In self-defense we talk a LOT about saying NO and STOP and BACK OFF!!!  But more often in our routine lives saying YES could be the more satisfying option.  What if the request is coming from a stranger?  Here I’m going to describe one instance of my process.

This happened to me only a couple of years ago. I live in a little house in the part of Seattle called Beacon Hill, which is south of downtown and even south of the baseball and football stadiums. A quiet residential area, except for the nearby highway and airports, which can be a bit noisy in a droning sort of way. Not exactly a cul-de-sac, but limited cross-streets and little traffic. That nearby highway is Interstate 5, and I could just cross the street, walk a few feet to the fence, go through the gate, and I’m a hop, skip, and jump from the road.

It was middle of the afternoon, middle of the week, in the summer.  I had arrived home after teaching a morning class, pulled up in front of my little house. Got out of my car, locked the door, and turned to go up my walkway. From the corner of my eye I saw a person. Now my neighborhood sees few pedestrians, especially in the middle of the day, so a pedestrian is noteworthy. Especially one carrying what looked like several gallon plastic jugs.

He called out to me, “Miss, hey Miss!”  I turned. He was on the sidewalk in front of my little house, and I was half-way down my walkway (so there was quite a bit of distance between us). He said his car’s radiator sprung a leak, and he asked if he could get some water.

I could have run into the house and locked the door, but like most humans I prefer to be helpful.  Saying YES would fulfill that, and how could I make sure I stayed safe at the same time?  I noted he did seem to be stressed. Could have been from his car’s breakdown, or considering that if I said no he may have to knock on doors which would be more stressful. Perhaps he didn’t have access to AAA or other roadside assistance. But the most important clue was that he stayed on the sidewalk. He did not try to get closer by coming onto my walkway, and seemed mindful of boundaries. So I said YES.  I would bring out the garden hose and he could fill his jugs. He asked if it were OK to come back a second time, and I said sure, just let me know when he was done. And I got the hose, brought it close to where he was and still kept over 10 feet of distance. I left him to his refilling. Of course I watched periodically as he filled jugs, left, returned, filled them again. When I figured he was done I went to my doorway, we made brief eye contact and he thanked me and left.  He even smiled! He looked less stressed. After he crossed the street and disappeared onto I-5, I retrieved the hose.

If you’ve taken any of my self-defense classes, you may remember that all attackers need both a target and an opportunity. If you short-circuit either, you’ll be safer. Signs of opportunities, also called red flags, I could have been looking for would be distracting chatter, self defense using your voice saying yesquestions of a personal nature, or questions about my neighbors that feel intrusive.  And simultaneously trying to stealthily move closer. Because any attack depends on proximity. That was my key indicator then, and it in this instance it worked out well.

Keep in mind this was MY response at that time. It does NOT make it the best response or the correct response.  I believe the thought process is far more informative than the specific decision.  And while I made a decision, I did keep the young man on my radar and was ready to re-assess that decision should the situation change.  Saying YES is an important choice, one which we should be able to consider.

And that’s all for today. Stay safe, live life.

Have you ever been out walking, for errands or exercise, and felt something amiss?  And you realize the same person seems to be consistently behind you?  Perhaps as you’ve glanced back it seems like they’re suddenly looking away.  You wonder, are they following me?  And you search your brain for your safety skills.

That’s happened to a lot of my students.  It’s happened to me.  This video is about that incident, almost 40 years ago.  Way before I began teaching self-defense, even before I realized that self-defense was a thing.

I still remember it in detail, even though this happened so long ago.  I occasionally wonder how it influenced my later choices, who I consider trustworthy, or my foundations of personal safety and safety skills.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book Talking To Strangers, proposes that unless it’s super obvious, we give people we just meet the benefit of the doubt and some of our trust.  After a while, it gets hard to change our minds about them, even when they begin to violate our boundaries and eventually cause us grief.  In fact, he infers that people who are  NOT inclined to trust others are lonely and unhappy paranoids.  (I reviewed this book on Facebook Live a few months ago.)  Not surprisingly, many students who doubt another’s intent express concern that they are paranoid.  Well, if that other person is pushing your boundaries and not listening when you correct them, you’re not paranoid.

In this story, a stranger does push boundaries.  A common response is to ignore that person, which is more likely to work when there is greater distance between you and them.  That tactic did not work in my case, and I moved on to others.  And one of the indicators of more likely success in self-defense is having a few tricks up your sleeve, and switching them until you find which works.

You’ll learn quite a few tricks in these self-defense classes, which currently are all online.

I’d have a few concerns. But I’m not a mom of a girl going away to school, I just teach personal safety skills to girls whose moms are concerned as their girls are growing into independence.

Recent headlines tell us about a young man at one of America’s elite prep schools who engaged in the school tradition of “senior salute.”  How that particular encounter turned into non-consensual sex and a rape charge.  The young man was convicted by a jury of one count of using the internet to have sex with a child, and three counts of misdeameanor sexual assault and child endangerment.  He was acquitted of the more serious charges of felony rape.

According to CNN’s legal analyst Sunny Hostin, “the jury did not appear to believe the former prep school student’s claim that there was no intercourse, but it also seemed to dismiss his accuser’s testimony that it was against her will.”

My focus, as a self-defense teacher, is less on the legal issues and more on what we’re teaching girls, explicitly as well as implicitly.

This article from the New York Times details the young woman’s testimony.  She describes a mixture of emotions during and after the assault — of politeness and pain, then secrecy versus standing up for herself.

“I didn’t want to come off as an inexperienced little girl,” she said. “I didn’t want him to laugh at me. I didn’t want to offend him.”

Afterward, she said, she felt physical pain and utter confusion, and blamed herself for the events; it took several days for her to tell anyone, in full, what happened.

“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless,” she said, adding, “I was telling myself, ‘O.K., that was the right thing to do, you were being respectful.’ ”
This girl’s feelings of powerlessness are common among teens in this sort of situation.  Girls encounter a host of contradictory messages.  They should be polite, nice, and certainly not rude — while at the same time keeping themselves safe.
I believe respect is a very important social grace, and it should not trump safety.
My concerns include:
  • The jury’s verdict indicates that many adults still don’t believe girls could be telling the truth about rape.  These jury members are also community members, and could very well be among those from whom a girl seeks advice and help.
  • The girl not being aware of other tools at her disposal to discourage and perhaps prevent the rape.
  • The girl’s feelings of powerlessness over her own body.  As noted sexual health educator Amy Lang says, she should be the boss of her body.

Not only should any girl expect to have her “no” respected, she should have other options in case it is not.  That’s what I teach, and in self-defense classes we practice skills when unfortunately “no” isn’t enough.