because whether you are out to make a living, have fun, or change the world, contending with the extra obstacles of harassment is an unwanted detraction.   It diverts your energy from what you want.

Making Spaces Safer

Making Spaces Safer, by Shawna Potter

The ideas Potter puts forward are based in her work with Hollaback! in Baltimore, as well as with her workshops as she toured with her band.  They are simple in concept, but as with most simple ideas they can be hard to implement.  There are folks for whom the status quo is just fine and see no need to change, or who are advantaged by ignoring harassment, or who just hate change and what it may represent.

Let’s get back, though, to the simple.  Really, it’s like all the stuff you should have learned in kindergarten.  About asking first and sharing and saying please and thank you.  Let’s get to some specifics.

  • Prioritize the needs and testimony of the person who experienced harassment.  That individual’s sense of security and self-determination just took a big hit.  While that sounds straightforward, many agencies don’t do this.
  • That individual should have some control over the process.  What are their choices?  Can they freely make choices?
    • If you are the person hearing the account, what is your role?  Do you manage the space where the harassment happened?  Can you find a place for that person to be more comfortable so they can tell you what happened, and the remedy they’d like?
      • For example, if you manage a club, you can offer to keep an eye on the harasser, take the harasser aside for a conversation, or remove them from the premises.  Who makes that decision?  Most of the time it is the manager, and Potter is saying it should be the person who experienced the harassment.
  • Validate that person’s experience!  I’ve used that concept for a while, in the area of self-care.  Find a trusted, supportive ally, someone who believes you and reminds you that the harassment was not your fault.

About now you may be shaking your head and thinking about how this is all well and good, but just not practical.  Well, it is.

Homeroom is a restaurant in Oakland, California.  They serve mac & cheese.  Some sides, but their raison d’etre is mac & cheese.  Comfort food.  Erin Wade, chef and owner, wants everyone to feel comfortable.  So she was appalled when she found out that some customers had been harassing the servers, and that managers were doing little about it.  They had a meeting, and she heard a lot more that had not been reported.  Not OK with Wade (did I mention that before starting this restaurant she was a lawyer?).  They instituted new procedures, and shifted control.  Really simple, too, based on color coding.  Incidents were graded yellow, orange, or red.  A yellow meant that a server reported an uncomfortable vibe or look to a manager, and the manager would take over that table if the server chooses.  An orange is inappropriate comments, and the manager does take over that table.  A red is overt sexual comments or physical touching, and the customer is ejected from the restaurant.  Please read these two articles for more details:

Note the critical change is that it is the servers who decide what level each incident warrants, and the manager has their roles already prescribed.  No need to wonder if the customer really intended that, or if the staff was just too sensitive that day.  The power is in the hands of the (mostly female) server staff, rather than the (mostly male) manager.  (BTW, Wade also then recognized the gendered job levels and was seeking to change that also.)   And this system works because it has become the company culture.  Because Wade sought to shift the balance of power, support that shift, and deliberately make her restaurant a safer space.

All of us have had difficult conversations with friends, co-workers, family, etc., where we’ve had to set boundaries. Maybe, in the course of such boundary-setting, the other person took exception and voiced their objections, and you left shaking your head, feeling verbally or emotionally beat up. You’ve just experienced the “conversation web.”

There are many reasons to set boundaries, as well as many possible reactions. The other person may just say OK, and respect your boundaries.  They may say OK, but often “forget” (maybe just because they forget, or they’re doing it deliberately).  They may be surprised or puzzled because this isn’t something you’ve done in the past.

Or they may express surprise, sorrow, or anger.  Among the reasons (and this is NOT a comprehensive list) could be:

  • fear that you are looking to end a friendship/relationship that they still value
  • you are looking to change some of your habits that no longer are good for you, but they know you that way (and even may be enablers or co-dependent) and see this as a loss for them
  • they are manipulative, and manipulators just hate it when they hit boundaries

So they get aggressive.  One tactic they may use is the “conversation web.”

You’re chatting with one other person, and they are standing too close for your comfort.  You set a boundary.  “Hey, my space bubble is a bit bigger than yours,” you tell them as you take a half-step back and bring your hands in front.  “I’m more comfortable here.”  Most people will just say OK, and leave it at that.  But this person takes offense and challenges you.  “What, do I smell bad?  It was OK yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.  Chris and Jamie are OK with it, why aren’t you?  That’s just RUDE!  Are you PMSing?  You’re making a big deal out of nothing.  You’re just too sensitive!  I thought we were friends.  You are SO selfish!  That attitude is messed up.  No wonder you don’t have any friends.”

This is the “PARTING SHOT,” where they shoot back negatives hoping to deflate you.  It really isn’t about you at all.  It’s just them taking their frustrations out on you for daring to have boundaries that are inconvenient (for them).  And you can get caught trying to justify why, but no explanation seems good enough for them.

The antidote?  The “BROKEN RECORD.”  Saying the same phrase over and over and over and over.

