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MSD Students Show Us How to Heal



It can be hard to understand how the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students have rallied so quickly and so skillfully in the wake of the mass murder they witnessed less than two months ago. Their resilience in the face of horror reminded me of some things I know about how humans heal from trauma from my work with assault survivors. While any kind of physical assault is upsetting and traumatic when it happens, not everyone carries trauma with them afterwards. These students have demonstrated the importance of three things we know to be powerful antidotes to trauma: Voice, Action, and Community.


The first antidote to trauma is giving voice to your experience. This is the basis of modern psychotherapy. Freud, for all of his failings and misogynistic views later in his career early identified that his female patients who were sent to him for treatment of “hysteria” recovered to a remarkable degree when they were given space to talk about what had happened to them and have that information received by a person who listened and believed them. And it turns out that almost all of them had been sexually assaulted when they were young. But a sympathetic ear and space to tell their stories brought relief of many of their symptoms of what we would now call trauma. His approach was called “the talking cure” for a reason, and these students get it.

Sam Fuentes, one of the students who spoke at the rally in Washington, D.C., threw up while she was speaking, and then lead the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” for one of her fallen classmates who would have been 18 that day. She refused to be silenced by her fear. Demetri Hoth, another Stoneman Douglas student, said at the march: “We have come here today to hold accountable politicians and their disturbing inaction. Never again will our voices — student voices — be shunned into silence.” (WaPo March 25, 2018) The students claimed their stories and told them while the world listened.


The second antidote to trauma is action. The powerlessness of victimization is what transforms into loss of a sense of agency, into a deep—sometimes subconscious—sense that you are unsafe everywhere, all the time. When you do something to protect yourself, to reclaim your sense of agency in your own life—during the traumatic event and/or after a traumatic event—you begin to heal trauma. Women who fight back when they are assaulted are far less likely to experience ongoing trauma. Women who learn to fight back after an assault often find that the embodied experience of fighting back, even years after an assault, helps them to heal.

These students didn’t just write letters or visit their representatives (though those are fine and good actions, too), they organized a nation to act. Emma Gonzales stood at the microphone in silence for six whole minutes, the length of time that the shooter was actively killing her peers.  If you don’t think this is courageous action, look for an opportunity to speak to a group of any size and try to hold space in silence without yourself succumbing to the intense social pressure to speak. You can begin to imagine the courage to stand in front of perhaps as many as 800,000 people, with a microphone in front of you, not making a sound. 


The third antidote is community. Trauma thrives in isolation. We are social creatures and we need connection with others to survive. With trauma often comes a sense of disconnection because we can’t belong socially if we distrust others on a primal level. If our fight/flight/freeze is stuck in the “on” position all the time, we can’t connect with others because we are too busy perceiving potential threats. Those people who have a strong community that stands by them in the aftermath of a trauma are more likely to heal and heal more quickly than those whose trauma has left them isolated by shame.

The MSD students came together in their own community and then stood up and asked others to join them. They have created a nationwide community that stands with them and supports their voices and their actions. They have created the conditions for healing—themselves and maybe even the country.

With one instinctive swoop, the students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are transforming their trauma with words and action and community. They have spoken loudly and without shame about their experiences, taken action, and formed a community of millions. They refused to be silenced or shamed into inaction and isolation. These steps are moving them past the trauma of their tragedy and in the process they are becoming the leaders of a movement that may yet reduce the number of people who will be exposed to this particular trauma in their lives. As Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas student, said on Saturday: “To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution.”

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Dear Uma, It’s Not Your Fault

Dear Uma Thurman,

I just finished reading your account of some of the abuses you suffered at the hands of Harvey Weinstein. I am grateful that you shared your story, and I want you to know that not sharing it sooner does not shift one shred of the blame from Weinstein to you.

You said, “The complicated feeling I have about Harvey is how bad I feel about all the women that were attacked after I was. I am one of the reasons that a young girl would walk into his room alone, the way I did. . . . And all these lambs walked into slaughter because they were convinced nobody rises to such a position who would do something illegal to you, but they do.” You also said, “I stand as both a person who was subjected to it and a person who was then also part of the cloud cover, so that’s a super weird split to have.”

What Weinstein did to you and others is the fault of Harvey Weinstein and his enablers. You were not an enabler, you were a victim of his abuse and you did what you needed to do at the time to take care of yourself, to survive. Enablers are those that knew what was going on but were not themselves victimized and said and did nothing to stop it. Yes, you were used as cover for his actions but that does not make you complicit. You were busy trying to figure out how to protect yourself.

This is one of the ways that a culture that tolerates sexual assault perpetuates itself. Women are taught that we are by nature nurturing, that we have a responsibility to protect and care for others. We place blame on ourselves for not doing more to stop the bad behavior of the men who control our access to jobs, to careers, to power, and sometimes to simple survival. And once we feel complicit, we are less likely to stand up. We are more likely to focus on what we could have done differently rather than placing the blame squarely where it belongs: on the perpetrators.

You said that Weinstein took time to work with you and compliment you on your value as a collaborator on creative projects for some time before he first tried to assault you. You said, “It possibly made me overlook warning signs. This was my champion. I was never any kind of studio darling. He had a chokehold on the type of films and directors that were right for me.” Weinstein’s strategy is a common one among perpetrators who target people they know. It’s called grooming and it looks exactly like this: Emphasize to the target how special they are, create trust and a feeling that the perpetrator sees something in you that others can’t see, but that they and they alone can help you develop.

Once he had established that power dynamic, Weinstein forced you to choose between standing up to his abuse and having a career. Nothing in that relationship suggests that you had the power to stop him from assaulting you at a cost less than your career, never mind stopping him from assaulting others. You chose your career and no one should fault you for that, especially not you. It's important there is nothing that we have learned about Weinstein in these past months (and certainly nothing that we already knew about how powerful men often wield their power to abuse women) that suggests that had you stood up to him, he would have stopped or even slowed down his abuses of others. He was a tremendously powerful serial predator who used all of his power and wealth in service of being able to continue to abuse women.

