Women’s Health Adviser – 1986

Street Smarts

By Douglas Barasch. Photography by Barnaby Hall

YOU HOPE IT WILL never happen to you. Yet, according to recent statistics, one in four Americans experiences a mugging, assault, rape, robbery, burglary, or theft in the course of a year. Women are particularly vulnerable.

women health advisorBut there are ways to reduce your risk of being attacked, ranging from good old-fashioned street savvy to new schools for self-defense designed specifically for women. And if you are attacked, plenty of support and counseling services are available. Here’s some expert advice on increasing your street smarts.


RESISTING ATTACK MAY sound like a good idea, but there are two schools of thought on whether to struggle. Most experts now agree that learning a form of self-defense — using a combination of physical, verbal, and psychological techniques — can be helpful. Some studies have shown that various forms of resistance are effective in deterring a crime and that women who have taken self-defense courses are more likely to avoid being the victim of a rape attempt, for example, than those who haven’t.

But no method of protection is foolproof. Even proponents of self- defense argue that any technique used improperly can backfire, leading to more harm rather than less. “We’re not against women using or taking self-defense,” says Officer Jim Cypert of the Los Angeles Police Department Administrative Crime Prevention Unit. “But we are against women lulling themselves into a false sense of security as a result of a few weeks of self-defense training.”

Knowing when to fight back is difficult. If someone grabs at your purse and has a knife, most experts agree you should hand over the purse. But what if an assailant isn’t just after your money — he’s after you. Is it wise to struggle?

“I wish it were black and white,” says Don Fuselier, a captain in the Carmel, California Police Department and a consultant on sexual assault investigations to the California Department of Justice. “It’s a choice you have to make based on the totality of circumstances.” Factors to consider include where the attack takes place, whether the assailant exhibits anger, hostility, or violent tendencies (which you may not always have time to properly assess), and what you are prepared to do to defend yourself.


WOMEN WHO DO OPT for self-defense are most likely to escape attack if they have a repertoire of responses available to them, which they feel comfortable using, according to psychologist Mary Harvey, Ph.D., director of the Victims of Violence Program at Cambridge Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Verbal resistance is one option. Experts suggest screaming, “Help! Police!” or “Rape!” Yelling something like “Don’t come near me” at your assailant in a way that conveys strength and confidence may show him you are not an easy victim.

Another technique that may deter an assailant: persuasion. Although the types of verbal tactics to use vary with each situation, supervisory special agent Robert Hazel- wood, an instructor at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, recommends saying something to calm the attacker down. “It’s important not to antagonize the offender or say something that threatens his ego,” cautions Hazelwood. Other experts suggest attempting to negotiate: “If you put that knife down, I’ll cooperate.”

Even if it doesn’t dissuade an attacker, talking may distract him, giving you the opportunity to escape or strike back. But keep in mind that there are different types of assailants, and only you can judge what course to take in a specific situation. Although screaming or yelling may scare one attacker away, another might only become more aggressive. Other self-defense techniques recommended by law enforcement experts:

  • Running or trying to escape — unless there’s nowhere to go or you’re in an isolated area.
  • Making noise with a device such as a small whistle or siren.
  • Using the pretext of being pregnant, ill, or having a venereal disease in order to deter a rapist by appealing to his humanity or repelling him.
  • Martial arts tactics such as those taught in judo or karate.



ALTHOUGH THERE ARE no guarantees of its effectiveness, a self-defense training program can help prepare you in case of an attack. One such program designed especially for women is Model Mugging International, founded by martial-arts expert Matt Thomas after he discovered that many of the traditional disciplines were ineffective in situations in which a woman might find herself.

During the course of the classes, pupils are “mugged” by teachers wearing padding, and trained to deliver knockout blows to their assailants by aiming for the most vulnerable points — the knees, groin, and head. To foil a mugger who sneaks up from behind, women are taught to strike, for example, with an elbow to the face. Women also learn how to fight from a reclining position, taking advantage of the strength of their legs and lower body (equal to a man’s upper body strength), in case of a rape attempt.

Still, fighting is considered the last line of defense. Women are encouraged first to set verbal and psychological boundaries, by telling a potential assailant, for example, “Don’t come any closer.” If the assailant continues to approach, a woman can clearly see that her boundaries have been violated and may then choose physical resistance.

The program’s results are impressive. In one survey of 39 women reported attacked, 37 deterred their assailants either physically or verbally.

