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Whistle in the dark

Photo by Envato Elements.
Photo by Envato Elements.

An American is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Every nine minutes, the victim is a child. The network reported on average there are 321,500 rape and sexual assault victims age 12 or older in the United States annually. RAINN is the largest nonprofit anti-sexual assault organization in the country and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

Having worked as a police officer at the University of Missouri—Columbia for more than 20 years, Lieutenant April Colvin, who is the second shift lieutenant for patrol and supervises the crime prevention unit, is no stranger to the violence young adults and teenagers can encounter at college. While the National Center for Victims of Crime reports 28 percent of U.S. teens between 14 and 17 have been sexually victimized, Colvin said it is still a possibility college-aged young adults will face some form of sexual assault during their time at university or later. She said avoiding isolated areas, using the buddy system and “listening to your gut” are simple ways to stay safe in potentially dangerous situations.

“You know, if something’s making you uncomfortable, there’s probably a reason that it’s making you uncomfortable, and sometimes we can’t really put it into words, but we know that it is. That feeling of fear and apprehension is there for a reason, and I think a lot of people tend to kind of push that out of the way,” Colvin said. “They think, ‘Oh, well, you know, I’m sure it’s okay. I’m sure it’s okay.’ But it’s there, and it’s there for a reason.”

From a relatively young age, math teacher Angel Jacquin’s mother made sure to educate her on the dangers she may face as a woman in America. While Jacquin said her brothers never took self-defense classes growing up, she said she and her younger sister took about 10. As a going away present when she left for college, Jacquin’s mother gave her 10 different forms of pepper spray to take with her.

When practicing self-defense, Colvin said the goal is to use the least amount of energy and have the lowest chance of injury while still delivering “one heck of an impact” to a vulnerable and painful place on the attacker’s body. She said this should allow the victim to “end the fight quickly” and at the same time manage to leave the situation.

Colvin said there are certain places on the human body that are vulnerable: shins, feet, groin, eyes, nose and the solar plexus area. She said striking with the knees, elbows or fists are hard parts of the body to hit with. Sometimes, she said, using the palm of a hand can be better than using a fist because it reduces the chance of broken bones.

“Self-defense techniques, first off, should be practiced and practiced often. It’s not just something that you just learn, file away in the back of your head and go on,” Colvin said. “Really, for it to be effective, you should practice it on a semi-regular basis. I would say basically you have to know what you can strike with, what parts of your body you can strike with and what you’re aiming at.”

If Jacquin’s brothers wanted to walk across the street at night, they easily could. She said, however, if she wished to, then her mother wanted one of her brothers to “escort” her because of the news at the time about when most assaults happened. Jacquin said she kept a baseball bat and a lacrosse stick in the back seat of her car in the event she ever needed to have a weapon for self-defense. This made both her and her brothers feel safe, especially since she worked jobs late at night. Jacquin’s mother also gave her and her brothers Maglite flashlights to keep in their glove compartments. These doubled as both a strong light source and could also be used as a weapon to protect themselves.

“It’s even to the point where if we got pulled over by a cop and we were alone in the car, we were to put our flashers on to let the cop know we knew we were going to be pulled over,” Jacquin said, “and we were not to pull over until we were in a crowded area, and you only cracked the window down so much if you’re alone or don’t feel comfortable because you never know who the predator is.”

Her mother’s protectiveness, however, was not unfounded, primarily because she worked in the medical world. Jacquin said her mother has a “more realistic view of the worst things that can happen” because of the people who she saw come into the hospital and the stories she heard from co-workers who had to walk through parking garages at night. The awareness her mother instilled in her became a form of prevention for Jacquin. She said her mother wanted her and her siblings to be strong and pursue whatever they were interested in while at the same time remaining cognizant of the world around them.

“I think that’s why [my mom was like], ‘Okay, you want to go do this? You want to bike to college every day at wee hours in the morning by yourself, fine. I’m gonna load you up with that pepper spray and make sure you have self-defense lessons so that you’re fully prepared to do that,’” Jacquin said.

Violence against young adults is “out there, and it’s not uncommon,” Colvin said. To educate and empower youth, Boone County offers a Rape Aggression Defense program designed specifically for women, which covers topics including travel safety, use of weapons and what to do after an attack. Twenty-five percent of girls and about 16.7 percent of boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“I think parents need to have frank conversations with their kids. [Sexual assault is] an uncomfortable topic, but I’ve always felt like when you’re having ‘the talk,’ that sex talk, that probably soon after it’s probably a good idea, and even before,” Colvin said. “I think parents just need to not be afraid to cover that topic. Kids are finding out earlier and earlier about sex in general, so I think parents, by kind of shunning that topic, are doing their kids a disservice.”

