Personal safety can be a controversial issue because people sometimes feel that personal safety tips or self-defense classes are a way to place the responsibility for preventing sexual assault or intimate partner violence on the person who is least responsible. While it is true that the only person responsible for the violence is the person who commits it, there are things that we can do to keep ourselves safe and take back the control that the rapist or violent partner is trying to take away.
Often, the experience of taking steps to protect yourself can make you feel more powerful and in control and can also be part of the process of healing for those who have been assaulted previously. Although there are no guarantees that certain techniques or actions will prevent an assault, they can decrease the risk of one or help you to escape an assault in progress. It is also important to remember that if you are assaulted, this does not mean that you failed at protecting yourself or in some way are responsible for being attacked. The blame lies solely with the attacker, whether that person is a stranger, an acquaintance, a date, a partner, or a family member. Furthermore, if you are attacked and do not use the techniques outlined here or in a self-defense class, this does not mean that you deserved it or didn’t resist enough.
A physical response to an attack may not be safe in some situations. Only you can be the best judge of how to respond to an attack, and no one has the right to question your actions or the decisions you made that allowed you to survive the assault. It is important to note that many people find themselves becoming more fearful and hyper-vigilant when they begin to focus on personal safety. Although the risks are real and there are steps you can take to increase your personal safety, these steps are intended to increase your sense of empowerment and safety, rather than a sense of victimization and fear. If you find yourself becoming very anxious and fearful about sexual assault, or compulsive about personal safety, it may help to talk to someone about your fears. This may be especially likely if you are, or someone close to you is, a survivor of an attempted or completed sexual assault.
Contrary to popular belief, most sexual assaults are planned. The assailant may not plan to sexually assault or rape a specific individual, but they usually do plan to assault someone. This plan may range from a specific plan to find someone to rape to a general intention of “scoring.” Although this fact can be disheartening, it also gives us an edge in protecting ourselves from sexual assault. Because assaults are usually planned, there are typical behaviors and patterns that you can be aware of and watch out for. This section will outline some of these typical patterns and suggest various things you can do to keep yourself safe. There are three areas to consider in thinking about personal safety – the environment, the assailant, and yourself.
Awareness: The Environment The environment consists of the people and things around you, as well as the place you are in, all of which can contribute to the level of safety or danger at any given moment.
- The People around you can help keep you safe or increase the level of danger, depending on who they are and what your relationship with them is. If you are in a group of your friends, they are more likely to contribute to your safety. If you are among a group of the assailant’s friends, you may not be able to turn to them for help. If you are among strangers, it may be harder to tell. If you find yourself in a position where you are in danger of sexual assault, pay attention to the people around you – can you turn to them for help or are they increasing the level of danger?
- The Things around you can also be used in your defense. Pens and pencils, keys, chairs, books, and other furniture can all be used as weapons. You can put large objects between you and the assailant; smaller objects can be used to hit or stab the assailant or to block strikes against you.
- The Place that you are in will affect the level of danger and how you choose to defend yourself. Since most sexual assaults occur between people who know each other, they are more likely to happen indoors. The stereotype of the stranger in the bushes does happen, but is much more rare than sexual assault in your home, someone else’s home, at a party or a bar.
- If you are in your home, you have an advantage in that you know the layout much better than the assailant. It will be easier for you to move around, to put furniture or doors between you, to get to the phone. You might try turning out the lights, because it will be easier for you to move around in the dark. In addition, common safety tips for preventing stranger assault in your home include strong locks on the doors and windows and secure entry into apartment buildings.
- If you are in the assailant’s home, the advantage goes the other way. Generally speaking, it is better to avoid being alone with dates until you know them well enough to trust them, and to inform friends or family of your whereabouts and when you are likely to return. However, even long-term, trusted friends or partners commit sexual assault. If you feel you are in danger, look around for things you can use to defend yourself, be aware of the exits and the location of a telephone.
- If you are at a party or a bar, the people around you are likely to be your best resource, particularly if they are friends of yours. Try not to be left alone with someone you don’t know or do not feel safe with.
- If you are in a deserted area, look for a more populated or well-lit area that you can go to if you feel you are in danger.
The Assailant Unfortunately, there are few obvious distinguishing characteristics of assailants that can be used to identify and avoid them – rapists can be of almost any group. However, there are some people who are more likely to commit sexual assault. General Characteristics
Men are considerably more likely to commit sexual assaults than are women.
- The myth of the black rapist is exactly that – a myth. African-American men are no more likely to commit sexual assault than men of any other ethnic group. Most sexual assaults tend to be intraracial rather than interracial, and when it does occur across ethnic groups, it is usually the case of a white man assaulting a woman of color.
- Men who hold strong beliefs in traditional gender roles are more likely to sexually assault a woman because they are less likely to believe that she has the right to say no or that she means it.
