Prof. Amy Cuddy, of the Harvard Business School, gave a talk at the University of Washington last night.  Alas, I was not able to attend.  Those of you who have taken my Self-Defense 101 classes know how her work on body language, perception, and self-perception can contribute greatly to your personal safety.

That’s because every attacker needs a target and an opportunity.  Dr. Cuddy’s work on body language is relevant to your personal safety because you can learn how to make yourself less likely to be targeted.

Even if you, like myself, did not attend Dr. Cuddy’s lecture, you can still benefit from her knowledge.  She has readily-accessible media, including:

  • a TED Talk
  • a Vimeo video (this is the one that’s required viewing for my 101 students), and
  • this interview from yesterday with Marcie Sillman at KUOW-FM’s studio.

There’s a few more short ones online, so take a look around and be prepared to be informed and fascinated!

“You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here,” the officer said, according to one attendee. “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this, however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

That was the unfortunate comment, made by Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti on January 24th to a small group of students. Blogged and tweeted around the world, this comment spawned a global movement. Slutwalk was born.

Sanguinetti has since apologized, and is reported to have been disciplined and will receive additional training. Presumably he had received training before this event. The Toronto police asserts that their officers are taught that nothing a woman does contributes to sexual assault. Yet this slip of the tongue did happen. Despite the fact that the vast majority of women who were assaulted were not dressed like “sluts,” whatever that means (see yesterday’s blog post for what it really does mean). Despite the fact that dress does not cause sexual assault. And despite the fact that the person committing the rape needs to be accountable for his own actions. Period.

Despite all the good cops out there, it’s those thoughtless and arrogant ones who are featured in the nightly news. Still another reason why few women report rape to law enforcement. Why I’ll be at Slutwalk Seattle this coming Sunday. And why I still continue to teach self-defense classes.

Yesterday we had to have one of our feral kitties euthanized.

Unknown to us, Survivor had feline leukemia. We did notice the past 2 weeks he was more friendly (for a feral). Then he didn’t show up for his usual feedings for about 5 days. Sunday Survivor reappeared, and this usually skinny kitty had a clearly bloated abdomen. He was surprisingly easy to capture and kennel that night, and we got him to the vet the next day. That’s when we found out about the feline leukemia, but that wasn’t causing the bloating.

We never did find out the exact cause of the bloating. Our vet said we could, if we wanted, do X-rays and a few other tests, but they would almost certainly not give us a diagnosis that would prove curable. Survivor’s days were clearly numbered, regardless of what we did.

Survivor, a feral cat we fed for 8 years.

We were surprised at the speed of Survivor’s decline. He went from an apparently healthy middle-aged feral to the threshold of his next life within the span of weeks. Our vet was not surprised.

“Cats in the wild try to hide signs of weakness or illness. That would mark them as vulnerable, and they’d quickly become prey to other critters, like raccoons, dogs, or coyotes. So by the time you see symptoms, they are already at a late stage of illness.”

There are indeed many, many differences between us humans and feral cats in my back yard. But there still are universal laws of nature, and Survivor’s predicament illustrates a fundamental one. Predators most often go after the old, the young, the weak, the ill. Not only in the great outdoors, but among us civilized apes.

Who among us are at higher risk? Basically, the same groups. Often those most dependent on others for care. Think elder abuse. Consider that almost thirty percent of sexual assault in Washington state happens to children under the age of 12. And a large percent of assault involves alcohol and/or drugs (which impair a person’s abilities to recognize danger as well as fight back).

How often do you assess your vulnerabilities? Do you think about ways you can reduce risk to yourself and your loved ones? Do you know what it takes to keep the raccoons, dogs and coyotes at bay?

One of my students asked about a situation she’d recently faced while running on a local trail. A guy on a bike seemed to be pacing her, trying to chat with her. The really chilling question she remembered was him asking where her car was parked.  ???? Why was he interested, she thought, can’t be good. She told him a parking lot a bit further up, where there would be more people (and where her car was NOT parked). He rode off. As she ran past the lot she could see him there, waiting. She left him waiting and went on (apparently he didn’t see her go by, or he didn’t follow).

The class brainstormed other options, just in case.  One woman suggested that she tell every other runner and jogger she meets something like “hey, did you see that guy on the bicycle? The one asking women where they’ve parked their car, and then waits for them. Really creepy! Spread the word.” Soon you can get a buzz going, and people will actively be on the lookout for the guy. This is a GREAT suggestion, as it gets people more aware as well as looking out for each other.

Last weekend I attended the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors‘ annual conference. Great presentations on a variety of topics, including one relevant to this blog.  Silke Schultz presented Understanding the Roots of Aggression, about social conditions that lead some people to violence and possible ways to mitigate the effects of these negative conditions.

