Monday, December 31, 2007

Good Advice: Stop Waiting for Your Prince

I heard an interview with the legendary Eartha Kitt on the radio this morning. Talking about the fact that she made her own way in the world, she said something that I think fits nicely into the concept of taking care of ourselves:
I always thought of myself a sepia Cinderella, and look, I'm still looking for my prince, but the prince turned out to be me. ... Everything I want in my life I have to pay for myself.

Kitt was talking about economic self sufficiency, of course -- despite singing songs like "Santa Baby," she bought her own sables -- but the same principle applies to self defense. Waiting around for your prince is chancy -- he might not ever show up. And even if he does, he might not be able to protect you. Even worse, the guy who can do the best job of taking care of you may not be the one who has your heart.

Learn to take care of yourself. Then you can choose your prince on your own terms -- or choose to do without one at all.

photo of Eartha Kitt by Carl Van Vechten

Monday, December 24, 2007

Learn to Fight: Peace on Earth, But Be Prepared All the Same

Here are some upcoming self defense classes in the Washington, D.C., metro area:

Defend Yourself:
  • Dec. 30: Defend Yourself has a one-day class for teens -- age 14 through college -- from 1-5 PM in Garrett Park. There may be a few spots left. Call 301-608-3708 or email Lauren or Cathie to see if you can still register. Cost is $70 in advance; $65 in advance if you register with a friend; $80 at the door.
  • Beginning Jan. 14: A free, 16-week class for survivors of sexual assault meeting on Mondays sponsored by Defend Yourself and the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. The class will meet in downtown D.C. near a metro stop from 6:45 to 8:45 PM. To sign up, call the D.C. Rape Crisis Center by Jan. 7 at 202-232-0789 and ask for Amara.
  • Defend Yourself will also offer a series of self defense courses in 2008, beginning in January with a class for mothers and their high-school-age daughters and in February with a general self defense class for women 16 and up. Check their class schedule for further details.
DC Impact:
  • DC Impact offers a one-afternoon intro class on Sunday, Feb, 17, 2008 from one 1-4pm at KMDC at Gallery Place, 616 H St, NW, 2nd Floor, in Washington. The fee is $49.
  • The group also offers a women's basic self defense class on Sundays from 1 to 6 PM, beginning March 9 and running until April 13, 2008, at the same location. The fee is $595, but will be reduced by $50 if you register by Dec. 31, 2007.
Registration info and other details are on the class schedule on their website.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Plan Ahead: Where Are Your Keys?

Lauren Taylor has a good practical tip on the Defend Yourself website: Keep your keys in your pocket, not your purse or backpack. That way you'll still have them even if someone grabs your bag. Check out her page for additional information.

The website also has a schedule of her upcoming classes. I'll post her schedule and several others on here soon.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Learn to Fight: Self Defense Training Helps Prevent Domestic Violence

Writing on Salon's Broadsheet, Catherine Price reports that the governor of Kentucky recently pardoned 21 women who either killed or tried to kill men who abused them. The piece indicates that the abuse the women endured was horrible, but in some cases, so was their response to it.

Price observes:
But I think the real question to deal with is what we can do to prevent such situations from occurring in the first place. It's hard to assert that someone who has been raped, stabbed and beaten doesn't have a legitimate reason to want to escape from her or his abuser. But what does it say about the recourses available to victims of domestic abuse that these women felt that they had no choice but to kill their abusers?

There are many more resources for abuse victims these days than there were back in the 1970s, when setting up shelters and rape crisis centers were significant feminist actions. But, as with many needed social services, we can still use more programs.

Links in the Broadsheet article provided lists of various resources, but I noticed one thing missing: There were no links to self defense courses or programs. My answer to what Price calls the real question -- what we can do to prevent domestic violence -- is to help women discover their ability to take care of themselves.

As regular readers of this blog can probably guess, I'm not just looking to give women the skills to fight back against abusive spouses or boyfriends. I want to see women develop the skills, awareness and self confidence that will help them either avoid bad relationships or get out of them quickly once they understand the situation.

That is, I want women to learn to take care of themselves so they can avoid becoming victims. That will also help them avoid becoming killers.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Work Together: Addressing Mass Killings

Last week in Omaha, a troubled 19-year-old took an AK-47 to a shopping mall and killed eight people before killing himself. His suicide note indicated he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory -- or perhaps the right word is infamy.

Whenever I hear about horrible events like that, my first thought is "What could I have done if I'd been there?" Could I have stopped him? Could I have kept myself from getting shot?

In this case -- as in the case of the Virginia Tech massacre -- my answer to those questions as an individual is "No." Sometimes you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is also the case with terrorist attacks.

Oh, maybe if I'd happened to be near him when he pulled out his gun, I could have done something. The pro-gun lobby would suggest that if someone near him had been armed, they could have shot him. I note that Omaha permits concealed carrying of weapons, so it's possible that some people in the mall were armed. If so, they apparently weren't able to respond quickly enough.

The truth is, most of us don't have the skill it takes to handle an armed person determined to kill, especially one who is basically intent on suicide. That's why I don't think concealed carry laws provide any real protection to people.

So what can we do? We can work together to develop laws and a culture that minimize the chances of such mass shootings.

For example: An AK-47 is a military weapon, not suitable for hunting or for home protection. Yet it is legal to purchase them in Nebraska. While the killer in this case had a felony conviction and therefore could not -- I hope -- have bought any kind of gun, he apparently stole it from his stepfather, who I assume purchased it legally.

We should certainly be discussing whether such weapons should be legal for anyone outside the military. This is a separate question from whether people should be allowed to own guns at all. After all, military assault weapons are a different category from hunting rifles and even handguns. I realize the Second Amendment purists will fight this idea tooth and nail, but I suspect many responsible gun owners would be willing to discuss what weapons are appropriate for individuals.

But there's another issue here, and it is probably more important to our collective safety than the gun issue: The killer in this case was a troubled young man and, as the Kansas City Star notes, he apparently wasn't receiving the kind of treatment he needed.

