Open Thread: What Are Your Best Self-Defense Tips?

Hiyah, originally uploaded to Flickr by DRSPIEGEL14.Self defense is not the most fun subject, but it’s been on my mind a bit and I thought it would be a good topic to talk about. As I’ve been getting back into running, I finally got a Road ID (which is every bit as awesome as I thought it was when I first heard about it). If you missed the post, it’s a simple bracelet you wear on your wrist that has your name and some “in case of emergency” contact numbers. I was telling a male friend about my Road ID, and he was incredulous about it — “That’s such a dark way to go through life, always worried about being attacked!” He continued to chide me about it, and after thinking a second or two I said, “Dude. You’re saying this because you’re a guy. This is kind of what it’s like for chicks all the time — you always have to be aware of your surroundings, and make sure you’re parking in a well-lit spot, and have your keys out before you get to your apartment, and so forth.” (Pictured: Hiyah, originally uploaded to Flickr by DRSPIEGEL14.)

Maybe my parents were extra dark and overprotective to raise me that way. I remember when I first moved to New York (in 1997!!) they advised me to “never get on an elevator with a man, alone.” That one seemed a little crazy and hard to follow anyway (if a guy got on mid-ride, was I supposed to get out of the elevator and wait for the next car?), but that rule totally went out the window when I went to my first sample sale. Sketchy freight elevator to go up to a warehouse-type loft? Well, I thought, as long as there’s a good sale behind it it’s fine. After all, the fashion editors I worked for heard about it by fax — what could possibly go wrong?

Dumb decisions like that aside, I’ve mostly practiced the “constant vigilence” method of self-defense. I’ve also taken a self-defense class (albeit a while ago). That said, these are some of my top tips — readers, what are your best tips for self-defense?

  • Don’t tune out and listen to music if it’s late at night or you’re in an unfamiliar area.
  • Be aware of desolate areas that you encounter often, and do what you can to minimize your exposure.  For example, if your office building has two exits, one near a 24-hour deli and the other near a parking garage, use the one near the deli if you’re leaving at a time when foot traffic is low. Similarly, the most direct path from the subway stop to my apartment takes me past a parking lot, a parking garage, and two buildings under construction — so I go the slightly longer route so I’m near shops and restaurants.
  • If you’re home alone and someone you don’t know (or aren’t expecting) rings your buzzer, query who it is, and possibly even pretend to be on the phone when answering the door.  (I’m sure I do a great job of faking a conversation with my mother — but hopefully it’s enough to deter someone.)
  • If you have to go to a desolate or sketchy area, tell someone before you go.  For example, one of my old cases required me to take numerous trips to the file archives, a labyrinthine and unpopulated floor — it seemed like a great setting for a murder mystery.  I always emailed a friend before I went!
  • If you ever get a funny feeling about something, trust your gut.  Don’t worry about etiquette (e.g., is it rude to stop walking and turn around?) — just do it.  Then cross the street or get somewhere that feels safe.
  • If you drive and expect to be out past dark somewhere, do your best to park close to a parking light.  If you can, check the undercarriage of the car as you approach.
  • You should have your keys in hand as you approach your car or front door — no fumbling in your purse!  Something a friend told me years ago is to take one key and put it between your second and third finger and make a fist around the rest of the keys — it becomes a great weapon if needed.
  • In general, don’t make yourself a target.  My engagement ring isn’t huge, but I turn it around so the diamond is against my palm when I’m on the subway; I do the same if I’m wearing any of my cocktail rings.  I do play with my Android on the subway, though, which I probably shouldn’t do.

If you’re actually attacked…

  • SHOUT.  If you don’t know what to shout, try “BACK OFF.” Something else that I’ve heard you should shout is “I DON’T KNOW YOU.” If you have time to see something kind of awesome, watch this woman shout down a man who flashed his penis at her on the subway (close your door first — her language is, um, NSFW.)
  • Kick the side of their knee if you can — you don’t have to get too close to do this.
  • If they’re already close… Go for the eyes.  Put your thumbs over his eyes and start pushing, as hard as you can. If you can’t do that, claw and scratch as best you can.
  • If you can, memorize details about your attacker’s face — you want to be able to identify him later.

