Surviving Assault

The Modern Survival Guide #78

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I know, intellectually, that the rate of violent crime across the board has decreased in the US over the last several decades. We’re in a very peaceful time to be alive. But it’s still a very valid risk that you, or I, or anyone could be the victim of an assault, and it’s more or less a role of the dice.

For this article we’ll discuss four parts of an assault, and ways to deal with them: Pre-assault (avoidance), during assault (defense), post-assault (coping and reporting), and long-term recovery (physical and emotional). And I’ll admit it going in — this is going to be a gloss more than a deep dive. This is a big topic, and there’s a lot that will go unsaid, so don’t hesitate to hit that Google button if you want more information.

Pre-Assault: Avoidance

The best way to defend yourself from an assault is to avoid it in the first place. There are two parts to this: avoiding dangerous situations and avoiding the appearance of a victim.

Avoidance boils down to identifying potentially dangerous places and then not going there. This is the old joke; a man goes to the doctor and says his arm got broken in three places. The doctor tells him to stop going to those places. That’s you. Stop going to those places, but if you must go, because you’re young and bars are a new thing, or because you have a social or professional obligation to do so, go in a group.¹ Dangerous places may include the following:

  • Bad neighborhoods at any time of day, but particularly at night.
  • High-crime areas.
  • Situations where you are alone around unfamiliar intoxicated or otherwise drugged-up people.
  • Situations where you are alone with known threatening people.
  • Any instance where you are alone around large numbers of unsupervised young men.
  • Any situation where you are trespassing.
  • If you’re a woman, any situation where you are alone around unfamiliar men.
  • Unfamiliar areas where you are an outsider in the eyes of the locals.

It’s very much worth listening to your instincts. If you get the sense that you are in danger, you are probably in danger. Do not let politeness or social expectations prevent you from removing yourself from that situation. Never trust a cannibal just because they have good table manners. Never believe that someone you know will not hurt you. Most sexual assaults are committed by people the victim knows personally.

Also, a major component of avoiding dangerous scenarios is to always have a way to get home. Make sure you know where your car is. Make sure you have charge on your phone to call a cab. Make sure you control your ID. Make sure you have money for the bus/train/cab. If you don’t have a way home, you may be in danger.

The second part of avoidance is about avoiding the appearance of a victim. Muggers, rapists, bar bullies and other human predators are exactly that — predators. And predators look for weakness.

You look weak if you walk hunched over, staring at the ground, using rapid steps and furtive movements. You look weak if you have a bag or purse open and are not paying attention to your surroundings. You look weak if you are falling-down drunk and unescorted. The more you try to hide and be unobtrusive, the weaker you look. Weakness looks like prey.

Instead, it’s usually a good idea to look confident. Walk tall, using decisive strides. Meet peoples’ eyes. Look around and keep track of where other people are (fancy folk call this “maintaining situational awareness”). If someone says something to you, respond in a calm and confident tone of voice. Project the image that you know where you are going. Practice in front of a mirror, or with friends if you need to, and then fake it till you make it. A confident, strong-looking persona is a better deterrent than almost anything else.

A word on agoraphobia: you cannot avoid all threats of assault. It isn’t possible, so don’t let yourself become a shut-in to try to avoid the world’s dangers. As with so many other things in life, this is an exercise in risk mitigation, not risk elimination.

A final point on avoidance that is also legally binding in some states: if you have the opportunity to do so, your first response to an assault should be to run away (cardio: not just an important part of your workout routine). This avoids the threat, and protects you from legal repercussions. However, if you cannot run away and you cannot avoid a threat, you should be prepared to defend yourself.

During Assault: Defense

Let’s get one thing out of the way early: most self-defense strategies are crap. They rely on the one thing — the single necessary component — that you are least likely to have in any assault scenario: warning. Whether it’s karate, concealed-carry firearms, or pepper spray on a key chain, almost every action you can take to defend yourself in an assault scenario relies on a moment or two to prepare yourself.

You will not have those moments. Most assaults are surprise attacks, and even in cases where you can see an assailant coming, they can move far faster than you would believe. It’s an interesting statistics that an adult male human can cover between fifteen and twenty feet in about a second. That means that if you are in danger, and you have to fumble anything out of your waistband, key chain, or purse, it’s already too late to pull a weapon.

This does not mean that defensive measures are completely useless, but it does mean that the utility of most forms of personal defense are limited. Let’s talk about three of the big ones: guns, martial arts, and pepper spray.

