Monday, March 12, 2007

"Look, Nora, in lots of things, you're still a child. I'm older than you in many ways and I've had a little more experience."

I adore my alma mater to pieces.

Quirks and all; and trust me, it has plenty of quirks.

Such as...a PE requirement.

Yup, that's right, we had a PE requirement to fulfill before we could graduate. I took Badmitton, Rennaissance Dancing, and Self Defense. Which....yeah, that says a lot about both me and my school right there.

If memory serves me, the self-defense course was the most popular PE class available; owing in no small part to the college being both liberal leaning and all-women. Our instructor was tiny, not much taller than me. I'd imagine most people saw her as pretty non-threatening. as just your normal, slightly overweight, middle aged woman. She was also in charge of campus security and had a black belt in karate. One of our final classes included a demonstration of her breaking boards with her karate chops and kicks (with one of us nervously holding the boards up for her).

At the time, the class was - to use an over-used and often abused phrase - empowering. Of course, pretty much anytime we got together and had the opportunity to yell simultaneously was an empowering experience - Convocation, Disorientation, Graduation, Friday Night parties, etc.. Adding in the practice punches and learning how to get out of a choke hold certainly gave the class extra kick to it, though.

However, one of the most memorable parts of the class was not so empowering in retrospect.

Part way through the course we got the lecture from our instructor about acting smart so that it would be less likely that we would ever have to use any of this stuff. Now, I do give her props for not pretending as though following her advice would for certain save us. I will also adore her forever for being the first person to ever tell me about the FBI's research about rape, and how they concluded that women who act confidently - as if, you know, they have every damn right to be wherever the hel they happen to be at that moment - are statistically less likely to be targeted by rapists.

Her list of advice - which sounded a lot more like dire warnings - was endless. Don't have an apartment by yourself if you can help it. Don't say your name on your answering machine. Don't walk alone at night. Don't take trips by yourself. Don't trust strangers. Watch your drink at all times. Never carry your keys with your fingers through the key rings (they can be easily broken that way if you are attacked). Carry your keys in a fist with one key poking out between your fingers. Make sure someone knows where you are going if you do go out alone. Glance under your car as you walk towards it whenever the area is deserted or it's nighttime. Have your keys ready to go so that you can get in your car quickly. Don't make your routine too normal. Get a second floor apartment if you can. Don't listen to music while jogging outside. Don't jog at night. Make sure your dorm blinds are closed before dressing and undressing. And on and on and on.

Now, a lot of this advice is perfectly reasonable - as long as it's taken with a grain of salt and one balances trying to be safe with not missing out on opportunities. Unfortunately, when people give out such advice, they usually leave out the bit about the salt and weighing various costs.

Which is part of why my reaction at the time was mixed. I wanted to be smart and safe, and her advice seemed mostly reasonable, but....some of it rubbed me the wrong way, and it was one of the most logical and reasonable bits of advice she gave us that bugged me the most.

Closing one's blinds before undressing is a pretty normal and low energy task. It might seem odd to you that she would even mention it. Unless, of course, you happen to be living on a fairly isolated campus with a student body that is all female. Privacy boundaries change. The topic of periods becomes acceptable in normal conversations. Pajamas are worn to communal dining spaces. Third story blinds that look out over the lake or the athletic fields are often left open for the view and sunlight.

Side note: when people ask me why I went to a women's college, I want to point to experiences like this. Nothing opens one's eyes to the subtle way that culture and other institutions blindly favor men than going to a school that is focused only on women. Not that one needs to do so to see that "male" is the constant default "in real life", but - for me, anyway - there's just something about having spent several years in a culture where "female" was the default that solidifies this knowledge in a way nothing else could have.

Back to the main topic....

I immediately knew why the thing about the blinds bugged me. I was convinced I was behaving illogically as well, but I still rebelled at the suggestion and deliberately ignored it. Not because I thought the 15 seconds it would take to do this was really all that much of an inconvenience, however.

Here's where I explain, because I'm sure very few of my current readers know this, that I spent my entire high school career checking not only my windows - but also in my closet and under my bed - each and every time I got undressed. I didn't do this because I was irrational or paranoid. I did this because it was the precaution that I had learned to take in order to prevent my brother from spying on me. It was the safety measure that I found worked best. It became so automatic that I didn't stop doing it until I had been living in the dorms for quite a while. What had started out as a logical response to clear and present danger had morphed into something closer to a tic or a security blanket. Until one day my brain noticed what my body was doing....and I stopped and pushed the horror of what I had become back into the dark corner of my mind where everything else about that time dwelled.

Until we got the lecture.

And all I could think when she mentioned the thing about blinds was that I didn't want to go back to being afraid all the time. I refused to go back to living in a world where even my own bedroom was unsafe. I thought at the time that I was being illogical, but in reality I was being very logical, I was just to scared to examine everything throughly enough to realize it.

I wasn't living on a co-ed campus in the middle of a city, in a bedroom that looked out into the street. I was living on a relatively remote all women's campus and my bedroom window looked out over lots and lots of green space surrounded by forest. Yeah, some creep could hide out by the trees with binoculars, but I it seems to me that such men are looking for victims, and will find them no matter what I do. Yes, a couple of extra seconds spent doing a simple chore was certainly low cost enough to be worth the safety gained by doing so. The problem is that this would never be a mindless task for me ever again. I would never be able to go to the window and simply consider it normal behavior, like closing the door to the bathroom or keeping my mouth closed as I ate. This had gone far beyond normal cultural mores long before I'd ever gotten to college. And it wasn't ever going away - at least not anytime soon. It's still something that I often think of when I go to open or close my bedroom blinds.