In this particular case -- unlike in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter -- it seems as if there was some effort to help this young man, but it wasn't enough.

Now I know it's difficult to assess mental illness -- there are many troubled people who are not dangerous to others. But we clearly need to pay more attention to the issue. There are rarely enough resources devoted to treating those with mental illness. Even families with good health insurance often don't get coverage for mental health treatment. The rules for getting government coverage often require families to cut their ties to the ill person. Many state and local governments don't have all the resources they need to take care of people.

We usually think of taking care of the troubled and vulnerable among us as a humanitarian issue -- something we do because we're good people. That makes it the sort of program that gets cut quick in a budget crisis.

Perhaps if we start to think of it as a public safety issue, we'll get better results.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Change the Culture: Male Harassment of Women at Football Games Must Stop

The New York Times reports that hundreds of male spectators at New York Jets home football games gather on the pedestrian ramps at Gate D and chant at women to expose their breasts.

The story mentions an incident in which a woman was groped -- apparently there was a video of this on YouTube, but it seems to have been taken down. Jay Dow, writing on WCBSTV, gives more details about the incident. Given the reports, I doubt seriously that this is the only time a woman was actually physically assaulted due to this behavior.

Judging by The Times story, this behavior is being tolerated -- one might even say encouraged -- by the Jets' authorities. Security guards do nothing to stop it -- in fact, The Times reporter was detained for trying to talk to the guards privately.

And the only time officials took action was when a woman did expose her breasts: They warned her about indecent exposure laws!

Now that woman appears to be an idiot -- she told The Times she loves her body. Well, so do I, but that doesn't mean I want to put it on display for hooligans. Plus believe me, this isn't just about admiring your body -- men who shout things like that will consider any woman who goes along an easy target for sex. (Women who don't are, of course, bitches.)
But the issue isn't her behavior, stupid as it was; it's the way those men are acting and the fact that no one is stopping them.

Here's the bottom line: This is women-hating behavior. Allowed to continue, it can grow into even uglier actions, and obviously has, since women have been groped. I wouldn't be surprised to discover worse actions than that: People in groups will do things that none of them will do individually.

We need to work together to stop this. The Jets' "boys will be boys" attitude is part of the problem -- it assumes that it's okay for men to act like that.

As long as men are given a pass for this kind of behavior, women will be at greater risk in public places.

I was disappointed that The Times article didn't really address the woman-hating aspect of this problem. They quoted the woman who loved her body. They quoted men who considered this the only good part of the game (since the Jets apparently are having a bad year). They quoted a father disgusted because his children might see this, leaving the impression that he was disgusted on moral grounds. But they didn't talk about the hostility toward women that such harassment represents.

Two things are needed to stop this behavior. First, the authorities have to restore order at the football stadium. And they can: The New York police know how to handle a rowdy crowd.

Second, as a culture, we have to stop tolerating group harassment of women. This behavior is not harmless.

Women need to not only refuse to expose their breasts; they need to express their disapproval to authorities and their male friends.

Men also need to take a stand against this kind of behavior. Most men don't act like this and don't approve of it, but they tend to let it go, to assume it isn't important enough to stop. Male disapproval of bad behavior by other men goes a long way toward stopping it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stay Calm: Lessons From T'ai Chi

The purpose of T'ai Chi training, my teacher Michael Ward told us Sunday morning, is to teach us to "relax in the face of adversity."

"Aha," I said to myself. "That's what makes T'ai Chi practice such good self defense training."

Part of relaxation is learning not to tense up at moments of stress. In T'ai Chi class, your body learns this very literally: If you tense up when you're trying to stand on one leg, you wobble; if you stiffen when you're doing push hands, your partner will push you over.

The same thing happens in daily life: If you're calm when a crisis hits, you find that you can do what needs to be done. If you're tense, you may do the wrong thing entirely.

Here's why: When you're relaxed, you can see or feel all the options. When you're tense, you block them off. In T'ai Chi practice, that ability to find options is physical, but the same principle applies to adversity that requires a mental response.

Relaxation is one of those concepts that seems very simple and yet turns out to be complex. When I teach Aikido class, I am always telling students to relax. Sometimes I shake their shoulders, to show them how stiff they're holding themselves. And no matter how much you learn about it, there always seems to be more to learn. (I frequently tell myself to relax, too.)

One of the best things about relaxation is that there are so many ways to learn it. You can work on it while holding a difficult T'ai Chi posture, by practicing push hands, or by learning how to use your center instead of your shoulders to throw your partner in Aikido. But you can also learn it by sitting in meditation or through yoga practice.

The common wisdom about self defense is that it requires mastery of impressive fighting techniques. I used to think that was true, used to think that the value of relaxation was simply that it allowed your muscles to do their work more efficiently and made it possible for a weaker person to handle a stronger one.

But while that's true, relaxation gives you much more than a little physical edge. It opens up the world and shows you all the possibilities. You might find, for example, that you don't need to fight at all.

Learning to relax isn't easy -- relaxation isn't collapsing on the couch after a hard day. It requires devoting time to a practice that shows you how to do it (T'ai Chi, meditation, yoga, etc.). But here's the best thing about relaxation: Anyone can learn it, regardless of physical problems, age, illness, or other limitations. Many of us will never be able to do a flying side kick, but all of us can learn to relax.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Get the Facts: Who Should You Fear?

There's a bogeyman who's been used to scare women going back throughout recorded history: The stranger who jumps out of the bushes or breaks into their houses and rapes them.

Sure, women are also frightened of being murdered or mugged and robbed, but fear of rape by a stranger is why people say women shouldn't go out alone and counsel them to put triple locks on their doors and bars on their windows.

And it happens: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (link to PDF file on that page), there were 203,680 rapes and sexual assaults in the United States in 2004, and 64,040 of those attacks were committed by strangers.

