Starting a Personal Safety Course with a group of 12-14 year old girls, this was their first suggestion when I asked them what they were worried about.
I had a list of potential dangers I wanted the group to consider, but in this workshop, the first of a series of weekly sessions, I wanted to hear from the group first, to draw out their concerns rather than impose a fixed list of ‘dangers’ upon them. I have never been a teenage girl, and I’ve not experienced being a teenager in the 21st Century. I felt therefore that their concerns were more appropriate a starting point than my list and as they discussed concerns with my team we gradually identified everything I had written down.
It was not surprising that their primary perception of danger was that it was ‘external’. The stranger lurking in the street or following them, the cat-fisher on an online platform, certainly not anyone they know.
The unfortunate reality is that while most people are aware that there might be external dangers from strangers, and sadly many people do fall victim to predatory crimes from those they have never met before, a significant proportion of abusive and violent acts are committed by those known to their victims.
I have been involved in education for over 32 years. I’ve taught teenagers as a teenager myself in the cadets, I’ve assisted in primary and middle schools, I’ve been a tutor for undergraduates at University, volunteered as a teaching assistant in secondary schools, taught in secondary schools and been a boarding house tutor for teenagers in a state boarding school. I’ve visited numerous schools to lecture on Personal Safety and Self Protection and I’ve planned and supervised numerous week-long and weekend multi-school camps and trips with teenagers and worked with more adults and teenagers than I can possibly recall.
It’s not therefore surprising to me therefore that over those years I have encountered individuals that unfortunately have fallen into that first category the girls perceived as a threat. I’ve been employed to lecture on Self Protection at one location for a number of years by a person subsequently found to have inappropriate material on their computer. I’ve worked alongside a person from another unit as part of a short-term team for a week only for them to be arrested the following week for inappropriate behaviour (and online material) that neither I nor other staff witnessed. I’ve seen an IT professional many education staff relied upon found guilty of inappropriate behaviour with students in addition to having inappropriate material. Sadly one of the teenagers I used to supervise in a co-curricular activity has, as an adult, engaged in inappropriate behaviour and been incarcerated for a time.
These were not the one-dimensional bad guys twirling their moustaches with British accents as you might see in movies. They were normal people, living normal lives, with friends, family and colleagues. They did a lot of good for a lot of people, but sadly they also engaged in behaviour that either directly or indirectly harmed others. I’m not trying to excuse them, I’m not trying to understand them, but as a Self Protection Instructor and writer I have to accept the reality of them. People are complex. ‘Good people’ can get gradually drawn into terrible behaviours. ‘Bad people’ can hide behind organisations and superficially normal behaviour to disguise their nature and actions.
This is something that is vital to explain when talking about Self Protection. All too often the threat is not ‘outside’ our social circle, it is from those we know, those who to all outward appearances are ‘normal’. We are most vulnerable to those who get close to us: our family, our friends, our colleagues, our medical practitioners, our online relationships, our teachers and our students. These individuals have a greater level of access to us than anyone else and a better understanding of our vulnerabilities. Those who give us our greatest support also have the potential to do us greatest harm. This is one of the most difficult subject areas to address sensitively when discussing personal safety.
In my country anyone that has regular access to children as a professional or volunteer has to undertake regular criminal record checks and most likely has regular child protection training too. The former helps ensure that people with inappropriate past records are kept away from children, but of course it only stops those that have been caught. The latter ensures that adults involved with working with children are better able to have systems in place that make abuse unlikely and have training to spot behaviours that may indicate the need for intervention. It’s not a perfect system, but it is a good system. What that system cannot easily do is protect children from abusive peers, relatives in their social groups, or friendships and interactions online. Education about inappropriate behaviours, encouragement to listen to their gut and to flag up and call out controlling, narcissistic or violent behaviours early with the knowledge that such ‘whistle-blowing’ will be supported by peers and those in authority, may help steer many from getting into problematic and potentially abusive close relationships and situations.
I despise fear based marketing. I don’t want the people I try to help to be paranoid about things that may never happen. I and these teenagers are lucky that we live in a country that is actually very safe. While all types of crime are higher than we would like, they are lower than in many other countries and we can bring them lower yet.
The analogy I like to make when teaching personal safety is ‘the Green Cross Code’ that was in vogue in my younger years. As young children we are taught that roads can be dangerous, but if we pay attention, look and listen for traffic to see that it is safe to cross, we can do so safely. Very few people are paralysed by fear at the prospect of crossing a road, or wake up dreading that they might have to do it, or have nightmares about doing it. The necessary steps to crossing the road safely become so internalised that we approach roads, cross, then carry on with our lives with no second thought about the danger we have avoided. Self protection should largely be the same: unconscious habits that come from an awareness of potential dangers, meaning that we live worry-free safe lives, very rarely having to take focused steps to avoid trouble.