Once and for always: the blame lies with the perpetrators of violence. Never, ever does the blame lie with the victims. Not for you, and not for any victim of sexual assault.

With great respect,

Lisa Scheff



Hard Target

An often-given piece of advice in women’s self-defense classes is to make yourself a “hard target” or a “bad victim”. The idea is sound. Many men who victimize women or other men, particularly in public spaces, are relying on—and perhaps enjoying—the social instinct that is so ingrained in so many of us not to “make a scene.” We are often taught that being polite includes not making a fuss, not calling attention to ourselves. Thus, when confronted with the guy who puts his hand on our ass on the crowded subway car many of us freeze, uncomfortable with the presence of the hand but unsure whether or how to call out this assault.

Being willing to break this social expectation can be an excellent way to put a halt to an assault or an “interview”, a process by which a would-be assailant will continue to violate a chosen target’s social boundaries to establish whether the person will fight back. Repeated violations that are unmet with firm resistance establish a pattern for both the assailant and the victim in which the victim’s willingness to fight back is eroded.

Consider this not-terribly-hypothetical scenario. You are sitting on a bench at the park reading a book. A man sits down next to you. He is definitely inside your personal space, and he is making you uncomfortable. But he’s not so close to you that you are willing to call him out on it. You consider moving, but that seems rude and like it might provoke further interaction with him. So you decide to let it ride and continue reading. After a moment, he says, “Nice day, huh?” You look up briefly from your book and say, “Yeah”, then turn back to your book though now you are having trouble concentrating. You can feel your heart rate speeding up a bit and you start to focus on the man through your peripheral vision, praying he will go away if you ignore him. He does not. He says, “Good book?” You glance up long enough to look at his face and say, “Uh huh,” before again lowering your gaze to the book, offering up another prayer that he will take the hint. “What’s it about?”

Etcetera. He might really be someone who has a bad sense of social boundaries but means no harm at all. He might be someone who gets his jollies simply by making you uncomfortable. He might continue doing this until he has firmly established that you follow the social script of answering questions that are seemingly harmless then start asking you more personal questions: do you live around here? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have kids? Where do you work? Why are you in the park in the middle of a weekday? And on and on until you tell him you don’t want to answer his questions anymore. He might be gathering information or simply wearing you down.

No matter. Regardless of his motivations you do not want to be in the conversation. A good self-defense class will give you the chance to practice setting boundaries with a character like this, because most women and probably a lot of men who read this description of the encounter on the park bench can recall a similar incident from their lives that they did not know how to deal with.

One option would be to turn to him when he sits down and say, “Excuse me, you’re a little too close. Would you please move over?” Another would be to get up and move to a different bench. Or, when he attempts conversation tell him, “I don’t want to talk,” with or without a “I’m sorry” (which provides a bit of social lubricant that may make it easier to set the boundary. I don’t believe those words necessarily soften the actual boundary, but many think they do. As long as you set the boundary clearly and firmly, I don’t think it makes much difference.)  No matter, if he objects to moving or to you moving or to you telling him you don’t want to talk and accuses you of being rude: DING DING DING! You have won valuable information. You now know for sure that this is someone who is not interested in your boundaries and he has identified you as someone whose boundaries he can violate.

And the great news is that setting this boundary early, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is a great way to stop something that is already a psychic assault and that could turn into a physical assault.

In the book Beauty Bites Beast, the author tells the story about a woman who found herself in the situation I described in the opening paragraph. On a crowded bus, she felt a hand very intentionally grab her butt. Having recently taken a self-defense class, she did not hesitate to grab him by the wrist—which had the effect of immediately putting him in the position of wondering how to respond since it was not at all the response he was expecting—hold his hand above their heads, and shout: Did someone lose a hand? I found this one on my ASS!” The man slunk to the door and exited as soon as possible. The bus applauded her.



Anti-rape Gloves (BAT!)

In fairness, this is really "Make a Thing." But the Thing principles, minus the crass exploitation of women's fear for profit, still apply.


Anti-Rape Clothing Isn't the Answer


I recently ran across this set of instructions for making “anti-rape gloves.” 


Go ahead and click through. It’s short, I’ll wait. 

Remind you of anything? Perhaps that “anti-rape underwear” Indiegogo campaign? Anti-rape gloves are another well-intentioned product based on the notion that women need things to defend themselves. That women and their bodies are inherently vulnerable.

Reading the article, some things jumped out at me. This person did some research on how women fight by watching videos on YouTube, and concluded: “Women tend to slap and go for the face, they grapple, pull and push as opposed to direct punching or kicking people.” That may be what some women do. Women also often kick, punch, elbow, bite, yell, ear-box, grapple, throw, stomp, wail, and all around channel their inner warrior. 

But anyway, points to this guy for actually doing some research and thinking about the issue in a constructive way. Now take a look at the features this guy wanted to have in his weapon:

"My design criteria had to be:

Something that was able to be carried that you didn't have to think about or be on the alert

Something that was preventative rather then after-the-assault effective

Something that is hard to be used by the attacker against the victim

Something that was convenient and compact that women would wear."

Except for that last criterion it sounds a lot like really solid self-defense principles. As for convenience, how about something you don't even need to remember to wear? Like your elbows and knees and voice.

I look at these gloves and I wonder: what does she do if she forgot to put them on when she encounters an assailant? What if she tries to put them on but drops them because she's adrenalized? What do the gloves give her when she encounters someone who her intuition tells her is dangerous, but who hasn’t yet made a move to touch her? Putting them on could look a lot like her starting the fight to a jury. I also look at these gloves and I wonder what happens if she’s attacked and falls? Will the glove cut her? What if she relies on them and then the assailant grabs her and turns her hands against her?

Once again, there is an underlying assumption that there has to be a magic thing that will protect women. 

