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The Confidence Game of Self Defense
Susan often stopped at a big box store on the way home from the gym. She followed the same routine starting in the produce aisle to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables, then walking to the back past the electronics and books before finally making her way up to the registers and looking at the clothing on display before checking out. It gave her time to unwind and cool down before getting home. One day as she walked out of produce, a tall man with ropey muscles and hollow eyes caught her attention. He appeared to be a typical construction worker, but something about him left her with a nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach. Hurriedly, she moved forward on her usual route to leave him behind. Soon she found herself reading the backs of the newest novels looking for something to curl up with when she got home. After reading 3 or 4, she noticed the brown scuffed toe of a work boot through the bookshelves in the next aisle. The hair on the back of her neck raised as she shifted her stance to try to catch a glimpse of the wearer. The same man from before stood there looking at an item he had picked up off the shelf. He seemed to be looking at her out of the side of his eyes. Susan shook herself as she replaced the book she was holding on the shelf. She laughed and internally scolded herself for imagining things. Deciding to go ahead and check out instead of continuing to worry herself, she went to the front of the store. She kept an eye out for the unnerving man but could no longer see him. She felt relieved that her imagination had gotten the better of her and stopped to look at a shirt sitting on the aisle. As she lifted the shirt from the rack, the man rounded the corner and stopped short holding a package of rope, turning so that he wasn’t facing her directly. Susan rushed to the checkout, trembling with fear and trying to get through as quickly as possible. As soon as the checker finished the transaction, she ran out of the store and hopped in her car. She threw it in gear and pulled out, checking her rearview mirror for the strange man. As she drove off, she saw him standing with his rope in the middle of the parking lot watching her go.
In the age of social media, stories like this are far too common. It is difficult not to live with worry about the unknown and unpredictable events that unfold around us. Worry is fear we manufacture. Worry is a choice. We can choose to let that worry engulf us, or we can choose to empower ourselves. By taking time to think through anecdotal stories, we are able to help tool our brains to be prepared in case it happens to us. Instead of worrying about being followed through a store, we can take a moment to think about possible ways of dealing with the situation. We can practice different solutions and if we find ourselves in an unfortunate situation will be better prepared to act. Later, if we find ourselves in a situation that might be dangerous, the preparation should afford us a moment to stop, breathe, and think. Staying calm could be the most important skill you develop to protect yourself.
Violence against women should not be viewed as a fight. Assault is about power and control. The person who looks to take advantage of another is not stepping into a ring with a referee looking for a fair fight to test their mettle. A predator looks to exert control over another person. A predator cheats. Every predator sizes up their targets and chooses them based on their perceived vulnerability. Women can choose to present as a terrible target and actively work to undermine a predator by taking away his ability to make choices impacting their lives.
Environment is Opportunity
In Susan’s situation, by trusting her gut, she could take a moment to calm herself and think through her options. She was surrounded by witnesses. She had security cameras, employees, shoppers, and security guards all around her. By maintaining calm, she could choose to stay under that umbrella of observation while she took time to think. If she doubted her intuition, she could employ strategies to verify if the man was actually following her. She could reverse direction and walk towards him. She could circle an aisle several times to see if he continued to follow her. She could use her phone to sneak a picture of him. She could text or phone family and discuss her situation. She could call 9-11. If after spending some time testing her hypothesis that he was following her, she could go to the customer service desk and request a manager. Most box stores will have a manager walk you to your car if you are feeling unsafe or will call the police for you. Keeping calm and thinking things through can save your life. Every choice Susan makes resets the thought process of the man watching her. He is looking for someone with predictable behavior. When she makes a proactive choice, she undermines his plans.
Predators engage in an interview process with their intended victims. They have learned to predict behavior and judge how people will react before they choose them. The man in the anecdote above saw something in Susan that appealed to him. By learning what predators are looking for, we can better undermine their efforts.
What do predators look for?
- Is the target helpful and sympathetic?
- Does the target take pride in their appearance?
- Does the target walk with confidence?
- Does their posture indicate submissiveness?
- Do they make eye contact?
A predator is not looking to fight, he is looking to terrorize. Rape culture relies on an accepted norm that men are aggressive and strong and women will be subservient and weak. The best self-defense is relying on your intuition to tell you when you are in danger and having the confidence to undermine the predator. By recognizing that the intent is not a fair fight, but to intimidate and terrify, you can choose to take away the predator’s reward, your visible fear.
A predator will look for the helpful and sympathetic. He may utilize a fake injury, pretend to be lost, or appeal for help. By engaging a target in dialogue he is able to physically move closer to the target to continue the interview process. Distance is an excellent defense. People naturally want to be helpful and often like to be liked. Predators are often master manipulators and use this to their advantage. If you have a bad feeling about someone, listen to yourself and establish your boundaries. It is okay to say “No” and hold to it. It is okay to direct them to another person and refuse to help. Listen to your gut. If you don’t engage, they cannot continue their interview and will have to move on.
A predator will look for someone wearing conservative or baggy clothing. It is easier to dominate someone with lower self-esteem than someone who feels good about themselves. The lady with the skirt who holds her head high is a much more intimidating target than the woman hiding with her head low. The clothing items themselves do not increase the appeal, it’s about the message they send. Wear what you feel good wearing, your confidence will show.
A predator will look for someone who seems to be meandering or nervous. If a target walks with confidence and appears to know where they are going, they become significantly less appealing. The hesitant walker who steps aside for others is demonstrating submissive behaviors and presents a more appealing target. The predator will expect them to put up less of a fight and make less noise. A predator is looking for an audience of one. A target that is willing to draw the attention of others is a terrible target.
A predator looks for insecurity. Slumped posture and hesitation add more to the mix when looking for a submissive victim. They often will not make eye contact and work to be accommodating. This makes the predator's job easier and will allow them to achieve the satisfaction they are looking for much more quickly.
Much of the dialogue about self-defense centers around women changing their habits and restricting themselves to avoid confrontation. This reinforces the notion that women are less capable and inherent victims. Undermining the intentions of a predator should focus on owning your space and knowing that you have the right to assert your own autonomy. As we have discussed this list of things a predator reflects on while “interviewing” their potential victims, we can see that confidence is the key in undermining their ill intent. It’s vital to be aware of your surroundings and know what you have around you to use to your benefit. Make eye contact and send the message that you know they are watching and you are watching them right back. A predator wants control, by making eye contact, you refuse them the element of surprise. When you walk with intent and confidence, you project that you value yourself. By owning your surroundings, you make yourself a terrible target.
Be the terrible target, you are worth it.
If you would like to learn more about defending yourself and being a terrible target, please join Ashley Martin and me for Women’s Self Defense on Thursday nights at the Historic Carondelet YMCA at 600 Loughborough Ave in Saint Louis, MO. For more information, please contact the Carondelet Park Rec Complex or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Jacquelyne Jordan, Martial Arts Instructor, Carondelet Park Rec Complex
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