July 22, 2002 05:35 PM

Woo-hoo, it's Kerri's first We Have Brains question. [Forgive the "woo-hoo", I'm just excited. I imagine sharing your site is a little like watching a baby learn to walk.]

While growing up, what messages did you receive about how to protect yourself?

Self-protection has always been a second-nature sort of thing with me. I recall getting very explicit messages from school and parents about it in very grades, and consequently even being a bit paranoid about it. I've always been a bit paranoid compared to a lot of my (suburban-dwelling) friends. I think it's also partly a city girl thing.

The pointers given to children tend to be extremely unrealistic, focusing on worst-case scenarios: how to survive a fire when you're trapped alone in your room, never talk to strangers, floss twice a day. I was in kindergarten when the whole Adam Walsh thing happened. [For you younger people - you know the "America's Most Wanted" guy? Yeah, his kid was one of the 5 kids taken and murdered by strangers every 10 years, and he turned it into a national crisis. John Walsh is an amazing PR machine.] As a result, I was bombarded with over-explicit warnings about what might happen to me walking home from school or lost in a department store. Terrifying. Unproductive. I wonder how much that has influenced my generation.

I can think of a few positive messages I learned about self-protection. Most of these were learned from homeless people outside my high school for the arts. We went to school in a fairly low-rent section of town, and got out late at night. The homeless guys would watch out for you, follow you to your car, warn you away from creeps. They also modeled a wide variety of proactive self-defense techniques, from cowering to acting crazy/tough. Sharing a few blocks with those guys kinda taught me how to watch out for myself more productively, not to be paranoid.

And then there's always the "you need a man (boy) to walk with you" message. That same school was filled with scrawny little art boys who always insisted on walking girls to their cars. Nothing wrong with travelling in groups, but half the time that meant scrawny art boys walking back from the car alone, no less unsafe than if the girls had gone alone. Stupid boys. I would have people walk me to my car, then drive them back to the theatre. I think the lesson learned there was: watch out for everyone, not just girls. And that sometimes girls know better than boys how to look out for danger.

How have your own ideas about self-protection remained the same and changed over the years?

Obviously, I went from slightly paranoid to pretty street-savvy in high school. I really was a kid who saw the potential for danger in everything, and I managed to turn that into a good reality check.

Prior to college, I was a little worried that I needed to take a martial art or self-defense class. Having participated in some of those workshops and been close to rape recovery programs, I'm worried about self-defense classes. They often have little practical application and have the potential to create even more guilt for attack survivors. The best defense is awareness, and listening to your own fear. [I think every woman and man needs to read The Gift of Fear. Seriously. It costs seven dollars. Buy it for every friend and family member. It's that important.]

Speaking of men, I'm surprised how little some of my male friends are able to recognise possible threats. It's like their fear receptors got turned off by some sort of "I'm a big strong guy" syndrome. This is a perspective that has never changed for me. You are not safer because you are male. You are not safer because you are stronger. Men are safer because they are less likely to know someone who feels their bodies are objects for violation, but that doesn't impact your safety on the street (admittedly, most violent crime doesn't happen randomly on the street, but I've been mostly talking about it that way). Nor does it impact your need to watch out for the sort of people who might try to push your boundaries.

Have you ever had to put any to use, and what was the outcome?

I put my primary self-defense tactic (awareness) to use all the time. I've been approached threateningly a few times, but managed to get out of those situations unscathed, using my secondary defense tactic (getting the hell out of there).

Self-defense is also defending and protecting others. I've (with others) followed people down the street before, just to make sure they'd be safe. I watch for people crossing streets and driving cars and would never leave a friend alone at a party or bar. I don't know how much of a part I've played in this, but no one I know has ever been hurt while I was around.

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I was on a safety escort service in college where we "lived" by the safety in numbers concept, in addition to having a means of contacting campus police while we walked. I hope people don't take your warnings too lightly. I remember one case while I was there (granted, one particular case in several years and a limited number of incidents) when the assailants beat up the boyfriend before preceding to the girlfriend. You are not necessarily safe in a group of two.

these are the thoughts of David on July 22, 2002 11:49 PM

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