I applaud the sentiment behind the creation of these gloves. The man who came up with them wants his little sister to be safe, just like the creators of the underwear wanted to protect women from sexual assault. How is it that in 2017, we have yet to change the general perception that women are too weak to simply defend themselves? Why isn’t it common knowledge that women can be confident that they are strong and powerful walking through the world just the way they are? No special gloves. No special underwear. No threading keys between your fingers. The bodies and the voices we carry with us all the time are better than gadgets and gimmicks because they ARE us, and we are capable of defending ourselves.



Arming students? BAT!

The New York Times ran an article last year about 10 state legislatures that are proposing laws that would allow students to carry guns on campus. Michele Fiore, the author of the Nevada bill, said: “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.” 


From the perspective of a movement (Empowerment Self-Defense) that has been teaching effective self-defense for 40+ years, the idea of arming students to stop sexual assault is infuriatingly misguided. 

The belief that arming woman will stop sexual assault relies on perpetuating the myth that rape is committed by strangers lurking in bushes and dark alleys. The vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, and in most cases someone she will likely continue to have contact with in one way or another. On a college campus that might be a boyfriend, a professor or teaching assistant, or a friend.  

In these situations, the assailant often accomplishes their goals at least in part by exploiting social and power dynamics to gain compliance. Expecting a woman to shoot a friend, boyfriend, or professor when s/he is relying on these dynamics to accomplish the assault is unrealistic, to say the least. Not to mention the fact that she is alone with the assailant because she trusts him; why would she have her gun handy in that situation?

Another problem with this idea is that when guns are present, they are used against women far more often than they are used by women to defend themselves. Citing a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, the Violence Policy Center concludes that  “handguns don't offer protection for women, but instead guarantee peril.” Colleges can’t legalize only women to carry weapons (not that that appears to be the goal of any of these bills). Allowing college students to carry guns means allowing the very group of people who are most likely to be committing sexual assaults to suddenly have lethal force at their disposal to accomplish the act. 

Also, when women use guns to defend themselves, they are often arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, or murder. And, if the attacker ends up dead (a not at all unlikely outcome if shot at close range) the woman who did the shooting is going to have to articulate why she believed her life was in danger, or at the least why she didn’t think she had another, less lethal option. Historically and still, if women do not have cuts, bruises and maybe a broken bone or two, it isn’t “rape rape” and even if it is, every state requires that lethal force only be used to prevent great bodily harm or death. Oh, yeah, and women of color are far more likely to be viewed as having used excessive force as their white counterparts.

There is yet another potential harm that laws like this could cause. Allowing students to carry guns would become still one more way to blame victims when they are sexually assaulted. The argument would go something like this: “If he was really trying to rape you, why didn’t you shoot him? It’s your own fault if you weren’t carrying a gun and prepared to kill a fellow student (or your professor, or your friend’s boyfriend, or . . .).”

It is difficult to see these proposals as anything other than a cynical attempt by gun advocates to exploit a serious issue. Some of the loudest voices at the moment in the discussion of sexual assault on campus are those bemoaning the idea that a young man could be expelled even if there hasn’t been a criminal trial in which he was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of rape. Where are those voices in opposing these bills? If the concern is truly due process, that concern should be resoundingly amplified when legislators are proposing that women simply shoot someone who is assaulting them.

In short, the proposal to allow students to carry guns on campus is just another way of clinging to common myths about rape (strangers jumping out of bushes, blaming the victim if she doesn’t fight back in approved ways) while avoiding dealing with a real problem in a constructive, effective way.




Buy A Thing!

I fear I will be returning to this topic again and again. Every week seems to bring some new Thing that is being sold to women for self-defense purposes. Some of them are potentially Useful Things. Some of them are utterly Impractical Things. Some of them are downright Dangerous Things.  Some are both Impractical And Dangerous Things.

When they cross my path, I'll be publishing critical looks at some of these products from the perspective of, you know, actually efficacy in making anyone safer. It's a subject that will never go away so long as stereotypes about women and fear-based marketing continue to find purchase in societies around the world. I dream of the day that, when one of these products is announced, instead of "Ooh! This is awesome!" "Women, check it out!" I am greeted by a wave of outrage on social media about how The Thing assumes that women are helpless, that we need "special" tools designed for weak little creatures like ourselves if we ever hope to get through life unviolated. I look forward to Twitter threads a mile long identifying the stupidity/uselessness/downright offensiveness of these products and the way they are sold. Snaps and sick burns for days.

Until that day arrives, I will continue to critically analyze these products and share my thoughts with the goal of empowering anyone thinking of buying one in determining if it will really help them, or if the product is just more fear and bullshit wrapped in pink.





Escape Claws (BAT!)

Here we go again: yet another product aimed at women’s fears that may, but probably does not, provide them with an added degree of safety. TigerLady is sharp plastic “claws” attached to a pad that you hold in your hand. It is designed for runners. As I always do when these products appear I ask myself:

  • Will it actually be available when you need it?
  • What is your plan if it slips from your hand, or it isn’t in your hand when you are attacked?
  • What if you accidentally hurt yourself with it, instead?
  • How many women could be taught serious, effective self-defense techniques using their voices and bodies with the money that was spent to develop and market this product?

If people want to add tools like pepper spray or tasers to their resources for protecting themselves, I have no problem with that.

The key word is “add.” If the makers of TigerLady and other similar products are seriously interested in keeping women safer, why aren’t they encouraging women to learn self-defense skills in addition to buying their product?

A good self-defense instructor will never tell their students that “In x situation you should always do y” because there is no formula. Each situation is different. Instead, self-defense instruction should give students lots of tools so they have choices about what to do based on the unique situation they are in. In the same way, no single product is going to keep you safe in every situation, or even in most situations.

At best, these products are misguided attempt to empower women based on the myth that women aren’t strong enough to defend themselves without a weapon. At worst, they are cynical  exploitation of women’s fears.



What's in Your Bag of Dicks . . . I Mean Tricks?

This story has been making the rounds. Two women were closing up the sex shop where they work, when a man with a gun came in and tried to rob them. One of the women said something to the effect of “I don’t have time for this” while the other woman began lobbing dildos at the would-be robber. He fled. There’s a decent photo of his face from the security camera, and I really hope he’s caught, both because I don’t want him to try and rob anyone else and also because I want him to be internet-famous for all time as the guy who was defeated in crime by two women hucking  dildos.