Contact Us for more information or to find a class near you or call 800-590-4687.

Model Mugging teaches Powerful Choices in Seattle.

Another program, Alternatives to Fear, is a Seattle-based rape prevention and self-defense program that trains women to understand the emotional components of an attack. The group’s fighting approach: “Pit your greatest strength against his greatest weakness,” says Py Bateman, executive director of the group. She recommends continuing to strike until you feel safe.

To find out about martial-arts and self-defense programs in your area, consult your Yellow Pages or local YWCA. Or contact Alternatives to Fear at 2811 E. Madison, Suite 208, Seattle, Washington 98112, 206-328-5347. Don’t enroll in any program without first checking the instructor’s credentials with a sexual assault agency near you and interviewing the instructor.

To find a program that best suits your needs, ask questions such as “Do the classes stress both physical and emotional aspects?”


ALTHOUGH YOU CAN never completely eliminate the risk of falling victim to a crime, there are precautions you can take to greatly reduce that risk. “Awareness is the underlying principle,” says Fuselier. Here, some tips from the experts:

Street Safety (Personal Safety)

  • Avoid walking alone at night.
  • Steer clear of alleys, vacant lots, and buildings.
  • Walk near the curb and away from shrubbery where an assailant could be hiding.
  • Be cautious when giving directions to lost drivers. Stay a few feet away from the vehicle. If the situation seems threatening, don’t respond, and walk in the opposite direction.
  • Don’t openly display your money, jewelry, or credit cards.
  • Be aware of who is behind you. Use store windows to look.
  • Don’t wear hats, hoods, or scarves that obscure your vision.
  • Make sure your body language doesn’t peg you as an easy victim. Be alert, keep your eyes up, and look straight ahead, not down. Walk briskly, taking full strides.
  • Avoid carrying so many packages that they limit your movement. This could interfere with your ability to react in a dangerous situation.

Car Caution (Vehicle Safety)

  • Make sure that your car is in good condition and that you have enough fuel before starting out. Let someone know where you’ll be.
  • Don’t drive home if you suspect you’re being followed; drive to a police station or the home of a friend, instead.
  • Keep your doors locked; assailants have been known to jump into cars stopped at a red signal.
  • Conceal your purse; never leave it in plain view on the front seat — even if you’re in the car.
  • Park in busy, well-lit areas. Be especially wary if there is a van parked next to your automobile; consider getting in from the side opposite the van.

Home Sweet Home (Home Safety)

  • List only your last name and initial on your mailbox if you live alone; do the same for your phone listing. Have a male friend record your answering-machine message.
  • Change the locks when you move into a new apartment or house; other people may still have copies of old keys.
  • Demand identification of a repairman or salesman before allowing him or her in. If you’re still suspicious, call the company to verify that someone with that name has been assigned to your area.
  • Make sure the entrance to your home is well-lit.
  • Don’t enter your house if it appears that your door or window has been forced open; leave immediately and call the police.


IF DESPITE ALL PRECAUTIONS, you find yourself the victim of a violent crime, know that as prepared as you are, there are times when the only sensible choice is to give in rather than risk your life. “As long as you survive, you’re the winner,” says Sherry Price, regional director of the National Victim Center in New York City.

But coping with what has happened can be difficult. According to Harvey there are certain emotions you, as a victim, can expect to feel: numbness; a sense of distance from your own life; loss of control, which includes feelings of helplessness and vulnerability; and a profound sense of violation.

A successful recovery requires coming to terms with the reality of the assault, convincing yourself that what happened isn’t your fault, and knowing that your worth hasn’t changed. But don’t feel that you have to go it alone. “Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness,” says Harvey. “Women can recover from the emotional impact of a crime very adequately with the help of their family, friends, and community-based resources such as rape crisis centers.”

If you’re unsure of whom to turn to, the following national organizations can help:

  • National Victim Center, 307 W. 7th St., Suite 1001, Fort Worth, Texas 76102, 817-877-3355. An advocacy group for victims’ rights, this organization works to ensure sensitive treatment from the criminal justice system and access to an adequate support system.
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, P.O. Box 15127,Washington, D.C. 20003, 800-333-SAFE or 202-293-8860. A network of shelters and support services for battered women.
  • National Organization for Victim Assistance, 717 D St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20014, 202-393-6682. A referral service.

Original article in Women’s Health Advisor, Spring 1986 – download file size is 2.34 MB

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