Walking Magazine – October 1993

Walking Without Fear

walking magazineBy Usha Lee McFarling
Photographs by Roswell Angier

The Wisdom of the Street Has Changed: If Your Life Is in Danger, Fight Back. Be Alert. Prepared. Be Fierce.

heel palmIn a small room in Boston, 18 women are using full force to fend off “model muggers” – men dressed in foam covered helmets and 50 pounds of padding to protect them from the blows. “No!” yells a slight, brown-haired woman as she shoves the heel of her palm into the pseudo-mugger’s face, then knees him in the groin. He crumbles, and she knees him in the head. He is definitely down. But then, Freddy Kreuger style, he’s up again. One after another, the women take turns fighting off the mugger. Heel of hand! Knee! Knee! Model Mugging classes, which also go under the names Impact and Fight Back, are just one example of the many self-defense programs sprouting up in urban and suburban America, a grassroots response to violence on the streets. Many walkers feel concerned about personal safety because they are often out alone and on foot, sometimes at odd hours. The good news is that walkers are responding to this problem by arming themselves with good mental preparation and self-defense knowledge.

Three years ago, powerwalker Patricia Pizer took a Model Mugging class in Boston because she was tired of the nagging fears she felt every time she walked alone. Learning how to defend herself against a would-be attacker was, in Pizer’s words, “an extremely powerful experience.” Since taking the class, the 28-year-old has trekked in Nepal, camped alone in Australia, and chased off a man she found beating up a woman near her apartment. “Knowing you can take care of yourself if something happens is a very freeing feeling,” she says.

confronted while walkingChampionship walker and trainer Mataji Graham was attacked in Albuquerque last summer, but she refuses to give up her regimen out of fear of being assaulted. Graham was walking alone one day when a man grabbed her from behind and tried to push her down. She picked up a rock and started yelling. The man ran off, leaving the 40-year-old Graham shaken, but unhurt. “I was naive,” says Graham. “Now, I always carry my pepper spray, I don’t go out when it’s dark, and I don’t go out before dawn. I’m always with a partner. And I walk with my 180-pound Great Dane.” But give up walking? Never. “If you want to work out, you figure out a way to do it,” Graham says.

For years women were told not to fight back, that they were more likely to be injured if they did. Experts now say that while you should never fight for material goods – a purse or watch – when you are in danger, fighting back could be the only way to save your life. Consider the following statistics, offered by North Carolina police officer and self-defense expert Irwin Carmichael at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in June:

  • A violent crime occurs in the United States every 17 seconds;
  • An aggravated assault occurs every 33 seconds;
  • A robbery is committed every 55 seconds;
  • A murder is committed every 21 minutes;
  • 19 women are raped each hour by strangers.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO? Detective J.J. Bittenbinder is a 16-year veteran of the Chicago police department’s violent crime unit and a personal safety expert who has interviewed more than a thousand women who have been raped. He poses this question: If someone came up behind you while you were out walking and grabbed your neck or pushed you to the ground, do you know what you would do?

attack from behind

Students master the art of self- defense in this Model Mugging class in Boston. Staying safe on the streets involves “ruthless attention to reality.”

Sure, you’re aware there can be danger on streets and walking trails, but experts say the vast majority of women have no idea how they would respond to an actual threat. That lack of preparation can be tragically costly.

“The guy knows what he’s going to do, what he’s going to say. She doesn’t know anything,” says Bittenbinder. “If one’s prepared and the other isn’t, who’s going to win? Each woman has to have a plan.” If you’re intimidated by the idea of defending yourself, or if you think you’re too weak or too old, think again. Self-defense does not require years of martial arts training. You don’t have to overpower your assailant. You simply have to be alert and prepared. “Your brain is your best self-defense weapon,” says Patricia Occhiuzzo Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women and a black belt in karate. “Self-defense is about flexibility for women,” says Giggans. “You have to be in charge.” And you don`t have to be paranoid. Turn your anxiety into awareness, and you immediately become a tougher target.