- People who do not take “no” for an answer or listen to your opinion in smaller areas, such as where to eat dinner, who will drive, etc., are unlikely to do so in more important areas, such as when, where, how, and whether you will have sex.
Specific Characteristics Along with these general aspects of a potential assailant, there are important specific factors to be aware of. First, pay attention to details that might help you in deciding the best way to handle the situation, examples include:
- Is the assailant drunk or high? If he/she is intoxicated, he/she may be less likely to respond to either assertiveness or physical self-defense techniques.
- Is the assailant someone you know? Sometimes, if you know the assailant, it may be easier to defuse the situation using verbal defense skills and assertiveness. However, using physical self-defense techniques may be necessary to use.
- Is the assailant considerably bigger or stronger than you? If he/she is, it may be harder to defend yourself physically and you may need to rely more upon the two most important skills, running and yelling.
Identification Finally, you may want to pay attention to details about the assailant that will help you describe him/her to the police, if you choose to contact them. If you know the assailant, this is obviously easier, as you may be able to give the police his/her name, address, or phone number. If you do not know the assailant, however, you will have to pay attention to physical details. The rule for describing an assailant is to go from general to specific and to try to note those details that the assailant cannot easily change. For example, height and weight are not easily changed and are larger details. Then go on to note race or ethnicity, followed by eye and hair color. Any distinguishing characteristics, such as tattoos, scars, moles, odd facial characteristics, piercings, or unique jewelry are also useful. Clothing should be the one of the last characteristics to note, as it can be changed easily.
Yourself The third factor that will be present in an assault situation, and the only one you truly have control over, is yourself. It is important to remember that no one is to blame for a sexual assault except for the assailant – the survivor is never responsible for the assault. However, there are things that you can do to protect yourself and try to keep yourself safe. Unfortunately, there are no safety guarantees; you can only try to improve our chances of escaping an assault safely. Furthermore, if you do not take particular safety precautions, that does not mean that you deserved to be sexually assaulted. It is impossible to follow every safety tip all the time, and safety must be balanced with living a relatively free and unencumbered life. Given that, there are a number of areas in which awareness about yourself can help you to avoid or escape an assault. These include internal factors such as state of mind and level of intoxication, as well as external factors, such as how easily you can run in the clothes and shoes you are wearing. Other important factors include your verbal and physical self-defense skills, which will be further discussed below. When thinking about this third factor – yourself – there are two important areas to consider: Availability and Vulnerability.
- Availability simply refers to how accessible you are to an assailant. For example, if you are in a room alone with a date or partner, you are available to him/her. If you are in a deserted parking lot, you are available.
- Vulnerability has to do with more internal factors and how prepared you are to defend yourself. Vulnerability concerns physical, emotional, or mental disability and level of awareness.
- Injured people are vulnerable because it may be harder for them to fight back.
- Developmentally delayed individuals are vulnerable because they may lack the cognitive skills to defend themselves.
- People who are depressed, sick, or preoccupied are often vulnerable because they are less likely to pay attention to the environment around them.
- People who are drunk, high, or drugged (particularly with “rape drugs”, such as Rohypnol or GHB) are especially vulnerable because their judgment is impaired and they are not able to think clearly.
- People wearing tight clothing, high-heeled shoes, or who are burdened with bags or packages are vulnerable because it is harder for them to run away.
- Dates, spouses, and partners are also vulnerable because they generally do not expect their partner to attack them and are less likely to report the assault.
We are all vulnerable sometimes- everyone gets sick, has to walk to their car at night, or becomes preoccupied. The goal here is to try to minimize your availability and vulnerability as much as is reasonably possible.
Your feelings about sexual assault and self-defense It is also helpful if you pay attention to your own feelings about sexual assault and self-defense. If you are worried that you will freeze up and not be able to defend yourself in an assault situation, you might find it helpful to take a self-defense course and learn some skills. If you are a survivor of a previous sexual assault or sexual abuse, it may be helpful for you to talk to someone about your experiences and how they have affected your life. If you do know some self-defense skills, are you prepared to use them? Are there things you feel you just cannot do, even in your own defense? If so, learn some different skills – don’t try to make yourself do something you’re not comfortable with.
Possible signs of an impending assault Assailants, whether they are a stranger or someone you know, tend to “test the waters” before they actually begin the attack. A sign that you are being tested is when someone invades your personal space and keeps asking personal questions, even after you have asked him/her to leave you alone. They may try to touch you or get too close or ask questions or make comments that make you feel uncomfortable. Remember, if you feel unsafe, pay attention to your gut feelings. Don’t feel that you have to be nice or that you must be imagining things. If the person is truly innocent, they will understand. If they get offended when you ask them to leave you alone, to stop touching you or to move further away, then they are probably testing you. These are reasonable requests and reasonable people who are not trying to harm you will have no problem complying.