Lifehacker had an excellent article on self-defense with a lot of videos that show specific moves — such as “how to maximize damage” and how to get out of common holds.  I highly recommend you read it.

Ok, readers, those are my tips — what are yours?  How often do you think of self defense?


  1. anonymous :

    I took a RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) class while in school several years ago and was very happy with it. After several practice sessions, each student was “attacked” by an instructor (a male campus police officer) wearing padding so we could fight back with full force. Each student got two tries, and the second time the guy snuck up behind you and did various things to intimidate you. It was terrifying, but I am convinced I am now much less likely to freeze up in an emergency situation. If you don’t have time for ongoing martial arts classes, RAD is much more substantial than a single-session program.

  2. Anonymous :

    Don’t assume someone is safe because he is a classmate/fellow lawyer/fellow doctor, etc. Bad things happened between students in my college and in my law school. Remember, Ted Bundy was a law student.

    • This.

      Most attackers are people you know. Random violence is very uncommon. Acquaintance-violence is very common. As Kat says, constant vigilance.

    • I had a classmate ask me for drinks and then suggested sharing a bottle of wine back at his place. He must have thought I was insane!

  3. FallenAngela :

    Hi Ladies –
    I’m a long-time Corporette reader. I usually just peruse the comments (I learn so much for you chicks! Thanks!); however, felt compelled to chime in on this topic. My mother is a domestic violence investigator so she is constantly giving me self defense information. Her advice basically reiterates what’s been written so far, but there was one tip that has stuck with me. It’s a morbid one, but I think it’s important. She told me that if you feel like you won’t survive (or at a minimum, you will lose the struggle against your attacker and end up critically injured, unconscious, or unable to remember what has happened due to head injury) grab clumps of hair, get flesh under your nails and draw blood so that there is DNA on the scene. I hope no one is ever in that situation, but in my mother’s line of work (domestic violence, where unfortunately women return to their attackers time and time again) it’s an important message.
    And screw being polite! Take care of yourselves. Stay safe everyone.

  4. This is all great advice. I live in the suburbs so the only time I really find myself nervous these days is when I take my dog out at night if my husband isn’t home to do so. I always feel vulnerable in that situation and try to be super aware of my surroundings.

  5. I’ll add one I haven’t seen yet (sorry if it was already posted).

    When we took a quick self defense class in my sorority, they told us we should yell “FIRE” if we’re attacked and able.

    “Help” or other calls like that are likely NOT to get any reaction/assistance. However – FIRE affects everyone.

  6. LurkerHere :

    Longtime lurker here! First off, I’d like to say that Corporette really helped me a lot by giving me great interview tips for my first “real” job out of university (Marketing Analyst for a small IT firm), and gives me great reads during my coffee breaks.

    All good points here, I’ll share my two cents:
    The constant vigilance and keeping loved ones notified is a great way to prevent most things that could happen to you. Same goes for common sense measures such as hiding your valuables from plain sight (e.g. don’t read on your expensive iPad in a shady part of town, or, as Kat mentioned, hide your diamons palm-side down if possible), not listening to music/or otherwise be distracted in a shady/unfamiliar/deserted part of town.

    As for the when the preventative stuff unfortunately does not work and you get stuck in a situation where you are attacked – KEEP CALM. Make a lot of noise, and target key points which (for most women, who weigh less and are shorter than men, this is more effective) will give you time to escape. These points include, windpipe, arch of the foot, groin/crotch, eyes, palm of hand thrust into the nose upwards, the space between the ribs & sternum, between the eyes and the soft tissue of the stomach. My friend who is a level 3 blackbelt in taekwondo told me hitting these spots (even for those most self-defense challenged) will at least cause the attacker to pause in surprise, giving you time to escape or scream for help.

