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Don’t Mess with Me: Self-Defense Tips and Tools

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I used to bartend at a rough-and-tumble, punk-rock dive bar whose patrons specialized in energetic brawls and other combative physical exertions. While a bouncer was often on hand to manage these situations in a far more intimidating manner than the average girl bartender could, I still found it necessary to adopt an attitude that let the rowdiest customers know that the smallest divergence from good manners and basic human decency would result in an ass-kicking they wouldn’t forget. And in the event that said attitude proved an insufficient deterrent to bad, bawdy, or ill-mannered behavior, I made sure I had some bite to back up my bark. 

My biggest showstopper was a simple punch to the face. I was learning how to box at the time, and I relished any opportunity to use my pugilistic skills on deserving drunken fools who stepped out of line. A simple right cross to the bridge of the nose had a wonderfully dramatic and effective fallout, what with the blood burgeoning out of nostrils, the yelp of pain from the offending party, and the thrall of the witnesses (none of whom would ever, ever again think of being less than sweetness and light personified to every bartender they should encounter). This move was guaranteed to shut down any untoward behavior and generally keep peace in the bar for the rest of the night. While not every woman is comfortable throwing punches, we should all develop at least a basic knowledge of preventive and aggressive self-defense tactics. 

The First Line
Prevention is the best and most effective self-defense tool; there are loads of simple, commonsense actions you can take to minimize the chance that you will be on the receiving end of a harassing or violent attack. The short version: do not look like a victim. What does a victim look like? Let’s try a little role-playing. Pretend you’re a mugger or rapist or pervert of some kind and you’re trolling for your next mark. Who is going to look more appealing to you? Note the self-assured woman striding down the sidewalk with a look of cool, determined confidence, holding her handbag snugly under her arm and her head high, her eyes actively observing the surrounding environs and taking stock of possible pitfalls and problems, such as you—the skeevy lowlife waiting to pounce. Now note your other victim option: she’s drunk, teetering on her stilettos, her purse dangling from her wrist as she staggers down the sidewalk, chatting on her cell phone about the ungodly number of Cosmopolitans she just consumed. Who’s the easy target here? 

Don’t be stupid. Take note of your surroundings and behave accordingly. Avoid strangers offering help and favors. Keep your personal possessions close and untantalizing. Don’t distract yourself with phone calls or texts if you’re making your way through a less-than-fabulous part of town. Steer clear of anyone or anything that gives you the heebie-jeebies. Don’t try to navigate city streets (or any streets) alone when your faculties are compromised by any chemical concoctions. Let yourself be a little paranoid, trust your instincts, and remember that it’s always best to wear shoes you can actually move in. Not to say you have to trade in your Marc Jacobs pumps for a good pair of running shoes, but think of this next time you’re cruising Zappos.com. 

Be Ready for Anything
Okay, so you’ve got your big-girl, don’t-mess-with-this attitude on, you know where you’re going, and you know what you’re doing—you’re not being stupid. Sadly, this does not necessarily preclude the stupidity of others, and anyone who’s got a criminal yen for your purse or your person is a sandwich or two short of a picnic, meaning that sometimes you can’t avoid confrontations, despite your best efforts. In the unlikely and unfortunate event that you find yourself compromised, be ready with an arsenal of moves and/or tools to fend off your attacker and hopefully do some damage in the process. 

Several different tactics could have a mitigating effect on the situation. Good old-fashioned dirty-fighting maneuvers, such as eye gouging and hair pulling, can be wonderfully useful, but it never hurts to have some practiced moves on hand as well. A wide range of resources both on the Internet and in real life can guide you in your quest for these skills. Your community will certainly boast a martial-arts school of some kind; from tae kwon do to karate to judo, you don’t have to earn a black belt to have the kind of know-how it would take to stop an attacker from doing any real damage to you. In several states, there are Fear Adrenaline Stress Training (FAST) courses that condition you to respond confidently and deftly in such a situation. One such course, Model Mugging, offered in twenty-six states, hones these skills through role-playing. 

The most obvious criminal-deterrent options, of course, are weapons. Nonlethal tools like Mace or pepper spray and Tasers can be effectual, but they’re best used in close quarters and you will run the risk of having your weapon turned on you. A firearm, while wholly intimidating, will almost always cause more problems than it solves; most self-defense authorities advise strongly against carrying a gun. A Kubotan key chain is a handy tool; otherwise known as the “instrument of attitude adjustment” by the LAPD, it’s a cylindrical, high-impact plastic rod with grooves for grip and a tapered end for hitting nerve-filled, bony places like the knuckles or solar plexus, or softer pressure points like the groin or neck. Its versatility can be daunting, though, so have a clear idea of how you’d use the Kubotan if you had to. 

The simplest self-defense tool is the personal alarm, a device that can be carried on a keychain or a lanyard and that, when activated, emits a head-splitting, 120-decibel screech. The last thing any criminal wants is having attention called to his unsavory actions, and nothing gets people’s ears to perk up faster than an electronic scream that you could hear over the loudest speed-metal band. Though the personal alarm is passive and nonlethal, it’s a good means of distracting your villain, allowing you a chance to run away or bring someone to your rescue. 

I have lived in San Francisco for almost eighteen years. I have walked the length and breadth of the city at all hours of the night, have ridden buses full of nefarious-looking folk, and lived alone in the Tenderloin for eight years. Touch wood, I haven’t once had any sort of violent encounter while navigating my life in the city. But I do not forget myself and my surroundings. I am aware at all times, with my headphones on or not, in three-inch heels or sneakers, on well-lit busy streets or in musty dark alleys. And I still know how to throw a mean right hook.

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