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Stranger Violence: The Warning Signals You Should Know

On a summer night in 2008, I was sexually assaulted by a guy who was smart and good-looking and kept an OED on his coffee table. The night had the makings of a movie romance: warm night air, a park aglow in lamplight, the promise of a blooming friendship.

It’s taken years of therapy and hard work to dig into the truth of what actually happened. For many years, I blamed myself, not even recognizing that he had raped me. I internalized victim-blaming at its worst: It was a one-night stand gone awry. You shouldn’t have had that last beer. What did you expect?

For one thing, I expected him to respect the word “no.”

My body knew. Trauma kept my brain in the dark for a long time, but my body knew. So for the last few years the bulk of my personal work has been in allowing myself to say the words “rape,” and “assault,” and shifting the blame from myself onto him, the perpetrator. In an era of “#metoo” and “#timesup” I know I’m not alone on this journey.

But recently? I’ve also been thinking about what I could have done differently.

Now let me be clear: My body knows it was transgressed, and I still hold him responsible.

But I’ve also found myself wondering whether that night would have gone differently had I paid attention to any red flags that could have clued me in on his intentions.

In his book, The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, security expert Gavin de Becker describes how in today’s society most of us have been taught to discount the signals our body gives us when we encounter true danger. We tend to shrug off fear as though we are being silly, as though our mind is playing tricks on us. In truth, we have been so desensitized to our instincts because many of us spend our time battling with anxiety—worries about things that may (or may not) happen in the future—rather than paying attention to what our bodies are telling us in the present moment.

We are hard-wired to anticipate danger. The jolt of adrenaline you get when you see a small child running for the road? The hairs that rise on the back of your neck when you encounter an aggressive dog? These are signals our body sends us to pay attention.

Fear leads us to action.

Of course I’ve met my fair share of creepers who set my hair on end from the moment we locked eyes—we’ve all experienced that sort of dread. Some people just give you a weird vibe and it’s fairly easy to avoid them. What I’ve only recently realized is that it is much less likely some random street creeper is going to get you in a dark alley than it is for some charming man to disarm and lure you into trusting him.

Violence is violence is violence, but I’ll tell you one thing: dealing with the cognitive dissonance of the kindness of the man I thought I had met and the coldness of the man who raped me has given me almost as much emotional trauma as the act of violence itself. 

When I read de Becker’s book, recommended to me by a blog reader who commented on my last post, I felt at once empowered and dismayed. If only I had read this twenty years earlier. If only I had known how textbook our encounter really was.

I wasn’t fearful when my friend left me to hold our spot at the outdoor concert and I saw a lone stranger watching me. I wasn’t afraid when he smiled at me because he was attractive. Sure, I freaked out a little on the inside when I saw him approaching, but that was just the thrill of adventure. Why? Because movies and romance novels have taught me more about the excitement of a potential meet-cute than about the dangers of a hot guy who’s into indie pop and memoirs.

I know better now. But do you? Do your daughters?

According to Gavin de Becker, there are a few common warning signs to observe (and responses to practice) when approached by a stranger that will alert you he could be prone to violence—even if your body isn’t consciously registering fear. 

Forced Teaming

This is when someone projects a shared purpose or predicament onto you, using words like “we” and “both of us” and “people like us.” Predators want you to think you have met a new friend, or even a soulmate. This guy deftly convinced me that we had much in common, quickly learning how he could speak to my interests and delivering beautifully. I was lonely, and it had been a long time since I had such rich, intelligent conversation—especially with such an attractive guy. In retrospect, I can see how he must have seen me as an easy target.

Response: Refuse the partnership (“I didn’t ask for your help and I don’t want it” or “I just met you, we’re not friends.”).

Charm and Niceness

When I was growing up I learned that being nice was good, and therefore fell into believing the fallacy that nice people are good people. Some of us are naturally skeptical to flattery, but unfortunately I am not one of those people. If someone is charming you, make sure you remember he knows exactly what he’s doing. Even if the motive is as innocent as trying to get your phone number, you can be sure there is a motive for being so accommodating.

Response: Remember that niceness does not equal goodness.

Typecasting

This means he makes a criticism that you can disprove by doing what he wants. If a stranger offers to help you carry your groceries to your car and you decline, an example of typecasting would be if he then said, “Don’t tell me you’re too proud to accept help.”

Response: Don’t engage. Remain silent.

Too Many Details

Have you ever realized that lies are often more complex than the truth? I love a good story, and when people go deep with me, my romantic heart tells me I’ve found a kindred soul. But that fateful night, there was a moment when everything shifted: He began to talk about his family, culminating in a story about his childhood that was so detailed it almost seemed rehearsed. After so many hours of being under his spell, I suddenly came to and realized two things simultaneously: He’s trying to win my trust, and he’s done this before.

Response: Think about context (why would a stranger share these details?).

Loan Sharking

He offers to help you to make you feel indebted to him in some way. My dreamboat rapist gave me a book that night, telling me to borrow it since I had to read it if I was serious about being a writer.

Response: Remember you don’t owe him a thing. 

Unsolicited Promises

He promises you something you haven’t asked for. The most chilling example of this in de Becker’s book was when a perpetrator promised he wouldn’t kill his rape victim. Luckily, she listened to her instincts and realized that’s exactly what he’d do if she didn’t take action.

Response: Don’t engage. Remain skeptical.

Discounting the Word “No”

This is a fairly obvious one—he overrides your objections, he doesn’t listen, he cajoles you into doing what he wants. I’ve often wished I could go back to the conversations I had that night with the man who would be my assailant. Had he been wearing me down all night, slyly side-stepping any “no’s” I might have uttered? I can’t remember. But I’ll never forget that when he asked if I wanted to have sex, I absolutely said no. I said no several times. He didn’t care for that answer.

Response: Reply, “I said ‘No.’”

Do the responses seem rude to you? Maybe it depends on where you were raised, but common courtesy (and the military!) tells me I should be more polite than this. Shouldn’t we give someone the benefit of the doubt? Aren’t we being silly by assuming the worst? Perhaps, but are you willing to take that risk on principle?

Wouldn’t you rather be rude than dead?

De Becker is absolutely clear on this point: Do not give a stranger the benefit of the doubt. Especially if he is the one who approached you, separated you from your friends, and tried to coerce you into helping him. 

It’s time to stop ignoring fear’s signals: listen to your body, and stay safe.

*(I love the menfolk, my friends, but it’s been proven time and again than it’s men who commit “random” acts of violence, not women.)

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2 Responses to Stranger Violence: The Warning Signals You Should Know

  1. Avatar
    Rebecca January 14, 2020 at 7:06 pm #

    “it’s men not women who commit the random acts” this is giving people a dangerous ease around women who are also sex traffickers. I’ve read many stories and testimonials about women who lured them in. We and our children need to be careful around both men and women. Even Epstein used a woman -Ghislain Maxwell – to lure and groom girls. The love of money is the root of all evil.

  2. Avatar
    Anonymous January 15, 2020 at 6:47 am #

    Actually, it can be a woman as well. My young daughter was repeatedly sexually abused by a woman I dated. She (the abuser) had a respectable career and was middle-aged. I wrongly assumed, after getting to know her, that she was safe. The statistics about female sociopaths and abusers are likely far too low, because we don’t expect this behavior from women. This makes it much more difficult to report it and get it prosecuted, which in turn warps the statistics. I believe that this person most likely has also abused adult women. Any person can be dangerous.

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