Many people believe that personal safety is little more than formalized common sense, and that by following a few sensible rules it is possible to thwart the plans of those who intend to cause us harm. They will gladly accept the top 10 safety tips that some magazine posts, and nod as they read each one, without questioning the credentials of the author, and whether these “tips” are the result of a study, or even somebody’s experiences (and experience by its very nature is limited). As long as the advice given makes sense, then it of course must be true. Whenever I do personal safety seminars and training for beginners, I come up against these rules all the time.
New students might insist that you can tell when somebody’s lying to you because they look away, that if you’re talking on your mobile phone you’re safe because somebody knows where you are etc. Every predatory individual we are trying to protect ourselves from, knows these rules, and has a plan to navigate round them; the pedophile soccer coach who is taking your child to see a professional game, will look you squarely in the eye as they tell you that no harm will come to your kid, and the sexual assailant who is looking to rape you knows full well that they can commit their assault before the person on the other end of the phone can get to you, or get others to you, etc. Next time you read an article on personal safety (including this one) be aware that there is probably a predatory individual reading it as well, and arming themselves with the same knowledge, but for very different reasons.
Even the rules that we think we would never bend, that we believe we’d always adhere to, can be broken if we are dealing with a skilled social predator. If you asked every woman who had ever gotten into a car with a stranger, let a stranger into her home, etc. and been assaulted as a result, if beforehand she would do such a thing; I guarantee they’d emphatically say no. This is not to blame these individuals for their actions, but to illustrate that these predators understand the rules we work to, and know how to either get us to break them, or to think that they don’t apply in the context in which we are interacting with them. You might think you’d never get into a car with a stranger, and if you’re thinking of a situation where a driver pulls up next to you and asks you to get in, you’re probably right – however few predators will target adults in such a direct manner, and prefer to create a situation where you would “willingly” get into their car, maybe because it would be socially awkward not to.
Imagine that you have met someone on the internet, on a dating site, and have arranged to go out for a meal with them, and towards the end of the meal they say, “This has been a really great evening, I’ve not had so much fun in a long time, it would be a shame to end the night now. I know a great bar across town, why don’t we go and have a drink there?” Throughout the course of the meal with this charming and interesting guy (yes, that’s the profile of many predatory individuals), you’ve been hoping that he’d ask you on another date, and it seems that he just has. He’s got you to want what he wants; something that many predators will work towards. This includes the pedophile soccer coach who wants to take your child to see a professional game – you’d love to take them, however you simply don’t have the time to do so, but fortunately this guy does and wants to and because of this you are willing to bend a few rules that you wouldn’t think you’d be prepared to do – why should your child lose out on this experience?
Getting back to the date scenario – as you walk out to the parking lot/carpark to get your car to drive to this bar, and have a final drink, your date says, “Tell you what, let’s take my car. It’s not the easiest place to find, and I can be designated driver.” You want to go with them to the bar and it would be awkward to refuse the ride; after all, they might be offended if you’re insistent about taking your own car. It would be very easy to convince yourself that your rule doesn’t really apply in this situation; is your date really a stranger? They seem so nice, and you have already spent the better part of an evening with them, with no ill result. With this reasoning, you may well find yourself getting into a car with a stranger.
Personal Safety Rules, just don’t work. Skilled predators can quite easily get us to convince ourselves that they don’t apply to a particular situation. Also, the more times we break a rule, and there is no consequence to doing so, the less relevant that rule seems to be. Let’s say you move to a new house, and there are two ways to access it: one is a well-lit route, enjoying natural surveillance, whilst the other means you have to go down a dark alley – the advantage being that it takes you half the time to get to your house. Normally, you take the hit on the time and use the safer route but one day, because you’re in a hurry, you chance the dark alley. On this occasion nothing happens. You still prefer, and believe you’re safer using the other route, but you’ve broken your rule of, “don’t walk down dark alleyways” without suffering any consequences.
After several more occasions of breaking your rule, you conclude that the dark alleyway is actually safe, and it becomes your default route; and it is safe, until the time it isn’t, and that’s the time you get assaulted. Our society is generally safe, and that allows us to do unsafe things, a lot of the time without disastrous endings, and the more times we break the rules that we believe will keep us safe, the more we become convinced that the rule doesn’t apply to us or our/a particular situation.
There are also times when it may be in our best interest to break a rule. Imagine that you are walking home, and just before you get to the entrance to the dark alley (that you have yet never taken, because you favor the well-lit route back), you notice that a large scale fight has broken out on the street that you normally walk down. You now have a choice, you can go down the dark alley, or you can keep walking towards the street fight. In such a situation – although it may be somewhat contrived – it makes more sense to ignore your rule of not walking down dark alleyways, rather than to blindly stick to it. In this instance you will have ignored the rule, and made a dynamic risk assessment of the situation that you have found yourself in, and this is how we should deal with all our personal safety issues and concerns.
Rather than blindly following rules, we should seek to understand the situations that we find ourselves in, and understand the processes that violent predators use. Armed with this knowledge, we don’t need to rely on our flawed common sense and specific rules, for our personal safety. We can question why a single male in their mid 20’s is so interested in taking our child to a soccer match that we can’t, we can understand why our date is so insistent, and is working so hard to get us into their car. It takes effort to make risk assessments, and it’s not as simple as blindly following our common sense (a skilled predator will be able to make everything make sense to us), but it’s the only way of truly ensuring our safety. On the one hand, we are fortunate that the relative safety of our world allows us to get it wrong so many times when we follow our rules, without suffering any consequences, however this does not mean that we or our rules are right, or should be trusted.
When you make a dynamic risk assessment, you need to first consider whether you are facing a High Risk situation, or one that contains Unknown Risks. If you have to make a risk assessment, then you are not in a low risk situation, and thinking in terms of low risk, will only get you to drop your guard. If it is a high risk situation, how can you mitigate these risks? Could you go with your kid to the soccer match (personal safety does take effort) or take them to another one? If it’s somebody offering you a ride, assess your relationship to them – do you know how they will act and behave in this situation? If you’ve just met them, then the answer is definitely no. Forget the rules, and think about the risks.