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The Gift Of Fear: A Word About Predators

‘April’s plane was late getting into the Nairobi airport. It was well past 10 pm when the taxi dropped her at her hotel. She was tired, yet declined the bellhop’s help as she struggled into the elevator and down the hall with her heavy bags.  Her shoulder strap slipped, spilling the contents onto the floor.  Just then, a friendly young man came around the corner from the direction of her room,  “Let me give you a hand.”

“No, no thanks, I’ve got it”

“You don’t look like you’ve got it. What room are you going to?”

She paused before answering. “Just around the corner, but I’m okay, really.”

By this time his hands were full of a collection of April’s things. “No worries, I’m just meeting friends so give me that, you look tired. I know what its like to have a tough day too. ” He reached out and tugged on one of her heavier bags.

She repeated, “No thanks, I’m really fine. I’ve got it.”

Still holding onto her bag, he said, “Too proud to accept help?”

For a moment, April held onto her bag, but then she let go. This relatively harmless interaction between April and this friendly, helpful stranger indicated a willingness to trust him. And by ignoring her better judgement she gave over control.

As she came to her door, she opened it and said, “Thank you so much! I’ll take it from here.”

“Hey we can leave the door open, I’ll just set these bags down in your closet. Then I promise I’ll leave.”

She let him in, but he didn’t leave……

(Adapted from Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals…, Gavin DeBecker, Dell Publishing 1997). 

Humanitarians are often astute and healthily cynical when it comes to sizing up others, and yet many women can still relate to stories like this. There are moments when weariness can trump our first instincts. Violence expert, Gavin DeBecker, in his book, Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence helps women understand that their own instinct, intuition, and emotional radar is often ignored at their peril. De Becker convincingly argues that you can better protect yourself from gender based violence by tuning into what you know and feel in the early stages of an encounter with a predator. I believe that every woman should read his book. But women who frequently travel and work alone are more at risk than the norm.

In the story, April felt uncomfortable from the moment she encountered the “helpful” individual who became her attacker. She didn’t listen to herself because she rationally couldn’t identify anything in the man’s behavior to explain what she felt.  The man didn’t look like her image of an attacker. Most predators don’t have distinguishing physical signs. But De Becker has found in his years of experience that there are several signals sent by a potential attacker that might reveal his intent. His list includes:

  • Forced teaming: Predators use strategies to create an immediate sense of trust; often giving a sense that “we’re in the same boat.” It’s hard to rebuff this without feeling rude.
  • Charm: DeBecker warns women to think of charm as a verb, rather than a personality trait. Ask yourself, “Is this person trying to charm me?” People who want to control others almost always present an image of niceness in the beginning. He suggests that women learn to rebuff unsolicited offers of help, even though it goes against their social conditioning to be warm, responsive and open.
  • Too many details: People who want to deceive often use lots of extra details in order to support the lie that they are telling. The details serve to distract you from the truth – he is a stranger who approached you and you are vulnerable.
  • Typecasting: Often a predator will make a slightly critical comment hoping that his victim will feel pressure to prove that it is not true. In April’s case she had to show that she wasn’t “too proud” to accept help.
  • Loan Sharking: Perhaps one of the most telling signs is when the predator works to put his victim in his debt. If you owe him something, it becomes harder to ask him to leave you alone. This is why offers to help are one of the most common opening gambits for a predator.
  • Unsolicited promise: A promise is solely designed to convince us of intention.  When you receive such a promise, ask yourself, “Why does this person need to convince me?” The reason is usually because the predator can see that you have doubts. Some part of you is rightly troubled by the encounter.
  • Refusing to respect no: Perhaps the most universal signal is the refusal to take no for an answer. In April’s case, he discounted her refusal of help several times. With strangers, DeBecker urges women to never relent or negotiate on the issue of “no” because it sets the stage for more efforts to control.  The worst thing you can do is give ever weakening refusals and then give in. Don’t negotiate, don’t explain. Picture yourself, strongly & firmly, standing with your hand up, saying no, I don’t need your help.

Your instincts are designed to help you notice danger. Rather than ignore your intuition, think about getting better at paying attention to it. You know what safe feels like.

A brief note: This article addresses the nature of predators, not other contexts of RSA (Rape and Sexual Assault). Gender-based violence takes many forms and occurs in many settings – many of which can only be prevented by strengthening operational security measures. In either case, women are not to blame for what they’ve experienced, but are their own best advocates nonetheless.

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