This article series is meant to serve as a brief introduction into the world of self-defense and personal safety. First, my credentials: I am not a professional. I have trained various self-defense styles (krav maga, senshido), combat sports (boxing, thai boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu), and martial arts (pentjak silat) for about 25 years under several instructors. Now, I can’t teach you specific techniques simply through writing, but that isn’t my goal anyway.
What I can do is relay information about deceptively simple, yet incredibly effective concepts and tactics I have learned from experienced professionals. At best, my role is a student sharing crucial information with other students, so sure, take everything with a grain of salt, but I do believe you just might find the following methods of keeping ourselves safe useful in your everyday life.
First things first
One of the first things I want to get out of the way is the notion of victim-blaming. I have seen people accuse others of victim-blaming simply for suggesting that it might be a good idea for people to learn how to defend themselves against violent individuals.
Here’s the deal: if someone physically assaults you (this includes muggings, violent robberies, sexual assault, domestic violence etc), it’s never your fault. Not ever. No matter what you did. As long as we’re talking about assault instead of self-defense, the perpetrator always bears 100% of the blame.
When I set out to write this article series, one crime kept coming up in my research above all others when looking at statistics of what kind of violence young women were encountering, namely sexual violence. Unfortunately the number of sexual assaults against young women have increased at an alarming rate in the past few years, so I felt it was a topic I had to address separately from all other kinds of violence, especially considering it is rather unique regarding everything that goes into protecting yourself from it.
Now, when observing the public discourse on how to stop rape, I came across the controversial phrase “teach men not to rape.” While I agree it’s important to teach everyone, women and children included, that hurting others is wrong, there’s a fault in the logic of teaching people not to do bad things, regardless of whether it’s rape, murder, theft etc. That fault is personal freedom. Most rapists know that rape is bad, that it’s wrong, and that it’s illegal, they know full well rape isn’t allowed in our societies, but they just… don’t… care. Furthermore, some of them even enjoy knowing that what they’re doing is wrong and illegal. It’s a sad, even scary fact, but a fact nonetheless.
In this first part of the series, I will give brief introductions to the three most important fundamentals of keeping ourselves safe, focusing on concepts and ideas since techniques are best learned under the tutelage of a proficient, licensed professional self-defense instructor.
Being aware of your surroundings is the single most crucial aspect of your safety. If you cultivate the same kind of relaxed vigilance you do while operating a vehicle when you’re on foot, you will almost always see trouble coming miles away. To help wrap our minds around the notion of awareness, I’d like to introduce you to one of the quintessential concepts of self-defense: the legendary Colonel Jeff Cooper’s color codes which indicate varying states of awareness.
White: a state of complete relaxation and unawareness. You should only be in condition white while sleeping, staying at home on your own/with your family, and so on.
Yellow: the state of relaxed vigilance described above. In condition yellow, you can freely talk with your friends, talk on the phone, admire sights, do your shopping, whatever you normally do when out and about. This is the same level of awareness of your surroundings that you cultivate while e.g. driving a car or riding a bike.
Orange: When you see something potentially threatening, you move to condition orange. This means that you have recognized a potential threat and are aware of it. In this condition you recognize the threat and react accordingly if any reaction is necessary to ensure your safety. For example, if you’re driving and see another vehicle move erratically, you try to stay away from that vehicle and possibly alert the police.
Red: This is fight or flight. You move to condition red when trouble has caught you. For example, it would be considered condition red if a group of rowdy youths walked up to you and engaged with you. In this situation you have to choose between two options: stay and prepare to defend yourself against a physical attack or try to disengage and get away from the threat which is always, always the preferable option to a physical altercation.
I know the color codes may sound strange to ”normal people,” but I urge you to give them a try, even if just for a week, just for a day, and you’ll see how useful they can be and how non-invasive they are to your everyday life and social interaction. Heck, involve a friend or family member in the experiment and see how things turn out the next time you’re out an about.
Of course, sometimes even being aware/trying to leave/use verbal dissuasion isn’t enough. Maybe the aggressor(s) won’t listen to reason/take no for an answer, maybe they are blocking the only exit, you have children with you, you’re wearing high heels or have an injury that prevents running etc. That’s when you may just have to stand your ground and do whatever it takes to ensure your safety and that of your loved ones (within the confines of the local laws, of course).
The sad truth is, perfect safety is an illusion; it doesn’t exist. Self-defense training and awareness/avoidance can’t help you ensure 100% safety, but what they can do is allow you to minimize the risks of everyday life and maximize your chances of survival should something bad happen. It’s all about working those odds.
2. Fear: A Collegiette’s Best Friend
Fact: everyone gets scared in a violent confrontation. No matter how tough or experienced a person is, they will be scared. To paraphrase the legendary boxing coach, Cus D’Amato, the hero and the coward feel the same things. The difference between them is simply that the hero controls their fear while fear controls the coward.