Because the whole conversation web is not the other person trying to get to know you better via your explanation.  It’s all about you handing over your explanation so it can be shot back at you.

Here’s a dialog about how this would work, taking the statements from above:

THEM:  What, do I smell bad?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  It was OK yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  Chris and Jamie are OK with it, why aren’t you?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  That’s just RUDE!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  Are you PMSing?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You’re making a big deal out of nothing.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You’re just too sensitive!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  I thought we were friends.

YOU:  And I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You are SO selfish!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  That attitude is messed up.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  No wonder you don’t have any friends.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

See the pattern?  We practice this in most of our classes.  Especially the online classes.  Pick a neutral phrase — short is great — that you  can repeat over and over and over again.  A phrase that references YOURSELF, not justifies WHY.  I a calm tone of voice.  With good eye-to-face contact.  And know when you can walk away.

That old saying is “boys will be boys.”  Period.  End of sentence.  We’re changing it.  Boys will be the boys we let them be.  We can help with some specific safety skills for kids.

It’s creeping up to mid-September here in Seattle, and kids have headed back to school.  For some it will be a new school.  For others, more totally remote learning.  Some families will get together in “pods” for pooled learning experiences.  Others will struggle with basic access.  It won’t be easy, and for many the beginning of this school year will feel like barely contained chaos.  It’s in times like these that we all want to be on the lookout for predators and their enablers.  Remind kids that it’s OK to say no to adults.

Many of the people who say “boys will be boys” are not predators, and certainly would be offended if called an enabler.  After all, they are responsible adults helping guide young people through life’s realities.  And they do actually believe that “boys will be boys.”  As well as it’s corollary, “he punched/pinched/pushed you because he likes you.”  You may be thinking, wait what year is this?  Are people actually believing this into the 21st century?  From what I can tell, fewer kids are hearing it than I did decades ago.  But still, each year a couple of kids or tween students do report they’ve been told that “he’s mean because he likes you.”   Sometimes it comes from teachers, teaching assistants, volunteering parents, coaches, or even assistant principals.

Need I say this issue doesn’t only impact girls?  It impacts kids of any gender.  Perhaps, though, instead of “he likes you,” boys may hear “be a man.”

In our safety skills classes for kids (as well as self-defense for tweens and teens) we talk about finding trusted, supportive adults to go to for help.  And that trusted, supportive adult should be able to schedule a conversation to hold the speaker accountable.  Now, what can we ask our young people to say?  How can we help them grow into their own voices?

The exact words depend on the age of the child.  I suggest the child tell that adult they are sure that no, that other kid really is acting mean and does not like them.  That if a another kid likes you, they would not be trying to harm you.  This may be very hard for some kids, and maybe for their parents too.  Because a lot of parents themselves struggle to advocate for themselves.  The other adult may see this as a challenge to their authority — and they’d be right.  We should not have to accept unquestioningly the authority of other adults who won’t keep our kids safe.

Parents, if your child does speak up, please back them up.  Parents, if your child was the one who punched/pinched/pushed another, maybe you want to chat about why they’re choosing those behaviors for self-expression.  Is that the boy (or girl, or other) you want them to be?


Today’s Google Doodle commemorates the 388th birthday of French author Charles Perrault. He wrote (based on folk tales) some of today’s widely-read, widely-watched, and widely-merchandised classic fairly tales, including Little Red Riding Hood. Today’s versions of the tales, however, have been sanitized to make them more family-friendly (and marketable). As this article notes:

“His version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, made it more explicitly obvious that the ‘wolf’ is a man intent on preying on young girls who wander alone in woods.

“From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner,” he wrote.

 “I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!”

Some things haven’t changed much in the last 400 years.  Most people still envision those who mean harm as looking like monsters.  Pretty easy to spot, right?

If all “bad guys” were this obvious, there wouldn’t be as much of a problem evading them, right?  But, alas, not all those who mean harm look like scary monsters.  Most, in fact, look like regular people.  Just like the three photos below, all of whom are Ted Bundy.  (If you don’t know about Ted Bundy by now, do a web search.)  


I could have told you the fellow depicted was an actor, a tech startup CEO, an attorney, or just any regular joe.

You don’t have to be a famous serial killer/rapist to get away with crimes.  Most perpetrators are someone the target knows, and to some extent likes and trusts.  That’s a deliberate ploy.  Most perpetrators depend on their targets’ trust, and manipulate it to their advantage.

And they rely on silence.  Not only the silence of their victims, but silence of those around them.  Silence of those who think they’re a “nice guy.”  (Bundy got away with his crimes longer than he should have because he was well regarded by a number of influential people.)  
This is why we spend time in our self-defense classes learning to recognize the “red flags” that a person’s intent may not be good for you.  I’ve heard from some students, in retrospect, that this turned out to be the most valuable and useful part of class.
Because not all monsters look like wolves.