Empowerment Through Personal Safety

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 23rd Feb)


A gazelle can graze within 10 to 20 yards of a sleeping/resting lion quite safely. If there is good grass to graze on, it will move to that patch, despite being in such close proximity to its number one predator. It is empowered to do so, because it understands the reality of the potential threats and dangers it faces, and what each one actually looks like; a sleeping/resting lion is not a danger. When we think about situational awareness, we immediately think of our ability to identify those individuals in our environment who have harmful intent towards us, and forget that good situational awareness will allow us to avoid becoming adrenalized and fearful, at individuals, actions and behaviors which pose no danger to us; like the gazelle with the sleeping lion i.e. it can graze in a perfectly relaxed state.

When are fear system kicks in, and we become adrenalized, there is a cost; adrenaline raises both our heart rate, and our blood pressure. Our fear system also triggers a release of cortisol, which affects our immune system, and alters our digestive processes. If we are constantly finding ourselves reacting to actions and behaviors, which are by their very nature non-harmful, but that we interpret as signaling danger, we are not only going to find ourselves in a constant state of anxiety (which is not good for our mental health), we are also going to experience long-term health risks, such as digestive problems, heart issues, weight gain etc. Understanding what isn’t a threat, is as important as recognizing what is.

Oftentimes, people don’t want to consider personal safety and security, as they see it as adding restrictions to their lives; that they can’t do certain things they enjoy, because there is a risk of danger. Sometimes they will even disregard their own personal safety completely, and make the case to themselves (and possibly others), that it is the assailant who is to blame for an assault, so they shouldn’t have to think about their safety – why should they alter the way they live their life, just because someone else isn’t able to control their violent and/or sexual urges? That isn’t fair. But having an understanding of what is safe and not safe, and a realistic view of what violence is and when and where it occurs etc. is liberating.

If you were suddenly dropped in the Serengeti, next to the gazelle, you would have every right to be terrified; you are in an environment you don’t understand – and your first thoughts would probably be concerning your personal safety, which would be understandable. You don’t understand lions, like the gazelle does. You don’t really know and/or understand the difference between a lion that is about to hunt, and one that is resting etc. You probably wouldn’t be able to give much mental bandwidth, to appreciating the scenery, and the diverse display of flora and fauna because you’d basically be scared out of your wits, with every movement, and noise causing you to jump and flinch etc. However if you spent a few years, researching the behaviors of the different animals you might encounter, and watching them with someone who had experience of living and interacting in such an environment, you’d be a lot less jumpy, and you’d be able to ignore and discount certain actions and behaviors of the different animals you’d encounter, and make responses which would keep you safe etc. Your experience would be a positive and benefical on, rather than a restrictive and debilitating one.

The problem is, most of us don’t really try to understand the environment we live in, because by and large it is a safe one – we are not as likely to be killed as the gazelle is – and so we don’t need to be as aware of our surroundings, as an animal living in such close proximity to its predators. Unfortunately there are human predators, who live and operate alongside us, and want to cause us harm, and those who we assume to be predators due to media depictions and our overactive imaginations etc. By gaining a proper understanding of what danger looks like, we can truly enjoy life to its full, when danger isn’t present and disengage ourselves from it when it is, just like the gazelle.   



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Women\'s Self Defense - The Same Tired Old Story

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 15th Feb)


It still amazes me that the media’s representation of what women’s self-defense is, hasn’t moved on much since the late 1980’s,and early 1990’s, where simple solutions such as kneeing an attacker in the groin, and shouting as loud as you can are the norm; the belief that it is possible to learn a few tricks in order to “feel” safer, and be more confident when walking about – whilst ignoring the fact that women are more likely to be raped, and sexually assaulted in their own homes (or those of others) by someone they know. The media, and many martial arts schools, persist with the idea that the point of women’s self-defense training, is to make those who attend courses and classes, “feel” more safe and confident, rather than actually “be” safer and more prepared to deal with violence.

I completely believe in the idea of aggression training, and assertiveness, and the teaching of simple techniques, however the training methods that are used, rarely reflect reality e.g. attackers and assailants are presented, coming at their target from distance – either directly from the front or directly behind, rarely if ever are drills and scenarios presented, where the attacker is sitting next to their victim on a couch or bed; and where time and distance are completely denied. Attacks on the ground, are practiced, and taught, as if the victim is on a hard surface, and has all the room in the world to move; this really doesn’t replicate real world situations, where a sexual assailant may make their assault, on the back seat of a car, or in a room crowded with furniture.

There is also a naïve belief that women’s self-defense can be taught in a matter of a few hours – which persists not just in the eyes of the media, who often want a self-defense instructor to come on their show, and show a few moves so women now “know”, what to do when attacked (and inevitably will “feel” safer), but also in the eyes of the public; every year a few weeks before college, I have many requests from parents for private lessons for their daughters, who they want to be taught how to handle and survive a violent assault – I’m betting that few tennis coaches get called up, and asked to train someone to play competitive tennis at the highest level, in just a few hours, yet the myth persists that a few tricks, and a couple of techniques will suffice. The goal with women’s self-defense, seems to be to make everybody “feel” safer, and present a simple picture of violence, that in no way mirrors reality.

