Take Charge of Your Own Safety
Written by Kim Leisey, PhD and Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Executive Director/Founder
Stories From College Students About “People Safety” Problems
“People Safety” means people being emotionally and physically safe with people, including themselves and others. Here are a few true stories from different college students, both women and men.
“I’ve always felt safe and never thought anything bad would ever happen to me. One night, after I’d been up lates tudying, I went out for a walk to get some fresh air. A man started following me, saying some weird things. I didn’t want to be paranoid and tried to pretend he wasn’t there. Suddenly, he shoved into me and seemed about to grab me. I just froze. I think something awful would have happened if a couple of other students hadn’t come by and started shouting that they were calling the police. He ran away. Now, I feel worried about going outside at night by myself.”
“A group of us guys went out to catch a movie and then went to someone’s house to drink a few beers. Okay, we weren’t supposed to, but we were just having fun and no one seemed drunk or anything. On the way home, the guy driving us got mad at the car next to us. He shouted some things and acted like he was going to bump into the other car. I was afraid someone was going to get hurt, but didn’t know what to do.”
“We were all dancing at a party, and a guy from one of my classes who I kind of liked started touching my breasts. He said it was my fault for being so hot and leading him on. I was so confused that I let him do things I didn’t want. Now, I feel embarrassed and upset every time I think about it.”
“I was looking forward to college so much, but my roommate and I just can’t seem to get along. He keeps making fun of how I talk and how I dress – and is telling everyone lies about me. People on my dorm floor are avoiding me and I feel really alone.”
“I went with my roommate to a party at a fraternity and things started to get out of hand. I wanted to leave, but he told me to stop being paranoid. Later, one of the girls there said that she’d been raped. Even though I hadn’t done anything myself, we’re all in trouble and I feel really bad.”
Know the Facts
At any stage of life, changing where you are, who is with you, and what you are doing can bring wonderful adventures – and these changes can also make you more vulnerable to having problems. As a college student, you are statistically more likely to be vulnerable to having problems during the first few weeks of your first year at college, so this is a time to proceed with extra caution. You are living in a new place, making new friends, eating and sleeping differently, and figuring out how you want to live your life now that you are away from home. Experimenting is normal, but it means that you are more likely to make mistakes that can have upsetting consequences. Most college campuses are relatively safe. However, college is not a sanctuary. Just like any community with lots of people, there are likely to be some times when someone does things that are harmful or even dangerous. Being aware and thinking things through helps you to be mentally prepared to prevent and handle potential problems. Read the crime statistics for the college you are going to. You are more likely to have to deal with safety concerns in places that:
- Have a lot of thefts and assaults on and off campus.
- Have a lot of bars close by.
- Have a large on-campus residential student population.
- Have a dominant sports culture and tailgating events for outdoor sporting events.
- Have a large Greek Life program with fraternity and sorority housing.
You might choose to go someplace in spite of or maybe even because of some of these factors, but you can make a plan about how to prevent and stop potential problems, rather than ignoring them. For college students, 90% of assaults involve alcohol or drug use and more than 90% involve someone the student knows rather than a stranger. According to the US Department of Justice, 75% of all sexual assaults involve someone familiar. At college, you may feel like you know people more than you actually do, perhaps because of taking a class together, studying together, or being the friend of a roommate. Knowing the risks of being harmed by other people does NOT mean you need to be paranoid about everyone you meet. Instead, you can take charge of your safety and your freedom if you know how to:
- Make safety plans, including by joining with others
- Set boundaries with people you know
- Protect yourself from an attack
- Be persistent in getting help
The Pattern of an Attack
What goes on in the mind of the kind of person who attacks other people? Research has found that most attackers follow a fairly predictable pattern. The stages in the Pattern of Attack include:
- Selection. An attacker wants to find someone who would be an easy victim – someone who is unaware, timid, or distracted – because of being worried, daydreaming, being upset or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.
- Position of Advantage. The attacker wants to create privacy so other people won’t see what’s happening and stop it – and control, which often means tricking or scaring someone into getting into an isolated place. Attackers often get people to lower their guard and put themselves into a more vulnerable position by seeming charming and kind, or acting needy and helpless. Allowing an attacker to have more privacy and control is like giving more oxygen and fuel to a fire – it will get bigger.