All humor aside, there are some great self-defense lessons to be drawn from this incident.

Lesson #1a: You don’t need to carry pepper spray, a gun, or a knife to defend yourself effectively. Often, in fact, a “real” weapon can be a liability. Imagine if the woman throwing the dildos had pepper spray hidden behind the counter, and thought of that as her primary line of defense. She’d be looking for it, pulling it out of its holster, and trying to get close enough to the robber to hit his face without also hitting her coworker. Weapons can be a valid option for self-defense, but it’s always valuable to first train yourself to use your voice, elbows, and knees, and also to start seeing opportunities for defensive weapons as you move through the world. Which brings us to . . .

Lesson #1b: Defensive weapons are everywhere. Literally. Here's a photo from when I walked the staff of a local bar through the place looking for improvised weapons. A bar is a freaking arsenal of improvised weapons. Coffee pot (throw, smash on the head, throw hot coffee in the face), hot sauce (improvised pepper spray!), bottles (used as a club, broken and used as a sharp weapon—dangerous, but an option), a hose in the back room (spray water in the face, spray water and soap on the floor of the doorway so the attacker slips when he walks through the door, use as a trip-wire in the doorway, use as a garrot, fire extinguisher . . . you get the idea. In this case, what was at hand was, apparently, a basket full of dildos.


Lesson #2: Flinch response. We all have one. It’s hard-wired. You can train to reduce it, but you cannot eliminate it and neither can the guy who’s attacking you. You can throw anything at someone’s face and it will buy you a split second—or maybe even more, depending on what you throw—for your next move.

Lesson #3: The element of surprise is almost always on your side when you are attacked. Hear me out. The attacker has surprise in their favor when they start the attack. But they have written themselves a script of what will happen next. Break that script, and you can turn the tables. I imagine this guy looked through the window and thought something like: “Great, two women in a sex shop. Easy peasy. Hold up the gun, hand them the bag, demand money, leave. What’re they gonna do? Hit me with a rubber penis?”





How to Choose a Self-Defense Class

Post-election, my world is on fire with people looking for self-defense classes as we see more and more reports of violence. I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but this seems like the moment.

First, self-defense and martial arts are different things. They share some things in common, but studying a martial art is not necessarily going to prepare you to defend yourself. Think of it like studying Latin versus studying Spanish. If you are going to a Spanish speaking country and don’t speak the language, you want to take a conversational Spanish class, right? Studying Latin may give you a deeper understanding of where the language came from, and if you wanted to become a professor of Spanish at a university you’d probably want to take Latin, too. But if you’re spending your vacation in Mexico you mostly just want to be able to get around, be polite, and order food.

Self-defense is a lot like that. You don’t need to be a martial artist or fighting expert to learn basic and effective self-defense skills. Is there more you could learn? ALWAYS. But getting a few basic skills under your belt and practicing them enough to feel secure that you can whip them out if you need them is the first step. If you love what you are studying and want to learn more, there are always more classes to take. Start with the basics.

Martial arts are great, but most incorporate all kinds of etiquette and stylized forms that are not particularly relevant to self-defense. Don’t get me wrong, studying martial arts has all kinds of great benefits, some of which like increased fitness and strength may be beneficial in a self-defense situation. But they are not the same thing.

Look for a class that offers a spectrum of skills, not just physical skills. The truth is that a lot of self-defense does not involve physical skills at all. It involves honoring your instincts, paying attention to your surroundings, and removing yourself if a situation seems to be getting dangerous. If there is a confrontation, often words are enough to end it. But you have to know what to say and how to say it. A good self-defense class will give you practice using verbal skills in a variety of scenarios so you are prepared when you need them.

The class and the skills should be available to almost everyone. You don’t need to be in great shape or even particularly good shape to be able to learn skills that will serve most people in most situations they are likely to encounter.

It matters who is teaching the class. You want an instructor who will honor your experiences of violence and your fears.  You want a class that will teach you skills and let you practice problem solving with them in your own way. Ask if instructors ever “correct” students or tell them what they “should” do in any given situation. Both of these approaches are disempowering. The authority lies with the instructor. The problem with this is that the instructor won’t be with you when you need the skills, and the instructor isn’t in your body and doesn’t know what works for you. If an instructor told me, for instance, that if someone got in my face the first thing I should do is to yell at them loudly to “get out of my way,” that’s not how I roll. I’m never going to be comfortable with that. Instead, I have figured out phrases and strategies that I am comfortable with and that work for me. And I have stuff to go to if those don’t work.

In general I think it’s great if women take classes from women and men from men, simply because women and men tend to have such vastly different experiences of violence. This isn’t to say you cannot find a good instructor of a different gender, it’s just more rare.

If you are interviewing an instructor or school and get the feeling that they are talking down to you, find another school.

If you have a trauma history, look for an instructor who understands trauma. Simply put, studying self-defense can be triggering for people who have been victimized in the past. A self-defense instructor should never blame someone for a crime that was perpetrated against them, including telling them that “if they had done x, y, or z” they would not have been victimized.

But more than that, a good instructor will know how to support and assist students who are triggered during a class. Self-defense classes need to be physically AND emotionally safe for students.

Weapons are a whole ‘nother thing. If you want to carry pepper spray, mace, a knife, or a gun, that’s always an option. I would encourage you, though, to learn to use the tools and weapons you have with you all the time: your voice, your elbows, your knees, etc. Also, learn some adrenaline management before you start carrying a weapon that can be dropped, used against you, or accidentally harm someone you didn’t intend to harm.






A new app called Vigilante to "end crime." What could possibly go wrong?

The Washington Post reports today about a new app called Vigilante that proposes a technological solution to violent crime. It monitors police scanners and sends users notification of crimes currently being reported nearby. Apple has pulled it from the app store, but I think it's worth taking a look at.


