On June 3rd, 2016, Global News BC aired a report about a sexual assault that took place on the Skytrain the previous day. As part of their story, they reached out to us for some self-defense advice for women who might find themselves in a similar situation.
A news story isn’t the best venue for comprehensive advice, and what was shown is a small fraction of the suggestions we have for anyone dealing with a predator in a public or semi-public space like a SkyTrain, bus, or bar.
These kinds of situations are very difficult because they put you in a middle ground between being safe, and being in grave enough danger that you need to fight for your life. The majority of self-defense training teaches you how to seriously injure someone who wants to kill, maim, or rape you. You learn to gouge eyes, crush throats, kick in knees and groins, and otherwise incapacitate a violent assailant. These skills absolutely have a place (we teach them too!), but they’re of little use in a situation that hasn’t reached the point of lethal violence. If your only choice when you feel threatened is to either do nothing, or escalate to a very high level of violence, you’re going to feel paralyzed in the majority of cases you actually experience.
The first thing to know is that you have a right to act. We’re often socialized to downplay discomfort, or not to trust our instincts when they tell us that we’re in danger. If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t try to talk yourself out of it or wait for the feeling to pass. Listen to that feeling, and take whatever action will make you feel safer. Here are some things you can do:
- Leave the Area: if someone nearby is making you feel unsafe but hasn’t made contact or blocked the exit, or if the space you’re in has an atmosphere that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, get out. Once you’re away from the threat, you can assess what it was that made you feel unsafe, and decide if you need to follow up.
- Contact Help: making a phone call or pressing the emergency stop on a train may draw more attention than you’re comfortable with if you’re dealing with a predator in close proximity. Texting someone you trust is a much subtler action – especially on transit or in another context where people regularly read and browse on their phones – and some police services have text lines that you can use to access emergency support. In Vancouver, the Transit Police operate a line at 877-777. Contacting external help is also a great follow-up after you’ve left an unsafe situation, and can includes speaking in person to a security guard, bouncer, bartender, or other authority figure.
- Speak Up: predators who target people in public and semi-public spaces often rely on social pressure to keep their targets from reacting. Many people, especially women, are socialized not to “make a fuss” in public, and there’s the very real fear that shouting at an assailant will only turn them violent. If someone is touching you (or another person) or doing something else unacceptable, you can give them a clear, direct command such as, “Take your hand off my thigh” or “Stop touching her back.” You don’t need to yell – just speak loudly and clearly enough that anyone within normal conversation range will hear your words, and make a statement rather than a request. This turns that social pressure against the predator by drawing attention to exactly what they’re doing, and alerting any bystanders to what’s happening.
- Add Physical Reinforcement: if they do not respond to your commands, you can add some pain compliance techniques. All of these are simple actions with a low risk of injury to either party, and a relatively low risk of escalating to more serious violence. They will, however, hurt enough to trigger a flinch reaction that shifts the predator’s body away from you. Give the command again, and also do one of the following:
- Fingernail or thumbnail: place your own fingernail at the base of their thumbnail or fingernail at a 90-degree angle to their nail surface. Press down strongly (shown at 01:54 of the video).
- Fingers: pry their fingers backwards or apart, squeeze a bent finger in one hand, or squeeze two or more fingers together. Prying one or two fingers backwards is particularly useful for removing someone’s unwanted hand from your body (shown at 01:39 of the video).
- Ribs, armpit, or side: Dig a single knuckle into the base of the armpit, between their ribs, or into the side of their thigh. This will cause a sharp pain and flinch away from the pressure, and can let you create space between yourself and them.
The above list gives you a few tools that are appropriate for the kinds of dangerous encounters that don’t call for a lethal response. It’s not exhaustive, and you should always choose the course of action that makes you feel safest (physically and emotionally) in a given situation. Trust your instincts, reassess what’s going on around you regularly to stay aware of threats or possibilities for help, and use whatever tools you can to get home safe.
If you haven’t already done so, taking a comprehensive self-defense course will give you even more tools for dealing with difficult situations, and will let you practice applying them in safe environment. If you’re interested in learning more from Valkyrie WMAA, visit our calendar or workshops page for upcoming courses, or contact us to arrange for private or semi-private lessons.