  7. This post strikes quite close to home with me, because my husband was attacked 2 weeks ago while walking to work. Two guys grabbed his shoulder (presumably to stop him while 3-4 of their buddies caught up). Without consciously thinking about it, he very quickly punched one in the face and swept the other’s legs out from under him. This provided just enough hesitation from the two of them that he was able to run like mad and get away. His experience taught me a few things:

    1. Constant vigilance (like everyone has said!)

    2. Sometimes you just have to surprise the attacker for a moment by fighting back, even if it’s not inflicting a huge injury. He said later that he didn’t think his punch or kick was hard enough to actually hurt someone badly, they just didn’t expect that he would fight back.

    3. Being able to run quickly for at least a couple of blocks is so important. This is not a get-in-shape lecture, but one of the first things he said to me was that he was glad he is in good shape.

    After he punched, kicked, and ran, the guys did not even attempt to follow him. I presume they went away to look for easier targets.

  8. If you are attacked while other people are around apparently the most effective technique is to call upon one specific person for help. E.g. “hey, you in the red pullover, help me / call the police”. People are often unsure when to react (especially in situations like verbal fights that could happen between a couple as well as between an aggressor and you) and sadly, most think that somebody else is going to help you anyway. By “naming” somebody specific this person usually feels responsible for the situation and will be way more likely to help you. Plus, oftentimes, attackers are confused by this action/scared off and will abandon.

  9. I think my “don’t mess with me” face looks like a woman who’s trying to be tough caus she’s scared. I put on a self-confident face that says I’m totally at ease. I was pickpocketed once in Venice and put my hand in my pocket when I felt something weird there in Djibouti, & pulled out a dude’s hand with my cash in it! My travel companions took it from there–pretty funny, really. Another time, in the mid-sized city where I did my PhD, I had an assignment to write a description of, and then a longer research paper on, part of the city. I chose a “scary” street I’d biked through for months. People opened up to talk to me easily because they knew me by sight. Really, with all the places I’ve lived (Berlin at 3:00 a.m., anyone?), I credit acting like I could handle it for the not having anything worse happen to me than the two incidents above.

    At home, I’ve always lived alone. Never was as fearful as when I had a toddler. Used to have nightmares re him being stuck in our apt with my unconscious/dead body for days, and the effects that trauma would have on him. Thank heavens he learned how to open a can of beans! He’s 9 now and has been told that if anyone is in our house trying to bad things to me, he should go to a neighbors.

  10. One addition to what I said before. I heard about a self defense technique that really intrigued me: use the attackers energy against him. Concretely, e.g. if he is pushing you against a wall, instead of pushing against him (which he is expecting and usually anyway not going to be very successful given the difference in muscle mass…) grab him and actually pull him towards the wall (just not on you). Given that the attacker expects the opposite reaction and uses all his force in this example he would hit the wall hard which gives you time to escape.
    (Maybe this is not the best example, but any situation of pushing or punching or whatever can basically be reverted like this.)
    I don’t remember the name of this type of self defense – would be great if someone could help out!

    • These are common techniques in judo/aikido/jujitsu/most other martial arts but not ones that I would expect a novice to employ in a panic situation. I would call the concept kazushi “offbalancing”.

  11. I don’t know if it will actually come in handy, but I take the subway every day and walk through several blocks of a bad neighborhood. I like to take my important personal items (cell, keys, and small card holder) out of my purse and keep them in my coat pocket. That way, if my purse is grabbed from me, they won’t get much more than the junk all women carry. Hope the lip gloss was worth the effort!

  12. As soon as I read the first paragraph of this post, I wanted to tell you guys about “Gift of Fear,” but the first commenter already had!! If you ever feel weird about following a “mere” feeling or hesitate when rebuffing someone who approaches you, read that book. As the author says, no decent man will approach a strange woman in public in the first place unless she really appears to be in distress (hit by a car or something). Don’t worry about being rude to a stranger who comes up to you with less reason than that. A male friend gave me this book because I am a typical woman who tries to be kind and friendly.