  • Guns: Unless you have more than five seconds’ worth of warning, you’re never going to get your gun up (assuming you are carrying one) in the face of a determined assailant. You will be jittery on adrenaline, you will have to focus on each action, you will have to arm the weapon, and then at some point you’ll have to aim and fire.² When you hear stories of people with concealed-carry weapons defeating attackers, it’s almost never a situation where they got jumped. It’s almost always a situation where they had or were able to create a few moments to prepare. If you think firearms are necessary for your peace of mind, know that their utility is limited by your ability to ready them for action as well as your ability to use them.³
  • Martial Arts: Most forms of martial arts are taught more as art, meditation, or sport than as actual fighting styles. There are a few which are not — krav maga springs to mind — and they tend to feature a lot of grappling. There is an object lesson here that is borne out by viewing any actual fight between two normal people, and it is that hand-to-hand fighting in the real world isn’t much about punches or kicks, it’s about wrestling and using the environment. It takes months of practice to throw a punch without breaking your hand or wrist. It takes three or four tequila shots to body charge someone and not care if you get hit. If you think martial arts are necessary for your peace of mind, take that lesson to heart.
  • Pepper Spray: I would not use pepper spray. I have watched people get pepper sprayed in real life. It didn’t go so well for the pepper sprayer. Against an adult male with his blood up, pepper spray is an excellent way to produce an infuriated assailant if you miss the eyes (the only part of the body that pepper spray works well on). And since you’ll be jittery with adrenaline, there’s a good chance you will miss the eyes. If you want to use a chemical irritant as a deterrent to assault, use an established brand like Mace, and try to find a product that sprays in a cone, not in a stream. Then go for the eyes, Boo.

The bottom line is this, if you get attacked you will almost certainly not have the chance to prepare for it. That’s how predators work. They strike from the shadows, when you’re not looking, when your guard is down. Discard any self defense strategy that does not take this into account.

With that being said, if you are attacked it is vital to fight back.⁴ It is impossible to know your attacker’s motivation beforehand; assume the worst in all cases. And remember that, like any other predator, human attackers typically prefer weak prey. Putting up a fight is your best chance of discouraging the assault.

With that being said, there’s an important caveat: in general, do not go for the balls. A lot of self-defense courses focus on disabling a male attacker via a hit to the testicles. In real life, all the man has to do is turn his hips to block a strike like that, and it’s likely to infuriate him. Your objective is to convince the attacker that you’re not worth the trouble, not make them angrier.

Putting up a fight relies, more than anything, on mental preparedness. When reviewing survivor testimonies, a common thread is the refrain “I didn’t think this could happen to me,” or, “I couldn’t believe this was happening.” These mindsets tend to result in paralyzed inaction. Let us dispense with the rose-tinted glasses. All things are possible, including horrible things. Whatever you hear about in the news can happen to you. It’s not likely, but it is possible.

Accordingly there is a mindset to adopt in daily life that is helpful for defense against assault, and that mindset is: I will bite the hand raised against me.⁵

Last but not least, a caveat: self-defense is not a suicide pact. If you are in a situation where you sincerely believe acquiescence is the best survival strategy, well, that may be your best play. Remember, the goal is to get out alive and sane. Everything else is gravy. We do not live in a black-and-white world; let’s not fall for that trap in thinking about self defense.⁶

Post-Assault: Coping

Immediately after an assault — physical or sexual — you will experience a flood of emotions. You should expect to experience the five stages of grief, as manifested in swings through several emotions. Shame, anger, fear, denial… these will all be present in some degree. It is worth your while to expect this, understand where these emotions come from, and work to accept only some of them. The end goal of the coping process is to be able to move forward with your life, in whatever fashion works best for you.