Now 64,040 is a significant number of attacks, especially if you think about the amount of pain and suffering each of those victims experienced. Rape attacks by strangers are not something to be ignored.

But still, they amount to 31 percent of all reported rapes and sexual assaults, which means 69 percent of those crimes are being committed by someone the victim knows. Using the BJS statistics, that's 136,550 rapes and sexual attacks.

Now many people jump to the conclusion that the other attacks are by intimate partners and relatives of various descriptions, and those attacks certainly happen. Intimate partners were responsible for 17 percent of rapes (35,340) in 2004, and other relatives accounted for another 3 percent, or 5,600.

But that still leaves a large gap, not counting the 2 percent of rapes in which the statisticians couldn't figure out the relationship of the attacker to the victim. It turns out that 47 percent of sexual assaults in 2004 -- 95,610 attacks -- were committed by people the BJS labels as "friend/acquaintance."

Now before every woman reading this starts worrying about her co-workers, neighbors and the guy they always speak to on the bus to work, let's look at this a bit. We don't have a study to back this up, but I would guess -- based on the ideas in Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear -- that in many of these cases, the women who were attacked at one point or another had a bad feeling about these so called friends and acquaintances. But they didn't act on those instincts, out of politeness or self doubt.

After all, women are raised to be polite, even to creeps, and "women's intuition" is still considered a good joke, in spite of scientific studies showing its value.

But the easiest way to protect yourself against an attack by people you know is to trust your instincts. If you don't like someone -- and particularly if he gives you the creeps in some way -- avoid being alone with him. Don't take a ride with him to avoid hurting his feelings. Don't let him walk you to your car. Don't go party with him and his friends. Avoid him. And don't worry about it if people make fun of your "female intuition."

By the way, many people think rape is an underreported crime, and that's probably true. Intimate and family rapes present particularly sticky issues, and data on those may be inaccurate. Friend/acquaintance rape may also be underreported, especially when the woman thinks she's done something foolish. I wouldn't take the overall number of rapes as a completely accurate assessment.

But I'd speculate that the stranger rape statistics are pretty accurate, because that crime is the one most likely to be reported. If the rape incidence is higher, then the number of stranger rapes is an even lower percentage of the crimes. It's important for all of us to recognize that the crime we all fear the most is not the most prevalent type of rape.

Everyone should take reasonable precautions to avoid stranger rape -- including paying attention and picking up some basic fighting skills. (Rapists tend to prey on people they think won't fight back, so a swift kick can often give you time to run.)

But here's the bottom line: Don't worry so much about stranger attacks that you let a guy who gives you the creeps walk you to your car.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Project Confidence: An Instinctive Talent That Anyone Can Develop

One of the key elements underlying martial arts training is learning how to present yourself as a confident person when you're walking down the street. It's not something you learn directly; it's a byproduct of learning how to stand, how to move, and how to pay attention to what is going on around you.

After training for a while, martial artists rarely look like potential victims when they walk down the street, though sometimes they err on the side of looking too aggressive. Learning that you can fight effectively can be a power trip and many people go through a stage where they want to flaunt their ability.

As with most things in life, what you really want is a middle ground. You want to look confident and aware, but you don't want to give others the impression that you're looking for a fight.

My first exposure to this idea didn't come in a martial arts class, though. It was in an essay by Michael Ventura called "White Boys Dancing," which originally appeared in the Austin Sun in about 1976 and was later included in Ventura's collection Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A.

Ventura, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, had this to say about the proper way to carry yourself:
You have to show the street, at all times, just how tough you are. And it has to be precise: too much and somebody a lot tougher than you may feel they have to take you to keep their status; too little, and they take you for sport. You shade your moves for who you’re with and where you are, and if you walk around a corner and, like the Springsteen song says, things get real quiet real fast, you shade your moves for what you think your chances are. It’s a reflex.

That was what he learned to do as a young man growing up. It impressed me at the time, though I didn't have any idea how to do it. But he said something else in that article, something that has also stayed with me all these years: He said women of all backgrounds and classes know how to do this sort of thing, too.

In his opinion, middle and upper class white men -- men who don't grow up confronting threats on a regular basis -- aren't particularly good at figuring out how to carry themselves. But women know they're at risk from an early age, and they develop instincts on how to carry themselves. Here's what he said:

No matter what level of society a woman’s from, her primary awareness right from the first is of her body. She’s not necessarily conscious of this, but that doesn’t matter. From her earliest memories, what she puts on her body and how it moves is how she’s judged. ... As she learns the dangers of having a female body today and the effects she can produce, she learns to control the signal it sends and receives with a subtlety that is so much a part of her she rarely need think of it.

If Ventura's right, and I think he is, most women already understand the core principles of projecting confidence. All they need to avoid presenting themselves as victims is enough physical training to know that they can do something if they're attacked.

Ventura wrote the article in the context of dancing -- his explanation for upper class white guys were lousy dancers as compared to those who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. The dancing aspect is probably not as universal as he implies, but the basic idea remains: How you move is how you're judged. And you learn how to move by instinct, by responding to potential sources of trouble.

The more you pay attention, the more you'll understand those instincts.

You can read all of Ventura's essay on his website. Click on "Excerpts from Books" and then on "White Boys Dancing." It's a pdf file.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Survival: The First Rule of Self Defense

Today's Washington Post has a frightening story about a woman who was abducted at gunpoint, driven around town, robbed, and raped.

But there's good news here: The woman survived and she remembered crucial facts about her attackers, facts that enabled a good police officer to find and arrest them.

According to The Post story, one of the attackers told the woman that his mother had just died and that they were going to bury her the next day. Prince George's County (Maryland) Detective Sherry Prince jumped on that fact, and, because she knew the area, called the right funeral home. The man was arrested after the funeral.

This is, of course, the kind of attack women worry about the most: Being grabbed by strangers out of the blue. And this one took place at 8:50 in the morning, near a subway stop -- a time and place most of us tend to feel safe.

