There is a half-truth in self-defense that if you exude enough confidence muggers will leave you alone. The implication being, if only you were more confident you wouldn't be targeted!
How's that for instilling confidence?
As far as I can tell, this self-defense trope can be traced back to a 1981 study, Attracting Assault: Victim's Non Verbal Cues. The researchers asked convicted violent thieves, rapists and murderers to review video of pedestrians on a busy NYC sidewalk. The study found that the convicts consistently identified the same people over and over again as either an ideal (soft) target or a hard target. The researchers then measured various aspects of body language, posture and gait and found notable differences even when controlled for by age, race and gender. They then labeled those hard targets as "confident" and less likely to be approached.
Despite the lack of studies replicating these findings and the unreliability of using prisoners in research, there is insight we can glean. However much of the advice concluded from this study is not generalizable and impractical for day-to-day living. For example, how does one maintain that recommended confident stride when
you just got yelled at by your boss, your kids are having trouble in school or your boyfriend just broke up with you? Anyone who has had to juggle groceries and kids on public transit while worry about tomorrow's work deadline understands how absurd this expectation of unwavering, focused confidence is. Where is this magical land where we walk around confident 100% of the time?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying self-defense advice about confident body language is WRONG, I'm saying it is incomplete. And no where is this more obvious than in complex, dynamic public spaces where life is happening 24/7/365 whether we feel up for it or not. That is why we cultivate street smart habits and mindset to pick up the slack.
I re-lived this idea on a personal level recently when my friend Lorelei reached out after she had successfully dodged an attempted carjacking. When we spoke it had been a few days since the event and she was still unnerved by it. What really broke my heart was that despite successfully dodging the threat, she proceeded to second-guess and beat herself up for being targeted in the first place. 💔
Here is what you need to know about Lorelei before we get all into it. Lorelei is one of the smartest, most discerning, street-smart (and wittiest!) people I know. We meet as volunteers with L.A. For Choice, a pro-choice clinic escort organization. She had been clinic escorting for some time when I came stumbling along. I watched her in awe as she managed the chaotic scene with ease. I later learned she grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philly and spent her 20's breaking Thanks Dad Self-Defense rules in NYC before moving to L.A. to pursue her screenwriting career. She's been around the block, flourished and has some great stories to tell.
So I was surprised by Lorelei's shaken confidence because she had been targeted. When I heard her story, all I could see was a street smart, brilliant woman who reacted in time. But I also understood her feelings of failure for simply being targeted: I've been there myself and have talked to countless other women who have experienced this same mind trip.
These feelings of self-recrimination and doubt about our abilities are common themes fueled by half-assed advice like "Be confident!" and self-defense instructors who position themselves as authorities in lieu of their student's lived expertise.
Side note for self-defense instructors: by the time a student comes to you for classes, they have likely successfully dodged trouble a million times already - especially if they are a woman, BIPOC or LGBTQIA+. Anything you have to offer them is just icing on the cake, so build on their existing strengths.
After our initial conversation, Lorelei graciously agreed to sit down again to share her story with you. We talk about her experience and discussed:
👉 Common themes of self-blame, second guessing our abilities and the fear that we may not be so lucky next time;
👉 While Lorelei was targeted during a few seconds of distraction we explore how her intuition and previous street smart experience kicked in at just the right time;
👉 How we can internalize body language and behavior to make us a hard target even if we are not feeling "confident";
👉 The value of community in sharing these experiences and the amazing women we have learned from and leaned on for support;
👉 Adapting a street smart mindset for different environments and I confess where I am straight up street dumb!
🚗💨 🚓 BONUS: We also discuss the impact of car culture in L.A. on crime. Specifically we dig into the geography of carjackings and identify places they are most likely to happen. Spoiler: the principles we discuss also apply to similar high risk areas on the train and other public spaces so listen up for that around here.
If you don't consider yourself a self-defense "expert" but have successfully dodged trouble and still second-guessed yourself, then this conversation dedicated to you! ❤️
Resources mentioned in our conversation
A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
Script Anatomy for film and TV writers
Abortion Access Fund (national)
Access Reproductive Justice (California based)
Psst: Amazon wants me to let you know this article contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you'll pay for that item nor does it inspire me to recommend it. These are just damn good books.