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In Atlanta, where violent crime is surging, Clorissa Wright-Thomas has been on high alert.

“I find myself counting out the tips I’ve learned over the years,” she said. “I’m always aware of my surroundings. I don’t ever unlock my car if I’m too far from the door … I always check the back seat. When I’m jogging in the mornings or evenings, I only have one earbud in.”

Wright-Thomas, 41, has been taking self-defense classes at Divas In Defense for about four years now. As a public relations executive, she felt the trainings were necessary to her line of work, which often involves late-night dinners and award ceremonies.

“After frequently realizing I was the last person leaving a venue,” she said, “it felt like I needed to learn some techniques on how to protect myself in the event of an incident.”

The violence roiling Atlanta mirrors a nationwide spike in crime reported in other cities like Chicago, Dallas, Tampa and Pittsburg In 2020, the United States saw about 25 percent more homicides than in 2019. The impacts of the pandemic have also put women and children at greater risk of domestic violence.

Since ramping up in-person training again in April, Divas in Defense has seen a growing demand for classes in Atlanta and its other locations, including Birmingham, Ala., and the D.C. area. “I think it’s a combination of people wanting to feel safe with having to go back to work and then the crime increase,” said Vanessa Parker, the organization’s vice president of operations.

But “there’s no magical technique that will work for every person in every situation,” cautions Meg Stone, executive director of IMPACT, a personal safety and self-defense organization in Boston. “Self-defense is more about trusting your intuition and advocating for yourself when you feel fear.”

To help women implement these strategies in their everyday lives, we rounded up tips on how to handle threats verbally, physically and online.

(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)
(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)

Verbal tips

Communicate your boundaries and pay attention to how the other person responds. A lot of people who abuse or assault others cross smaller lines before escalating to overt violence, so one important self-defense strategy is to say what you do and don’t want, and pay attention to how the other person reacts. If you’re dating a new person and you tell them you don’t like horror movies, do they keep pressuring you to change your mind, or do they listen and respect you? Crossing smaller lines doesn’t automatically mean that a person is capable of crossing bigger lines, but it is an indication that you may want to be more cautious and guarded in their presence. By communicating your boundaries, you learn how capable and committed another person is to making sure you feel safe and comfortable in the relationship.

— Meg Stone, Impact Boston

Use your voice, even if your attacker tries to intimidate you. They might say, “Don’t scream or I’ll hurt you.” But that’s their way of trying to intimidate you into silence. Your voice is the first line of self-defense. Yell “No” and “Get away from me.” Do whatever you have to do to make noise to bring attention to your attacker.

— Vanessa Parker, Divas in Defense

Document the situation. If you feel safe, consider taking a picture or video of your experience — or asking a bystander to do this. The video footage could include the person harassing you, their license plate, or the scene. Some people use photos or videos to report an incident — for example, if the person was at work when this happened, people may choose to report it to their employer. Others use it to share their story on social media or anonymously through ihollaback.org. Many find it to be empowering to turn the lens off them and onto the person harassing them. But it doesn’t work that way for everyone, so ask yourself, “Does it feel right for me?” or “Is there another way to respond?”

— Emily May, co-founder and executive director, Hollaback

(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)
(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)

Physical tips

“If someone is an immediate physical threat, using verbal skills or leaving the situation may not be possible,” Stone said. “The most effective physical skills are those that use a strong part of your body against a vulnerable part of the attacker’s.”

For an attacker who is larger or has more muscle mass, you’re more likely to be able to stop the threat if you strike the head, eyes or groin, Stone said. “Also, in any situation that requires self-defense, you will be caught off guard and likely afraid or upset,” she added. “In that state, you don’t want to have to remember a complicated kickboxing combination that takes 15 steps to execute.”

Below are tips for forceful strikes from Stone and Parker that you can do quickly under stress. Hollaback did not provide a recommendation for a physical response, as it can escalate the situation and increase the risk of safety, May said.

Eye strike. The eyes are one of the most vulnerable parts of the human body. A speck of dust or a grain of sand can keep an eye from functioning. Press all your fingers together into the shape of a tight bird’s beak and then use that to strike someone’s eye. Even if you miss the eye, hitting anywhere close could cause a flinch reaction that gives you time to escape or prepare for another strike.

— Meg Stone, Impact Boston

Wrist release. Sometimes the thought of hitting someone is psychologically hard. But there are physical skills that let you escape without hurting the other person. One example is a wrist release. If someone grabs your wrist, the weakest part of their grip is where the thumb and fingers meet. Use your free hand to pull your arm out through that weak part in the grip. Step back as you pull. If you do this, it’s your body weight against the attacker’s hand, which gives you an advantage. Remember, though, you haven’t hurt the other person, so getting out quickly is key.

— Meg Stone, Impact Boston

Remember that anything can be a weapon. Use your keys, purse, book or whatever you can grab to defend yourself and strike your attacker. When striking, aim for the eyes, throat or groin area. Keep striking until you can escape.

— Vanessa Parker, Divas in Defense

(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)
(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)

Online tips

When you make a new connection on a dating app, set a boundary. It can be any boundary — maybe you want to chat on the app for a while before meeting in person or virtually. Then pay attention to how the person responds. Do they try to talk you out of your boundary? Do they try to find a sneaky way to get around it? Or are they invested in making sure you feel good and comfortable with the connection? Learning how a person responds to boundaries early on can be a good indication of how safe they are. This online safety strategy comes from IMPACT Boston program coordinator Shay Orent, who developed a class on safe and sane online dating.

— Meg Stone, Impact Boston

If you are experiencing harassment online, save the emails, voice mails or text messages to document the abuse and report it to the platform you are using. Most online platforms have blocking or muting features. Make sure you are familiar with these features and use them.

— Vanessa Parker, Divas in Defense

Consider securing your accounts and improving your digital privacy. If the harassment involves hate groups, threats of death or bodily harm, and/or public postings of your location or contact information, you should consider contacting law enforcement right away. Keep in mind, the law and the police aren’t always as helpful as we would like them to be, and in some cases, contacting them can increase the level of trauma. Much of law enforcement is still unsure what online harassment is, so it could be useful to be prepared to explain concepts such as doxing and trolling and check local laws on online harassment depending on your location. Here are more steps recommended for responding to online harassment.

— Emily May, Hollaback

(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)
(Illustration by Pepita Sandwich for The Washington Post)

What bystanders should do

To be an effective bystander, it’s important to make sure that the person being targeted wants and welcomes your help, and then to make sure that you are intervening in a way that is safe for you.

If you see someone being harassed in a public space, make eye contact with them and ask if they want help. If they say yes, stand next to them, get in a strong physical position, and yell, “Leave them alone!” This makes the person feel supported and doesn’t escalate the situation.

Some things to maintain physical safety when intervening in higher-threat situations include staying at least three arms’ length away from the harasser so that if they attempt to physically harm you, you have more reaction time; being aware of exits or safe escapes; and trying to move yourself and the person being targeted to a place where the harasser is not between you and the exit.

Other bystander situations may need a different type of intervention — if you work in a school and a co-worker is treating a student in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, or if someone in your friend group is making inappropriate comments. These situations call for clear, direct communication. Find a good time to talk to the person. Tell them you have a concern. Name the specific action that concerns you and why it either concerns you personally or (if you are in the position to do this) why it’s not okay for the workplace or community. If they minimize the problem or get defensive, stay calm and bring the focus back to the behavior and why it concerns you. Don’t expect the person to immediately see your point of view. You’re creating change by showing the person (and possibly others) that their actions won’t go unnoticed or unchallenged.

— Meg Stone, Impact Boston

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