Assertiveness Assertiveness is very important at the beginning stage of an assault. Speak in a firm tone and tell the person what it is they are doing that bothers you, tell them to stop and give them a clear direction of what you’d like them to do instead. It is important to criticize the behavior, rather than the person, because it makes it possible for them to “save face” and leave you alone, without feeling that they must prove something. By being calm and firm you also make it clear that you are not angry and they have no reason to be angry, which can prevent escalation of the situation. Although it might be personally satisfying to yell at the other person or call them names, it is important not to, as this can cause the situation to escalate and put you in greater danger. Speaking firmly and audibly gives them a clear message and will also be heard by other people around you. This is a way for you to take control of the interaction, which is very important, as the other person is trying to take control away from you. An example might be to say, “I don’t like it that you’re touching me. Take your arm off of my shoulder and leave me alone.” A statement like this gives a very clear message about what they are doing that you don’t like and what you would like them to do instead.
Verbal Defense Sometimes assertiveness does not work and the assailant may proceed with the attack anyway, or they may skip the testing stage altogether and move immediately into an assault. At this point verbal defense is still one of your best resources. Yelling, combined with running, can be two of the most effective self-defense techniques available to you. Many people who do both of these things are able to escape an assault unharmed, and even doing just one can make it easier to get away. Yell whatever is most comfortable to you, but a good, strong “NO!” is often recommended. This serves several purposes.
- Yelling “NO!” sends a very clear message to the attacker that what they are doing is not okay.
- Yelling can frighten or startle the attacker. Most of the time, a rapist is not looking for a fight. They are looking for someone they can subdue easily – when you yell and run, you are telling them you are not that person.
- Being attacked, whether by a stranger or an acquaintance, is very frightening. When frightened or startled, most people respond by gasping and may feel frozen.
- Yelling “NO!” gets the air out of your lungs and starts you breathing again, which can help you to think more clearly and decide what to do.
- In some states, if the victim is not incapacitated by drugs, alcohol, sleep, or a physical or mental disability, the law states that they must say “No” or something similar for the incident to be considered a sexual assault (this condition is not required in California, however). Therefore, yelling “NO!” makes it clear to both the attacker and the law that the sexual advances were unwanted.
Physical Defense The best way to learn physical self-defense techniques is to take a class.
Campus Safety The safety techniques discussed above are just as applicable whether you are on campus or elsewhere, however, there are some specific issues to be considered when living, studying, attending classes, or working on campus.
- When you are living on campus you are sharing a living environment with a large number of people, all of who must take responsibility for community safety. This means that you should pay attention to and follow safety guidelines established by residential housing or campus apartments (link to http://www.orl.ucla.edu/security ). In particular, it is important to remember to lock doors, sign in guests, and report strange or unknown individuals to security.
- Many students have evening classes and walk around campus after dark. In order to increase your safety at those times you may find it helpful to use the Campus Escort Service or Evening Van Service (794-WALK), walk with friends, and be aware of where emergency phones are located around campus. For more information about the UCPD Escort Service and Evening Van Service, visit www.ucpd.ucla.edu.
- Many students and staff are in campus buildings after business hours, when there are few people around. If you are working or studying in an area with few people you might increase your safety if you shut and lock the door of your office or room, make sure you know where other people or phones are located, or move to an area that is more populated.
The physical and verbal skills used for protection from any attack are much the same; those discussed in the section on sexual assault will therefore be applicable to intimate partner violence. However, intimate partner violence is often a different situation, because the person who is attacking you is someone you love and trust, or have trusted. People in battering relationships are usually physically, sexually, and emotionally abused in a systematic and repetitive manner. Threats of future violence and threats to hurt the victim’s family, friends, children, or pets can make it harder to find ways to defend themselves. Additionally, it is more difficult to physically harm a loved one, which can make physical self-defense difficult. A fear of escalating a fight and increasing the violence directed towards them can also stand in the way of fighting back, though many people in violent relationships do fight back on a regular basis.
The best defense against intimate partner violence is to be alert to the signs of a violent relationship discussed in the section on intimate partner violencee. If you are concerned that your relationship may become violent, find someone to talk to, such as a counselor at The Counseling Center or a battered women’s shelter.
If you are already in a violent relationship, help from others may be your best resource. Battered women’s shelters, hotlines, and counselors can all help you in protecting your safety. The police can also provide protection through restraining orders and arresting the batterer. If you aren’t prepared to report your partner to the police, or to leave the relationship, you may find it helpful to pack a small bag with clothes, money, keys, and important documents and hide it in your house or car. If your partner becomes violent and you fear for your safety, this bag can make it easier to leave temporarily – you can find a safe place to stay and have necessary items with you. A Personalized Safety Plan, which you can develop with the help of a counselor at The Counseling Center, or a battered women’s shelter, can also be extremely useful.
Defense from intimate partner violence is very different from defense from a one-time sexual assault. It is harder to leave a partner, especially if you live with him/her, than it is to escape from a stranger or even an acquaintance or date. In this situation, you will probably need to rely on others and available resources to help you protect your safety.