In a country like the U.S., where an act of sexual assault is committed once every 98 seconds and one in six women will be a victim of completed or attempted sexual assault at some point in her lifetime, learning how to protect yourself can save your life. Though it's absolutely true that no matter how many precautions you take, a rapist is to blame for rape, there's still a lot of work that must be done to support victims of sexual assault — which means we have to do all we can to reduce our risk of becoming one.
But what exactly can we do?
Steve Kardian, a 30-year law enforcement officer and FBI defense tactics instructor, has served as an advisor on women's safety and security for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, USA Today, Women's Day, Real Simple Magazine and more. He's not only knowledgable on how to physically defend yourself from sexual assault (he's got a third degree black belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu), but he's worked with survivors and predators, so he knows all about the gendered power dynamics between men and women that could lead to compromising situations between a female victim and a male perpetrator.
Recently, he spoke to Elite Daily about what women can do to protect themselves from sexual assault.
Know How To Spot Threatening Behavior
Let's say you're at a bar, a party, a college dorm, or wherever else, and a guy keeps trying to make moves on you. But you just want to hang out with your girls tonight. Or maybe you've just broken up with your ex-boyfriend. Or maybe you just aren't interested in this guy. Whatever the reason, you reject his advances.
But he isn't listening to you. He's trying to bargain with you. He's trying to convince you to stick around longer and have another drink, saying things like "Aw, come on. Just for me?" and complimenting you left and right. This guy is exhibiting what Kardian calls "salesman type" behaviors — and he is posing a threat to you.
"Anybody that doesn't respect the two-letter word 'no,' they mean to control you and it's problematic," says Kardian. "That is a dangerous person."
The less-clear kind of threatening behavior is the kind of sweet-talking where he appears to be trying to prove something about himself: "If a guy tells you, 'I have a great relationship with my mother and my sister,' or, 'Hey, you know, your good friend on the basketball team? He's my best bro,' I'd be real leery about that guy. I really would," Kardian says. That's because a lot of the time, according to Kardian, his words are bullsh*t. "They're trying to find a commonality that they can fit in to get the woman to like them, even on a temporary basis, so they can accomplish their conquest, if you will."
Stay far away from these guys, ladies. Far, far away.
Understand That Men May Misinterpret Your Behavior
It isn't uncommon for men to completely misinterpret a woman's intentions or behavior. In some cases, these misinterpretations can be incredibly damaging. When a man claims a rape victim "wanted it" just because she wore a short skirt or low-cut shirt, for example, he's perpetuating that horrible cycle of victim-blaming that keeps women from seeking justice against their rapists.
A 2014 study confirmed that straight men interpret a woman's actions as more sexual or romantic than they actually are. This essentially means that men are more likely to think you're flirting with them when you aren't, so you have to take extra care to avoid misinterpretations. (Frustrating, I know.) "The child safety experts I work with are constantly warning young ladies [that] doing a duck face kiss and posting it a thousand times on Instagram ... may send a particular message that may not be truthful about what your intentions are," Kardian says. "Guys more easily mistake that than women do."
Alcohol makes those misinterpretations worse, says Kardian. "With each drink he takes, he believes that the woman that he may be looking at, talking with, or interested in now sees him even more attractive."
This is why, if you're truly not interested in a guy, it's crucial to give him a firm, clear, and direct "no." You could even be a little assertive if you have to. Because if you interact with him in a way that makes him think he has even the slightest chance with you, he will continue trying — and you may be put at risk.
It's completely unfair that the burden of these misinterpretations are on us. And rest assured that if he continues to misinterpret your behavior after you've done what you can to make sure he doesn't, it is 100 percent not your fault. Even before you've done all you can, it's not your fault! Still, we must acknowledge this dynamic when we navigate spaces where sex is a possibility.
If "No" Doesn't Work, Bargain, Then Distance Yourself
Hopefully, telling a guy "no" will work, and he will leave you alone. But every woman on earth has dealt with a man who has refused to acknowledge "no" as a full sentence.
If he keeps persisting, Kardian suggests you try to bargain: "If it's just [a] guy that's trying to bargain his way into having relations with [you], you might be able to debate. 'Listen, I'm not interested. If you try to pursue it, it's gonna be bad for you.'" And don't give him any hope that you'll change your mind, either. "Don't make up a, 'Well you know, hey, maybe we'll hang out at the next party,' or, 'I'll see you tomorrow.' Done. Done," says Kardian.
If verbal rejections aren't working, you need to reject him by putting a "forceful, definitive space between you and him," Kardian says. "You want to even put your friends on notice."
Now, let's say you were interested enough to go home with him and hook up a little bit, but you don't want to have sex. While you're in bed together, though, he starts to indicate that he wants to go further than you want to. Maybe he's tugging at your shirt or trying to put his hands down your pants. If this happens, employ the same tactics that you would in a public space: Say no. Bargain. Distance yourself.