- Domination. The attacker dominates his or her victim by hurting or humiliating the victim or by stealing something. Someone who is acting out of control and crazy can be very intimidating. Someone who is harassing you in less obvious ways can seem impossible to stop. If you don’t know what to do, it is normal to freeze or to escalate the problem.
- Escape. The attacker wants to get away with whatever he or she was doing and not get caught.
If police officers or authorities are going to help you, it is usually in the Escape stage by catching the person. Unfortunately, this is after the attack has already happened.
Safety Strategies That Work Most of the Time
The sooner you can interrupt the Pattern of Attack, the safer you are going to be. Remember to:
- Be and Act Aware, Calm, and Confident. Your body language and attitude can prevent you from being selected as the target of an attack. Paying attention to what is happening around you can help you notice and avoid potential trouble. In one study, felons convicted of violent crimes were shown videos of different people walking down the street and asked which ones they would choose as their victims. They all picked the same kinds of people – people who seemed distracted, lost in thought, timid or, interestingly, confrontational and as if they were looking for a fight. These felons avoided people who walked briskly as if they knew where they were going, who seemed to notice what was happening around them, and who seemed assertive rather than aggressive or passive.
- Take Charge. Being mentally and emotionally prepared at all times to take immediate action to protect your safety can prevent a potential danger from getting bigger. This is why practicing what to do can be so useful – and why giving up your ability to stay in control of what is happening to you can be so dangerous. Taking charge means noticing unsafe behavior and then leaving or avoiding this person. If leaving is not a good option, you can take charge by setting a powerful, respectful boundary and, when possible, by getting others to help. In an emergency situation where you are about to get hurt and cannot leave, you can take charge by using physical self-defense techniques to escape and get to safety.
- Get Help. A dangerous situation or attack is not over until you have gotten away from this person and have gotten help. Even if you have gotten safely away or the attack is emotional rather than physical, being assaulted by someone who has an intention to hurt or bother you is upsetting. You deserve to have help rather than dealing with these feelings alone. Also, this person is probably bothering others. Find adults with more experience than you have to help you process your feelings and figure out what to do. Depending on the situation, talk about what happened to your parents, resident advisor, or someone at the student counseling center. Any assault or threat of an assault should be reported to the campus police.
Make a Safety Plan About Using Alcohol and Other Drugs
No matter what the rules are, ultimately, your choices about using alcohol and other drugs are up to you. That said many college administrators and faculty see the damage and heartbreak caused in lives full of promise because of accidents and violence due to alcohol and drugs. Students who would normally never dream of harming someone else are suddenly facing having hurt or killed another person because of getting into a fight or driving when drunk. Students are suddenly coping with having been raped or sexually assaulted. At college, most violence and accidents happen because of loss of inhibitions and judgment due to use of alcohol and other drugs. It is hard to use your awareness and to stay in charge of yourself if you are even a little drunk or high. If you choose NOT to use alcohol or drugs, be prepared to say, “No, thank you!” Know how to stick with your choice, even when everyone else seems to be doing it and perhaps teasing you for not. If you choose to be with people are drinking or getting high, make a safety plan for yourself. Ask yourself questions like:
- How am I going to get there?
- How can I make sure that at least one other trustworthy person knows where I am and whom I am with?
- What will I say and do to make sure that I am only drinking, swallowing, or doing what I really want?
- Who can I bring with me so that we can look out for each other?
- What is our agreement if one of us wants to leave and the other doesn’t?
- How will I get home if the person I am riding with seems to be drunk or high?
Setting Boundaries With People You Know
Our Underlying Principle in Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International is that, “Safety and self-esteem are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.” This means putting everyone’s emotional and physical safety first even if you are uncomfortable with speaking up, are too busy, or feel offended by someone – and even if your speaking up will cause someone else to be embarrassed, be bothered, or feel disrespected.
Personal boundaries are limits between you and other people. Some limits should be yours to set – such as your right to choose whether or not someone is affectionate with you; whether or not someone borrows your stuff, and your right to have basic safety precautions followed. Other limits, such as how often and how well the dishes are washed, have to be negotiated.
