“Don’t talk to strangers.”

“Don’t walk alone at night.”

“Use your keys as a weapon.”

If you live in a body that society views as vulnerable, you have probably been the recipient of many safety tips. Often these are well-meaning, but too often they are also restrictive, impractical, and/or give fodder for victim blaming (“Well, she shouldn’t have gone out alone in that neighborhood” or “Why did she invite him in?”). They also very often just don’t reflect the reality of the lives we live and the way violence is perpetrated and avoided.

My favorite swing-and-a-miss attempt at safety advice is a 2013 article from Cosmo entitled “21 Potentially Life-Saving Safety Tips That Every Woman Should Know.” Some of the tips in here are so absurd you almost think it’s satire (which would’ve actually been a good genre for this, in my opinion).

The author seems to think you can ensure safety by assuming all men are potential predators and all women potential “lurers.” There is no mention of the possibility of being victimized by someone you know (80% of sexual assaults, the unspoken crime this author is trying to help you avoid, are committed by someone the survivor knows), or by someone who isn’t a man (which happens more than we like to acknowledge)—don’t trust (male) strangers seems to be the essence of this piece, completely ignoring the reality of the sexual assault epidemic in this country.

While being wary of strangers may be a good strategy for some people or in some circumstances, following advice like “don’t accept help for a flat tire” and “check your smoke detector for a hidden camera” and “don’t order cocktails because the bartender could drug you” is an exhausting way to live, and may not decrease your chances of being assaulted. Like so much of the safety advice we hear, it seems like Cosmo’s approach here was to come up with scenarios that sound scary rather than talk about what the data says in terms of proven safety tactics.

There are certainly things one can do to try to minimize risk when out in public (spoiler alert: running away from someone in a zig zag pattern, as if they’re an alligator, is not one of them, Cosmo). Being alert and aware of your surroundings, actively changing your circumstances when you are feeling uncomfortable/unsafe (like exiting an enclosed space with a stranger who makes you feel nervous), or even following some of Cosmo’s advice and being cautious about who could be overhearing your private information at hotels and elsewhere are all good things to consider doing. But assault is always caused by the person doing the assaulting, and again, that person is usually not a stranger.

So what can you do?

  • Know the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships. These can be hard to see from within a relationship you’re invested in, so get to know them outside of that context. Early red flags from a partner who may later become abusive can easily go undetected when you don’t know what to look out for, or when you’re already emotionally or financially invested. For example, one thing to look out for is controlling behavior—is your new partner jealous or upset when you spend time with your friends? Do they try to mask their unhealthy expectations with flattery? (“It’s not that I don’t trust you, I don’t trust the intentions of the people around you because you’re such a catch.”) Healthy relationships include ample room for meaningful friendships, and healthy partners don’t try to control who you spend time with, regardless of your friend’s gender. For more info, here’s a good resource for healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.
  • Practice, practice, practice boundary setting. By setting boundaries and paying attention to how the other person responds, you get information about them—are they trustworthy, do they understand limits, do they listen to me or are they trying to change my mind? Boundary setting can be a difficult skill, so practicing when the stakes are low—like about something small with a friend you trust, or with a stranger in a non-dangerous situation—can make it easier to do when the stakes are higher.
  • Know the research. According to researcher Sara Ullman’s analysis of national crime victimization survey data, physical resistance is effective in deterring sexual assault, as is forceful verbal resistance in some circumstances. Physical resistance is especially important if the offender is using physical force; one study showed that the most successful resistance strategies were those that matched the strategies of the offender (Dardis 113-114). Resistance strategies employed immediately in the encounter were also shown to be more effective, so listening to your gut and sticking up for yourself early on when you’re feeling uncomfortable is key to prevention. If you know you have a strong freeze reaction (a totally natural reaction in these situations), you might want to look into taking an empowerment self-defense class so you can practice accessing your voice and your “fight” instinct in highly stressful situations.

Ultimately, you’re the best judge of which tactics make you feel safer and which feel laborious and unhelpful. But when we dole out advice to each other, considering the reality of violence against women—and thinking about how we can realistically empower people of all genders to disrupt it—is a good place to start.

Dardis, Christina M. et al. “‘It’s Worth the Fight!’ Women Resisting Rape.” Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Resistance: Theory Research and Practice. Lindsay M. Orchowski and Christine A. Gidycz. London: Academic Press, 2018. 111-133. Print.