First, bystander intervention can be a powerful deterrent to crime, and not coincidentally a refreshing draught of humanity and empathy in an often unsympathetic world. Take, for instance, this video that has recently been making the rounds on Facebook.  

A young African American man takes a guy to task on the bus after he sees the guy inappropriately touching a teenage girl, who is too scared to do or say anything. It's a little snapshot of the world we wished we lived in all the time, where complete strangers stand up for people they see being hurt. 

And the guy leaves the girl alone, and maybe next time he thinks twice before he starts groping someone, and the girl hugs the man who helped her, and everyone lives happily ever . . .

Nope. The young man who helped gets arrested by the police when they arrive on the scene. Eventually they let him go and apologize, so the outcome isn't, you know, completely tragic.

Which brings us back to Vigilante. In the video, it shows a young woman walking alone under an expressway at night, on the phone with 911, telling the dispatcher that she's being followed by "a man in a black hoodie."  A group of young African American men get the Bat Signal on their phones and interrupt an assault in progress and everyone lives happily ever after. 

Except that they probably don't. The police interviewed for the article in the Post were quick to point out that responding officers have no way of telling who the bystander is and who the attacker is if they walk into a situation like that. It's one thing to jump in to help someone if you are there when it's happening and take the risk that the police may mistake you for the criminal. It's a whole 'nother thing to grab your baseball bat or gun and head out to fight crime. 

Also, police get called into all kinds of highly dangerous and sometimes ambiguous situations. Domestic violence situations are notoriously deadly for anyone who intervenes. When the couple fighting is heterosexual, police typically assume that the man is the aggressor. It's not a perfect system, but it's far more likely than not to be the correct assumption. Same sex domestic violence? Much tougher to sort out. 

And what about the fact that people rarely intervene in an assault when they are RIGHT THERE watching it go down? I see people belly-aching on social media: What is wrong with people? Why didn't anyone DO something? 

I am quick to come to the defense of bystanders who don't act. For one thing, most people are not trained in dealing with violence. Intervening might just get another person hurt and not help the person who was being attacked originally. For another, bystander freeze is real. Adrenaline kicks in and unless you have some experience managing it, you are likely to get stuck wondering if you should do something and if so, what? In the meantime, most assaults are over in a matter of seconds. 

So if most people won't do anything when the crime is happening before their very eyes, who is likely to use Vigilante? I'm going to go out on a limb and say: people who are looking for an excuse to be violent anyway. Are their responses likely to help? Maybe. But far more likely they will get themselves hurt by the perpetrator and/or hurt and arrested by the police when they arrive. Also entirely possible is the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin scenario in which an innocent kid gets killed for looking "suspicious", which is too often code for "Black."

So what do you do if you want to help? My answer will not surprise you: find yourself a good self-defense class and learn some skills to use in defense of yourself AND others. Practice intervening in scenarios--set them up with friends and practice what you would say and do if you see someone being harassed or hurt. Pay attention to your surroundings when you are out, and if you have the chance to help someone out without getting hurt yourself, by all means do it. 



On Trump, Trauma, and Speaking Truth To Power

Freud’s first hypothesis about hysteria was that it was caused by childhood sexual abuse at the hands of men. Eventually, he changed that hypothesis because he realized that if it were true, a shockingly high percentage of women had been sexually abused. The charges would have destroyed him professionally and were too horrifying to contemplate so he changed his hypothesis to one in which his female patients harbored inappropriate sexual fantasies.

Fast forward to the present day, and the revelations of 10 women and counting who say that they were sexually assaulted by Donald Trump, and an audio tape of him bragging about his ability to sexually assault women without consequences because of his wealth and power. Under the hashtag #NotOkay tens of thousands of women have come forward with stories of sexual assault.

Collectively, these events are both healing and hurtful to many survivors of sexual assault. On the one hand, they are getting the opportunity to speak out about what happened to them and to see how very, very much they are not alone. On the other hand, suddenly people—from close friends and family members whom they’ve known all their lives to politicians to editorial writers are shocked—shocked! I tell you!—to learn that sexual abuse is so prevalent. And the shock leads to the desire to want to deny and disbelieve. After all, if so much sexual assault is happening, all of us are somewhat complicit in not seeing it and doing something to end it. The truth can be profoundly uncomfortable.

20 years ago, Judith Herman wrote one of the primary texts on the subject of trauma. In the introduction, she says:

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.” –Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

 Sound familiar?

If you are a survivor who is telling your story, I believe you and I applaud your courage. If you are not a survivor and are stunned and overwhelmed to hear so many stories of abuse all at once, I hope that you will stay with your discomfort and not try to make it go away by disbelieving those who are speaking their truth. One of the most important and difficult things we can do to begin to change rape culture is to listen to survivors and believe them. 


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Calling Male Allies

How many men were on that bus and saw what happened?

At this morning's news conference with the most recent woman to accuse Donald Trump of sexual assault, a reporter asked her if there were "any witnesses". That question came AFTER she gave her statement in which she said Trump was accompanied by several other men when the assault happened. Billy Bush was a witness to--and participant in--Trump's harassment of an actress in 2005.

There are more male witnesses to his assaults. There have to be. If you are one of those men, you have an incredible opportunity to be a part of the solution, to help end rape culture, by coming forward and supporting the women who are accusing Trump of harassment.

Men who haven't spent time with Donald Trump, you have an opportunity, too. If you have seen women being harassed or if the women in your life have told you about being harassed, you can be an ally by standing up and talking about what you've seen, by saying that you believe women when they report harassment. 

This is what it should mean to #ManUp

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No, You’d Better NOT Mess With Me (but not because I teach self-defense, you idiot)*

It never fails. I meet a man at some sort of social event and he asks what I do. “I teach self-defense,” I say. And he responds, like clockwork, with some version of, “Ooh, I better not mess with you!” and starts laughing a) like he is the first person ever to come up with such a clever response and b) like it’s funny. It’s not. (The same thing also happens with shocking predictability all the time to women who are moved to share with male friends and family members that they are taking a self-defense class.)

