By Nicole Snell, CEO of Girls Fight Back
Long before I took my first self-defense class and years before I was traveling the world speaking to audiences on personal safety, I, like many other women, was on the receiving end of an abundance of unsolicited and false self-defense advice. I was exposed to messages early in my life that listed the things I was required to do, like being vigilant 24/7 in order to be safe, and anything less than perfect awareness meant that whatever crime happened to me was my fault. These societal messages tried to assert that because I was a woman, that meant I was weak and helpless and therefore needed to limit my movements and rely on others who were stronger than me to protect me from all the dangerous men in the world. There were apparently certain things I was never allowed to do, like walk by myself or travel solo or go out at night alone or wear high heels, because those types of things would cause an attack to happen and it would be my fault if it did.
These dis-empowering myths and messages are false. Most of the advice I received about my safety growing up was false. And even though I am now an expert in my field regarding self-defense, violence prevention and personal safety, I still hear these messages or variations thereof uttered to me by people who are convinced those fallacies are correct. The myths have become ingrained in our society and I am here to deconstruct and destroy some of them today. Buckle up!
Let me make it clear that women (cis/trans/nonbinary/nonconforming) are not helpless or weak. We do not need to rely on others to save us or protect us. We are never to blame if a crime happens to us because the only person responsible for a crime is the criminal. We do not have to live a life limited by a list of “don’ts” in order to feel safe or avoid danger. We are fully capable of defending ourselves. Once we own these facts, we can start to understand just how powerful and dangerous (yes, dangerous!) we truly are and how capable our bodies are at keeping us safe.
Today I’m going to break down 5 common self-defense myths with the goal of helping you feel empowered through this knowledge. The more of us that are out there fighting back against myths and misinformation, the stronger we are together and the safer we will be!
MYTH #1: Women (especially petite women) are incapable of defending themselves
100% false! Women of any size are fully capable of defending themselves. Our body is full of weapons that we were born with and can wield at any time we need to in order to defend ourselves. Take a look at your body right now and identify your natural weapons. We are worth fighting for!
This myth is often rooted in sexist notions about physicality differences between the sexes. It assumes that if a woman is smaller than her assailant (which according to DOJ statistics is a man the majority of the time) then there must be nothing she can do. I read an article on a major news site a few months ago that stated “the average women can’t defend herself against the average man.” I jumped up and yelled after I read that sentence because not only was the statement false but it perpetuates the myth that women are helpless. I can’t think of a less empowering sentence someone could write.
Let’s talk facts. The average assailant is male, 5’8”- 5’9”, and ~180lbs (according to the DOJ and UCR). And even if there is a significant height or body size difference between the assailant and their target, the assailant is going to have vulnerable spots on their body that we can strike with the strong weapons on our body. This excerpt from a journal article illustrates this point nicely:
“Still the belief persists, even among feminists, that those with more physical strength and institutional power (e.g., men) will always be able to overpower those with less (e.g., women). This narrative is so deeply rooted in our culture that it can be difficult to see. Yet those of us who teach and practice ESD [Empowerment Self-Defense] know that this is a fallacy—that, no matter a man’s strength, he has vulnerable targets on his body. And that no matter a woman’s frailty, she has strong natural weapons. Those strong natural weapons, when applied to the vulnerable targets, can have devastating effects for the would-be assailant. We know it because people tell us about it, over and over again. Even untrained, women are capable of defending themselves. - Empowerment, social justice and feminist self-defense, Jones & Mattingly, Journal of Women and Social Work 2016, Vol. 31(2) 263-270 a The Author(s) 2016
MYTH #2: Yell “Fire” instead of “Help”
Check out my latest Outdoor Defense episode where I talk about this in more detail!
This myth started because it was assumed that bystanders were less likely to come to your aid if you yelled “help” because they didn’t want to get involved in a potential problem. So, the idea was hatched to yell “fire” instead of “help” because bystanders would be more likely to respond if they thought it was a fire vs. an assault or domestic violence situation.
Regardless of how it started, this myth is also false and it is perpetuated today. Unless you need the fire department, yelling “fire” isn’t going to bring you the right kind of help.
Instead of yelling “fire” it absolutely OK and advisable to yell “I need help!” In my work with IMPACT Personal Safety, we teach a phrase to yell when you need help from bystanders or want to scare off an assailant by causing a scene. You yell, “I don’t know this person! I need help! They are wearing…” and then you describe what they are wearing and their physical characteristics. Using your voice to yell information about what you need and what the assailant looks like can scare them away and also get ear witnesses primed to be able to help identify the assailant if the police are involved.
MYTH #3: Carry your keys between your fingers like wolverine.
I did an entire episode of my series Outdoor Defense on this myth. You can watch the episode here, but I will sum it up. Please stop doing this! Do NOT carry your keys between your fingers like wolverine.
