Imagine you're walking to your car after a late-night dinner with friends when you notice someone suspiciously following you. It's moments like these when you want to know exactly what to do to defend yourself. But unfortunately, there's a lot of misinformation on self-defense methods.
And that's not just frustrating, it can be harmful or even deadly. Because this isn’t a video game, where if you make a wrong move you lose. The stakes are life and death.
As a self-defense instructor for the past 16 years, I've had people come in with all kinds of false information. So here’s a list of some of the most common misconceptions about defending against an attack and what you need to know to protect yourself.
1. Scream “fire” instead of “rape.”
The thinking behind this is that people are more likely to respond if they hear someone scream “fire.” But the problem isn’t with the word or words you’re screaming, but rather with the bystander effect: People are, unfortunately, less likely to intervene or do something than we think.
If you’re able to use your voice at all (people tend to freeze up and not make a sound), verbalize what’s actually going on to ward off your attacker and show that you won't back down without a fight. For example, “Get off me!” “Leave Me Alone!” or “Stop!" Even screaming at top of your lungs is better than freezing up or trying to remember specific words to scream when fighting for your life.
2. Avoid eye contact.
The thought here is that if you don’t acknowledge someone, you won’t egg them on. But predators look for someone who’s going to give them what they want without putting up a fight. By avoiding eye contact, your nonverbal cues tell the attacker that you’re afraid of confrontation and will probably not put up much of a fight.
Instead, hold eye contact for long enough to show that you have both acknowledged that the person is present and that you’re not afraid of meeting their gaze.
3. Ponytails make you vulnerable to attack.
Previous wisdom held that ponytails (or pigtails or braids) were easier to grab and therefore made it easier for someone to attack you. But an attacker will be able to grab your hair just as easily if it’s not in a ponytail. An attacker who’s chosen you as his victim will find a way to grab something, whether it is your clothes or your arm.
So stop worrying about whether your hairstyle is an invitation to be attacked — you’re not responsible for anyone else’s actions. Instead, spend some time learning basic, realistic self-defense in order to be able to fight back, regardless of how the attacker grabs you.
4. Slap your attacker over the ear.
Some people espouse that delivering a two-handed cupped clap to an attacker directly over the ears will send a blast of air down their ear canal and stun them by throwing off their equilibrium or bursting their eardrums.
Is that possible? Sure. Is it easy? Definitely not. You not only have to be extremely accurate, but incredibly forceful too, meaning the average person is unlikely to be successful with this tactic. What you can do is learn to strike with force and hit vulnerable areas, such as the groin, nose and eyes.
5. Carry pepper spray in your purse as a first line of defense.
First off, depending on what state you reside in, it could be illegal to carry or use pepper spray. (Check here for restrictions.) But even if it is legal where you reside, it might not make a difference. Why? Because if the attacker is within 21 feet of you, statistics show that you’re very unlikely to be fast enough to dig into your purse and get your pepper spray (or other weapon) out before the attacker is on top of you.
This again is why it’s so important to learn how to strike without any weapons. Punches, kicks, knees, elbows, head-butts — even biting — are all great weapons, so that you can fend off an attacker and potentially create enough space so that you have the time to grab and use your pepper spray.
6. Kick an attacker’s shin.
If you’ve ever bumped into something with your shin, you know it can hurt. Same goes for dropping something on your foot. But could you have continued fighting if you had to? Probably.
With adrenaline pumping through the body, an individual feels less pain, and chances are slim that an attacker will stop their assault because of a kick to the shin or stomp on the foot. Very few fights end with a single strike, so you have to be mentally ready and able to throw a barrage of combatives — punch, kick, jab, poke — repeatedly until you can get away.
7. Throw your purse and run away.
First off, this tactic assumes that you’ll react right away, remember exactly what to do under stress and that the attacker gives you enough time to reach for your valuables. Second, it assumes that your valuables are what the assailant is after. If it’s a sexual attack, the perpetrator couldn’t care less about your valuables. Running away also assumes that you’re a faster runner than the attacker.
So when should you run, and when should you fight? If you have any chance to get away, do it. However, since most attacks happen when you least expect them, the fight-or-flight options aren’t always all that evident. Perhaps you need to throw a few punches or kicks so that you can get into your car and lock the doors before the assailant can recover.
8. Just go along with a rape.
If you’re being raped, some advice says that you should pretend to enjoy it. But a predator is a sociopath, meaning he or she doesn’t care what you’re feeling. Rape isn’t about having enjoyable sex. It’s an act of violence.
So in order to defend yourself, you have to learn how to strike. You need to learn how to strike fast, hard and accurately — and, just as with any other aspect of life, you need to practice in order to be good at it.
What Can You Do?
The best way to prepare yourself for an attack is to take self-defense lessons. You need to practice a lot and frequently, because not only will you need to have learned the skill set, but you’ll also need to be able to execute while your stress levels are through the roof.
Here’s the good news, though: You can learn to defend yourself. You can learn to throw hard, fast and devastating strikes, even under high stress. You just have to find the right training location with skilled and experienced coaches.
How do you do that? There are a lot of things you should look for when finding the right gym. First and foremost, you want a gym that you feel comfortable at (listen to your gut!) — a gym that puts safety, cleanliness and ethics above all.
At the same time, you want credible, experienced instructors. If you're looking for self defense, try to see if they offer Krav Maga in your area. MMA and boxing/kickboxing gyms would be second the third choices, respectively. This way, you can get realistic training and learn how to both strike and defend strikes and attacks realistically.
Before you commit, go to their website and read the instructors' bios online (or track them down on their own site). You can also check reviews to see what people have to say about the gym and instructors. And don't be afraid to ask the gym owner or instructors questions about their certifications and the classes they offer.