Real life violence is scary, and sexual assaults are life-changing experiences, that some people never get over, and yet the martial arts and self-defense industry, aided by the media, perpetuates the myths, that attackers are always strangers, that they come at you from distance, when the truth is that sexual predators are skilled social players, who are able to create awkward situations, convince us that they are trustworthy, and even invest in them as people – before they then make their assault, with their victims only actually realizing that they are being attacked (having first gone into denial – why would my boyfriend’s best friend be doing this to me?) at some point during the assault. But this is not a comfortable story to tell, and as the media keeps presenting to us, the goal of women’s self-defense is not to make women be safer, it’s to make them feel safer.

Personally, I feel this is a patronizing and condescending view, as it relegates women’s self-defense to being something that is a “nice to have”, rather than a necessary and essential life skill. Women deserve to be told the realities that they face, and not have the media present a skewed or false picture. Women’s self-defense should not be relegated, to the teaching of a few techniques, backed up with aggression and assertiveness training, despite this being an important component that should be included in any training program. Rather accurate, and realistic depictions of assaults on women need to be explained and trained in the contexts where they occur, with attacker’s being friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and the like etc. with the methods and processes they employ described and explained. Learning to predict, identify and avoid violence, are perhaps the most important self-defense skills that women can learn, as this will prevent the majority of assaults from occurring, yet the media shies away from presenting these skills, or when it does reducing them to the top 10 safety tips for women etc. Tips that any sexual predator will find a way to address, and find a way round.

The media (and many martial arts/self-defense schools) needs to take the time in its reporting, and stop reducing women’s self-defense to being little more than a confidence booster, and start to describe and explain what real-world violence actually looks like – and not what is just easy to teach and explain. Techniques and aggression training, all have their part, but accurate and realistic scenarios need to be worked through, rather than ones which just suit the instructor’s training methods; this includes accurately reflecting both the physical environments and social settings that women are likely to be assaulted in. Feeling safe, is not the same as being safe, and the media would be well to remember this when covering the subject of women’s self-defense.



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Investment, Optimism & Expectations

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 8th Feb)


Have you ever been involved in a conversation or interaction, when you knew you were being conned, and yet still continued to listen, and remain involved, rather than walking away? You’re not alone; and the longer you stay involved with whoever it is you are dealing with, the more likely you are to comply with the con. When we invest something, whether it is simply time, we are often unable to admit to ourselves, that we must sometimes walk away, receiving no return on our investment – if we listen to a long winded story by some stranger, about how they need 10 dollars to buy a train ticket in order to see a sickly relative, it may be hard for us to walk away, without first handing over the money. The fact that we’ve stood there and listened, investing in the story, can make it hard for us to walk away, without concluding the interaction by handing over the money (knowing that it won’t be spent on a train ticket). We may convince ourselves that there is a possibility that the story is true, and if it is we’ve done the right thing (because human beings are inherently optimistic creatures), but at the end of the day, deep down, we know we were conned, and in fact knew it at the time. When the cost of the con is only a few dollars, the consequences of complying are small, however if it is someone trying to convince us to let them into our home, or look after our children, the eventual price to pay, may be much greater.

One of the reasons we keep investing in a story or con, is because we don’t want to admit to ourselves and the con-artist and predator, that we didn’t spot what was happening to us sooner; pride and embarrassment, hold us back from acknowledging that we didn’t spot what was happening to us earlier. Basically we feel ashamed at not detecting that we were being played sooner, and are not sure how to, extricate ourselves from this socially awkward situation, without admitting that the person we were dealing with had fooled us – even if it was only up to a point. Human beings avoid shame at all costs; shame is a form of public guilt. Many people will continue to play out the con, because they don’t want to have to admit to others, even if it is the person perpetrating the con, that they’ve been conned – better to end it with that person, the only other one who knew what was happening, walking away, without anything being mentioned.

One of the other reasons we may avoid calling someone on a con, is that we avoid confrontations at all cost, preferring to acquiesce to demands that are not in our best interest, rather than confront somebody on something, and create a socially awkward situation, that we’re unable to handle. If we’ve invested some time – and possibly money – in to the con, our natural optimism, may convince us that it may not be worth confronting the person, as if their intentions are good, then we’ve soured the process. I once invested, and kept investing in a business venture, without questioning the person who I was investing into, because the eventual outcome, which seemed attainable at the outcome, still had a chance of coming true (and I didn't want to lose what I'd already invested); my initial investments, my optimism, and my unwillingness to confront (as it would have soured the relationship), prevented me from acknowledging what was happening – fortunately all I lost in the deal was money, which over time can be regained/replaced. However if somebody is playing the con for you as an individual the consequences can be much more dire.

