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.