In order to control fear, first we have to understand what it is. Fear is a natural response, our body’s way to signal us of danger. Our bodies alert us of potential danger by releasing adrenaline into our blood stream either as a slow trickle (that weight in the pit of your stomach during the hours before e.g. an important presentation) or one quick, large dose colloquially known as ”the adrenaline dump.” The latter can be devastating and can easily cause even an experienced person to freeze if they mistake the sensation for fear.
Adrenaline causes a mixture of several different symptoms in our bodies and minds. The specific cocktail varies from person to person and situation to situation, but some of the most common symptoms include situational paralysis, shaky hands, weak knees, time distortion (usually time appears to move slower because adrenaline quickens our reflexes, hence why inexperienced speakers often speak too quickly during a presentation), elevated heart rate, cold sweat etc.
So yes, adrenaline can cause freezing, but, in fact, it’s our body’s natural way to super-charge us for fight or flight: adrenaline also gives us the abovementioned elevated pain threshold, increased endurance and strength, quickened reflexes etc, all things that would help us in either fighting or fleeing.
Can we overcome adrenaline’s negative effects somehow? Well, we can’t get rid of them, but we can make them work for us. To put it simply, action is your best friend while inaction is your worst enemy. Regardless of whether we’re discussing a public performance or a violent confrontation, physical movement and conscious effort to do something breaks/deters the potential paralysis and allows you to take care of business. Furthermore, you should recognize that you aren’t actually riddled with fear but, rather, your body has simply super-charged you and prepared you for action.
Make this your mantra: fear isn’t my enemy, it’s my best friend.
3. The Fence
So now we are aware of our surroundings and know how to overcome the effects of adrenaline if all else fails and we do wind up in a violent confrontation. That brings us to knowing what to do when things go south. If there’s one physical concept I’d like everyone to take from this article, it’s this: the Fence.
The Fence is a concept developed by the legendary self-defense instructor, Geoff Thompson. He used to work as a bouncer in the worst pubs of Coventry, UK a few decades back. As a quick testimonial, I can say that I have used the Fence about half a dozen times to protect myself against aggressive individuals, and it has saved my butt every time.
Here’s a YouTube video clip where the man explains the basics of the Fence himself:
The clip is very short and only a part of a much longer video, but its purpose is to give you a basic understanding of the concept as well as a visual reference of one version of the Fence.
Anyway, here’s the controversial bit: according to Finnish law, if you feel that your life or health is under imminent danger from a violent assault, you are allowed to initiate physical contact and attack pre-emptively. Many people don’t know this even though according to statistics, in most violent encounters, the person who attacks first comes out on top. Needless to say, it is always a good idea to read up on the self-defense laws of whichever country or area you live in/visit in order to know your rights regarding such an important subject.
Regardless, the pre-emptive attack is one of the key features of the Fence: if you have tried your best to dissuade your assailant verbally, if you can’t disengage and escape, and they still persist and keep getting more and more aggressive, you are allowed to attack first. If all else fails, like Geoff Thompson advised, if you feel a violent attack is unavoidable and imminent, be first, be ferocious, hit damn hard, and keep attacking until the danger is over (i.e, the assailant is incapacitated, they stop fighting back, or they run away), or you can disengage and escape.
In the next part we will cover some of the most common situations and locations where girls and women in particular are targeted with violent assaults. We will also look at a few essential tips and tricks pertinent to the lifestyle of active collegiettes in order to improve personal security with minimal effort and maximum time/cost efficiency.
That’s all for now. I hope you got something out of the article or at least found it interesting on an intellectual level. ‘Til next time!
1. Tilastokeskus: http://tilastokeskus.fi/tup/suoluk/suoluk_oikeusolot.html
2. Suomen rikoslaki 4 luku 4 § (39/1889, muut. 515/2003): Aloitetun tai välittömästi uhkaavan oikeudettoman hyökkäyksen torjumiseksi tarpeellinen puolustusteko on hätävarjeluna sallittu, jollei teko ilmeisesti ylitä sitä, mitä on pidettävä kokonaisuutena arvioiden puolustettavana, kun otetaan huomioon hyökkäyksen laatu ja voimakkuus, puolustautujan ja hyökkääjän henkilö sekä muut olosuhteet.
Finland’s Criminal Law 4 chapter 4 § (39/1889, updated 515/2003): In order to defend against an imminent or on-going assault, a proportianate response is allowed as self-defense unless the response exceeds that which has to be considered acceptable as a whole when the quality and severity of the assault, the persons of the defender and assailant, as well as other considerations are taken into account (translation mine).