There are many factors we don't know -- were other people around, were the men hiding, did the woman dismiss any bad feeling she had about them because it was morning and they were young guys? But here's one important thing we can glean from the newspaper story: The woman who was attacked kept her head the whole time. Note these facts:
  • She was able to give the police a thorough description of the rapists.
  • When the man told her about the funeral -- the kind of detail that people aren't likely to make up -- she paid attention and remembered to tell the police.
  • And -- perhaps most important -- she figured out how to go along with the attackers so that they did let her go.

That last point is important. We don't know how she did that, and perhaps she doesn't know either. Maybe she could just tell that these men weren't killers and likely wouldn't cross that line unless she did something to make them think she was a threat. Maybe she did something that allowed them to think she was having a good time, so that it never occurred to them that she would go to the police.

What I am sure of is that she figured out how to survive. And that's the bottom line. Rape is a horrible crime; armed robbery is terrifying. But surviving it -- and not just surviving it, but coming away with enough information to get the attackers arrested -- that's a victory.

Remember, the core principles of self defense apply even if you're in a terrible situation, such as this woman was. If you've been abducted, you really have to stay calm, pay attention, be flexible, and trust your instincts: You're sizing up the attackers and watching for opportunity. You may really want to spit in the face of the man who's hurting you, but if your instinct tells you he'll let you go if you pretend he's a nice guy, follow your instinct.

And always remember: It's not the victim's fault. If you're attacked, it may be important for your future self protection to figure out what -- if anything -- you could have done to prevent it, but even if you find something you could have done better, the attack was not your fault.

A criminal attack is always the fault of the attacker. The purpose of self defense is to limit your vulnerability to criminals, not to make you responsible for their bad actions.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Learn to Fight -- and to Teach Self Defense

Here are some November self defense training classes:

Boston Impact has a basic self defense class meeting on weekends beginning Nov. 16.

Chicago Impact has a core course, also meeting on weekends, beginning Nov. 10.

For those who plan ahead: Washington, D.C., based Defend Yourself has a free course for survivors of sexual abuse or attack beginning Jan. 21, 2008. This course is co-sponsored by the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

Defend Yourself also lists their 2008 planned classes, though without specific dates.

For those who would be interested in learning to be a self defense instructor, a program called Rape Aggression and Defense Systems provides a list of upcoming instructor courses offered by their affiliates. The schedule lists classes nationwide and runs through March 2008. The first program listed is in Arizona and is scheduled for Nov. 7-9.

The R.A.D. Systems website doesn't provide a schedule of upcoming regular self defense classes, but it does give a nationwide list of affiliated instructors, with email contact information. I don't know anything about the R.A.D. Systems program, except what they say on their website, but I note that most of the self defense programs they list are offered by people associated with police departments, health departments, crisis centers and so forth, and that they are generally provided at very low cost. If anyone has any experience with this program, either as an instructor or student, please add a comment and I'll follow up with more information.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Pay Attention: USA Track & Field Is Right to Ban iPods at Races

The New York Times reports that marathoners are up in arms about bans on iPods and other portable music players at road races.

According to The Times, the national governing body for running, USA Track & Field, banned the devices "to ensure safety and to prevent runners from having a competitive edge."

I don't care about the competitive edge argument -- I'll leave that debate to the running community -- but they're dead on about safety: No one should use a device that blocks hearing when they're running on public roads or trails, or when they're running in a crowd. You need to be able to hear.

I don't know what problems the race organizers have found -- The Times story was short on specifics -- but I can make some guesses. People oblivious to other people around them can cause collisions in a crowd. You can't hear shouted instructions when you've got your music turned up. And stragglers who end up running more or less alone toward the end of the race won't be able to hear cars whose drivers aren't aware the marathon is still going.

But the most important reason to ban these devices at races is to encourage people to stop using them when they train on their own. It's very dangerous to wear earphones running down city streets or on hike and bike trails. You can't hear the cars, you can't hear the bicyclists, you can't hear people yelling something at you, and you really can't hear muggers. Given that marathoners in particular are putting in a lot of miles, they're likely to be running before sunrise or after sunset, so they're already at a disadvantage.

People have been attacked -- raped and even murdered -- when running on a trail. The risk is there. You don't want to increase the risk by blocking your hearing.

The Times article quoted a woman who suggested that if they banned iPods, they should ban deaf runners. But that's disingenuous. In the first place, people with hearing problems develop strategies so that they can take in extra information through other senses, while people with regular hearing who block it don't have those same skills.

Secondly, accommodating those who have no choice about their ability to hear (or see or use their legs) is not the same as accommodating those who just want a soundtrack for their lives.

Save your iPods for running on the treadmill or inside track at your gym. But when you're out on streets or trails -- whether you're racing or training -- leave them at home. Blocking your hearing puts you at unnecessary risk. It's just that simple.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Work Together: Group Solutions to Violence and Harassment

Salon's Broadsheet reports on yet another Japanese invention that supposedly protects women: the Anti-Groping Appli, a design for Web-equipped phones that displays messages like "Groping is a crime."

Apparently you call it up on your phone and stick it in the face of the person whose hand is invading your privacy. Frankly, I think good old-fashioned yelling would be more effective, even in polite Japan.

At least someone is thinking about the subject, but if the Japanese really want to solve the problem of men groping women on crowded subways, they need to work on it using law enforcement and campaigns to draw public attention. Any society that can make its trains and subways run on time as well as the Japanese can solve this social problem if they really want to.

While the primary focus of this blog is on what individuals can do to protect themselves, it's important to recognize that there are many other things governments and citizen's groups can do to improve safety for everyone. Making the community safer is an integral part of taking care of yourself.

Here's a good project (also found through the Salon Broadsheet post): Right Rides, an organization in New York City that offers free rides home for women, transgender people, and others susceptible to harassment or worse. The service operates on Saturday night/early Sunday morning and can be reached at that time at 718-964-7781.

Universities often offer similar services and there is no reason why any community cannot organize a similar operation.