Certain predators, will play a long game with you. A supposed friend, who is a sexual assailant, may get you to invest in the friendship, so that you put aside your doubts around an evening out, a trip/day away etc. You don’t want to express your doubts, because you have invested in that friendship – and hopefully what you fear won’t happen. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether it’s psychological, emotional, sexual or physical abuse etc. it may be hard to walk away from something you have invested so heavily in, even if you know the eventual outcome is not a good one – and with an optimistic outlook you can convince yourself that this is not the case. If you believe you are being played, walk away at the moment you recognize it – nobody recognizes the con right at the start, and there is no reason to feel embarrassed at failing to do so. The longer you stay engaged the harder it is to walk away, even if all you have done is to invest time.       



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De-escalation - Saying Sorry

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 1st Feb)


I’ve written about de-escalation before however some good questions arose, when we worked through various scenarios, in our women’s self-defense/self-protection class today. One of the things I like to get people to first address in any scenario we place them in, is whether they are dealing with a pre-meditated situation or a spontaneous one – pre-meditated situations involve predatory individuals who have planned and orchestrated their assaults (such as muggers, rapists etc.) whereas spontaneous ones occur, when an individual has become aggressive and angry due to your behaviors and actions (spilling a drink over them, taking a parking spot etc.) whether real or perceived. When setting up scenarios it is important to distinguish between the two as predatory individuals almost always set up their assault through dialogue, and the creation of socially awkward situations, which places them in close proximity to us, where it is almost impossible to back away and create space, before they make their assault e.g. most sexual assaults on women are committed not by strangers, but by friends and acquaintances who have already gained a certain level of trust and so are able to make their assaults, in situations where they are already standing or sitting close to their victim – standard assertiveness training simply doesn’t cut it in such situations e.g. it is hard to tell somebody to get back etc. when they have created a situation where they are sitting next to you etc. It is really only spontaneous situations, where the aggressor has no definite agenda – such as mugging or raping you – where de-escalation is appropriate.

One of the things we talked about concerning de-escalation, was around apologizing for an action or behavior, and whether this would be taken as a weakness (encouraging further aggression and violence) or not. There are a few cultural aspects to this. In the UK, where I come from, apologizing and saying sorry is a default response to almost every action and behavior you make, whether it causes someone harm, inconvenience or not etc. In the U.S. I have found, on the East Coast for certain, that nobody expects you to apologize for something you have done and expect you to respond to them aggressively, and as a result don’t here it when you do; because it’s so unexpected it’s not processed. This is of course a generalization, however it raises an important cultural point; that if people are used to disputes where people rarely apologize but instead argue their case, they may not pick up on an apology when it is made, or instead interpret it in an aggressive way. If culturally, it is expected that an apology is made, then not making one will be seen as an aggressive statement.

There are also many different ways to say sorry and apologize. You can do it positively, subserviently and aggressively etc. Once in London when I was on the tube, a woman knocked her bag into me, when I had a dislocated shoulder – when she did it I winced/grimaced, and noticing the look on my face which she interpreted as being confrontational, rather than as somebody in pain, started to “posture” back to me, apologizing in an aggressive manner, and justifying/arguing why it was my fault that she knocked her back into me. Such an apology really doesn’t mean much, and against a highly adrenalized and emotional individual would only escalate the situation. I have also seen individuals apologize in such a subservient and scared fashion that they have encouraged their aggressor to continue their verbal onslaught as they realized that the person they were dealing with was so scared of confrontation, that they’d never be challenged. There’s also a third/middle way, where you apologize, in a confident manner, accept responsibility for your actions and help your aggressor find non-violent solutions to the situation.  

Whilst an apology may be necessary, it will achieve little, unless it is accompanied by some dialogue that allows the aggressor to consider non-violent solutions to the situation. If this isn’t feasible, then this is where the assertive posture and dialogue starts to come in, and not before e.g. shouting at a person who you have just spilt a drink over, to get back, is really adding insult to injury – if they aren’t able to formulate a non-physical solution, with your aid, than such an assertive response may then be applicable. Saying sorry, is rarely enough, as an injured party is looking to achieve some sort of solution, rather than just having you acknowledge their situation. They are looking for an outcome not merely acknowledgment, or trying to ignore them – aggressive people don’t simply go away, they need to be presented with an alternative to violence rather than being ignored.

There are the times to say sorry and apologize, there are the times when it is more productive to skip this and move on to other ways of de-escalating and diffusing the situation, but it is certainly true that saying sorry isn’t enough. A predatory individual doesn’t care about your response unless it is to acquiesce to their demands, and a person who has become aggressive due to your actions whether real or perceived is unlikely to be looking for non-confrontational signals, which means apologizing will rarely increase your chances of being assaulted in spontaneous instances of aggression and violence. 



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