"When a woman chooses at any point during intimacy to say 'no' and he doesn't respect that, she wants to get up right away, get dressed, and leave," Kardian says. "And if he tries to prevent her, say, 'Listen, my roommate knows I'm with you. My family knows I'm with you. My boyfriend knows. ... Is it worth you going to jail?'"
You can also say something that'll make him believe there's only going to be a "temporary pause in the action" so that he gets off of you, says Kardian. "Things like, 'Hey listen, you've got beer breath. Can you run to the bathroom and brush your teeth?' or 'Hold on a minute. My mom had surgery today. I promised I'd call...'" In his mind, the pause is temporary. But in your mind, you're running the F out of that apartment.
Recognize That Fragile Masculinity Is Absolutely A Thing
"Fragile masculinity" stems from the idea that a man must be constantly proving and asserting his masculinity, or else he risks being emasculated and thus losing his status as a man. The internet loves to joke about fragile masculinity, but it can actually be really dangerous for women when they reject men.
"If men experience rejection as threatening to their social identity as men, then they may try to over-demonstrate masculinity in some other way," Tristan Bridges, a masculinity scholar and a professor of sociology at the College at Brockport State University of New York, told Broadly. "Men are more likely to turn to aggressive behavior as a means of navigating rejection." In other words, if a woman a man is interested in rejects his advances, she's not allowing him to prove his masculinity by way of conquering her, and he can, in turn, try to dominate her in other ways to make up for the so-called loss in manhood. One of those ways is by behaving aggressively — and even turning to violence.
Kardian agrees that a man in the midst of a conquest, so to speak, can become aggressive. To illustrate this connection, he tells me a story of a young nurse in her mid-20s, who was out at a bar with her girlfriends when a guy approached her. She rejected him, but what she didn't know was that all of his friends were watching and laughing at him getting rejected. "One of the worst things you can do to a man, and this is what women have to understand, [is that] you embarrass him in front of other men," Kardian adds.
Then, every woman's worst nightmare unfolded: "He actually followed her to the bathroom and beat her, broke her jaw, broke her eye socket and sent her to the hospital. All for rejecting him. That's how fragile some men can be," Kardian says.
This is not an isolated incident. There aren't exact data, but the blog When Women Refuse is a vast collection of incidents of men being violent toward women who reject their sexual advances, ranging from personal stories to stories that appear in the news.
Kardian emphasizes that not all men act aggressively after getting rejected, but "there's that percentage." Worse yet, some guys you may have initially thought were good can change suddenly and unexpectedly. "[They become] Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's a complete turnaround of personality, and that's dangerous," says Kardian. Since seven in 10 victims of sexual violence know their perpetrator, this is extremely important to note. Even the nicest, most trustworthy guys in your life can become different people in an instant.
Again, it's frustrating that we have to bear this burden in the first place, but hopefully this knowledge empowers you to be extra alert around a guy after you reject him. Rejecting a man, unfortunately, carries its own level of risk.
Don't Be Afraid To Get Physical If Necessary
If all of your no-ing, bargain-ing, and distancing isn't working to get a guy to leave you alone, whether in a public space or in bed with him, it may be necessary to physically fight back.
The thought of fighting back can feel intimidating, especially if the guy in question is bigger and stronger than you are. So what you should do is engage in a process called "visualization," where you literally imagine yourself pushing him away and fighting him back with all of your strength. This is a tactic used in the military and in law enforcement agencies, Kardian says, and it will give you the confidence to make a move.
Once you feel confident enough, here's an example of a move Kardian recommends you employ in a public space (as well as the move a few paragraphs up):
If you're in bed with a guy and you are in a compromising situation — maybe he's on top of you and pressing down on your body — you should use your hips and lower body to maneuver him off of you. "Women have a much better function and control over [her trunk muscles, her leg muscles, her lower quadrant, if you will, her thighs, her hips], and they're really, really strong," says Kardian.
However, women sometimes freeze in the middle of a sexual assault if they're in bed with a guy already, which could prevent you from defending yourself in this way. Some women can snap themselves out of this frozen state, says Kardian, but some can't. It depends on whether or not the situation is familiar, or if you've ever been exposed to it before. You can reduce your risk of freezing during a sexual assault by putting yourself in situations you'd be in if you were being sexually assaulted, maybe by taking a self-defense class. "It makes [you say], 'Wow, I've been here before. I know what to do.' Their adrenaline process is controlled, they don't go into that freeze state, and they know precisely what they should be doing physically," says Kardian.
While physical self-defense can absolutely be employed if necessary, it should be the last resort. What's crucial is equipping yourself with information. "I've dealt with the survivor and the predator. I know what he's looking for, I know what he thinks, and self-defense is the last resort," Kardian says. "You need to empower young women with knowledge and information prior to having to employ self-defense."
There's no guarantee that you can protect yourself from sexual assault. But you can start by learning tools — from understanding what goes on inside of a man's head to practicing squats to get your quads strong — to reduce your risk. You never know when you'll need to save your own life.
Kardian's new book, The New Superpower for Women: Trust Your Intuition, Predict Dangerous Situations, and Defend Yourself from the Unthinkable, is out August 8.
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