  13. Related question: has anyone had anxiety of the clinical sort related to this stuff? If so, how do you manage it while still being careful? I also had/have health anxiety and was convinced I was going to get melanoma. My therapist talked me off the ledge, but less than 18 months later, I was in fact diagnosed with melanoma (early stage). So there’s a part of me that feels very justified in my anxiety because it’s based around actually being prepared for real-world dangers (constant vigilance in re both safety and melanoma!), but at the same time, my brain is taking these “vigilant” thoughts to a compulsive and intrusive place. Thoughts?

    • Anxiety about real, but unlikely events is the hardest to tackle. If your anxiety is interfering with your functioning, quality of life, etc., then it’s a problem for you. Identifying what is a reasonable level of precaution to take (and what is a reasonable amount of risk to take) becomes crucial. For example, I drive to work every day. It is certainly possible for me to have a serious car accident driving to work. If I let anxious thoughts about that possibility overtake me, though, I’ll get to a point where I’m too anxious to drive or maybe even leave the house. On the other hand, if I didn’t use any precautions, I might drive unsafely, speed, not maintain my car, etc., that would increase my odds of being in an accident. The goal, instead, would be to find the middle ground of what reasonable precautions I should take to reduce my risk of an accident to the point where there’s an acceptable amount of risk I’m willing to take.

      Forgive the, quite likely, tortured analogy. And so sorry to hear about the melanoma dx — hoping you are healthy now.

    • Anon, my heart goes out to you. I have long struggled with anxiety related to these type of things. It took three therapists for me to discover what the true underlying cause of my anxiety was. The anxiety first manifested as health related concerns, and like you, a few months later, I had a real health issue. Then, the anxiety morphed into worries about violence. With each type of anxiety, I took concrete steps to address my concerns (full health exam and a great self-defense class) and then dove head first into tough therapy.

      These days, what keeps my anxiety in check is thinking about whether my concerns are founded: Walking home alone in the evening and I’m vigilant: yup totally normal. Worried about running mid-day through a well-populated area: nope not normal, go for the run, confront it and be fine. I worked alot with my therapist through these issues and it was tough but so very worth it.

  14. anonymous :

    I’m very cautious by nature and of course I have to make momentary assumptions to survive in the world. To keep me from discriminating unfairly, I prefer to be overinclusive in my conduct.

    So yes, I know that the middle class looking couple is probably not a security risk, if they don’t live in my apartment building and are at the door I politely ask them to wait for the doorman just as I would the Latino or Asian or black deliveryman (it’s always a man).

  15. After 11 years doing judo as one of the few women in the large-burly-man dojo, my best piece of advice is: take a self defense class. The confidence that it will give you (even if you don’t remember specific moves) is perceivable by would-be attackers making you a less attractive target. There are some other great things (knees are good, so is throat, eyes, anything squishy) as are mentioned above, but the confidence a class or two will give you means you’ll never have to try them out. Hopefully.

  16. I lived in a not-so-great neighborhood in Cambridge, MA during a time in my life when it was very common for me to be walking home alone very late. Here were my rules…
    1. Always have keys out
    2. If hair is in a ponytail, put it in a bun or take out the pony and tuck hair into shirt
    3. No earbuds!
    4. Walk in the street instead of on the dark sidewalk
    5. When a crazy guy tried to follow me home… duck into a store and walk around until he gets bored and goes away. Make sure he is not still following once you go outside.
    6. If you think someone is following you home, walk past your home/apartment.
    7. Never talk on the phone

    • Tired Squared :

      Curious about the ponytail/bun thing. Is that so your hair doesn’t make it obvious that you’re a woman?

      • I’ve heard that one too and it was because a ponytail is easy for an attacker to grab and hold you with. It’s harder to grab someone’s hair if it’s tucked into their shirt.

  17. When I was high school, I was the victim of an attempted mugging. Two young guys cornered me on my way home from an evening CPR class and asked for my messenger bag. I kicked one in the shin, tried to run, then bit the other guy in the hand, and started screaming. A nearby shop clerk came out and when they backed off, I took off running.

    I didn’t tell anyone at the time because I had no idea how you reported something like that and I felt ashamed. I did those things that they tell you NOT to do – walk alone late at night, ignore your surroundings, hold on to your things instead of giving them up, yell “Fire” for help- and I really didn’t want my parents to yell at me. I was young, stupid, and very lucky.