So my choice was not between having to do normal, simple, short tasks and endangering myself. It was between doing something that would make me a tiny bit safer and not expecting to feel like shit for at least a few seconds every day. What would seem to be the logical choice to any outsider was no longer an acceptable option to me.

At the time, I didn't question any other particular bits of advice our instructor gave us (remember, I thought I was being illogical), but the experience did leave me with a vague uneasiness with such advice. As time went on and I had to decide more and more often whether or not I would follow her safety measures, I found myself looking more critically at what I would be giving up by doing so. I've decided in favor of ditching her advice to a degree that would shock and alarm many, I'm sure. I've walked down streets alone at night. I traveled alone by myself dozens of times. I've done so without making sure anyone has my itinerary (what itinerary?). I've even walked alone, by myself, in a foreign city, with no cell phone, at frickin 1 am at night, and I was perfectly fine, thank you very much. And no, no one knew where I was except me.

Do you know when I wasn't safe? In the middle of the day on a crowded subway full of normal people. That's when some guy decided my boob was his little pet.

And in my bedroom, when I was alone by myself, and no one else was home except my own family.

And do you know what else? I don't regret getting on the subway that day. If some fortune teller had told me that my choices were getting on that subway and experiencing that humiliation along with everything else I did that day - or staying home where it was safe - or even choosing to travel to Paris with a group and doing group things instead, I still would have taken that damn subway. Because that was the subway that took me to Monet's Waterlillies.

So, I'm with Sheezlebub on this one: you can take your "advice" and shove it you know where.


R said...

Good post. I'm always kinda sitting on the fence with this stuff - I teach martial arts, and sometimes spefically self-defense classes for women, and in the same way that we teach blocking and avoidance, physically, it seems to make sense to teach "preventative" stuff like the old "don't walk in dark alleys alone at night" advice.

But, of course, that stuff is hugely problematic. It leads to a culture of fear, for one thing, and keeps the responsibility firmly on the (potential) victim. And it also tends to focus very heavily on stranger-danger prevention, which, statistically, isn't even all that useful - most rapes are not committed by scary strangers in dark alleys.

My sort of middle ground is to focus on self-confidence, or the illusion of same, as the ultimate non-physical tool in any kind of confrontation. If my students can learn to say "no" forcefully enough that it makes other people step back, and can learn to carry themselves as if "they have every damn right to be wherever the hel they happen to be at that moment", etc. - well, I'm pretty sure that will do them more good (in more ways than one) than all of the advice about holding keys and watching drinks and closing blinds in the world.

I'm glad to see you're posting again, btw!

Mickle said...


And it sounds like you're taking the right approach to me.

A lot of this stuff is - as many people argue - just common sense. Part of why I wrote this was to just point out that everyone's case is unique, so this type of advice has got be just that = advice. Only the individual in question knows what's best for her, there may be things going on that you don't know about.

And I think focusing on self-confidence is the way to go as well. I'd also add that reviewing the steps to take if something happens might not be a bad idea as well, if you are going to include more than just the self-defense part. There is a reason that they drill "stop, drop, and roll" and similar stuff into us, most people tend to go into autopilot when they are in shock, having that stuff memorized helps. (And, of course, the "what you should do if.." talk should include making sure you get emotional help as well.)

I just read your story, btw, and that was amazing. I'm incredibly impressed with you how you handled it all and I so very much agree with you about speaking up. I often feel a bit guilty about only talking about this in anonymity, but then I remember that my little brother was just a kid, and I'd hate it if someone stupid connected his name with all this now.

R said...

I've been thinking about my experience with the voyeur a lot the past couple weeks (I've seen a few posts around the internets that reminded me of various aspects of my experience), and I think I might be ready to write another post about it for my LiveJournal, soon. The more I think back on it, the more I have to say about it, and the more I feel it's important that it gets said.

And on that note - I read the account you linked from this post last night, and I think speaking out and telling your story anonymously is just as important, and just as valid, as any other method. Especially if anonymity is what enables you to speak.

Mickle said...

I'm going to quote that last bit when the debate about online identities and trusting people who blog under made up names comes up again.

Trixie True said...

Kinda late to the conversation... hope you'll indulge me.

Technically, women are at a much higher risk of being sexually assaulted by someone they know than by some stranger. I did all manner of reckless stuff - walking streets at night through supposedly the most dangerous part of town (Denver in the 1980's), I'm a smallish person, never took self defense, yadda yadda. But the confident walk really does make a difference; the only hassles I ever met with were getting whistled at by construction workers (I was in boots and a midi-coat and it was too darn snowy to power walk), and a twelve year old following me for a few blocks trying to get my attention because he liked my fringed leather jacket.

I expect the power walk works because "blitz rapists" (the stranger in the bushes type) tend to look for easy prey, and if they see someone who looks confident and willing to walk, odds are good they'll just wait for someone who looks more vulnerable. Doesn't work with stalkers because they often have a completely different agenda (they want a certain look to their victim or otherwise choose their target for reasons other than east of attack), or for people we know because it's way eaiser to clobber a stranger who has attacked you than to get violent with someone we know and love. Plus people who know us don't have to get that violent to get what they want - they just need to overpower us to get what they want, but to get them to stop we have to get violent, which society "codes" as over reaction and wrong. *sigh*

The downside of the power walk, of course, is that if you're sick or injured or otherwise handicapped you just can't pull it off...

As a whole culture we tend to expect people to do "whatever is necessary to keep safe" in terms of most things. Sometimes I think it'd be a good thing for self-defense classes to have one class, or part of a class, on risk assessment - "It's theoretically possible to keep safe if you extremely limit your life, but since we live in the real world you need to balance risk against cost" kind of stuff.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.