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.