  • Denial — Is not just a river in Egypt. Many people will experience some form of denial during or after an assault. This is an attempt by the brain to deal with a problem by making it not a problem. Your brain will very likely do this in some form or fashion; denying that the event happened, denying that it requires life changes, denying that you need to respond, etc. Denial is almost never a helpful emotion, and it does you no favors in this case.
  • Shame — Many people, particularly people who have survived sexual assault, report intense feelings of shame and guilt. Victim shaming is somewhat built into our culture, but there are larger psychological issues at play here. Here’s an excellent cartoon that sums them up. When it comes to assault, feeling shame is a form of bargaining; if something was your fault, maybe you could have changed the outcome. But it wasn’t and you can’t. The only person at fault is the person who assaulted you.
  • Anger — Anger can be a positive emotion. Anger gets shit done, and represents a correct appraisal of the blame game: someone else has wronged you, and you deserve to be angry about it. So long as you can keep that anger focused on your attacker, it can be useful. Be careful that anger does not turn into hatred or rage; neither of these are helpful emotions in the long run. Anger will get you through the aftermath of an attack. Rage and hatred will begin to define your life around it and prevent you from coping with it.
  • Fear — Many people experience intense fear reactions to the location of their attack, or the race of the person who attacked them. Many people who have suffered assault must also live in fear that the assault will happen again, particularly if they know their attacker personally. Fear will limit your life. It must be conquered in order to get past the assault. Counseling is the best option here.

The final stage of grief is, of course, acceptance. That’s what you’re shooting for here, but it has a particular meaning in cases of assault. To accept that an assault occurred is not a passive statement. It means that:

  • You understand what happened.
  • You understand that you are not at fault.
  • You understand who is at fault.
  • You understand what you have to do about it.

Acceptance is the necessary step before you can mentally take the next step and report the incident. Getting there is not guaranteed. Nor is it likely to be easy; the stages of grief are an emotional roller coaster. But I find that having foreknowledge that emotions are likely to occur is a good first step in being ready to face them.

Post-Assault: Reporting

If you have suffered an assault, it is important to report it to the appropriate authorities, and take appropriate steps to prevent it from happening again to you or to someone else.

That’s a heavy load. Not everyone can bear it. It’s ok and understandable if you cannot, but let me give you some reasons why you should consider it:

  • Reporting an assault can bring closure to the victim. Knowing that the attacker is being charged and/or is off the streets is a physical and mental acknowledgement that the victim was not at fault, and that the community takes the event seriously.
  • Reporting an assault identifies the attacker to the community. Even if they never serve time in jail, being ID’d as a perpetrator of assault can lead to social consequences that exact some degree of retribution and serve as a deterrent.
  • Reporting an assault can prevent future attacks. It’s a moral good deed to prevent the suffering of others. By exposing your attacker you can help to keep them off the streets and out of other peoples’ lives, or at least give other people some warning.
  • Reporting an assault should lead to justice. We have a dispassionate legal system that is supposed to deliver justice when someone is attacked. It is our duty as citizens to ensure that society runs with as much justice as desirable, and that means reporting assaults. There is no cosmic Justice that will do this in this life; there’s just us.

Now for the razor in the cotton candy: reporting assaults, particularly sexual assaults, is hard. Let me say that again for the old men in the back:

REPORTING ASSAULT, PARTICULARLY SEXUAL ASSAULT, IS HARD.

This is because reporting assault, any assault, usually requires that the victim has already completed a few of the stages of grief. Shame, fear, and denial are particular obstacles to reporting assaults. It is not uncommonly for victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault to wait months or years before reporting an attack.

The way we treat victims of assault is also a major factor. Many assault cases occur in isolated environments and it becomes one person’s word against another’s, which creates a courtroom character judgement inquisition. Many people would rather not go through that soul-shredding experience. The incident reporting and evidence collection processes used by law enforcement are often invasive and unsympathetic to the victim, especially in cases of sexual assault. These are ongoing problems and are serious impediments to people reporting attacks.

Nonetheless, it is very important to report an assault swiftly, because the wheels of justice do not grind equally fine in this country. The more time passes between when an event occurs and when it is reported, the more likely it becomes that law enforcement and juries will refuse to believe it occurred at all. This is especially true for incidents of domestic abuse and sexual assault. This creates a situation where the hardest time to report an assault — right after it’s happened — is also damn near the only time to report some assaults from the criminal legal perspective.

This creates a very heavy load on an assault survivor immediately after the attack. There’s no good way around it. If you find yourself in this situation, you will need to make a very hard choice to either report or not report. I can’t tell you which of those options is better for you personally, but from a social perspective I urge you to report the attack. But I won’t sugar coat it and say it’ll be easy.

Long-Term Recovery: Physical and Emotional

An assault is not something that most people simply get over. We are extremely unused to physical violence being directed against us in modern society, and that means that an assault is very likely a major event in the victim’s life. That means that most of us will have very little experience with the coping mechanisms required to deal with the aftermath of an assault.

