As a society, we struggle to distinguish between violence and the people who use it. Since we mostly associate violence with criminals, we tell ourselves that violence itself is criminal, violence is evil, violence is bad. We think that because violence is undesirable, to study it is to endorse it—to say that we think it is desirable. There is a certain logic to this point of view at the surface. If criminals do something often enough, that something is probably going to be criminal itself. The problem with that logic, however, is that it conflates the means with the ends. Because we are so uncomfortable with violence, we have convinced ourselves subconsciously that the “what” and the “why” are the same things: in other words, we tell ourselves that, because criminals often use violence, violence itself is always criminal. But that’s a big mistake: violence is a tool like any other. As with any other tool, the proper object of our moral and ethical judgment isn’t the “what”—after all, you wouldn’t call a screwdriver or a toothbrush evil—but rather the “why,” the ends to which human beings choose to direct it.
It’s important to understand that the person who merely reacts to violence—who is unwilling to meet their assailant on an even playing field when their own safety demands it—is always at a disadvantage. Perhaps you want self-protection to be a sanitized form of violence, one that doesn’t hurt quite as much. Sorry to say, there’s no such thing. A knife wound inflicted in an act of self-defense looks just like a knife wound inflicted in an act of murder. Violence is violence.
What that means is, we need to think about scenarios of violence not from the perspective of the victim, but of the winner—even when the victim is the “good guy” and the winner is a criminal. Of course, we can do that without condoning unprovoked violence or sympathizing with the criminal; we’re not thinking morally here, but tactically. And tactically speaking, we need to answer some key questions about every violent encounter: When did everything shift to favor one person over the other? When did they get a result with the tool of violence? How did they get that result? Is it something that can be replicated by anyone on a regular basis?
Again, these aren’t moral questions. Everything that happens prior to violence has a separate set of rules, many of which have to do with defusing dangerous situations before violence breaks out. Before violence, we can practice anger management, meditation, or simply the habit of walking away when situations get too heated. Similarly, everything that happens after an act of violence is handled by our justice system. That’s when we start using words like “self-defense” or “murder” (which are technical terms with very specific legal definitions). There are reams of books on either side of the discrete points of violence, but very few on the act itself. The story that follows focuses on the moments when violence is actually happening. That narrow window of time where we, as sane, socialized citizens, would be justified in using the tool in defense of self or others. My message is a simple one: to avoid being a victim of violence, you need to learn from it.
I was once hired to give a self-defense presentation to a corporate group aboard a cruise ship. The company had arranged a Caribbean cruise for several of its employees and their families, and my presentation was informally billed as a kind of father-daughter event. One of those women, whom I will call Sara, was the daughter of a man I happened to know fairly well. He told me she was coming with him to the seminar whether she liked it or not, since she was getting ready to go to college. Many of the other daughters came to the seminar under a similar state of silent protest—they wanted to go do other things, like tan or swim or hit the buffet—anything else but this. I understood: it was the Caribbean, after all.
When I met Sara she was a carbon copy of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde. Bubbly and effervescent, she talked like her, she carried herself like her, she was just that girl. Learning about self-defense was clearly not at the top of Sara’s list of priorities that afternoon, but to her credit she went through all the training with a standard level of disinterest and did nothing to make the event more difficult (unlike some of the fathers, intent on impressing their daughters). Afterward I didn’t think much of our limited exchanges, frankly. It was just another corporate seminar.
Three years later, I was holding a series of seminars in New York City and she walked in with her three younger sisters in tow. “Do you remember me?” she asked. She didn’t have quite the same stereotypical “ditzy blonde” affect, but she looked more or less the same.
“Of course I do. Nice to see you again.”
“Did Dad call you and tell you what happened?”
“No,” I said, “what happened?”
Soon after the cruise, Sara moved into the dorms to start her freshman year. She had a first-floor room, a roommate, a lofted bed with a desk underneath, the whole college dorm experience. One morning, when her roommate was sleeping over at her boyfriend’s apartment, Sara woke up with a man on top of her. This was not a drunken hook-up, this was a stranger. A man who had somehow managed to climb through Sara’s window and up the ladder onto her platform bed without being detected.
Sara’s nightmare scenario isn’t a common one. Twenty-eight percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by strangers,* but the reality is, women like Sara are much more likely to be attacked by someone they know. That statistical unlikelihood didn’t make Sara’s situation any less real. She could smell this strange man. He was grabbing at her. By the time Sara could clear the cobwebs from her brain, he had her pinned and was about to pull back the sheets. Most young women’s first reaction in this scenario would be to scream. Not Sara. She instantly recognized the situation she was in. Her first reaction wasn’t a reaction at all, it was a thought: “He’s not close enough.”
During our training aboard the cruise ship, we ran the girls through a series of sexual assault scenarios. One of the things we taught them was that after a man grabs you, in order to perpetrate a rape he will have to move in at least two ways: 1) he will have to remove, unzip, or pull down his pants, and 2) he will have to remove or pull down any of her clothing obstructing his path. In this scenario, he would also have to pull down the comforter and sheets under which Sara was sleeping. When that moment of adjustment occurs, the attacker will have to loosen control of her body and remove at least one of his hands from her. Doing so would also bring him closer to her and expose one of his most vulnerable body parts—his face. So, Sara waited. The next thing she realized was that to escape this situation unharmed she would have to inflict an injury. She wasn’t going to escape by yelling— only by doing, and by doing something terrible. Pinned to her back, with his legs positioned inside hers, the only vulnerable body part she could reach was the man’s eyes. (It was one of several body parts we trained briefly with her cruise group.)