Here's something a little more creative aimed at street harassers: Holla Back, a blog that exposes those who expose themselves and otherwise bother women on the street. It may not directly keep you safe, but I'm sure it's personally satisfying.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Website Review: Pepper Spray, Stun Guns and Other Tools

A gentleman named Chris responded to the earlier post about the girl who defended herself by suggesting that pepper spray would also work.

It turns out that Chris sells pepper spray and related products through a website called He blogs on the subject of these weapons and related self defense issues here. I don't agree with him on many issues -- I don't think weapons are your most important line of defense, for example -- but he does have a perspective to offer if you're thinking about buying pepper spray or similar weapons.

I would not give pepper spray or any other weapon to a child for self defense. Some children might get silly and spray their friends. And it wouldn't be hard for a mugger to take the spray away from a child and use it against her or him.

However, for adults pepper spray and similar products can be useful self defense tools IF you know how to use them. These things are just like any other weapons -- useful tools in the right hands.

But just like guns, they can also do you more harm than good if you don't really know how to handle them. And if you're nervous, you might well use them in situations where they aren't required -- something that can get you arrested for assault.

So don't just run out and buy something. Read about the different products and see if they would make sense in your situation. Make sure they're legal in your jurisdiction -- some products aren't. Find out if the seller offers any training course on how to use it. And if you're the nervous type -- the kind of person who might spray an innocent bystander -- take a self defense class or do some other study to learn calmness before you buy any kind of weapon, whether it's pepper spray or a gun.

A weapon is only good for self defense if you know how to use it.

By the way, Chris, if you're reading this, please let me know if you offer any courses on how to use pepper spray and other products. I'll post the information on this blog.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Get the Facts: Self Defense and Martial Arts Books on AikiBib

AikiBib is a listing of English-language books on Aikido, related martial arts, weapons, and self defense maintained on the Aikido Shobukan Dojo website.

Compiled and edited by Chas Poor and Dan Wendling, this excellent resource lists more than 2000 items. A search on self defense in content brought up more than 200 listings. Not every book is valuable, but many provide useful information.

Books are valuable resources, but remember: You can't learn to fight from a book. Use these books as an introduction, not as a substitute for training.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

True Stories: Nine-Year-Old Girl Protects Herself

The Washington Post reports that a nine-year-old girl kicked a man in the groin after he began to molest her.

The incident occurred in a Virginia Wal-Mart. The girl ran off immediately to find her mother and the man was arrested within a few minutes.

According to The Post story, the man told the girl he was a police officer -- though he didn't show an ID -- and needed to check her pockets for stolen goods. The story says he molested her while doing this; I assume they mean he touched her groin area, though given that he had no right to touch her at all, putting his hands on any part of her body should be considered an assault.

Obviously this young woman is brave and level-headed. As soon as she realized she was in trouble, she responded quickly and appropriately -- she kicked to get the man to let go of her and then she ran off.

I doubt that her kick disabled the man -- even if she studies karate or other martial arts and knows how to kick well, and even though men's groins are vulnerable, I suspect a nine-year-old's kick might not be strong enough to do much damage. But the kick did something just as valuable: It startled the man enough so that he let go of her, allowing her to run.

That's an important lesson for us all: Even if you're in a situation where you must fight , you don't have to be the best fighter on the block. You just have to do something that gives you an opening to get away -- like this young woman did.

Hooray for her. She took care of herself.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stay Calm: It Makes It Possible to Do Everything Else

Back when I studied karate, my teacher occasionally tried to make me angry so that I would fight better. It never worked. I never do anything well when I'm angry.

Later, I figured out why: I get angry when I feel powerless, so I associate anger with the inability to do anything.

What actually works for me, in fighting or in doing almost anything, is staying calm. By calm I mean a peaceful centered feeling that allows me to take in everything going on around me without reacting emotionally.

I confess, I can't always find this feeling, especially on mornings when I've overslept, am late for work, and there are delays on the subway. Days like that I tend to rant and rail at the little things in life that drive us all crazy.

And it's on days like that when I'm hyper and angry that I do things like scrape the car door on the side of the garage or rush off too fast without checking whether the car door is completely shut or the back door of the house is locked. I'm more likely to get into an angry argument with anyone who harasses me -- not just potentially dangerous people, but a bicyclist who zooms past me too fast on the sidewalk or a homeless man who screams at everyone.

None of this behavior is useful and it can be dangerous.

Being calm and centered is a key element in keeping yourself safe. It's easier to pay attention, to be flexible, to listen to your instincts when you're calm. And if you have to fight, you'll know it.

But it's not enough just to say to yourself "stay calm." You need to teach your body and mind what that really means. There are many ways to do this. You can learn it in martial arts training, particularly in an art like T'ai Chi where you learn long forms. You can learn it from yoga practice. Meditation training can also teach you to find your calm center. All of these practices are valuable ways to learn this very important skill.

You don't have to invest a lot of money in classes to learn this. I picked up some good basic meditation practice in a book by the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. There are also meditation centers that offer basic training for small donations.

You don't have to commit to a Buddhist or other spiritual path to learn these skills, but you do need to practice.

Of course, holding onto that calm center in stressful times is difficult. It's one thing to find your center while sitting in meditation; another to have it when walking down a street at midnight. But the first step is figuring out what calm and centered really means.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Get the Facts: Will a Japanese Chindogu Make You Safe?

Aya Tsukioka, a Japanese artist and designer, has come up with a vending machine disguise built into a skirt. The idea is that a woman being followed down the street can do a quick change and then stand next to a row of vending machines, hiding in plain sight.

The idea is charming, intriguing, and impractical, as the designer herself admits in a New York Times piece when she notes that it might be hard to do the conversion quickly "especially if your hands are shaking."

While the camouflage principle behind the costume is rational -- blending in to your surroundings can certainly be a practical way to protect yourself -- I find it hard to believe that anyone being followed could make the switch fast enough to deceive the pursuer. And while the costume looks reasonable in a photograph, I don't think it would bear close inspection.