Surviving an assault in the long term is about managing both physical and emotional damage in this context. These are not mutually exclusive, either. Physical damage can cause ongoing emotional trauma, and emotional damage can manifest in physical ways.

Treating the physical damage from an assault is very much an exercise in dealing with the American medical system. I have a separate article on that. Note that dealing with the American medical system means paying for it, and there are some resources that may be available to help with that.

The important thing to remember here is to find a doctor you trust, be honest, and follow up — particularly if you’re in physical therapy, much of the motive force for your care will fall on you and your family. It’ll be on you, to some extent, to make sure you get the care you need and do the things that will help you heal.

The same is broadly true on the emotional front. You will need to decide if you need long-term counseling or other emotional assistance in order to get past the assault and resume normal life. You may also decide that there is no such thing as “normal” life and that you live in a new reality created from your experience. Both are equally correct choices.

The important bit on the emotional front is to try to keep the assault from defining long-term negative impacts on your life, and to keep the assault from controlling major parts of your life. If you find yourself unable to be in certain normal situations, or fearful of certain locations, or reluctant to be in the same area as people who look a certain way, for example, I would strongly advise counseling. If you know someone who has been assaulted, it is worth your while to keep an eye out for warning signs.

Survival is About Moving Forward

The ultimate goal of surviving an assault is to move on and move forward. This does not mean that you pretend the assault never happened. It doesn’t mean that you are unaffected by the assault. It doesn’t mean you ignore your scars.

Moving forward is about accepting that an event occurred, learning what we can from it, and finding a positive path out of the experience. “Positive” in this context means that you are capable of functioning in daily life, capable of making decisions about your own well-being, capable of maintaining friendships and relationships. It is about reasserting control and preventing the assault from controlling you. It may not be easy; it is not guaranteed. It is a goal, not a certainty, and there is no shame in taking time to find a path that is right for you.

The odds that any of us will be assaulted are lower overall then they’ve been in the past, but they are certainly non-zero. It is a critical component of modern survival to prepare ourselves for this possibility, mental, physically, and emotionally.

And remember: you are not alone. All of these people and organizations, and many others, exist to help. People will help you. Please reach out.

¹A word on victim-shaming: no, you are not responsible for someone attacking you. But you are responsible for keeping yourself out of dangerous places; if you knew in advance that a place was dangerous, and you went there anyway, that was a bad risk decision. It doesn’t excuse your attacker. It’s a subtle distinction. Your attacker is responsible for their actions, but you have a duty to not make life easy for them. It’s like if I’m walking through the jungle with steak tied around my neck, and a tiger jumps me, yeah it was the tiger’s choice… but I made it easy to choose. That tiger didn’t go crazy. That tiger went tiger. Sometimes people are predators, and we shouldn’t expect good behavior. We shouldn’t blame victims, but that shouldn’t stop us from changing our behavior to avoid dangerous situations.

²A word on the myth of the gun — Americans are raised to believe that pistols are excellent weapons. They are not. Pistols are notoriously difficult to aim and fire in stress situations; there are hundreds of reports of police shootouts where officers empty their guns at an assailant in close quarters and hit exactly nothing. You will not do better. You are not special, you are not John Wayne, and you are certainly not Keanu Reeves. You are much more likely to hit everything but your assailant — including the people in the next house over — then you are to hit an attacker with a pistol. If you must use a firearm, particularly for home defense, buy a shotgun. Not a sawed-off (illegal) shotgun. Not a folding-stock cool shotgun. A normal, ugly, cheap pump shotgun will work just fine.

³A second word on the myth of the gun — in movies and TV shows, you will see people fall over after getting hit by a bullet. In real life, depending on a variety of factors (size of the bullet, speed of the bullet, location of the hit, adrenaline level of the person being shot), an attacker might survive several shots and then still have enough strength to close in and kill the shooter. This is why most firearms courses are correct to teach that if you shoot someone, you shoot them until they stop moving and then you shoot them some more. The objective of shooting someone is to kill them. Do not shoot to wound, if you are fighting for your life. If you’re not fighting for your life, don’t shoot. Leave trick shots to the SWAT team.

⁴With one obvious exception: muggings. If someone just wants your wallet, give them your wallet. Nothing in there is worth dying over.

⁵And I mean that literally — if nothing else works, bite your assailant. I know of at least one instance where a victim scared off an attacker by biting them.

⁶And with THAT being said, if you think you are being kidnapped, fight tooth and nail and devil take the consequences. Adult kidnap victims are only infrequently found alive.

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