Self-Defense: Tips from the Streets of Marseilles

What can we do to protect ourselves on the street? Maybe this is a question more and more of us have been asking lately, given the surprising recent news of rapes, abductions or near-abductions in our remote north country. While it’s true that North Dakota has the lowest violent crime rate in the country, low is not no.

North Dakota State University campus police propose some strategies. Walk in groups, avoid looking distracted, call for an escort, know your environment, hit with your elbows, or startle your attacker by falling to the ground. Sounds like good advice. Except the falling to the ground part—any martial artist would tell you that’s the worst place you can be.

But why should I have an opinion? Well, having lived in a few meaner cities, notably Marseilles, France—remember The French Connection?—I’ve studied self-defense a bit. That’s led to a variety of martial arts training over a dozen years. Currently I’m at the third degree black belt level (tae kwon do), and add a variety of non-lethal weapons background (my favorite is the stick). I also have “concealed carry permits” for both Minnesota and North Dakota, and practice regularly with a 9mm Beretta. It’s just good to be prepared, right?

But it seems to me that a lot of people aren’t, particularly those who are most at risk from the sexual predator—college-aged women. Your plan might be to talk him out of it, or submit and hope for the best. Problem: it won’t deter the kind of attacker we’ve seen lately. Actually it might encourage the perp who senses easy pickings. Maybe we ought to re-consider this.

Why perps attack women is pretty obvious if you’ve spent any time in a martial arts gym. Most women just are not as eager fighters as men. They don’t usually have that rather obnoxious male aggressive instinct. Perhaps it’s because they don’t roughhouse with the guys growing up, don’t watch a lot of boxing. Good thing. Except when you’re facing some dipshit with intent.

So does that mean self-defense training is useless for women? Not at all. It takes some practice, true—a one-day course isn’t enough—but what women can learn is how to accurately attack the human body’s weaknesses. And perhaps even more importantly, we train to avoid the single worst response of the unprepared when faced with physical threat: they freeze. If you can move, you can do something, but you have to practice mentally and physically. Here are two likely scenarios women probably won’t get out of by talking.

Scary scenario one: man tries to rape you.
Even a medium-force blow can be effective in vulnerable areas. Where are they? An old martial arts saying: “If he can’t see, he can’t hurt you. If he can’t breathe, he can’t hurt you. If he can’t stand, he can’t hurt you.”

The problem is it’s hard to reach an attacker’s eyes unless you’re really close, and you have to hit the ribs just right to really knock the wind out of a big guy. Never mind the groin—a guy will usually expect that, and protect himself. The legs, on the other hand, can be a handy target, and an easy kick. A hard kick anywhere to the knees and he’s down while you’re running. Let’s see him follow you with that bad knee. Miss and hit the inside or outside of the thigh, and he’s toppled over anyway in pain, as kick boxers know. We all expect a kick to the shin to be very painful, but not dangerous, which is why it’s a good police tactic. But lots of guys can stand shin kicks. I think my own shins must be so full of scar tissue that they’re less sensitive. (Maybe. Don’t try me. At my age I am, as my cousin points out, the “tae kwon duffer.”)

Miss the legs and he grabs you anyway? Have you ever watched on TV some foreign dictator parading through crowded streets behind his bodyguards? It’s amazing—the masses just seem to melt away before him. Well, not so amazing when you know the trick. Take your middle finger and push down into your adam’s apple. Doesn’t take much force, does it? Sometimes being a bodyguard just means pushing adam’s apples. Yes, a hard hit here can cause great pain, even death. But against attempted rape, the law generally considers lethal force to be acceptable.

You do need to consider legal consequences of even low-tech responses to an attack. The story makes the rounds of the dojos that a woman attacked in Minneapolis deterred her attacker by kicks to his legs, all the while repeating, “You son a bitch, you son of a bitch, you son of a bitch!” She was later sued—by her attacker, no less, who claimed it was she who attacked him! Before you laugh, know that all fighters will likely end up warming the benches at police headquarters, because police won’t be able to sort out the aggressors at the scene. Martial artists learn to shout one thing over and over, even when they’re forced to “subdue an opponent”: “I don’t want to fight! I don’t want to fight! I don’t want to fight!” Why? Because, as later court witnesses will testify, “She said she didn’t want to fight!” If something unfortunate ensues, there’s another old martial arts saying: “Better to be tried by 12 than carried out by six.”