But he has left me holding the two sacks of shit empowered women are so familiar with. In one sack is the shitty option of smiling and laughing along and then gently, oh so gently so as not to alarm him or insult his sense of enlightenment/entitlement, explain that self-defense isn’t actually about hurting innocent men at cocktail parties. Duh.

In the other sack is the specter of the Humorless Feminist. And believe me, if you want to be invited to more parties you don’t want to be identified as the guest who unleashes the Humorless Feminist.

As it turns out, I carry with me at all times a lovely little beaded bag, classy as hell, that contains nothing but verbal whoop-ass. I open it.

“So you would have messed with me if you thought I didn’t know how to defend myself?” I ask in my sweetest, demurest tone of voice with a warm smile on my face.

There is a brief but slightly uncomfortable pause while he puzzles out what just happened. I can hear the whispers in his head, “She just accused me of assaulting women. But I guess I kind of said that I do. But . . .” the next part comes all the way out of his mouth: “That’s not what I meant!” I can feel him psychically willing my hand to open the sack containing the Humorless Feminist so he can get a quick laugh at my expense and then seek validation from others that indeed I am A Humorless Feminist and everyone knows you can’t talk to them about anything. Eye rolls and nods all around.

I won’t do it. I won’t lecture him on why his statement is so offensive: it assumes women cannot defend themselves if they haven’t taken a self-defense class (false), it implies that women who have taken a self-defense class will use those skills to assault men rather than just defend themselves (false and insulting), and it reinforces the idea that women are in danger from all men, all the time, unless they have the physical skills to defend themselves but at the same time reinforces the idea that women are paranoid and angry if they are wary of men because #NotAllMen.


In short, it’s a condescending, rude, gaslighting masterpiece of a response upon learning that the woman you are speaking to has learned some physical skills to protect herself if she is attacked.

“I know. But that’s what you said,” I might respond and then sit back and wait for more nonsense. Or I might just stand there staring at him as if his last statement was exactly as asinine and nonsensical as it sounded.

At this point, about 1 in 100 will literally or metaphorically slap himself on the forehead, apologize, and actually get curious about my work. Most will change the topic just as quickly as they can. Some will proceed to mansplain self-defense to me. A few will persist in trying to get me to ratify the notion that I am the rude person in the conversation because I won't laugh at the "joke," at which point I simply leave while he is mid-speech.

I will walk away because, Mr. Annoying, avoiding a conflict is a valid self-defense strategy that I encourage my students to remember is in their bag of tools. So yeah, you better NOT mess with me, or I might walk away and leave you standing in the middle of the room looking bewildered and stupid while I find someone more interesting to talk to. Really, dude, you better not mess with any women. Not because they might kick your ass if you do, though many of them can whether they’ve gotten formal training or not. But because it’s wrong (not to mention criminal) and I really hope you’re a better person than that.

You don't mess with women physically, you say? Great, take the next step and speak with them respectfully when they tell you they are learning to defend themselves against the people who do.

* I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and I want to thank Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele of See Jane Fight Back for recently publishing their take on this phenomenon, which got me off my writer’s block. 



Intuition in Action

A few weeks ago, I went to Chicago to attend a giant gathering of women martial artists and self-defense instructors. It was amazing and I learned all kinds of great stuff.

But this blog post is about an actual self-defense situation I encountered while I was there.

When I arrived in Chicago, I got on an L train at the airport to get to downtown. At the first stop, a young man, maybe in his early 20s, got on the train and sat across from me. I immediately noticed his posture. His shoulders were up around his ears, and his hands where behind him on the seat, with his elbows pushed in by his sides. He was very thin and was wearing jeans that sat below his waist with boxers sticking out the top, and a spotlessly clean plain white t-shirt. He set a plastic grocery bag on the seat next to him, which appeared to be the only thing he was carrying. It was balled up, but seemed to have something smallish in it. Periodically, he patted the front pockets of his jeans.

I noticed him and felt uncomfortable the moment he got on the train and sat down. I immediately started thinking about getting off the train at the next station and waiting for the next one, or even just switching cars. In the meantime, while the train was in motion, I decided to analyze what was making my intuition prick up its ears.

He was weirdly still. My gut was telling me he was nervous, but he wasn’t fidgeting at all. In fact, he wasn’t moving. He was slouched in his seat, but he wasn’t relaxed because his body was stiff when the train’s motion was making other people sway and shift.

I noted the baggy shirt and jeans. I have been in classes with weapons experts and observed how stupidly easy it is to hide multiple guns and knives even in relatively fitted clothing. I knew that if this guy had a weapon the odds of me being able to see it were slim.

Add to this the fact that the only motion he engaged in was to occasionally bring his hands in front of him and pat the front pockets on his jeans. Some of my teachers, people who have dealt with a lot of violence, tell me that this is something to look for: a person who is patting themselves to make sure a weapon is still in place.

Then there was the grocery bag. It was a very small package, but he didn’t put it on his lap or keep a hand on it, or even look at it. Once he put it down on the seat next to him, he behaved as if it didn’t belong to him, as if he wanted everyone to assume it didn’t belong to him. Why might he do that? Some possible reasons that I thought of: if he was carrying something that he didn’t want to be holding if he was arrested; if it was an explosive that he wanted to leave behind when he got off the train (this seemed unlikely since it was so small, but I’m no bomb expert so I kept this theory in the running). Of course, it was also possible that he just set a bag containing a sandwich or something else innocuous down next to him but my gut was telling me that something was off in the way he was in relation to the bag.

By this time, we were slowing as we came into a station. I had pretty much determined to get off the train when it stopped, though I surprised myself by trying to rationalize staying on the train. After all, I had a large suitcase and I had been traveling all day and it was hot and humid. I just wanted to get to my hotel, check in, and take a shower. I reminded myself of what I tell my students: listening to your intuition usually has a very low cost in terms of inconvenience.

