The truth of life is that we don’t get to pick when bad things happen. We don’t normally wake up and know that the events of the day will change our lives forever. All we can do is train our minds and body so that, if that day comes, we can be ready: We can be ready to identify (and potentially prevent) the threat before it happens; and we can be ready to even use force to defend ourselves when necessary.
While we may not realize it, our brain is in constant lookout for threats. We look for traffic before we cross the street, we avoid certain areas of town, we lock the doors at night, we become more vigilant in dark or unfamiliar areas, we react to unexpected sounds, we try to avoid suspicious looking individuals, etc.
However, this evolutionary awareness decreases when we are in familiar areas or with familiar people. We don’t clear our house or apartment before we walk in, we are naturally comfortable and feel safe around loved ones and even acquaintances, we fall asleep at the beach or in our backyard without a care in the world. We are also raised to “not talk to strangers” and not to wander into unfamiliar areas. But to feel safe with places and people you know. Being aware of this psychological phenomenon is extremely important while contemplating the topic of sexual assault.
While Hollywood movies make people think assaults are random attacks by strangers, approximately 80% of sexual assaults are committed by a known person. It forces us to face a terrible truth. The perpetrators are often known ordinary people, living ordinary lives, with normal jobs, and can even be married with families. They can be our neighbor, our friend, our doctor or psychologist, our teacher, our date. Horrifically, they can even be a relative! And this happens in all social and economic classes in society.
This, actually, makes sense when you think about it. The surprise of the unexpected assault by someone who is known and always seemed “normal” is exactly what allows the perpetrator to succeed. In movies, we can clearly see all the warning signs of the bad guy. We wonder how the other characters didn’t pick up on the obvious signals that this character was evil. In real life, it’s much harder to see the bad guys.
With known assailants, there is a cognitive dissonance that not only prevents us from anticipating the possibility of danger; in fact, it makes it difficult to understand that an assault is happening at all. If (by nature and nurture) I assume that people I trust are good, and good people don’t do evil things, surely this person I trust cannot be doing something evil to me. I can’t understand how someone who is supposed to love me and respect me could be hurting me. Even after the fact, this bewilderment prevents victims from reporting or evening talking about it.
In navigating society, we all try to have a clear understanding of what is good and what is bad, and just important, who is good, and who is bad (just think of the current political climate: “my people are good, the others are bad”). And, while it’s common to think of bad people as ugly monsters, this is completely false and a dangerous preconception. Demonizing offenders gives us a false sense of security and doesn’t allow us to recognize the perpetrators hiding in plain sight. We can’t rely on neat labels. Sometimes bad people do good things. Sometimes, good people do bad things. That is why we need to focus on learning warning signs to judge the behavior of those around us.
Here are just a few of the warning signs you should look for in your daily life.
- *Judge actions by the absolute value. Is what they are doing objectively right? Don’t let the feelings you have towards the offender mask your judgment. Yes, you might love them, but ask yourself if you would accept such behavior from another person?
- * Notice immediately when boundaries are crossed. Sometimes it happens fast, and sometimes it is a build-up. Perpetrators will use small, almost inconsequential violations, and manipulative moves in order to blur the boundaries. If the boundaries are not reinforced, the situation can escalate.
- * Notice the use of manipulative language when you reinforce the boundaries. Perpetrators often use the tactic of playing the victim to guilt others into lowering their guard and defenses. They may even manipulate those around you, getting attention by asking for comfort and help.
- * Phrases like “Don’t be like that”, “Trust me”, “It’s OK”, “Shsss”, “Relax” should be an immediate red flag. Also, “No”, or even “No, thank you” or “I am not really comfortable with this”, are not an invitation to start a negotiation. If the other person does not respect that you are not willing/interested in doing whatever he is asking/suggesting, he is obviously more interested in him that in your well-being.
- * You should feel comfortable with the other person. Being told that something you find uncomfortable is “our secret” or “just between us” is a way to normalize bad behavior. Ask yourself why they want it to remain hidden? How would others judge that behavior?
- * Most importantly, remember that no one who truly loves you will want you to be weak or vulnerable. They will respect your boundaries and feelings.
While we don’t know the exact day we might be faced with a threat, we can often spot the warning signs leading up to violence. While typical self-defense classes generally focus on active physical responses to an already established threat or attack, true self defense begins with increased general awareness, learning and talking about warning signs, as well as how to create, maintain and defend boundaries in relationships.
After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…
We hold Rape Prevention workshops on a monthly basis, and women only classes on a weekly basis. Don’t hasitate to start your journy, better safe than sorry!