Sure enough, the man began to adjust. He pulled down the sheets and then his pants, forcing him to lean in closer to her. That’s when Sara snapped into action. She wrapped her left arm around the back of his neck, and attacked his left eye with her right hand. She remembered from the seminar that when you attack anywhere on an assailant’s face—but especially the eyes—they are going to move away from you violently. This is both an instinctive self-preservation response and an attempt to retain control of the situation by pulling away from the attack. If you’re a young woman like Sara, who weighed probably 110 pounds at the time, that means you can’t let up. You don’t have the same margin of error as a man or a larger woman. You literally have to hang on for dear life, and keep attacking.
Sara’s attacker was easily 235 pounds, and strong. When she dug into his eye, he wrenched back in the opposite direction like a rodeo bull. Their combined momentum pulled them both off the lofted bed and onto the hardwood floor below. Knowing something like this was going to happen, Sara focused on her grip around the back of the man’s neck and latched on. While her grip around his neck stayed secure as they fell to the floor, she lost her grip on his eye and her forearm slipped down his face. This was not a conscious decision on Sara’s part, but as they hit the ground, she sent all her 110 gravity-aided pounds through her right forearm and into his throat.
She felt the injury happen right as they hit the ground. His body went weak. Any vile intention his brain may have been conjuring became moot the moment his body ceased to function at its command. This gave Sara the opportunity she needed to get away and run screaming down the hall for help. By the time campus security got to her room, the man had asphyxiated and died right where they’d landed.*
Can you imagine yourself in Sara’s situation? Someone bigger, faster, and stronger than you, crawling silently into your bed? Can you imagine having the guts to stay calm and plan your attack? Sara had guts. She had composure. And the thing that anchored both of those traits was her training. The second the man grabbed her, Sara told me it was like I was in her ear. This is a foundational truth about violence and self-protection: When random violence finds you, you’re only ever going to be able to do what you’ve trained to do, and you’re only going to be able to draw from your established knowledge base. Sara had just one training session (which she didn’t even want to be in), and from that limited exposure to instruction alone she knew three important things: that she couldn’t compete with her attacker’s size, that she would need to inflict an injury, and that once she did, she had to stay on it. All this information was stored in her brain for instant recall when her life was at stake.
In moments like the one described above the difference between acting and reacting can be the difference between life and death. In all my studies of self-protection, training and debriefing military units and law enforcement agencies, examining security footage from prison yards and talking to prison guards, I have discovered that the odds of winning a violent encounter swing precipitously in favor of whoever inflicts the first debilitating injury. That doesn’t mean anytime you feel nervous or fearful that you should impulsively look for stray chef’s knives or ready yourself for well-timed eye gouges. You should always endeavor to remove yourself from any situation in which you are uncomfortable. What it does mean, however, is that if you are getting asocial cues from someone, you need to act. If violence becomes inevitable and inescapable, you must never hesitate to harness your knowledge and lean on your training to protect yourself. You must never let thoughts about what violence means or says delay its utilization, because in those moments where it is necessary, there is no room for nuance and semantics. There is no time to parse a predator’s intent, to figure out what is going on inside their head, to understand how they think and what kind of moral code they have (or don’t have). Even if there were time, those things are basically unknowable.
Your power is in your knowledge and understanding of violence, in your awareness and preparedness, in your training and capacity to act. Every time you shrink from an act of violence like those Sara endured, or you project empathy toward a person who is showing you their true colors, or you choose to make some directionless prayer like, “I hope that never happens to me!”, you are relinquishing all that power. You are giving first-mover advantage to your
potentially mortal opponent. If you take one thing from what you’ve read so far, I hope it’s this: anytime you attempt to bury your head in the sand and deny the existence of violence in your world, not only are you giving up your power, but you are giving it over to the very perpetrators of random violence whose existence you are hoping to ignore.
Instead, look violence in the eyes and ask yourself, “How did that work?” Because in learning what the tool of violence truly is and how it really works, we remind ourselves that the perpetrators of violence are human beings—the same as us. We possess the same abilities, with access to the same tools. The difference between us is not in the “what,” but in the “why.”
* According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and a 2015 Department of Justice survey on national crime victimization.
* When campus and local police investigated the events, they discovered that the man was a serial rapist who had been terrorizing that campus and a couple others in the area for nearly six years. He had been watching her for three weeks. He knew her roommate spent every other night at her boyfriend’s place. He tested their first-floor window and found they often left it unlocked. Investigators found his notes among his possessions.
Tim Larkin is America’s leading Pro-Victim Rights and Personal Safety Advocate. He is also the founder of Target Focus Training and a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, When Violence Is the Answer: Learning How to Do What It Takes When Your Life Is at Stake, is available at booksellers everywhere.