It would make a wonderful Hallowe'en costume though -- if you're willing to pay $800 for a costume.

The costume is charming, but The Times article brings up more complicated issues. The Japanese are becoming increasingly nervous about crime -- even though The Times says crime rates are dropping in Japan. The article also mentions that men groping women on the subway is a serious problem and suggests that Japanese culture, with its emphasis on avoiding scenes, lends itself to creative solutions.

But these costumes and the other ideas (a purse that can transform to look like a manhole cover, "hoodlum" clothes for good kids) aren't solutions; they're just tools and, I suspect, not particularly effective tools. Tools can be useful, but only if they really work and only if you really know how to use them.

As for the subway groping problem, I suspect making a scene is the best way to stop it. While I hate to challenge another country's culture -- and know that even here in the US most people don't like to make scenes in public -- the gropers are counting on the women to keep quiet. If women stop tolerating this -- by screaming "Take your hands off me" or stepping on the instep of the groper -- the practice will die out. The gropers don't want public humiliation either.

Given that my own self defense principles come from Aikido, a martial art developed in Japan that draws on that country's ancient budo traditions, I find it ironic that some Japanese are responding to crime with quirky tools instead of their own cultural heritage. Of course, I suspect the phenomenon is overstated: Stories about dresses that convert to vending machines are more entertaining than pieces on martial arts training.

Just don't get sidetracked into believing that a costume is going to keep you safe.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Learn to Fight -- With Words: Suzette Haden Elgin's Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense

The linguist and writer Suzette Haden Elgin is an expert on defending yourself from verbal attack -- something most of us have to deal with every day of our lives. She developed the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense system to help others learn to protect themselves when someone else comes after them with words.

Despite the old saying -- "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me" -- words can be very dangerous. As Elgin says:
Hostile language -- often called verbal abuse -- is one of the worst problems people face today. Hostile language is as dangerous to health and well-being as toxic waste, not only because of its own destructive nature but because it so often escalates into physical violence.

She also emphasizes, as I do, that most of us rarely need physical self defense. But, she observes:

that doesn't mean that you never are involved in conflict. On the contrary! Unless you're very unusual, not a day goes by that you don't find yourself fighting with other people.

Here's an overview of the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense system. You can find information about Elgin's newsletters and links to Elgin's books in print (including her science fiction and poetry as well as her verbal self defense books) here. She blogs at Ozarque's Journal and frequently discusses verbal self defense on her blog. She also presents seminars.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to learn to respond effectively to verbal abuse without escalating conflict. It's basic self defense. And like all the other skills of self defense, it's something you can learn.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Get the Facts: Rape, the Crime Every Woman Fears

In discussions of women's safety and self defense, rape is always on everyone's mind, whether it's discussed openly or not.

Rape is what people mean when they say it isn't safe for women to go out alone at night. When universities and businesses set up escort programs for women, they do it to prevent rapes. While armed robbery and other kinds of assault may also be a problem -- and a danger to both men and women -- an unarmed escort is no real protection against that.

The most frightening thing about rape is that it can happen anywhere and anytime. It doesn't just happen to women who walk down dark alleys late at night and it isn't always committed by strangers who jump out of bushes. In fact, date rape and other attacks by acquaintances are not uncommon.

Recently The New York Times City Room blog wrote about a phenomenon called "gray rape." They were following up a report in Cosmopolitan by Laura Sessions Stepp. According to the articles, gray rape is:
sex that falls somewhere between consent and denial and is even more confusing than date rape because often both parties are unsure of who wanted what.

Though I respect the work of Sessions Stepp and am interested in the ideas presented by experts in the Times piece, I think these people are finding more complexity than actually exists. Basically, if one person -- and it's usually the woman -- doesn't want to have sex, it's rape.

  • If you're too drunk to consent, it's rape.
  • If you were physically coerced, it's rape.
  • If you were threatened, it's rape.
  • If you were manipulated by someone who plays head games, it's rape.

Now it may not be possible to prosecute the rapist in all those circumstances. Even threat and physical coercion may be hard to prove, and when people are drunk, it is hard to find the facts. In the case of someone who manipulates others with complex head games, it may not only be impossible to prove rape, it may take the person who was attacked some time and reflection to even realize what happened. But that doesn't mean these situations aren't rape.

Fortunately, you can protect yourself from most date rape situations:

  • Trust your instincts: This is probably the most important rule. Do not end up alone with anyone who gives you the creeps.
  • Drink responsibly: I'm not going to lecture anyone about getting drunk -- I've been known to do it myself -- but learn to stop before you get so blasted you don't know what you're doing. And if you're unwinding after a particularly stressful week, do so with people you trust.
  • Say "NO!": If you don't want to have sex, don't be quiet about it. Make it clear. Don't just go along because you're afraid the guy will call you names or damage your reputation.
  • Learn to fight: If you know a few fighting skills, you can get away from a date rapist just as you can from a stranger.
  • Be creative: The lore of self defense abounds with stories of women picking their noses or doing other things that can change the circumstances. If you're calm, you'll be able to come up with some ideas.

By the way, in the Times report one expert said rape is among the crimes least likely to generate a false report, while another said 9 to 10 percent of acquaintance rape reports are false, even though date rape and its cousins are underreported in general. Those facts may not actually be contradictory, but they need investigating. I'll let you know what I find out.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Get the Facts: Giving Up Privacy Doesn't Make Us Safer

In his monthly newsletter, security expert Bruce Schneier links to a report from the Evening Standard suggesting that London's extensive network of surveillance cameras aren't having much impact on crime.

On the local level here in Washington, D.C., there has been a lot of talk about increased use of cameras as a crime-fighting method. Many people seem to believe that if we have cameras everywhere, we'll be able to more easily convict the guilty and crime will go down because no one wants to be caught on camera.

But apparently that's not happening in London. According to the Standard report:
A comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any.