Scary scenario two: man tries to get you to go somewhere with him, or get into his car. This is called an abduction.

I’m going to go out on a limb here with blanket advice: DO NOT GET INTO THAT CAR! Or into the alley, or anyplace else. Never. Even if you’re at knife point. At gunpoint. Why? He wants you to get into his car because you’re in a public place. Parking lot. Running path. Street corner. That cramps his style. Someone will come along. Doing what he wants to do is going to be much easier in a quiet, remote location of his choosing. And what he wants do, I’m afraid to say, is rape and probably kill you. This is statistically what happens to most women who are abducted. How many times on TV have you heard the battered victim lucky to be alive crying to the police, “He promised he wouldn’t hurt me if I did what he said!” Let’s be up front here: these scum-bags are liars, liars, LIARS!

Instead, scream like you’re nuts, and just RUN.

Okay, you say, what if he has a weapon? Well, what if? If it’s a knife, you run. He’ll be darned lucky to outrun a panicked victim, if he decides to follow. And he probably won’t. Perps are lazy. Lots of easier victims around.

And the gun? What if he shoots?

Let’s consider the handgun. I’m convinced most of us get our knowledge of handguns from what we see in the movies. Steven Seagal can shoot a helicopter terrorist one-handed from a moving train at 50 yards, no problem. Have you ever actually tried shooting a handgun yourself? Set up a target at about 15 yards, big as a regular piece of paper. Hold your handgun in both hands with the “crush grip.” Rock steady in “isosceles stance.” Aim carefully. If you’re reasonably good, you’ll hit the paper. Most of the time.

So what about your attacker cowboying his .38 Special in one hand, trying to hit a moving target—and you’ll be zig-zagging as you run. Most runners your age will be 25 yards away from an attacker in five seconds flat. Time yourself. And it probably took a couple of those seconds just for the goof to make the decision to shoot. Yeah, I know a real marksman could probably still hit you. But most of these kinds of offenders don’t much frequent the target range. It’s possible he’s never even fired the gun before.

So what’s the chance he’ll still hit you? In fact, justice department statistics show armed attackers actually hit their targets less than four percent of the time. Those carrying knives stab or cut their victims about 20 percent of the time. As noted in one of my favorite self-defense books, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Defense by Chris Harris, (Only $13.50 new from those odds are pretty good. But they become pretty lousy if you go with your attacker to a quieter place, and downright dismal if you get into his car. Think you can escape later? It’s easiest right here, right now.

Okay, so that does leave the possibility you’ll face a knife held into your throat...multiple attackers with baseball bats...or the human meatloaf who can simply lift you up and throw you in his van. What if, what if? Martial artists answer these questions by saying, “Sure, what if? What if he has a grenade? An M-16? You can’t expect to escape every possible scenario.”

Well, that brings us back to the ever-trendy tool commonly advocated by the “self-defense” web sites Google tends to pull up. That handgun. Street legal in North Dakota and Minnesota, nowadays, with a permit, although you can’t tote heat on campus. But in the mall lot, probably.

I don’t like hunting, and I don’t like guns. But the reality for most women (and lots of tae kwon duffers, too) is the only thing that truly will size them up in a fracas with a street-hardened criminal is a gun. Smith & Wesson used to include this little ditty with its handguns: “Have no fear of any man, no matter what his size; if danger threatens, call on me, and I will equalize.”

I am in favor of gun control, despite that I hold those concealed carry permits. I believe everyone who wants to shoot a handgun ought to be required to complete an extensive course in gun use and safety—far beyond the little day-long thing Minnesota requires, more like drivers’ ed training—and I believe a firearm license ought to be mandatory, concealed carry or not. Why? Because this will do a lot to assure that you’ll really know how to use that gun should the worst befall you. If you hardly ever shoot your self-defense gun, you won’t be able to make it work for you when you need it. What's more, you have to have the training to recognize whether you have the ability to actually, if necessary, shoot another person. Without the training, you won’t really be able to assess your mental response to shooting a human being. And if you can’t shoot, then you’d better not carry a gun. Because it’s darned likely your attacker won’t have any problem grabbing your weapon and shooting you.

Good luck, and remember: you still have the right to walk in public places without fearing for your life. Even if you are alone. Even if it is dark out. Knowing what you’d do in case of attack gives you a more confident air, which in itself may be enough to persuade the attacker to stay home with his porn sites.

—Ross Collins

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>

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