    So I’m glad to see this post, and read everyone else’s tips, but my answer to “will I remember this is a crisis?” is definitely a no.

  18. I took self-defense as my first PE credit in college. One thing that we were required to do, which has been invaluable to me as an adult, is change a tire on our own car in under 10 minutes in heavy rain. The idea was that if you were trapped in an isolated location at night, you wouldn’t be a “sitting duck” waiting for someone to stop to help you who might not be so nice. Of course, this was before cellphones were so common.

    Although I was never had a flat in a questionable area, at least twice, I have pushed my husband out of the way so I could quickly change the car’s tire and make a early morning meeting.

    Another thing we were required to do is listen to a recording of a woman who called 911 in Arlington, Texas, when a man broke into her house after her husband accidently left the garage door open. It was extremely disturbing listening to the woman get more and more freaked, particularly when the intruder finally entered her bedroom, but it really did make me much more aware of my securing my location when I am alone and of impressing on others, particularly my husband and father who don’t feel as threatened, about double checking locks and doors.

  19. I took a self defense class at college, and there were two things that really stuck with me:

    1) The “key as weapon” is only effective in one instance: you hold it between your thumb and first finger, similar to the way you hold a remote. That way it is a very, very effective jabbing weapon, especially in the eyes.

    2) To instantly wind your attacker no matter his size, you bend your fingers into your palm so that your hand and your first knuckle are in a straight line, and you essentially have a wall of hard knuckle that you can use. Throwing all of your arm strength behind this, while aiming at your attacker’s windpipe, will make him put his hands to his neck (reflex) giving you time to make a run for it.

    I would highly recommend taking a self defense class– it changed my everyday outlook from being a passive observer to an active, empowered female who has at least a degree of control over any situation.

  20. I have practiced martial arts for 15 years, and at the age of 19, I am confident in my ablities to take down any attacker I come across, or anyone who proves to be an issue.

    I highly suggest long-term immersement in a martial art to other women as well.

  21. Anonymous :

    It’s sort of sad to see a website full of intelligent brilliant women refuse to acknowledge the truth that most people freeze in unfamiliar situations. Most of us will freeze. It doesn’t matter if you’ve taken classes or always carry your keys in your fist. It doesn’t matter if your male or female (one study suggests that 50% of soldiers will not fire their weapons in their first fire fight — and the numbers were much higher before the advent of basic training.)

    I think these kind of posts hurt rape victims more than they empower women. Most women are raped by people they know. (The same way most children are sexually abused by immediate family members — all the Amber Alerts in the world won’t protect a five year old from his or her father.)

    The book “The Unthinkable” talks about this sort of freezing in emergency and disaster situations. When the ship MV Estonia sank survivors talked about how so many people just sat in their chairs in the dining room and just waited to drown.

    THAT is the normal human reaction. Posts like this just make rape victims think that they should have fought harder or done something when, in fact, most humans just freeze. I have a friend who can’t stand the sight of human bodily fluids (blood, vomit, etc.) and yet she believes when confronted in an assailant that she would be able to take down an attacker. This strikes me as setting herself up for huge guilt/trauma, because her expectations are unrealistic. Unless you’ve actually gouged out a living humans eyes or know how much pressure you have to apply to break a human bone, you have no business giving “safety” advice.

    Most of us — in all sorts of situations — have frozen and will freeze. That’s okay. It’s not your fault. If you freeze you didn’t “fail” to protect yourself. You didn’t fail as a person, a woman, or a feminist. It’s one of the things our brains do. And this sort of nonsense about how to kick people or what to carry or how ladies on television and in film (the vast majority of whom are written by men) fight back or take revenge, damages the psyches of the vast majority of victims of intimate violence.

    • I think this is a really important point. Thank you for sharing it. I know people freeze (fight or flight is good, but sometimes all those hormones can make you unsure how to react), and can’t even scream or fight back. You’re right it isn’t your fault if that happens.

