City Survival Skills: Empowerment Is Not Enough To Save You

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Madrid, Spain | Photo by Brian Donnelly

I’m calling it: “Women’s Empowerment” is dated and needs to be replaced. It served a purpose but it is time to move on.

Before I throw the first shovel of dirt on its grave however, I will give it its due: the empowerment movement likely laid the foundation for the long-overdue public outcry against sexual assault and harassment. Now that finally we have collectively pulled our heads out of the sand, it’s time to take the next step beyond the warm and fuzzy cheers of the Rah-Rah Sisterhood.

What is a good next step? To back up your You-Go-Girl attitude, you’re gonna need insight into the predator/target dynamic. Its time we get smarter as to how predators work.

Here is a little story to illustrate what I mean…

Greedily, I stabbed my fork through the layered buttery crust and into three inches of blueberry filling. Dinner was good, but my God… the pie is why I always suggest Mother’s Cafe for these reunions. But as much as I was savoring this old favorite, I was relishing the company even more. I had lived in Austin, Texas for over twenty-five years and have some of my most important relationships still there. But despite the city’s growth, I grew restless and moved to Los Angeles to spread my wings. Since the move I return to Austin about once a year to reconnect and recharge with old friends. The four of us, myself, June, Liza and Alex, sat in the Garden Room — we always sit in the Garden Room — huddled around the table with wine and dinner reflecting on the triumphs and trials of the past year.

June, Liza and myself are close in age, 45ish and up. Alex, however, is in her mid-twenties and is June’s daughter. After college Alex began joining our annual get-togethers as the youngest member of our merry little tribe. Though not blood related, Liza and I both have an aunt-type love for Alex as we have watched her grow since childhood.

I first met Alex and her older sister, Harper, when June enrolled them in the martial arts school I managed nearly twenty years ago. At the time June and her husband were concerned about some bullying at school. So they enrolled the girls in martial arts where they learned boundary setting, using their wits to outsmart a threat, effective use of their voice and of course, physical self-defense techniques.

In just a few short weeks June reported the bully seemed to have evaporated. She credited their training with empowering the girls as their confidence soared. Meanwhile, any hesitation to stand up for themselves disappeared along with the bully.

The girls continued to train through high school until other interests pulled them along various paths. But they took the lessons they learned and over the years applied them to a whole new set of life’s challenges beyond schoolyard bullies.

As we laughed through dessert, Alex casually began telling us about some recent encounters she had with a man at her gym. We’ll call him GymGuy. (But let’s not kid ourselves, this Guy is everywhere.) GymGuy mainly hung out with his friends at the gym working his jaw muscle more than his bi’s, tri’s or delts.

The minute Alex would enter the gym, GymGuy would greet her with comments about her body, stand a little too close and generally be a creeper. With each advance, Alex would parry.

Using skills she had practiced since elementary school, she set boundaries, used de-escalation strategies and smoothly executed a release technique when he grabbed her arm one day.

As we listened, June, Liza and I cheered her on. We applauded her courage and intolerance for his behavior. Her mother and aunties beamed with pride over Alex’s ability to stand up to GymGuy.

Two weeks later, back in Los Angeles: Life is good other than missing my friends and the lack of a decent blueberry pie. So when I got a text from Alex wanting to talk, I was delighted.

But she was shaken. On our call she detailed how GymGuy was not only persisting, but had actually escalated his creepy behavior. Just that afternoon he had corned her in an isolated part of the gym. He responded to her boundary setting by trying to shame and gaslight her over her response. Alex told me that whenever she pushed back or attempted to de-escalate, he actually seemed to get off on her resistance. My skin crawled as she spoke.

The more details she gave, I was reminded of Gavin de Becker’s “rapport building tactics”. de Becker lists seven in his book, Gift of Fear, as tactics predators use to interview and groom intended targets. Of the seven, GymGuy hit at least four.

de Becker’s full list includes: Charm, Unsolicited Promises & Too Many Details

Empowerment was failing Alex and she didn’t know what to do.

She was out of ideas. Everything she knew fell short. She just wanted to use the gym in peace. I wanted her as far away from GymGuy as possible. Our empowerment culture would demand that she has every right to be at the gym as much as he does. Yep, I agree there. In fact, I say she has more of a right since she wasn’t the one running around creating a hostile environment for other patrons.

But it wasn’t Alex’s right to the gym that I cared about — I feared for her safety.

Alex was resistant to the idea of quitting and going to another gym, so we brainstormed some options:

  • Google his name to do some opposition research

  • Escalate with gym management

  • Train with a buddy

  • Change hours and/or branch locations where she worked out

  • Document past, current & future harassment

  • Make sure her social media accounts were locked down good and tight

  • Determine her line in the sand: how bad would it have to get?

We talked through a plan that she could start that very evening. After promising that I would not tell her mom, we hung up. Alex knew her mom would worry. And with good reason. All signs pointed to GymGuy not being your average creepy dude.

About two hours later I heard from Alex again:

Assault?! Harassment?! Causing bodily injury?!

I called her immediately. This time I pressed, “Well, now you know who you’re dealing with. What are you going to do?”

His criminal record erased any hesitation about quitting and going to another gym. She immediately flew into action: cancelled her membership, alerted gym management and connected to local law enforcement.

Alex was lucky. She was able to confirm her worst fears. This tactic won’t work for everyone as most acts of harassment and violence go unreported, much less prosecuted or convicted. But with confirmation of how far GymGuy was willing to go, she was able to take action to ensure her safety.

So what does this have to do with “empowerment”? Alex is no shrinking violet. She is a well-educated, world-traveling professional. Whether it is with schoolyard bullies, persnickety c