The doors opened and I was watching to see if this man would get off the train and save me getting my stuff together and losing my seat on what had become a fairly crowded car. He didn’t move. So I moved to get up. At which point, he got up, grabbing the bag. Oh, I thought. Very interesting. So I started to settle back into my seat. And he stopped moving towards the door, grabbing a strap hanger instead. So I got up and moved to the door at which point he let go of the strap and got off the train slightly ahead of me.

His head was down and he was heading for the escalators. I turned around and got right back on the train. I looked out the window onto the platform, but I didn’t see the man again.

What was going on here? Maybe nothing. Or maybe he was planning to rob me. It was Sunday. Downtown Chicago was like a ghost town. Barely anyone was on streets. I was clearly a tourist: I was coming from the airport with a large bag and riding a downtown train on a weekend. As a mark for a robbery I’d have looked pretty good to me, too. Besides the suitcase I was carrying a backpack with a laptop and a small purse with a thin strap. Things that likely would contain valuable items: computer, phone, cash, credit cards. Things that would be easy to grab. And I likely did not know my way around too well. It would be easy enough to follow me, wait for a quiet street, threaten me with a weapon, take the backpack and the purse and run.

I always tell my students to pay attention to who is around them and how they are behaving, and to listen to their intuition. Maybe I was reading too much into what I was seeing, but maybe not. I’ll never know, and that goes down as a self-defense win.







Grieving for Orlando

I was away this weekend at a martial arts camp and came back to the news of the massacre in Orlando. I am stunned and heartbroken. I know I will have more to say in the coming days, but for now, just a couple of reminders.

Vicarious trauma is real, and it happens in several ways. If something horrible happens to someone close to you or happens near you (for example, if you see someone being hurt), you may also experience trauma. You don't need to be emotionally or physically close to the person who is hurt, however. People who work in professions where they hear people talk about being victimized--counselors, doctors, domestic violence shelter workers, and yes, self-defense instructors--experience vicarious trauma. 

But you don't even have to be that close to what has happened. The nightclub in Orlando was targeted because its patrons were mostly LGBTQ people. If you are part of that community, or close to people who are part of that community, or simply an empathetic person you may be experiencing some vicarious trauma. This can manifest in a lot of ways. Hypervigilence, insomnia, trouble feeling connected to people around you, mood swings, feeling disconnected from your body are a few ways this might show up.

Whatever you are feeling or experiencing, what happened in Orlando is horrific. If you are upset, even if you think you are more upset than you "should" be, that is a normal, human response to tragedy. And if you are having symptoms of trauma, acknowledge those, too. Your mind, heart, and your body are trying to process an awful event.

Second, connect with people you love. Trauma lives in isolation. Community is the antidote. Come together with people who will support you in your grief and anger and fear. Be kind to each other. Validate others' feelings even if they are different from yours, and don't let others tell you that what you are feeling is wrong. Make time to hang out with friends, attend a vigil, or just spend time with one other person who makes you feel safe and seen.

 (image courtesy of SF Gate)

(image courtesy of SF Gate)

Third, be gentle with yourself and do something nurturing for yourself, whatever that may be: take a bath, eat some good chocolate, prepare a nice meal, set aside time where you turn off all of your devices and read a familiar book that you know you love. Whatever little thing that takes care of YOU.

Finally, be an ally. If you aren't LGBTQ, recognize that this community was targeted because of who they are and that many people in the community are feeling defensive, angry, and scared. Show your support to the community by reaching out to LGBTQ people in your circle and letting them know that you stand with them against hate.


Further reading on trauma and vicarious trauma: 

The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.-Dr. van der Kolk first named the phenomenon of PTSD while treating Vietnam veterans in the '70s. He has spent his life studying trauma and this is his first book for lay people to help them understand trauma. 
A Woman's Toolkit for Recovery from Violence and Trauma by Anna Valdiserri- Valdiserri writes compassionately and clearly as a lay person who has learned to deal with her own trauma.
Irritable Hearts: a PTSD Love Story by Mac Mclelland-Mclelland was a correspondent in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. While covering conditions in the emergency camps she witnessed something horrible (she never describes what she witnessed to spare her readers from possibly experiencing vicarious trauma themselves). This is her account of learning about vicarious trauma as she struggles to understand what is happening to her.



Ask A Safety Geek: Can I be arrested for using self-defense?

Note from Paradox: Ask A Safety Geek is a non-advice column because at Paradox the only advice we give anyone is to trust their instincts and believe in themselves. You share your questions and we'll share our knowledge. But no matter what safety tools end up in your toolbox, the most important one will always be . . . You!

N.D. asks: "I have a question about the legality of self-defense. There's a dilemma about self-protection: if I'm too aggressive, or the act of defending myself causes the assailant injury, could I end up with assault charges? I'm worried my defense measures will be turned against me if the assailant presses charges."

This is really good, and really important question. First, mandatory disclaimer: this column is not offering legal advice. It is a great idea to understand the self-defense law in your state (and yes, it can vary quite a bit from state to state). A good place to start is to google "jury instructions for [your state]". If you do defend yourself and you are charged with a crime, these are the instructions the jury will be asked to follow in deciding whether you acted in self-defense.

Second, the answer can be fairly complicated. Could you end up with assault charges? The short answer is yes. Whether you do depends on a lot of things: who you are (are you short? tall? small? large? female? male? transgender? white? not white?), who your attacker is (ditto), where you were, who you were with, what they did, what you did, whether they had a weapon and whether you did, whether there were witnesses and what they say they saw . . .  You get the picture.

Now for some good news. One of my teachers likes to ask, "Do you think of yourself as a good person? Would you ever want to physically hurt another person if you didn't have to?" If they answers are yes and no, respectively, you're probably not going to get into trouble.

Here are some general guidelines to consider, taken from California self-defense law. If you think about it, though, they all circle back to those two questions above.

1) Was the person who attacked you a real threat? In other words, could they physically harm you? This means that if you punch a little kid, it probably isn't legitimately self-defense. I say "probably" because imagine it's a kid with a weapon, or a particularly strong and mentally ill child in a blind rage . . . You get the picture. The person who you use physical force on needs to have been an actual physical threat to you.