In passing, Schultz noted that in recent years the rate of girls arrested for violent behavior has increased.  This is probably not a surprise to you — I’ve been hearing about it for over a decade now.  Actually, what I’ve been hearing from the media (and repeated by my students) is that girls are becoming increasingly and brutally violent, at astoundingly rapid rates.  About 5-10 years ago this issue was a media darling, with esteemed venues such as Newsweek declaring it a “burgeoning national crisis” (of course until the next burgeoning, or imminent, or catastrophic, crisis steals the headlines).

I am a big fan of gender equality, but media claims that girls are becoming just as violent as boys is not exactly the expression of equality I’d like to be seeing (if we’d like to exploit a different stereotype, I’d rather see that boys are becoming just as relationship-oriented as girls).

Because we live in the Information Age, with just a few clicks of the trackpad I found a paper from the US Department of Justice (DoJ) called Understanding and Responding to Girls’ Delinquency.  This article was useful in elucidating issues around girls and violence.

First, as I’ve been saying in my self defense classes for a LONG time, the rate of violence in the United States is DECREASING.  Looking at the DoJ article’s conclusions, the authors found that:

Available evidence based on arrest, victimization, and self-report data suggests that although girls are currently arrested more for simple assaults than previously, the actual incidence of their being seriously violent has not changed much over the last two decades. This suggests that increases in arrests may be attributable more to changes in enforcement policies than to changes in girls’ behavior. Juvenile female involvement in violence has not increased relative to juvenile male violence.

This article also mentioned that assault rates are overall decreasing, and the rate of decrease was more rapid for boys than for girls in some categories.

But what makes a “better” news story — that girls are increasingly arrested for violence, or that girls are becoming more violent?  Apparently, the latter.

Three days ago I was contacted by Kassi Rodgers, an editor for the Seattle University Spectator (their newspaper) about safety and self-defense in and around campus (as well as the greater Capitol Hill area). Her article came out yesterday.

And I was not the only one to notice that when women fight back against their assailants, they tend to succeed.

You can read the entire article here.

Did I mention that when women fight back, they tend to win? In this article, I also mentioned that more women are reactive than proactive. Yet waiting until something evil is on your doorstep is not the best time to learn to defend yourself.

You too can learn some pretty simple yet amazingly effective self-defense techniques. What are you waiting for?



In classes for teen girls I’m often asked what to do when some guy, either a stranger or someone they barely know, approaches and begins asking overly personal questions.  A simple “I don’t want to talk at this time” is certainly polite, and right to the point. “I don’t give out that information,” said in a neutral tone, is also direct and sets a boundary without being nasty.

But some girls still take issue with a direct response. Because it’s “rude.” And I hear from some adults who work with girls that it’s just “who they are.”

Who are you, really?

Are you always the person you wish you could be?

Food writer Ruth Reichl faced similar questions, but in a different context. As the restaurant critic of The New York Times beginning in 1993, Reichl knew that her reviews would powerfully influence the rise and fall of restaurants big and small; a great review could mean vastly increased revenue and prestige. Restaurant kitchens, she found, had Reichl’s picture plastered on the wall and a reward for any staff member who spotted her. Reichl’s clever solution was to come up with disguises for her dining excursions. And her disguises went beyond wigs and makeup — she envisioned what kind of person she’d become. With the help of an acting coach, she transformed herself. And it worked, sometimes too well. She found herself falling into her roles–often to the delight, but sometimes to the dismay, of her dining companions.(Reichl details her escapades in her charming book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.)

“Chloe” was a blonde bombshell who seemed to know precisely how to intrigue men. “Brenda” was warm, funny, kind, and approachable. Elderly “Betty” blended into the furniture, and was treated as a castoff. “Emily” was brusque and bitter. All different  personalities, yet along the way Reichl recognized them all as elements within herself (and she decides she wants more Brenda and less Emily). Reichl had the epiphany that controlling how others treated her could be as simple as changing the way she dressed and projected herself. She tested this out, and for her it worked.

Reichl was able to effectively reconstruct herself for a slice of time, over and over, in different guises.  She got her job done.

Do you know precisely what you would do in any given situation? Do you ever do things that amaze you? That disappoint you? Do you ever say things you wish you could take back the minute it came out of your mouth for all the world to hear? Do you ever wonder how you had the presence of mind to say exactly the right thing, and wish you could do it more often?

That’s resilience in an uncertain world. Grace under pressure. Cool, calm, collected. What’s not to like about those qualities?

As I tell my class participants, self-defense has a performance component. Regardless of who you believe you are, you all have the same job to get done, of keeping yourself safe. You can act. You can project yourself as a skilled, confident person on your own mission, and pity the fool who tries to mess with you.

Personally, I believe my time is valuable. I feel I should choose with whom to spend, not squander, my time. Otherwise I’ll end up treated as someone else’s entertainment, emotional barf bag, or — at worst — victim.

Raise your hand if you feel there’s not enough gratuitous, needless, and random violence in the world. Hmmm, not seeing a whole lot of hands out there. I thought as much.

