This semester I agreed to teach a series of weekly self protection seminars for a women’s resource group on Ferrum College campus. Without going into too much detail here (more will follow in later posts), part of my planning for these included researching the contexts and scenarios in which violence against women tends to happen, as borne out by DOJ victimization and outcome stats and reviewing case reports. The incidence data, and conversations with friends of mine who have been victimized made it woefully clear that the “carry your keys in your hand” strategies, and “on the street/in a dark alley” conceptualizations of violence against women are pretty inadequate by themselves, because they only apply to a limited range of the situations in which a woman may find herself at risk . Since this seminar series is for college-aged women, I structured the program to explore the scenarios and types of assault that are created by social, interpersonal and predatory contexts.
Last night we worked on social scenarios, incidences of sexual assault that begin in a social environment that lend themselves to opportunistic victimization. One scenario involved being passively or forcefully denied exit from a closed room or space after willfully entering. Throughout these scenarios, I had the participants use proxy “cell phones” to rehearse calling for help once their request to leave was denied (made of plastic bags bundled into a phone shape with duct tape, so that they can be used as impact weapons without causing injuries). The partner in the defensive role starts out with the “phone” in her pocket, and is asked to “use” it in the same way that their current phone operates (touch screen, keypad, etc.). As the defensive partner request or attempts to leave, the partner in the aggressive role blocks access the door and becomes aggressive or manipulative, and the partner in the defensive role immediately pulls out the “phone” and makes it clear that she is calling for help, progressing into aggressive action if their partner advances or becomes violent. If the aggressive partner advances, the defensive partner then begins to fight for access to the exit through use of body weapons and defensive shapes, attracting outside attention and use of weapons of opportunity (phone, appliances, furniture, etc.).
In just a few rotations the participants began to move and respond in very effective, physically aggressive ways that were far superior to anything I could try to teach them, and the role playing from the aggressive partner got richer and richer. In between rotations, observations from the participants who just finished the scenario and from the observing participants who watched it were discussed and use to evaluate what was successful or less successful. One issue that immediately became apparent after a few rotations was the need for the defender to put her visual focus on the “phone” for a moment or two in order to “dial” 911 and hit send. During this moment, she is open to surprise by the aggressor if the aggressor begins an aggressive approach. On a few occasions, the defender was quickly overwhelmed by the aggressive partner while looking at the phone, and lost several feet of ground while attempting to recover from a shove or hold, or being pinned to a wall.
One participant commented “It would be better if I didn’t have to look at it but could just push one key.” This observation reminded me of a smart phone app that I heard about a while ago. Several developers now offer “panic buttons” that can be set to send an automatic message to a specific number, or to dial the local 911 dispatch. By holding down a pre-set key or screen feature the app is activated. Some even offer automatic inclusion of location and identity information. Installing such an app and spending some time rehearsing activation while the phone is in a pocket or held in a defensive position would provide one with the ability to quickly contact emergency help without significantly compromising his or her attention to a developing situation. After discussing this option, all participants agreed that being able to pre-set a phone to this function would be an excellent preventative measure, and that it would lessen the chance that using their phone under duress might expose them to further risk.
When we repeated the scenario with the assumption of a panic-button enabled phone, the problem of losing eye contact with the aggressor was resolved. And each participant was much better positioned to respond aggressively or access a weapon if the aggressive partner encroached or attacked. The defensive partners’ ability to escape, attack or access weapons (in this case, plastic 12 oz bottles wrapped in a layer of padding) to enable escape was immediately and drastically improved. Given that almost everyone carries a phone around these days, panic button apps are a preventative measure that women could easily adopt and include in self protection training for scenarios that afford a moment to access the phone.
Below are links to a couple of panic button app providers. Some are available for a fee and others are free. Features also vary, so take a look and decide which one offers what might be important. Note: some provide email or text contact with preset emergency lists, while others dial 911 or a preset number. If opportunities to access and activate the phone and app are limited, 911 contact is a high priority.