      I have a dog. She barks at anything and scares the crap out of most people. I will rely on her to keep intruders at bay, and common sense to keep myself safe when I’m out. I walk with confidence, I rarely carry a purse when I’m out at night, and I scan my surroundings. There are easier targets out there. And I’m going to get a baseball bat for my bedroom! I have a huge maglite now but someone would have to be pretty close to me for that to do anything but blind them momentarily.

  22. This is such an important topic and one I probably didn’t take seriously enough, naively thinking that no one is out to hurt me. However, I have since learned just how naive I have been. About two years ago I went out with a man I didn’t know for a coffee date. The coffee shop was full so he suggested walking on the street and into a park. It was already getting dark and I was getting strange vibes, so after about 5 minutes in the park I insisted in heading back to a populated to “window shop.” He thought I was “uptight”, but thank goodness. His photograph was in the paper 6 months ago, accused of raping a woman in that same park. Absolutely horrifying to think that I put myself in that situation and that this happened to someone else in my neighborhood.

    It is said all over these comments, but trust your instinct and don’t think that it can’t happen to you.

  23. I agree with all these points except I would say if you are home alone and someone you don’t know comes to do the door. DON’T OPEN IT! You are totally vulnerable if that person just comes barging into your house. The only exception I would make is to sign for a package but then I’m looking for a truck and if it isn’t obviously a FedEx or UPS truck the door is not opened.

  24. Can anyone comment on dealing with situations where people are too chatty? I often have to tak e long bus rides and have been stuck multiple times next to people that won’t stop talking to me. I realize that it’s usually harmless (like the older woman that said I reminded her of her daughter and asked about my background) but am worried that I’m caught up in being polite when someone could have sketchy intentions. Recently a young guy would not stop talking to me and asking questions, even when I took a book out and started reading it. I just stopped responding to him, but obviously this was an annoying situation.

  25. Clueless summer :

    Jeez…I’m either too naive or too Canadian but I’ve never given any of this a second thought…

  26. I second all self-defense class suggestions. I’m not a big fan of the classes where they try to teach you all kinds of moves to get out of a situation. I’ll never remember that if I’m attacked. But these classes can give you more confidence, and more importantly, help you to get over the ‘freeze response’ faster, so you can go to ‘fight or flight’.

  27. My neighorhood blog just did this post with some helpful tips from the police on point.:

  28. I’ve read through the list of replies and I see several which state that going for the groin on a man may not be a good idea as it’s a move he may expects. In doing this you are giving up a great target in defending yourself.

    There is a highly effective way of attacking a mans groin which is so effective that it’s even being referred to as “The NO-FAIL self defense technique for women and girls”.

    My oldest sister Karen, who is a womens self defense instructor trained in Krav Maga, teaches women that if they squeeze a mans testicles hard enough he will become immediately immobilized and freeze in agony before becoming unconscious in under 8 seconds. Importantly, it doesn’t matter how big and strong a male attacker is for it to be effective, and just about any woman or girl are more than capable of being successful with this move. She knows a teenage girl who recently fought off a man who had a long history of violence against women when he tried to rape her. She waited for the right moment to strike before grabbing and rupturing both of his testicles and he was still incapacitated and unable to stand up when he was arrested. He is now serving a 25 year jail sentence.

    For this technique to be effective it’s best to quickly snatch the testicles and make sure that your fingers are locked around the top of at least one testicle before simultaneously squeezing, twisting and pulling as hard as you can on either one or both testicles – DON’T LET GO!!! This is easiest to do in a sex attack when the attackers testicles are likely to be exposed at some stage leaving him extremely vulnerable.

    I agree with my sister Karen that ALL women and girls should have it in our armory and share it with others as it’s such an effective self defense technique. Many women in recent years have successfully used this technique to successfully defend themselves.

  29. The absolute best way to walk away from an attacker is to end the conflict in the quickest way possible.
    This means striking first and striking the right spot! If you are being attacked you MUST assume the worst…they want to kill you. Learn how to stay alive at . Also, remember that attackers do not want a stuggle. They want an easy target. Confidence and preparedness will deter most threats! Stay safe!

Comments are closed.