“Being afraid does not mean being helpless,” says Melissa Soalt, a psychotherapist who founded the Model Mugging of Boston program after she was assaulted in 1986. “Self-defense is ruthless attention to reality.”

heel palm strike to faceTo prepare for that reality, follow these tips each time you walk. Although self-defense is an important consideration for men, we focus here on women because of their greater vulnerability to rape and other violent assaults.

Walk safely. Walk with a confident air that says, “I’m tough.” Walk with the attitude that no one has the right to attack you. Walk briskly. Keep your head up and shoulders back. Don’t look at your feet, Try not to carry heavy bags, books, or anything that could encumber you if you need to run.

Know your route. Drive a new route in your car before you walk it. Are there places to go for help? Is it a well-traveled area? Are there alleys, bushes, or dark doorways where someone could lurk? If you’ll be walking at night, is the area sufficiently lighted? Where would you run if someone was following you in a car? Know the location of a public phone, and carry change or a calling-card number with you.

If possible, pair up. Criminals don’t like witnesses. A partner could walk with you, bike alongside you, or follow in a car. If you do walk alone, tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Large dogs can serve as a deterrent, but you can’t rely on a dog that’s not a trained attack dog. Don’t take a new route with a stranger-the fact that he’s in exercise clothes doesn’t mean he couldn’t be dangerous.

Be aware. Stay alert to everything around you – other walkers, bikers, cars. But don’t be a bundle of nerves. Use your awareness to take in the birds, the breeze, the colors in the sky. If you daydream, at least try not to look like you’re daydreaming. Listen to your instincts. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up, it’s a warning.

bear hug attack from behindDon’t wear headphones. Headphones should be reserved for truly safe areas – If there is such a thing. The music or news flowing from those headphones into your ears blocks out one of your most important self-defense senses. You could lose a three to four yard head start away from an assailant by not hearing his approaching footsteps. If you must wear headphones, rely doubly on your eyes. Casually move your head from side to side. Look around you and be extra alert.

Make eye contact. Many women look down or away when they pass a man, but downcast eyes are a sign of weak- ness. When you pass someone, sweep your eyes across his face, then look past him. Don’t stare, don’t lock eyes, don’t smile, and don’t look down. Just let him know you’ve noticed him.

Keep your distance. Keep yourself at a 2 1/2 – arms length distance so you can see if he makes any sudden moves with his arms or legs, but don’t shrink back automatically. Stand steady, with your feet apart. Say “Can I help you?” in a calm, firm voice, If you are giving directions, don’t become distracted and don’t let your attention stray from the approaching person’s body.

Don’t waste a second. Respond immediately to any danger, If you hear steps behind you, turn around quickly. The few seconds of warning could keep someone from leaping to- ward you. If you suspect someone means you harm, don’t be afraid to yell, be rude, and make a scene. Most women who avoid being attacked fight off their assailants in the first moments of the attack. According to Carmichael, the only woman who got away from serial killer Ted Bundy was also the one who fought back. Your sudden response could throw an attacker off guard. Don’t use a lot of excess motion; that shows your vulnerability. “The bad guys have majored in finding windows of opportunity,” says Model Mugging’s Soalt. “They sniff out fear.”

elbow to faceJust say no. If someone lunges toward or grabs you, say “No!” in a firm, low voice. Use the voice you would use in disciplining a dog. Don’t smile or laugh. Give a direct order that he can follow. Say “Turn around and leave me alone!” or “Keep going, buddy!” Don’t cry, beg, panic, or plead. Studies show weaker responses don’t deter criminals and may actually increase the severity of an assault.

Don’t yell “Help!” Yell “Fire!” instead. Bystanders are more likely to tune out the word help or think you’re joking. Everyone looks for a fire.

Don’t escalate the situation. Long, deep breaths will keep you calm and help fight panic. If someone is screaming at you, stay calm. Screaming back could antagonize him.