In fact, four out of five of the boroughs with the most cameras have a record of solving crime that is below average.
Crime frightens us, with good reason. And no politician ever lost votes being anti-crime. Cameras may sound like an easy solution, but they are an intrusion on our privacy. Anytime we give up our right to privacy in exchange for greater security, we need to do it consciously and with real information about whether the system will work.

Giving up privacy for a false sense of security is not a worthwhile trade off. Plus if we believe the cameras are making us safer -- even though they aren't -- we are more likely to be careless about our personal safety.

I plan to bring this report to the attention of my city council member and other local politicians.

By the way, Bruce Schneier is a valuable source of information on security and privacy issues. You can find his blog here and subscribe to his email newsletter here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Be Flexible: There's More Than One Way Home

The following comment was posted in response to Tuesday's post on trusting your instincts:
Reminds me of an experience my friend and I had when we were about 15 and walking home from school. We started to turn down a street that we walked down every single day. For no reason that we could explain, we both got "creepy feeling" about going down the street. Definitely a gut reaction. We turned around and walked a different way. Later we heard that another girl had been raped in that area that same afternoon.

This is a perfect example of what to do when your intuition gives you a nudge. You just go a different way. Anyone can do that -- no training required. All you have to do is act when that little voice says, "Something's wrong."

Notice that the commenter was about 15 when this happened. Clearly you don't have to be grown to understand avoiding places that give you "the creeps." You only have to do two things:

  1. Listen to your instinctive reaction, instead of dismissing it.
  2. Go a different way.
Probably these two young women saw something out of the ordinary, and their intuition kicked in before they even knew they saw it. But it doesn't really matter what they saw; the point is that they acted on their intuition. In this case, later facts proved them right -- something was wrong and they protected themselves.

One more observation about changing your plans or directions: Try to know as much as you can about the neighborhood you travel through, so that you can easily take another way if necessary. This not only helps you when you get that "creepy feeling," but it's also a valuable resource when the subway breaks down, a bad wreck blocks the highway, or a special event closes your usual route.

Being flexible -- like the other skills of self defense -- is useful for more than just keeping yourself safe.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reading: There Are No Front Lines in Modern Life

Here are two important ideas for you to ponder:
First, the world is not safe. The level of risk may be greater or lesser, depending on where you live and what your resources are, but we are all at some risk of attack from our fellow human beings. While we often use the word "inhuman" to describe particularly awful crimes, the truth is that interpersonal violence is as much a part of the human makeup as love and compassion. In addition, there are numerous other dangers in the world -- disease, natural disaster, a vast potential for accidents -- that further jeopardize our safety.

Second, women are as capable as men of protecting themselves and protecting others when necessary. That both genders buy into the myth that they are not keeps women at a significant disadvantage, because they must place limitations on themselves, such as traveling with a male companion or avoiding certain neighborhoods. Acting in accordance with this myth not only perpetuates a helpless mindset among the female population, limiting their sense of potential as well as their careers and dreams, it also impels men to take foolish risks, particularly men who really don't know how to protect themselves but feel that they must do something nonetheless.

These ideas are from my essay "There Are No Front Lines in Modern Warfare -- Or Modern Life," which you can read here. This essay was adapted from a longer piece called "We Aren't Civilized Yet," which appeared in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 1, from Aqueduct Press.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Trust Your Instincts: Advice from The Gift of Fear

I'm a great admirer of Gavin de Becker's book, The Gift of Fear. He makes it so clear that we all have the skills to evaluate potentially dangerous situations and to get ourselves out of them.

His core advice is to trust your intuition, your instincts. If your intuition tells you there's danger ahead, act on it -- cross the street, lock the door, duck into the nearest shop. Later you can figure out what tipped off your intuition.

Here are two important things de Becker says about intuition:
  1. It is always in response to something.
  2. It always has your best interests at heart.

The Gift of Fear impressed me so much that I recommend it to everyone I meet. But recently, a woman who had heard me praising it in a group discussion asked me why I liked it so much. "It just scared me," she said.

I was surprised, because the book hadn't scared me at all. I had found it liberating to learn that my instincts would protect me. But I dug it out and reread parts of it, and I can see why she was frightened: de Becker tells some very scary stories. If you're not quite sure you could act on your intuition -- despite his confident assurance that anyone can do it -- these stories can terrify you.

The stories didn't scare me when I read the book because I immediately saw the point: If you acted on your intuition, you could keep yourself from ever playing a starring role in a nightmare. But when I read it, I'd been training in martial arts for years and I already had some understanding of trusting my instincts. For me the book was validation of something I'd discovered already: You can read another person and tell whether they pose a threat to you.

Many people don't realize how well they read others. But in truth, most people can do amazing things if they follow their intuition.

Take an everyday example: You're at an intersection, the light turns green, and yet you wait an extra second or two. And sure enough, the driver you thought was going to run the red light goes sailing through. You don't even have to be driving yourself -- or know how to drive -- to make this kind of intuitive decision: Pedestrians and bicyclists do it all the time.

Given how dangerous cars can be -- according to the World Health Organization, 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents worldwide each year -- your ability to read other drivers is an important survival skill. It may sound ordinary, but that's the point: Following your instinct is an ordinary skill that you already know how to use.

You are constantly picking up signals from other people and your brain is processing them much faster than your conscious mind can think. Try paying attention to all the ways you use your instinct every day -- the times when you can tell someone's upset and know whether to ask questions or leave the person alone; the situations where you know someone is going to ask you to do something you don't want to do and the way you manipulate the conversation so they won't ask; the way you know whether an interview went well or badly.

Learn to appreciate how well you use this skill. And start trusting it. Your intuition can keep you safe.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Reading: Fiction Illuminates Self Defense

"Yeah, it's a great gun, all right. Fifth generation Uzi. Light, compact. And never jams." I took the gun off the shelf, handed it to the kid.

