It's dark, you're walking down the street and you're all alone. But it doesn't feel like you're all alone. Your gut sends signals that an unseen person is watching. He's probably harmless, but for all you know, he's sizing you up, deciding whether or not to sneak up from behind you, stick a gun in your back and take your property. The scenario may seem dramatic, or like the plot of an unoriginal television crime show, but it's a terrifying reality for many people.
In 2012, there were more than 1.2 million violent crimes committed nationwide, according FBI data. About 63 percent of those reported crimes were aggravated assaults, 29 percent were robberies, 7 percent were acts of rape and about 1 percent were murders.
Don't be a statistic: Take a self-defense class. Avoid dangerous routes. Be smart, and be aware. Awareness and risk reduction account for 90 percent of personal self-defense, according to the National Self-Defense Institute, a nonprofit based in Florida. Follow the tips below to learn which actions make you a target to assailants and which deter them.
Pay attention. To focus on your surroundings, you'll need to ditch the phone. By holding a cellphone against your ear and cheek, you're surrendering both your peripheral vision and a hand with which you could defend yourself, says Gabrielle Rubin, founder and instructor of a self-defense course in New York called Female Awareness. Plus, you're likely devoting your precious attention to the conversation instead of your environment.
Texting, checking emails and doing just about anything else on your phone for more than a few seconds is also a bad move, Rubin says. Your focus is on the phone, and because you're looking down, your peripheral vision in front and around you is compromised.
And, of course, lose the headphones. Attackers, robbers, creeps – those who Rubin collectively identifies as "bad guys" – thrive on that element of surprise. "If you can't hear them coming, you're giving them the advantage," she says.
Free your hands. Phones, purses, shopping bags, gym bags – the more stuff occupying your hands, the harder it'll be to fight back. And "bad guys" know that. Erase the target on your back by putting the phone away and consolidating several grocery bags in one bigger one, Rubin suggests.
Ladies, don't wear your purse on your dominant shoulder. "If someone approached you, you'd probably just grab the strap of your handbag tight, and you're losing that dominant hand to defend yourself," Rubin says.
Exude confidence. Remember that these potential assailants are likely strangers who will judge you mostly on body language. For example, Rubin has 20-something years of martial arts experience, but she points out that if she just received bad news, she might walk slowly down the street with her head hung low and her hands in her pockets. These cues make her a target to potential assailants. Conversely, if she walks with assurance, the "bad guys" are more likely to guess that she's someone who'd fight back if they chose to attack. "I'm not saying you have to walk down the street looking all badass, but we do have to carry ourselves with confidence," she says.
Rubin often tells women to walk as if they're working the runway, with proper posture, decent pace, shoulders back and face forward. Walk with purpose, she says, and with an expression that tells passersby that you're not scared or distracted, but instead, an important person with somewhere to be.
And make eye contact with people around you. No need to stare down anyone, but a moment of eye contact can let potentially threatening people know that you've seen them.
Anyone who's lived in a tourist destination can attest that fumbling with a map and looking lost does not project confidence. In fact, pulling out a paper map or consulting your smartphone is a three-fold offense: It diverts your attention, occupies your hands and reeks of uncertainty. Whether you're an out-of-towner or turned around in your own city, look up directions to your destination before leaving home. If you must consult your map or phone while out and about, step inside a building, such as a coffee shop, convenience store or hotel lobby, while reorienting yourself.