First, if you are carrying your keys in this manner, the only way you’ll be able to use them is if you are extremely close to your assailant- and that’s a place you don’t want to be if you can help it! There are many other tactics you can use to manage your safety and de-escalate tensions in moments where you are feeling fear that are more effective at avoiding a potential confrontation.
Second, holding your keys in this manner means that the only way you can strike with the keys is with a punch. I do not teach punching in my self-defense sessions because it is highly likely that punching will break bones in your hand. Punching takes skill to do it correctly without injury to yourself. Even trained fighters still wrap their hands and wear gloves and sometimes still break their hands. Unless you are trained in punching (and sometimes even then) the odds are high that you could injure yourself. That’s why I teach the Palm Strike. Open hands reduce the risk of injuring yourself while striking. And you can’t do a palm strike with your keys in between your fingers.
Thirdly, where do you think those keys are going to go if you do make contact with someone? You got it, those keys are going to splay out, slide back and cut into your hand, your tendons, your fingers and cause massive amounts of pain and bleeding. You are more likely to seriously injure yourself vs. the other person with your keys between your fingers.
Lastly, society and urban legend have been keeping this myth alive and telling women to hold their keys like this (as a weapon) as a means to allay their fears. But this is a false sense of security. In a dangerous situation, your body releases adrenaline which affects your body in many ways including: reduced logic, reduced reason and reduced fine motor skills. That means that unless you have prior training with whatever weapon or tool you are bringing into the situation, it is likely not going to respond in the way you think or hope it will. How your body responds when you’re calm vs. when you’re adrenalized is night and day.
Instead of relying on something external with all your safety and security, I suggest that you rely on your mind and your body because those are the strongest tools you have.
MYTH #4: If someone is making you uncomfortable, don’t look them in the eyes.
Eye contact is a confident gesture and can be a deterrent to someone who has malicious intent. It’s ok to look at people especially if your intuition has been sparked. This myth stems from the fear that if you look at someone who is making you uncomfortable that it will be seen as an invitation for them to engage with you or that your eye contact will escalate the situation.
You cannot turn someone into an attacker by making eye contact or setting a boundary.
Assailants are often looking for those they consider to be vulnerable, accessible, distracted, or lacking/low credibility. Looking at someone (not glaring or staring) for just a second or two lets them know that you see them and exudes confidence…even if you’re not feeling confident in the moment.
MYTH #5: Pretend to be on your phone if you feel unsafe/uncomfortable.
This one has become more prevalent since our society is now so dependent on our phones. However, it is just as false as the others and can be dangerous as well. Watch my Outdoor Defense Episode on this topic here.
Your awareness and intuition are two of the most valuable tools you have in managing your safety. If you take out your phone and either pretend to be on it, or actually call someone, you have just reduced your awareness of your surroundings. You are now splitting your awareness between a potential threat that should have 100% of your attention, and your small device. You’ve also taken away several of your weapons: your hand, fingers and elbow on the arm that is holding the phone.
Assailants are not often deterred when someone pretends to be on their phone or actually does make a phone call because either of those things means you are now distracted and likely scared. They also know that the person on the other end of the line isn’t physically there right now to help. Think about it - if you called someone, how many minutes or miles away are they? As my colleague Dani Joy said so succinctly, “how effective can the person on the other line be with your safety?”
Instead of going to your phone, you can turn, face and address the person who is making you uncomfortable if you cannot get to safety. Face them directly, make eye contact and use your verbal skills if you feel comfortable doing so. You could say, “It seems like you’re following me. Stop it.” Or, “Hi, is there something you need help with?” Either one of those things are strategies to directly address a potential assailant and deter them from choosing you as a target. Because now they aren’t following behind someone who is acting scared, not paying attention or making themselves small. Now they are dealing with someone who is aware of them and facing them. Now the encounter is on more equal ground. Instead of them lurking around or being behind you, now you are squared off to them and can employ tactics to avoid a confrontation. Confidence, awareness, and strong body language are all marvelous deterrents.
I hope that I’ve helped you understand why these myths need to be debunked and how fighting back against misinformation makes us more powerful at handling our own safety. Oftentimes, these myths have the opposite effect than what they were most likely intending, and cause us to feel limited, restricted, and even more fearful about our safety.
Self-defense is more than the physical techniques and it encompasses all the things we do on a daily basis to keep ourselves safe. There is nothing that will guarantee that we won’t ever have to face danger, but self-defense gives us choices in how to respond to various situations and offer us tools for our mental and physical toolbox. It’s not about what you should do, it’s about what you can do.
We are all unique individuals and that is why I don’t believe in giving static rules to follow or lists to adhere to. I believe in education and empowerment so that we can each choose what will work best for our lives and our unique situations. Self-defense is about opening up your world and empowering you to live limitlessly, instead of making your world small while living in fear. Understanding how to use your voice and body to protect yourself can change how you walk through the world and open up access to activities, relationships, travel and peace of mind.
You are worth fighting for!
This blog first appeared on A Case For Women on 9/7/21: