Sunday, June 22, 2008

Setting Boundaries

On a forum I've been a member of for what seems like a lifetime, we were talking about sexual assault as someone had sadly had a bad experience. A very wise member posted such an awesome reply, that a lot of us really appreciated and applauded her for, so I've pinched it(with her permission) to post here. I think it is something that every woman(and every man, as sexual assault happens to them too)should read. Thank you again to Missy T, you rock.

I studied and taught self-defense for several years, and what you described was a near-textbook example of an aggressor spending a period of time "checking out" and "sizing up" a potential victim. You should not feel guilty about one single thing you did during the encounters, nor feel that you did anything "wrong," but I wanted to tell you a little bit about this so that you can think about it for possible use in future scary situations. Apologies for the length of the post -- I guess this stuff takes up a large space in my brain!

Okay, first off, when 'Geoff' kept coming into the store, that icky feeling you eventually got was your gut instinct -- your very body -- trying to protect you by telling you that something was wrong. Your gut instinct is your most powerful ally in a situation like this. Don't ever feel guilty that you didn't "feel funny" sooner or realize something was weird, but as soon as you do get that funny gut feeling, you have the right to act on it, and it's wise to do so. So 'Geoff' kept coming into the store, testing you out, needling you a little, determining how much you'd 'go along' with him, which amounts to how much a risk it was going to be to him to mess with you. Because you were frightened (as anyone would be) and this made you relatively submissive, he apparently determined that you would be an easy mark(This didn't turn out to be entirely true, btw, because you wouldn't tell him where you lived, you eventually pushed him away and yelled at him, and you have sought resources to help you now and have alerted the police! Yay, you!)

In the future, something you might do when you feel that queasy feeling of, "uh-oh, I can't tell if this person is okay or not, and he's making me feel a little scared, and is he checking me out...?" is called Setting A Boundary. Setting a boundary allows you to be really clear and know exactly what's going on, so you can decide what to do next. You can set a boundary without being really accusatory or escalating the situation. You can even acknowledge that maybe the person is a nice guy and you're just misunderstanding stuff. You simply state clearly what you want, you don't answer questions or get into discussions -- just repeat clearly what you want and see how the guy reacts. This will give you information about him and help you plan what to do next. So, you could say something like: "Um, I know you're a nice guy and you probably don't mean anything by it, Geoff, but I'm not comfortable with the way you're talking to me and hanging around in here. You've made your purchase and I'm gonna have to ask you to leave."(Note: While you are saying this, make yourself look physically strong. Stand on two feet. Don't cross your arms across your chest or try to hide your body or diminish yourself or look smaller. Let your arms hang at your sides or put them on your hips. Make eye contact. Stand like somebody who's proud of herself and ready to stand up for herself. This is actually a visual boundary -- subtle, no? )

Okay. You just set a boundary. Now let's see how Geoff reacts.

1. He might say, "Oh, I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. You're just real cute. I'll leave." This actually happened one time with a strange guy who I asked very brusquely to stop staring at me. He apologized and left! Okay, the fact that he respected my boundary tells me that maybe he was kind of a nice guy who just needed to stop staring at me. Fine. Great. Whatever.

2. He might say, "Oh, man, you think I'm hitting on you or something? Wow, you really think you're hot stuff, huh?" Okay, he is sneering at your boundary and this tells you he's not a particularly nice guy, is he? However, maybe he just feels insulted, so you don't escalate things, you just repeat yourself. "No, I'm just not comfortable with you being in here and I want you to leave." In this scenario, if he just stands there and kind of argues with you like a dumb-ass, don't get into it with him. Don't answer questions or argue back with him; that leaves him with the power of controlling the interaction. Just say, "I'm not comfortable telling you that. I want you to leave." If, eventually, he does leave, then breathe a sigh of relief and start preparing your plan for getting the owners to keep him out of the store, or working with a co-worker, or whatever is going to help you be safe in the future. If he doesn't leave, you can threaten to take the next step. Example: "I want you to leave. If you don't, I will call the police."

3. The third possibility is, he might escalate. Coming over and grabbing you like he did was a dangerous, scary, EXTREME breach of your physical boundaries and may well have been the initial stages of a serious sexual assault; that is how you should interpret it. In that situation, you escalate right back. You scream "GET OUT OF HERE! GET AWAY FROM ME!" You scream for help. You run out of the store (for your responsibility is for your own safety, not guarding the owners store, and I'm sure he would agree). Don't worry about looking weird. People will not think you're weird or stupid --they will look at 'Geoff' like the criminal he is. Don't worry about going a little bit batshit crazy if you need to. When he escalates to physical assault as he did, it is time to react. It's great that you lost it and screamed at him -- maybe consider doing this earlier next time and also, instead of yelling something that doesn't tell him clearly what you want (like "I have a boyfriend!") keep screaming "GET AWAY FROM ME! GET AWAY FROM ME!" and basically keep it up until he's out. Be a broken record that doesn't swerve from the message: GET OUT! Just get a little louder if you have to! Demonstrate that you are not a meek little kitten he can dominate easily. Have a little tantrum. Call the's their job to come help out scared people. Whatever you need to do to show him that you are not the easy prey he has been sizing you up to be.

Women who fight back, even in small ways, are statistically likely to be successful. I'm 34 now, and have had a few occasions to use this boundary-setting, and it has really worked for those situations where I was a little bit uneasy or scared and felt like somebody was 'checking me out.' Once was in a French bar, and a drunk guy wanted me to dance with him. I protested politely a few times, but when he ignored my boundary, grabbed my arm and rubbed against me, I promptly screamed "GET AWAY FROM ME! LEAVE ME ALONE!" in my most batshit manner. Did people think I was weird? No. There was a chorus of "don't mess with the fucking ladies, man," and they immediately threw him out on his ass in the snow, while I went back to my drink. Granted, there were people around, so that wasn't as scary as what you experienced, but the principle is still the same. We are subtly trained as girls and women not to be loud, not to be rude, not to make a scene. It's very powerful to demonstrate that you are a woman who will.

Lastly, a few things that might make you feel safer about the whole thing now:

1. Know that alerting the police gives you more protection from Geoff, not less. Creeps like him capitalize on the fact that women might be afraid of reporting them, afraid of fighting back, etc. If he has it in his mind to harm you, then he has it in his mind to harm you, and that does not depend on whether you report him or not. Reporting him is an assertion that you are not a good victim. It is just as likely that he'll be scared to death to come near you now as it is that he'll try to retaliate.

2. Take a good self-defense class, preferably a reputable one that doesn't purport to 'rape-proof' you, and one that spends time on assertiveness and psychological self-defense, rather than simply hammering in a couple of 'fool-proof' physical techniques. (The physical techniques are great, but the first and best defense is your brain, and classes that overlook that aspect are just shoddy). Look for an instructor who is interested in empowering and encouraging women, not some macho goofball who wants to remind you of how weak you are and how much you need this class because otherwise you'll never stand a chance against a Big Strong Man.

3. Visualize what you might do and how you might react to take care of yourself if you run into Geoff again. This isn't paranoid -- it's good planning.

4. Congratulate yourself for making it through a scary, scary encounter and visualize what you might do in the future in similar situations.
It sucks that so many people have to deal with freaks like this at some point during our lives.

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