Last Friday I went to a workshop I heard about through Transit Justice called Self Defense on Mass Transit. At a nondescript and highly secure location in Brooklyn, the Center for Anti-Violence Education has been working “as a catalyst for change in the lives of women, teen women, children, and other communities especially affected by violence” (which now includes the LGBT community, especially transgendered people).
It ended up being a small class with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable leader, Tish, but an effective one tailored to our interests. At first we just warmed up, practicing awareness and thinking on our feet as we jogged around the space and answered questions on-the-go about what we could hide behind, use as a weapon, etc. Tish asked us why we had come to the workshop and what we wanted to work on—I answered verbal harassment both on the street and on the subway since I am fortunate to never have suffered physical abuse. We covered both verbal and physical responses, giving us options for different levels of severity.
I truly enjoyed the physical component—it’s been a while since my one-week of kickboxing classes! We practiced basic palm hits and quick kicks, and I watched in awe as my strength increased from practicing in the air, to practicing with a deep “ki-ai” yell, to hitting an actual physical object. And after playing soccer for 12 years, my kicks were something fiercer.
The verbal responses are ones I will more commonly be using, though, and gave me food for thought. We talked about the three types of responses—passive, aggressive, and assertive—as they were gamely enacted for us by Tish. I realized my problem was through frustration I often swung towards aggressive responses, which are not a good way to stop harassment or defuse tense situations at all. Instead, we practiced assertive responses, using tools such as active silence, “I” statements, distraction, humor, and, my personal favorite, “Naming the behavior.” For instance, instead of just glaring at someone who says something inappropriate (which is my usual response until I am pushed over the edge into “Aggressive” territory and fire off a choice and distinct “Fuck you”) I can name it: “You need to stop. You are being disrespectful and creepy.” The accusatory side of it appeals to me, but it’s not reactive and escalating like my other, ahem, response.
The most awkward, but informative, part of the evening was acting out these responses to each other. We took turns playing harasser and responder, and had to pick strategies and use them on the fly as we would. Tish emphasized that, just like anything else, practice would make us better at handling these situations. We got to choose from any number of common scenarios—man masturbating on the subway, harassing you on the street, or following you around a subway station—and respond in multiple ways, giving us a sense of control over the experience.
I really appreciate the dedication of Tish and the rest of the CAE, who are committed to making life safer for everyone who is a target for harassment, especially women and transgendered people. In this instance they were partnering with Right Rides, which provides safe late-night transportation for women and LGBTQ people free of charge—they will pick you up anywhere and see you safely inside your building. Check out both of these great organizations, and I strongly encourage anyone who wants a little self-empowerment to attend the next of these free sessions! Also, CAE holds longer-running workshops (4-6 weeks) meant to be as available as possible—free childcare, a sliding Fee Scale, and free saved spots for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or child abuse.