Because Jacquin’s mother had conversations with her that she knew her friends’ parents did not have with them, she adopted a “big sister role” throughout college. Jacquin said this empowered her to handle situations and protect her friends, especially those who were “not as equipped and aware” and those who would make “really poor decisions.”

As a way to expose her to the reality of being a female in this day and age, junior Leela Cullity’s parents created a way for her younger sister and her to go downtown on the weekends. Cullity said a lack of awareness can make any situation a woman is in “100 times more scary.” She said her parents’ preparation made being downtown alone less intimidating.

“I think since I was extremely little my parents have informed me of the dangers of being a girl and being alone,” Cullity said. “I think as soon as I was old enough to be alone and in certain settings, like downtown or even at school, they’ve prepared me, and they’ve told me, ‘This is what you’re going to have to deal with,’ and, ‘It’s what it is,’ and, ‘Do what you can to make sure that nothing bad happens to you.’”

Although Cullity said she has a sense of safety and relative naiveté when it comes to the treatment of females in today’s society, she is not entirely unprepared to deal with threats that may come her way. While going door-to-door during the summer as a volunteer for Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s re-election bid, Cullity and her mother decided it was “the best decision to carry some form of self-defense,” in her case a miniature bottle of pepper spray.

“I had an instance when I was going into my office for the Claire McCaskill campaign, and a man literally ran up to me and went to go shake me and ask me if I could Venmo him some money for a drink,” Cullity said. “And this was like a college, Mizzou student. He had money. He was wealthy. This was just a normal student, and that was definitely really scary, and I did not appreciate that. It sort of taught me what could happen to me in the future.”

At least half of all violent crimes, including sexual assault, involve “alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, the victim, or both,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Especially on a college campus, Colvin said, alcohol tends to be “very prevalent in rape and sexual assault cases.” She estimates at least 90 percent of the time, alcohol, what she called the “number one date-rape drug,” is involved in some capacity in rape and sexual assault cases. When people are consuming alcohol, Colvin said drinking responsibly and making sure someone is sober enough to make good decisions can help keep others safe.

“At parties, even if you’re not drinking, keep an eye on your drinks. Don’t set your drinks down where somebody can slip something into it ’cause that can happen,” Colvin said. “Also, you can go to bars, and there have been cases where bartenders have slipped stuff into drinks. So you could go, you could be the designated driver and grab a soda, and if you’re not really paying attention to what’s happening, that bartender could slip something in.”

Jacquin said she has friends with “horror stories” because they were not being aware or trusted the wrong people. While she hopes teenagers wait to drink until they are of age, she said never accepting an open drink and having an eye on the drink at all times are important because someone can slip something into the drink “at any place at any time.” In college, Jacquin said she and her friends had the “Sober Sister rule.” Whenever they went anywhere, she said there was always a girl who they trusted who would remain completely sober the entire time and who would keep tabs on everybody.

“They were not allowed to walk away from a party. They were not allowed to go anywhere with a guy, whether it was a boyfriend or not. I mean, they just weren’t allowed to leave our sight,” Jacquin said. “It was a big rule we had, and I think it helped everybody feel safer to have a good time and have a good, be in a good, safe environment knowing we had a safe way home, knowing that somebody’s watching out for us if we can’t handle our own decisions.”

In potentially dangerous situations, Colvin said having situational awareness, the ability to understand and respond effectively to an emergency situation, can help ward off attackers. She also said it can help people have a “jump on things,” which allows them to react sooner than if they were not paying attention. In non-violent situations of catcalling and verbal harassment, Colvin said everyone has his or her own way of handling the event. Unless it is “really bad,” Colvin recommended and personally practices the policy of ignoring the comments because she said a lot of times the harasser wants a reaction.

“I feel like if I turn around and I go to confront this person, am I going to escalate this to a point where I don’t really want to? You know, am I gonna make it worse than it already was? Now is it a shame that we basically have to just walk on and take it? It absolutely is,” Colvin said. “But I’m kind of the, ‘I’m gonna keep going; I’m gonna keep my head high, and I’m not going to give you any reaction whatsoever ’cause that’s what you’re looking for.’”

As a role model for her younger sister, Cullity said she demonstrates effective ways of “shutting people down” who are catcalling her or her sister on the street. She said she has seen her sister copy how she responds in those situations. In terms of protecting her safety, Cullity said she thinks the best way to respond to a verbal attack is to ignore it “rather than turn around and be aggressive back at them.” She said engaging with the verbal harasser is a “direct way to create a more hostile situation,” which could potentially put her in harm’s way.

“Even though I have told my sister we really would like to defend ourselves verbally against these people and tell them to stop saying these things to us, it’s just not the right thing to do,” Cullity said. “Well. It’s not the incorrect thing, it’s just the safer thing to do, and it’s the best way to protect yourself in a situation like that.”

Do you carry pepper spray? Let us know in the comments below!

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