2) Was the threat immediate? Was this person threatening to harm you right here and right now? If they were yelling at you from across the street, you can't run across the street and hit them because you felt threatened when you could just as well have avoided the potential threat.

3) Did you try everything else before resorting to physical force? This can be tricky from the perspective of an instructor. A lot of my students are afraid to use physical force ever. I don't want those students reading this and then standing there obsessing about whether there is something else they can do when an attack is imminent. I want them to feel confident to GO when it's GO time. But, if you are one of those people who answered "no" to the question of whether you'd ever want to hurt someone if you don't have to, chances are you've satisfied this requirement. If you can't escape safety, and have told the attacker no or to leave you alone and they are still coming at you, you probably don't have much left in your non-physical self-defense tool bag. If they grab you from behind for goodness sakes start fighting! You are under no obligation to try and talk your way out of that situation.

4) Finally (and I think this probably gets to the heart of your question, N.D.), you can only use enough force to get out of the situation safely. This is pretty common sense, but in the moment of an attack, with the adrenaline going, it's important. If you, say, poke someone in the eyes and they cover their face and double over and you can get to a safe place don't go in for a knee strike to the head. On the other hand, if the same person engages in the exact same kind of behavior in an isolated place and you aren't sure you can get to safety before they recover from the eye strike, you can use more force if you need to to get away.

At the end of the day, the best fight is no fight--meaning that anytime things go physical really bad things can happen including you getting badly injured, or the attacker being badly injured and you facing legal consequences for it. At the same time, if you need to use force to get out of a dangerous situation, do not hesitate.

Some resources for further reading on this subject:

Scaling Force and Facing Violence (both by Rory Miller, who is also the source of the 2 question test above) are excellent books that deal with this subject thoughtfully.  

Also, I ran across this breakdown of a specific fight in researching to answer your question. I think it's a good teaching tool since the person who uses physical force initially was clearly NOT acting in self-defense, but it turned into a situation where he would have been justified in using self-defense because the tables turned against him so badly. Trigger warning: the video in the linked post contains graphic violence.



Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

Here it is: sometimes there just aren't any good answers. Catcalling is one of the most difficult subjects to address as a self-defense teacher. It is invasive, threatening, scary, and it is everywhere, all the time if you walk through the world as a woman or a gender nonconforming person. It can range from sounding fairly harmless--"Hey baby" "You'd look prettier if you smiled!"--all the way through overt insults and threats of what the catcaller (henceforth known in this blog post as The Asshole) would like to do to the target. 


Physical self-defense generally isn't warranted (or legal) unless The Asshole makes a move to DO something to you. Verbal self-defense strategies often aren't effective because The Asshole is often looking merely for reaction--any engagement will do, including "not interested" "in your dreams" or best of all "fuck off, asshole!". Any reaction is a sign they bothered you. And any response creates an opening for them to engage further. "I was just giving you a compliment!" "Lighten up!" "Why are you such a bitch?" 

And, responses like "fuck off" are problematic not just because they can escalate the situation (or more accurately, give The Asshole the opportunity he's been looking for to escalate). Hostile language can be a real problem if the situation escalates and the police become involved. Witnesses may perceive you as having started the fight.

But ignoring them is awful in other ways. It can feel like powerlessness. It can feel like letting the person get away with their terrible behavior. And ignoring them provides another kind of opening for further engagement. "Hey, I'm talking to you!" "What, you too good to talk to me?"

(This woman recorded over 100 instances of verbal harassment-not including winks, leers, and whistles--in 10 hours of walking silently through New York, not engaging in any way.)

So what should you do? What is the self-defense answer to catcalling? This is one of those situations where I have to be candid and say that I don't know of any truly good, reliable ways of handling catcallers.

I do think this is a situation in which bystander intervention is particularly effective. The power dynamic that The Asshole is relying on is: I am singling you out for attention and there's nothing you can do about it. If another person steps up, particularly another man, and calls them out on their bad behavior, the power dynamic is completely altered.  

And it is important to acknowledge that catcalling is inherently violent and intended to make you feel powerless. If someone harasses you this way, get some support. Call a friend and vent. Spend some time with your pets. Do something nice for yourself and something that validates the fact that you were the target of violence.

How do you deal with catcallers? What has your experience been? If you've got a strategy that works for you, please share it!



Self-Defense skills: maybe simpler than you thought

This video has been circulating pretty heavily on my Facebook feed. Several people have tagged me excitedly, as in "You're going to love this!" Here it is:

First of all, I love it when people send things like this my way. Keep 'em coming!

As a side note, I suspect that it's staged. There's something about her demeanor that doesn't add up. (Marc MacYoung takes the video apart from this perspective here. While I disagree with his characterizations of how women generally behave in these sorts of situations, I think the analysis is spot on otherwise.)

Staged or no, there are things to really love about it. When she does move, she does it quickly and decisively. She is fierce.

Here is what I think is really valuable about this video, though. It is a great illustration of what a powerful skill situational awareness can be, and conversely what a powerful distraction smart phones are. He sneaks up behind her the first time, in an elevator with reflective walls, and he is touching her before she notices that he has moved. 

Then, after she shrugs him off, she goes back to her phone while he starts creeping up on her again. Even when she puts her phone away she isn't paying attention to him. Why not? He has already proven himself to be a creep. But he is grabbing for her breast before she realizes where he is.

The best fight is the one you don't have. Physical skills are always good to have, and she's got some great ones. But anytime there is physical violence there is a risk of serious injury or death. That last knee to the head is a whopper. If she killed him (or left him paralyzed) there is a good chance there would be a prosecution. How does she justify that last knee? I'm not saying a jury would convict her, especially if it is made up of a lot of women who have been creeped on in elevators (and that's pretty much all of us, amiright?) but why put yourself in that position if you don't have to? Why not stand with your back to the wall of the elevator, keep your phone in your purse, and be aware of where he is? If someone is interested in preying on women the way this guy is--with stealth--just watching him may have been enough to deter him from doing anything.

Of course, it may not have deterred him. In which case she still has those awesome skills at the ready.