Read all of my story "Survival Skills" here. This story first appeared in Aikido Today Magazine in 1998.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Movie Review: The Brave One Feeds Our Desire for Revenge

Here's all you need to know about The Brave One: When Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) shot a bad guy, the audience applauded. Once again, a movie has sucked us into rooting for revenge.

(I'm not giving away any spoilers by telling you that Bain killed someone -- I'm pretty sure everyone who is thinking about seeing the movie already knows Bain becomes a vigilante after she's brutally beaten and her fiance is murdered. The plot deals with her own reactions to what she's doing and whether she's going to get away with it.)

There's nothing inhuman about wanting revenge. Most of us at least fantasize about it even for minor indignities. I wouldn't be surprised if I fell prey to the desire for revenge if someone near and dear to me was murdered. Some deaths can leave horrible voids in the lives of those left behind.

But the fact that revenge is a normal response to a horrific act doesn't make it a useful one. It doesn't really solve anything. If you look at the history of warfare, revenge is often the reason people go to war -- or at least, the excuse for stirring up popular support. The peace accords that have actually worked have been those where people with legitimate grievances have let go of their desire for revenge.

From a self defense point of view, there's another big flaw in The Brave One: It perpetuates the myth that the only real way to be safe in the world is to get a gun and kill the bad guys before they kill you. If you buy that myth, but don't want to become a killer, then you may believe that there's nothing you can do to keep yourself safe.

And that's not true: There are hundreds of things you can do, starting with paying attention -- a subject we've already been discussing here on Taking Care of Ourselves. The choice isn't as stark as kill or be killed. Don't let popular movies or books convince you otherwise.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Learn to Fight: Upcoming Self Defense Classes

A short-term self defense class can give you the skills to fight back when all else fails. Knowing you have options even if things get physical will also increase your self-confidence, which makes you much less vulnerable on the street.

At the beginning of each month I'll provide a list of upcoming self defense classes in different locations. This month's list include classes in Washington, D.C., northern and southern California, Boston, Santa Fe, and New York City.

Defend Yourself, an organization in Washington, D.C., offers a variety of self defense classes at reasonable prices -- a nine-week class is listed as $209. Their next class begins on Monday Oct. 22.

Here are some October self defense classes taught by local affiliates of the Impact Personal Safety self defense program. I took the Impact course many years back when it was called Model Mugging and found it excellent. It's more expensive than other programs --
about $450 to $550 for the basic program -- but the teachers have extensive training and the program is intensive.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Pay Attention: More on iPods and Crime

This morning's Marketplace Morning Report on NPR included a report blaming increased crime on popular devices like the iPod.

The report, based on an Urban Institute study (pdf of full report here), suggests that portable music devices and other expensive portable high tech devices are both highly desirable and easy to steal.

There's one more reason why the devices are an invitation to robbery: Those using them aren't paying attention.

On the Marketplace program, economics correspondent Chris Farrell observed, "There was an attraction, it's an expensive item, people walking around aren't necessarily paying attention [emphasis added], and the cost of committing the crime went down."

The same point was made in the abstract for the report, which argues that increased opportunities for crime increase crime:
At the same time that violent crime rates began to rise, America’s streets filled with millions of people visibly wearing, and being distracted by [emphasis added], expensive electronic gear. Thus, there was a marked increase in both the supply of potential victims and opportunities for would-be offenders.

In the full report, the authors, John Roman and Aaron Chalfin, explain why iPods are distracting:

Finally, since iPods transmit sound to both ears, rather than just one in the case of cell phones, iPod users may be less aware of their surroundings than users of other consumer products.

While I question whether people conducting serious conversations on their cell phones are actually aware of their surroundings -- surely if they were they wouldn't be talking about clearly private matters in such loud voices -- the report is right about how much iPods cut off hearing.

The Urban Institute report wants improved crime information, so that authorities can respond to changes in crime patterns as they occur. On Marketplace, Farrell suggested that the manufacturers of expensive, portable high tech devices need to take responsibility for making their products less attractive to thieves.

I'm sure both those things are important, but there's a simpler low tech solution anyone can apply: Don't use your iPod when you need to pay attention to what's going on around you. It is possible to walk down the street without listening to music.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Pay Attention: Life Doesn't Need a Personal Soundtrack

I'm riding my bike on the trail in Rock Creek Park. A man is running just ahead of me. I call out, "Passing on your right." But he doesn't hear me: He's listening to his iPod.

Fortunately, I've never run down a jogger with my bike, but that's because I'm paying attention. Joggers wearing earbuds aren't; they've blocked a significant portion of their hearing. And that means they aren't going to hear trouble coming along behind them, whether the trouble is a mugger or an inattentive bicyclist.

We've been told to pay attention all our lives. It's often annoying advice, but it's also the easiest way to keep yourself safe. Paying attention not only protects you from attack; it also alerts you to other dangers, like fast moving cars and kids on skateboards careening out of control. Protecting yourself from accidents is just as important as protecting yourself from crime.

When you're out running or walking, you have three primary sense for information: sight, hearing, and smell. Cut off one of those, and you're at greater risk.

So put away the music and take in the sounds around you as you jog through the park or walk to work. Save the iPod for times when hearing what goes on around you isn't necessary to keep you safe.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Get the Facts: Police Officers Using New Tool to Evaluate Homicide Risk from Domestic Violence

One of the most important elements in self defense is accurate information about the dangers people face. Since this is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I want to point people to a report in today's Washington Post on a tool some Maryland police departments are using to assess the risk of homicide in domestic violence calls.

The tool is based on research conducted by Jacquelyn C. Campbell PhD, RN, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing along with others. Their research was published by the American Journal of Public Health and is online here.

According to The Post, police officers using the tool get more involved with victims at a domestic violence scene and ask a series of 11 questions based on Campbell's research. The article reports that the program has been successful in getting people to counseling who would not otherwise have gone.

Domestic violence is one significant cause of homicide in the U.S. The Post cites federal statistics showing that 1,181 women and 329 men were killed by intimate partners in 2005.