Valentine’s Day is not exactly the first holiday that pops to mind when thinking self-defense training. But it could be.

In all my classes, you use your voice. You also raise your voice, deploying words like NO and STOP and LET GO and BACK OFF. These are not exactly your positive relationship-building, Valentine-inspiring words. But they are important words to use at the right time.

If you are like virtually all my students, you want to recognize when someone means you ill. You want to have what it takes to say NO to people and events that will negatively impact the quality of your life. And you want to be someone who makes a difference.

You want to be able to say NO some of the time so that you can more confidently, more assuredly, and more enthusiastically say YES to people and events that will engage you, that will offer you growth as a person, that will provide exciting challenges. You want to say YES to good friends and productive opportunities. You want this world to be a better place, and you want to contribute to this work-in-progress.

One of the foundations of this work is in the relationships you forge with others, particularly those closest to you. True, February has become a “Hallmark Moment.” But we do not have to wait for marketers to tell us when it’s OK to treat one special person extraordinarily well for one evening. If I were Supreme Ruler of the Universe, Valentine’s Day would be a Day of Service (similar to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in January) focusing on bringing vivacity and gusto into our spheres of influence.

My challenge to you for today: come up with one way you can make somebody else’s today a tad better.

Sincerely, Joanne

PS – As my Valentine’s Day gift to you, I’ve created a new handout on healthy relationships. Feel free to download it and share with family and friends.

Awareness” is a key component of self-defense, yet as a practice it is ill-defined. For many of my students, the line between color-coded anxiety and recognition of real risks is blurry at best. This is exacerbated by our media environment (where violence sells anxiety, and anxiety sells airtime, and airtime sells . . . ).

Examples from my feline friends proffer useful guidance.

Know where you are vulnerable.

For example, I often shlep lots of stuff to my car. Hey, I teach self-defense classes, so I’m hauling kicking shields and handouts and mats and other bulky, unwieldy stuff. This is a vulnerable point for 2 reasons. One, my arms are usually full. Second, and more importantly, my mind is already occupied with how the heck I’m going to fit all this junk in my car (I can always drop stuff to free my hands, but it is takes more effort to drop stuff out of my head when surprised).

Sokol, ever watchful, at repose.

Enter Sokol, my cat.  

Sokol (also known as “stealth kitty”) was brought into our home as a 14 month old feral. While she’s adapted well to life as an indoor kitty, even after 7 years she hasn’t lost her feral edge. She does not like being picked up or even petted (until she solicits attention). Lap cat? No way. Ever at rest, she’s also alert to any and all new sounds. If I enter the room, she’ll keep an eye on me until she’s convinced that I’m not about to try to (gasp!) pick her up. If I’m in the room she wants to nap in, she’ll keep an eye on me as she settles in.

The key here is awareness at key points. Going back to loading my car, I know I have to leave Point A (my house, or the building where the class is held) and approach my car. I make it a point as I am leaving the building to scan the area. I’m looking for anyone who is paying attention to my activities. I get to my car. Before I unlock my car and open the trunk, I again scan the area.  And if it takes more than a second or so to rearrange my baggage, I pause to scan again. And, if necessary, again.

I have to say I’ve yet to encounter a scary person. However, I have encountered the first spring blooms on the wild roses, the emergence of the fall crocuses, and a hummingbird almost within arms’ reach. These little happenstances round out life, and are constant reminders on why you want to stay safe. To be able to enjoy daily special moments, sans the trauma of a distressing surprise.

This security expert did, and boy it was a whopper. 
Security expert Michiel Oakes admitted killing Mark Stover. Oakes said that Stover was stalking his girlfriend and she was very afraid of Stover. This girlfriend, Linda Opdycke, was Stover’s ex-wife.  Oakes said he did it in self-defense. The jury wasn’t convinced, and convicted Oakes of first-degree premeditated murder.
For more backstory see this article on NPR, and this from The Seattle Times.
For those of you who may be stalked in the future, here are 3 mistakes to avoid:
No Documentation. According to this story, Oakes never reported any threats by Stover to the police. If you believe you’re being stalked, get an evidence trail going, including what you’ve reported to police. A history that others can refer to really helps your believability. And maybe you can get some help!
Going to Stalker’s Home, Armed. If you go to your stalker’s house wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying weapons, it will be hard to convince anyone except your mother that you acted in self-defense. (In fact, if I did that, my mother would probably be the first to turn me in for stupidity.)
And Then Hiding the Body. Nothing screams guilt like a cover-up (whether or not that’s accurate). Really, this is the stuff of bad TV and movies. 
Stalking is serious.  I’ve had students in my self-defense classes who’ve been stalked, and even years later many have never regained their full peace of mind. If you are being stalked, or someone you know is being stalked, do report and report and report, keep documents and a diary and any phone messages, and let everyone in your circle know. Before you end up, losing, on center stage in a bad drama.