Most people dislike being told what to do, so when you set boundaries with others, do your best to be clear, respectful, and kind. Prepare to be persistent and respond positively, even when someone reacts negatively.
For example, suppose that your housemate keeps forgetting to lock the door, even though there have been reports of intruders coming into nearby houses. Here’s the boundary-setting model we use in Kidpower with everyone from young children to corporate managers:
- Make a connection. Start by acknowledging the other person’s perspective. E.g. “I really appreciate your free spirit and know you have a lot on your mind.”
- Use an “I” statement to state your feelings in a way that does not attack the other person. E.g. “I feel nervous …” Other feelings might be “worried, unhappy, frustrated, scared, annoyed” etc. The important thing is to take ownership of your own feelings. Avoid language that implies, “You make me feel …”
- State the problem in a specific way that focuses on behavior, not intentions. E.g. “I feel upset…. when you go away while I’m sleeping and forget to lock the door.”
- Ask for what you want. “Would you please make a plan so that you always remember to lock the door?”
No matter how carefully you state a boundary, the other person is likely to react negatively. Common reactions include getting mad or hurt, denying or minimizing the problem, changing the subject by complaining about something you’ve done, or refusing your right to set this boundary.
Be prepared to persist in setting your boundary in a calm, firm way. You can listen to the other person’s perspective without getting upset, show your understanding of her or his point of view by re-stating it in compassionate terms, apologize if you have done something hurtful – and then restate your boundary. E.g. “I understand – and I still expect you to look the door when you leave.”
What About Sexual Safety?
When you get to college, you are responsible for making choices about what you do and don’t do sexually. Make sure that whatever happens is truly a choice because both of you want to and feel ready – and that you are both able to make a choice freely, without any form of pressure or emotional coercion. Remember that sex with someone who is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs is considered rape. In our workshops, we teach that any sexual attention or any other touch or behavior intended for play, teasing or affection should be:
- Safe. Make sure you are well protected from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
- Okay with each person involved. Roommates or housemates are involved with anything that happens in your shared living area. They have the right to have a choice about what sexual behavior takes place there.
- Allowed by the people in charge. In a professional setting where other people have to be with you such as a class, lab, or study group, sexual behavior or talk is inappropriate.
- Not a secret. You might choose to keep some things private from many people, but any relationship that has to be a secret to everyone else has a big risk of becoming coercive.
Even if you really like someone, be prepared to set boundaries if any sexual behavior or discussion is not okay with you – and be respectful about honoring the boundaries of others.
Moving Away From Potential Trouble
Target Denial is a term used in the martial arts that means “denying yourself as a target to an attacker.” Or, “Don’t be there!”
Leaving a situation where trouble is starting to develop is not paranoid or wimpy – it’s smart!
Don’t indulge in the Wishing Technique, where you ignore a potential problem and hope it will go away. Instead, pay attention to what is happening everywhere you go. Remember that you can change your plan by going into a store if someone is bothering you on the street – or leaving a party early if it’s getting out of hand – or move to another area in a game if the people near you are acting aggressive.
If you decide that your safest choice is to leave, stay calm and pleasant. Ignore rude remarks or behavior. Avoid the temptation to answer back. Let the other person have the last word. Stay aware as you leave, looking around so that you know where people are and what they are doing.
Using Your Voice and Body to Protect Yourself From Danger
In real life you are most likely to do what you’ve rehearsed in your imaginations – or, better yet, practiced out loud on your own or in a class.
Knowing how to yell to set boundaries and get help is an essential self-defense tool. Don’t let embarrassment about making a scene stop you from making a scene. Practice yelling loudly, from your center, rather than screaming from your throat.
Women especially are socialized to be apologetic or even to smile when setting boundaries – so make sure that your face and body language along with your voice and words, communicate the message you want to send. If you are being attacked, yell messages that are clear both to the attacker and the bystanders like, “NO! STOP! LEAVE! HELP!”
You can add more descriptive language, such as, “I am being attacked by a tall man with red hair who is wearing a green shirt and black pants – he has a blue car, license plate ……”
Know how to use physical self-defense. Remember that fighting is dangerous both physically and legally and should only be used as a last resort – when you cannot leave or get help and need to take action to protect yourself from harm. Once you get away, you are going to leave the situation immediately and get help.