Avoid cars. Many assailants use the ploy of asking for directions to lure you closer to their cars. Always keep your distance so you cannot be pulled inside. If you feel uncomfortable giving directions, say no and keep walking. If the driver follows you, run. Bittenbinder, noting that serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer lured their victims into cars, advises running from threatening cars, even if the driver is pointing a gun at you. Crime experts say the likelihood of being hit when shot by someone in a car is much lower than the chance of being killed once you have been abducted.

If someone grabs you, run. Or use chemical spray. If someone grabs your shirt, pull it over your head and run away. Use an open palm to strike at the assailant’s nose. The heel of your hand makes a good weapon, and you’re not as likely to break bones in your hand as you are when using a fist. If someone grabs you from the rear, elbow him sharply in the face. Turn and knee him in the groin or head. If you are knocked to the ground, kick. Legs are the strongest part of a woman’s body. Kicking while lying on the ground on your side can be very effective. Aim for vulnerable spots down the center line of the attacker’s body: the groin, nose, eyes, and knees. Stomp on the instep of his foot. Don’t get on your knees; that makes you vulnerable to being choked.

fight back knee to groinChoose your battles. How do you know when, or whether, you should fight back? That decision is a personal one, differing for each woman and each situation. However, several new studies involving women who have been the targets of rape found that women who fought back are more likely to avoid rape and no more likely to be physically injured.

Because of the possibility of HIV infection, “women now risk death by not resisting rape,” says Sarah Ullman, a health psychologist and assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ullman analyzed 274 rapes and found that the severity of physical injury suffered depended on how violent the assailant was, not on whether the woman fought back.

“You have to be in a position to choose whether to fight back physically or not,” says Giggans. The best way to give yourself that option, she says, is to take a self-defense course. To find one, contact a rape crisis center or your local police department’s crime prevention unit or look in the Yellow Pages under “Karate and other Martial Arts Instruction.” Model Mugging classes are offered in 30 cities and cost between $400 and $600 for 25 hours of training. Before signing up for a class, you should ask to observe one to see if it’s right for you. Look for classes that provide psychological support as well as full-force physical training.

But the most important thing you need to learn in such a class, says Soalt, isn’t practical fighting tactics, but how to prepare yourself mentally to attack back – a trait that can be extremely difficult for women to acquire. “Cultural conditioning tells women not to fight back, make a scene, or be loud,” Soalt says. “But you can be a loving person and be damn fierce when you need to be.”

Self Defense Devices 101

Criminals aren’t looking for trouble. If they see you holding a can of mace in your hand or notice a personal alarm tucked in your waistband, they’ll likely pick an easier target.

But self-defense experts say you can’t rely solely on any device. If you decide to use one, you should still use common sense and stay out of areas that don’t feel safe. And all devices are useless unless you know how to use them and keep them handy and visible. “Before an animal bites you, it shows its teeth; it warns,” says Chicago Detective J.J. Bittenbinder. “Display the weapons of aggression so he can see you’re tough.”

ALARMS are easy to use and cannot be turned against you. Most are activated by pushing a button or by pulling out a pin. The ear-splitting shriek could startle your assailant and give you time to flee. But an alarm won’t help you in a secluded area, and in this world of too many car alarms, a passerby might ignore the noise.

CHEMICAL SPRAYS cause no permanent damage but can disable an attacker and give you time to flee. They can be sprayed several feet, allowing you to keep a distance. Practice using chemical sprays in your backyard – be sure you spray downwind. The sprays most experts recommend are combinations of tear gas, which causes uncontrollable tearing; pepper spray, which irritates the skin and eyes; and dye that temporarily marks an assailant. But chemical spray can be used against you, or it could blow into your face in a heavy wind. Tear gas alone won’t work on drugged or drunken attackers – pepper will (inaccurate – not always). The legality of chemical sprays varies from state to state. Contact your local police department or state attorney general’s office for more information.

Usha Lee Mcfarling is a freelance medical writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.


Original article in Walking Magazine, October 1993 – pages 54 to 58; download file size is 3.95 MB

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