What to Yell in a Public Space if You Feel Threatened

I’ve been taking a domestic violence advocacy training over the past few weeks. Each week a group of 20 or so participants gather together to learn more about the realities of domestic violence and that the answer is never to victim blame. The victim is never the cause and to combat domestic violence we need to teach abusers to not be violent.

At the last session a police officer came in to speak to us. He is a feminist and has been training new recruits in Georgia how to handle domestic violence cases. What struck me the most was when he asked our class:

If you ever feel threatened in a public place what is the best thing to yell to get help?

We yelled out all different answers from “Help!” to telling the abuser “Leave me alone” loud enough for passers by to hear. We talked about screaming until you get someone’s attention.

The police officer told us however that the best response is:

I don’t know them!

Whether or not this is true, I know I felt an immediate reaction to these words. I knew that if someone yelled that and I was within earshot I would go to help and I don’t think I would make the same decision otherwise. This is frightening because we assume the abused (and 90-95% of the time this person is female) belongs to the abuser. We assume the woman has done something to deserve this treatment, whether it’s being bullied into leaving a store, getting into a car or unwanted attention on the street. We assume the woman is in the wrong and by sitting passively we give license to abuse.

But the moment the abused shows they are not owned by someone else (a partner or otherwise) we feel sympathy because now the abuse is no longer justified. Except, abuse is never justified.  It shouldn’t take us so long to realize no one should have ownership over another human being. But it takes time because we are used to seeing women as objects owned and controlled by their partners. The moment we realize our own misconceptions of a violent situation (including verbal and emotional abuse) is the moment we can take a stronger stand against domestic violence.

end domestic violence


Go Alone

Being alone in a public space is heavily stigmatized. From the moment we step into elementary school and are told to be social we begin to understand that to be in a group offers protection, even if it’s just from a school bully. You never want to be by yourself because suddenly, you’re loner or the outsider. It means you are not capable of making friends and being “normal.” On a larger level it sends a message that you have people who care about you and are therefore a more difficult target to threaten.

Public spaces are group spaces. You run errands and it’s fine to go by yourself. But the moment you go to the movies, go out to eat, go to a sporting event, or any other public venue, social structure dictates that you have to have at least one person by your side. I know if I enter a party or a cafeteria by myself and sit  alone I feel as if 100 eyes are on my back. Whispering voices in my head tell me: Everyone else has friends here. Why are you coming alone? The public space becomes hostile. Of course, in reality, people are more concerned with their own lives than watching for individuals to pity or threaten. But still, it’s a stigma to be alone.

However, being alone in public places can be one of the most empowering experiences. Although men undergo the same pressure to be in a group, the pressure does not come from the same cause of seeking protection. Women are not told to be independent like men are and so are doubly under the standard to move in a pack. Women are expected to be protected, either by men (society’s ideal) or by a group of women. So, for women, especially, I recommend taking a trip by yourself and experiencing a freedom most people don’t even realize they lack. This doesn’t need to be a road trip by yourself or something that makes you feel unsafe, but it should be something that makes you challenge your comfort zone.

Yesterday I went ice-skating. I didn’t ask anyone to come, just decided  I wanted to ice skate and left. And it was a frightening experience, not because I felt I would be attacked, but because I was clearly operating against the norm. No one was on the ice when I arrived and no one but the man behind the desk was even in the ice rink building. I feared that when I asked for my skates he could turn me away for breaking the unwritten rule of “travel in a group.” But he didn’t and I spent my time ice-skating alone and it was wonderful.

I didn’t have to impress anyone. I didn’t have to compare myself to anyone. I didn’t have to consider when someone else wanted to leave. This was self-assurance and independence. All the protection we’re taught to look for by doing social activities in groups, I found in myself. The best satisfaction was knowing that my fears in being rejected for the audacity to go alone had no ground.

Going alone to public spaces is one of the best ways to build self-confidence and start to chip away at both gender norms and over all unquestioned norms of society.