Even if the attacker is much bigger and stronger than you are, you can get away most of the time if you defend yourself with a strong fighting spirit. Use the strong parts of your body against the weaker parts of the attacker’s body. You can learn basic techniques in just a short time. You can quickly learn to jab into the attacker’s eyes, hit his or her face with the heel of your palm or your elbow, knee up into the groin, twist out of a grab or choke, etc. Look for classes that are empowering and focus on simple actions rather than an approach that seems depressing and complicated.
Getting Help Effectively
People can only help you if they know you need help. They cannot read your mind. When you most need help, it is normal to feel as if you ought to be able to manage the problem on your own. However, you deserve not to have to face problems alone. Student often give reasons like these for not getting help:
- “I felt embarrassed and as if I was the only person who had this problem.”
- “My parents freak out easily. I don’t want them to worry.”
- “I promised myself I’d never get drunk, so what happened is my fault.”
- “I’m afraid I’ll get into trouble.”
- “I felt stupid for letting this happen to me.”
- “It wasn’t that big a deal. I don’t understand why it keeps bothering me.”
- “I’m afraid that people will think I’m mentally ill.”
- “When I went to the counselor, he told me that I just needed to get my act together.”
Your college or University has a lot of people who can be valuable resources to you in gaining perspective, freeing yourself from upset feelings, and solving problems. Take the time to get to know who these people are so that you know how to find them when you need to. Be persistent in asking for help. If one person doesn’t listen or seems to be judgmental instead of understanding, find another person to talk with. Most colleges have violence prevention programs with staff who are experienced in giving support to students.
Trust Yourself – Your Intuition is Trying to Tell You Something
Often, after an attack, the survivor will say, “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to believe it.” You can avoid a lot of trouble if you pay attention to your intuition. Listen to that voice inside of your head or gut that says, “Uh! Oh!” Act quickly to get away from a problem. In his fascinating book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, bestselling author Gavin deBecker describes strategies for recognizing warning signals of intuition, as well as tactics that attackers might use to get you to lower your boundaries. His “Messengers of Intuition” include:
- Nagging feelings
- Persistent thoughts
- Gut Feelings
Don’t dismiss feelings that cause you to wonder about safety. Notice when someone’s behavior is causing you to feel pressure to put yourself in a more vulnerable situation, where you are isolated from others. For example, instead of thinking that someone is “charming” – think “this person is charming me.” You can enjoy a charming person – but no matter how charming and kind a person seems to be this is not a way of deciding whether or not someone might become dangerous. Instead, take the time to get to know someone and watch how well this person respects the boundaries of you and others.
To Sum Up – Six Simple Actions for Taking Charge of Your Safety
1. Make a Plan. Only one or two minutes of thought a day can prepare you to keep yourself safe most of the time. Knowledge is power. Think about what the potential safety problems are in every place you go and learn how to prevent them. Know who to ask and how to persist in getting help. Instead of worrying, practice what to do so that you are prepared.
2. Pay Attention. Use your awareness to notice what is happening around you. That way you can avoid walking in front of cars, provoking animals, tripping over obstacles, getting caught in a snowstorm, or confronting difficult or dangerous people.
3. Assess Realistically. It’s normal to wish that a potential problem will just disappear if you ignore it, but most safety problems don’t go away by themselves. Judge people by their behavior rather than by their superficial appearance. Look at the environment, not just the problem. Think about what all of your choices are.
4. Take Preventative Action. Depending on the specific situation, you can leave rather than confronting someone, set clear boundaries to stop someone from bothering you, and advocate for the wellbeing of yourself and others. Be both powerful and respectful in whatever action you take.
5. Get Away to Safety. If you cannot just leave, know how to use both your voice and body forcefully to escape from a person or other danger. Just one strong move like yelling, pulling away, or hitting someone can stop most attacks long enough for you to get away and to get to safety.
6. Get Help.No problem is over until you are with people who can help you. People are sometimes distracted or don’t want to get involved. Keep asking until you get the support you need. If one person doesn’t listen, find another. Reporting a problem can also help protect others.
Ways to Learn More
Here are a few articles that can be of use to you: