Safety for Women: Useful Tips to Improve Street Smarts & Avoid Violence

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30 percent of women globally have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. This is according to a 2018 analysis of prevalence data from 2000 to 2018. That’s 1 in 3. Improving safety for women should be everyone’s job but you can’t count on that.

If you’re a woman, you could be a target someday, but you don’t have to be a victim.

In this article, I’ll teach you some of the same skills to improve your street smarts and avoid violence that I used and taught at the CIA.

But first, a story.

image: man in black leather jacket looking around corner at three young women, two of whom are aware of him

A Cautionary Tale About Situational Awareness

My day started out as a beautiful autumn morning. Very pleasant, in fact, despite the frenzied atmosphere as we readied our son for school.

We had recently moved and were living in Europe, in a new city beginning a new school year.

As my son and I rushed out the door and headed down the street to the school bus stop, I began the usual morning parental interrogation: Brushed your teeth? Check. Have your lunch? Check. Money for the field trip? Check.

A few minutes later, we arrived at the corner with other school children and pedestrians on their way to work. As we chatted, waiting for the school bus to arrive, I noticed one of the older students, the pretty daughter of a family who lived nearby, standing next to an older man a short distance away.

Just then, the school bus rolled up so I gave my son a hug and kiss goodbye. He and the other students shuffled towards the bus to board—all the students, that is, except for the girl, Jean.

I watched her for a moment, wondering why she wasn’t approaching the bus, then noticed that the man was standing between her and the bus. Each time Jean tried to walk around him he blocked her, moving his face closer to hers as he stepped back and forth in her path.

At first, I thought it might be a male friend, another student intent on teasing her. Then I noticed that he was an adult, and I saw the look on her face.

She was worried.

The Confrontation

I told my son to wait and I approached the two. I first asked her if she was okay. “I’m fine,” she said in a frightened voice.

I then asked the man, “Who are you?”

“I’m nobody,” he replied, rudely.

“Well, okay, she needs to leave now,” I told him.

“I’m not done talking to her,” he said, as he moved around to face me.

“She’ll miss her bus, so she has to leave now,” I added, trying to stay calm.

“No, not yet.”

“Yes, she is leaving now. Look, she is too young for you, anyway,” I warned.

“I don’t care how old she is,” he countered.

His last, disgusting statement made me angry.

Anger is an interesting, tricky emotion, a double-edged sword. It can be a good thing when it stirs someone to action when needed. It can also be a bad thing if not controlled and kept in check. 

Despite my growing anger I tried to keep calm. I had been in another fight a few months earlier (protecting a victim who had been attacked in a subway) and did not relish the idea of returning to the office of Security in the U.S. Embassy and filling out another report. I gave the harasser another chance.

“Listen, her dad is a big guy, and a rugby player. You don’t want to mess with this young lady.”

“Right,” he smirked, “and what are you going to do about it?” With that last comment, he gave me a shove. 

There was not much thinking from that point on, just reaction. I shoved him back. He stormed back at me with fists raised. I threw a punch, which hit him squarely on the left cheek. He came back for more. I struck him again, a blow which left him on the ground, his back against a tree. He then reached for his bag so I kicked it, sending pastries spilling out across the sidewalk.

The would-be sexual predator then whined, “Leave my croissants alone.” I answered, “Okay, if you leave her alone.”

It would have been funny, if not for the violence.

Sfrog self defense kit

An analysis of the event and my response

I don’t tell this story to boast. I’m glad I intervened, but I made mistakes. I also did some things right.

What did I do wrong?

As I grew angrier and angrier, I experienced a bad case of tunnel vision.

My situational awareness went out the window, so to speak. I couldn’t see anyone but the man, the aggressor.

Did he have friends, family, or accomplices in the area? I didn’t know. I mostly just saw his face.

What did I do right?

I had arrived at the park with satisfactory situational awareness. I was aware of my surroundings as I waited and began loading my son onto the bus, despite the stress of trying to be on time, and distractions while saying goodbye.

The bus drove up and others were in the park. I recognized the students who were moving toward the bus and clearly identified others: pedestrians, people on their way to work, even retired people, milling about or sitting on benches.

And I saw the jerk.

Despite the emotions and anger, I still maintained some semblance of situational awareness. But emotions can make it difficult. Emotions will do that to a body.

Emotions—anger, frustration, jealousy, even excitement—can cause someone to miss important details that we must notice, recognize, and process. Details that can save us from being assaulted by one man, or ten men. Details that can make the difference between being sexually assaulted and going home safe and sound. Even the difference between life and death.

Emotions can impair our observation skills and our awareness.

Improving Safety for Women Means Knowing How Predators Operate

Predators will:

  1. Select a target
  2. Follow and surveil you to identify habits and route
  3. Finalize a plan, or possibly choose another, softer target
  4. Surveil you some more, and lastly,
  5. Deploy at a site along her usual route, waiting on the “X” (figuratively, the spot where he wants to kidnap, rape, assault, or even seduce a woman—for some sexual predators, it might be the back seat of his car)

Obviously, the optimum time to thwart an assault is early on—the earlier the better. It’s better to identify him when he first approaches, or strikes up a conversation, or is following you, or watching you than to wait until you’re is standing on the “X”, or are in the back seat of a sexual predator’s vehicle.

Now let’s look at the levels of awareness that affect how situationally aware we are and thus how prepared we may be to avert danger.

The Four Conditions of Cooper’s Color Code

Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper was one of America’s top authorities on personal self-defense philosophy. He created this code to identify the level of situational awareness possessed by an individual in a given moment. Many in the security field teach the concept of conditions, or levels, of awareness, or state of mind—white, yellow, orange, and red—and that we often drift between them during a typical day, often depending upon our emotions:

  • Condition white describes someone who is basically “asleep at the wheel.” You won’t see the open manhole cover on the sidewalk, or telephone pole in your path, nor the suspicious man lingering near your car in the grocery store parking lot. You won’t see a thing, other than her cell phone text messages, until it is too late.
  • Condition yellow indicates you are alert but relaxed. You know someone is walking behind you on the sidewalk, you’re aware of someone shopping in the same aisle in the shoe store, you see the manhole cover on the sidewalk, and vehicles (makes and models, even drivers) that take multiple turns with you as you drive home. Interestingly, and contrary to what you would think, you’re not paranoid because you’re aware. (I would argue that people in Condition White are probably the most paranoid.) You’re not scared because you’re prepared. Everyone should stay in condition yellow—women and men—until they encounter a threat.
  • Condition Orange defines a state when a specific threat has been identified, such as the man who followed you around the shopping mall and is now standing next to your car. Once you’ve recognized a threat you’ll move to Condition Orange. You might have seen someone many times, over time and distance (not someone you notice in the same store, over a short period of time, for example), and have confirmed that you’re under surveillance—that you’ve been followed by someone threatening. You’ll now take steps to either move away from the threat or fight to escape.
  • Condition Red: At this point, the man who followed you through the movie theater has blocked your path toward your car and tried to drag you inside his van. Or the thug at the restaurant is trying to pull you out the exit door. You now have the Flight or Fight. (I put Flight first since that is your best bet.)You will scream for help, resist with all your strength, run, kick and scratch and spray him with your pepper spray. You’ll fight with all her strength, even fight dirty.

By remaining in Condition Yellow and staying aware of your surroundings, you can avoid many situations before you’re in danger. Many assailants, including rapists or sexual predators, follow a similar, chain-of-attack (unless they find a “target of opportunity”).

How can you break the chain of attack?

You must be observant and aware.

You need to see when a predator’s actions correlate with your own, such as noticing when he is browsing through magazines and then leaving the store at the same time you leave. And then after seeing him enter another store with you, you observe he also finishes his coffee at the same time or walks to the food court at the same time. You need to notice his demeanor: is he nervous, glancing at you, loitering without a purpose.

You must really see him.

When you see a possible correlation—between his actions and yours—you can take more provocative steps to confirm that he is following you. You can walk through the Walmart in a “stair-stepping” pattern, making several turns while heading to the Pharmacy, for example, rather than two long straight-aways. This forces him to take the turns with you and makes it easier for you to confirm that he’s following you.

Perhaps you execute a “reversal,” turning back down an aisle towards him and looking him in the eye, letting him know that you know. You might do a u-turn (vehicular reversal) when driving, heading back towards him, while jotting down his license plate number as you pass.

You can then speed-dial her dad, brother, friend, or the police, depending upon the situation. If you are in a store and know that someone is following you, contact the Manager of the store, or a security guard, and ask him to escort you to your car.

READ MORE: If you are a woman who is living in a car either by necessity or choice, read about the additional measures you should take to ensure your safety and well-being.

What happens when you are aware?

When a woman is aware, you’ll recognize an “X” and not go anywhere near it. If she sees a man standing next to his van, on her path ahead of her while walking from class to her dorm, she can stop well in advance. You’ll notice if he stops what he is doing, to see if there is any correlation with your action. Does he look in your direction, and act nervous? Or does he grab bags of groceries from his vehicle and head up the stairs into his home?

You might see a group of men in a parking lot near the exit of the movie theater, before you exit. You’ll stop and possibly act like you’re on the cellphone, noticing whether they continue talking and laughing before they proceed to their vehicle, or whether they’re watching you, and wait.

You’ll observe a young man loitering near the entrance to your apartment building as you approach. Is he a sexual predator waiting for a young woman to arrive so he can push his way in the door and rape her? You can assess the situation and know if he is dangerous by stopping and waiting some distance away. You can watch, and might see the man’s girlfriend exit a minute later, and see them leave hand-in-hand—mystery solved, danger averted.

How will you feel?

Will your situational awareness cause you some perceived embarrassment? Will you feel paranoid when you turn down a ride from a man you don’t know well? Or will you feel foolish that you hesitated, that you were a scaredy-cat when you waited inside a store or asked the manager to accompany you to your vehicle? Will you be embarrassed if you intervene on behalf of a friend who might be in danger?

No! You should feel proud that you are careful, aware, and smart. And you know what? You may never know that your observation, awareness, and pause—that extra few seconds of waiting—might have just saved your life or the life of a friend.

How did I feel after my confrontation at the bus stop?

Was I embarrassed that I got in a second fight, in less than 6 months? Maybe, a little.

But I was glad that I was aware enough to notice a young woman in need of help.

What might have happened if I had been oblivious and focused only on getting my son on that bus, and hurrying off to work?

Who knows. But it didn’t happen, because I was situationally aware. And Jean went to school and returned home later that day, safe and sound.

What are some measures you use to help you stay safe as a woman?

This article was contributed by B.D. Foley. His book CIA Street Smarts for Women: Spy Skills to Tell the Prince from the Predator provides more information and specific skills. These are the same skills that he used and taught in the CIA about how to test, vet, and “read” men; elicit information on their true intentions; avoid emotional vulnerabilities and manipulation; project a confident demeanor to stay off a predator’s “radar”; turn down an invitation or break-up safely; and much more. Stay safe!

  image: book cover for CIA Street Smarts for Women


Originally published on October 28, 2015, this article has been updated.


20 thoughts on “Safety for Women: Useful Tips to Improve Street Smarts & Avoid Violence”

  1. Absolutely excellent awareness brief! But situational awareness training is both an ongoing process, and a skill that can go away without constant use. And while practiced intervention is admirable, it is the potential victim that needs the training. Kids as young as 5 or 6 readily upload the training. Just remember to reactivate their training after they go through the memory reset age. The hardest training point is the no cell phone use while outdoors. Anyone who blindly uses their cell phone, or puts ear buds in, while outdoors, is waving a large flag stating “I want to ve a victim”! Keep up the great blog!

    1. Thanks! And thanks for your input. You are absolutely correct when you say we need to train our kids to not be distracted. I saw a video a while back of a young lady who was distracted while walking home with her cell phone, and lead a predator right to her front porch, not noticing him until he shoved his way inside. We need to constantly remind them. All the best, BD

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  3. Any suggestions on convincing my teen of the need for this kind of awareness? I’m her grandmother but raising her. She just laughs when I try to talk to her about dangers (she’s 16 & invincible). She thinks because we don’t live in a big city she will never be in danger. She just tells me I worry too much. I was raised in LA so grew up with a few street smarts but experience has taught me that we all need to be awake all the time. Any ideas?

    1. That’s a tough one, and a tough age! It’s sometimes hard to reach teenagers, mine included. First, get her my book. I’m hoping that the “spy” angle will appeal to young women, and make her feel like a secret agent woman, and empowered. Also, I purposely tried to not have it be too “dark.” And she might listen to me, since I’m not her parent! Second, teach her by example. Be aware when you drive around with her, and show her that you are being careful. I have simple tips in the book regarding counter surveillance (knowing if someone is following you) techniques that you can do to and from a store, for example. Third, repeat the warnings (not nag, but just simple encouragements when she goes out). She might get annoyed, but we hope she will remember some of the advice, and recognize when she might be in danger. Does that help? God bless you for loving and caring for her, and I wish you all the best, BD

    2. One more point, and a major focus of my book: women need to be aware and alert to abuse from all men, including the ones she dates. She needs to recognize threats from “friendly” young men who attempt to manipulate her for their own gratification (80% of sexual assaults are carried out by men known to the victim). She can learn to read them and “see” their true nature, or intentions. I find that there is quite a lot of advice out there on using keys, pepper spray, and martial arts (which is all necessary) but I focus on stopping abuse well before it begins, before she has to fight in the back seat of his car–using spy skills, and verbal martial arts.

  4. This happened to me recently at the mall. A man probably in his 30’s left a department store at the same time I did and gave me a “funny” look. Then, he seemed to go everywhere I went. So, I led him around for awhile, and sure enough, he followed. Then I turned, stopped, and faced him in the middle of the mall, where there is a lot of security. He kind of moved his head back like a turtle, and then he turned around and went the opposite direction. Facing him was just instinct on my part, because I was angry. I was happy to see this is a good tactic, although you have to be really careful. But he knew I could not be surprised at least. By the way, I am 70.

    1. Excellent! You are a secret agent woman! And you will never know, but you might have saved your life by being observant, and facing him down.

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  6. I’m sorry- but can’t tell if you are a man or a woman? Regarding the fighting, punching part a lot of us women wouldn’t fare too well against an angry man on the sidewalk. Any advice for this type of situation?

      1. Thank you for this article – it has some very good tips. However, while this kind of information is very useful, it ignores the fact that the vast majority of sexual assaults on women and most particularly children comes from people known to them. By focusing on the one-in-a-million chance of assault by a stranger, we limit our children’s interactions with their community while not adequately preparing them for the real threat; the neighbour, coach, priest, or other person who has intentionally placed themselves in a position of trust to the child and parent. Children must be taught to report any behaviour that is “weird” or makes them uncomfortable, to their parents.

        They need to learn what are appropriate boundaries, and above all that it is ok to leave an uncomfortable situation *even if it feels they are being rude or disrespectful to the adult involved*.

        They need to be taught to say NO in a forcible and assertive manner. They need to be taught to say, “stop”, and if they are being forcibly abducted in a public place, to scream, “This is NOT my father/mother – call the police!!” so as to not be mistaken for a bratty child being removed by his or her parent.

        1. The Survival Mom

          Thanks for the comment. We’ve taught our kids exactly that — don’t ever worry about appearing rude, etc. This particular article addressed street smarts, specifically. The author’s book is an EXCELLENT resource for just the scenarios you describe.

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  8. I left my son’s house one evening and as I pulled out onto the road I noticed the car behind me pulled out at the same time. I probably wouldn’t of notice it, but the cars headlights were different from any other I have ever seen, and the windows were tinted so I couldn’t see who was driving it. The car made the same turns that I did, my intuition told me something isn’t right. So at one point I turned my turn signal on too take a left turn down a alley, they put their turn signal on also. Right when I would of made the left turn I just continued to go straight, the car behind me stopped, not sure what to do, they actually turned left into the alley, I think they realized that I knew they were following me. Ever since that happened I have been working on my situational awareness. I was very scared at the time but I knew to follow my gut reaction. If you have a feeling that something doesn’t feel right it usually isn’t.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Tammy. Too often women are told they’re overreacting and because of that we can begin to doubt ourselves. I’m glad you trusted your instincts.

  9. If there is a large crowd nearby, this is one of the times where it’s good to go there. Enter the crowd, walking fast and subtly pushing yourself past the people. Once your reach the other end, continue moving and try going around a corner or two so when the man is out of the crowd, he probably lost you. (This saved me once as a child.)

  10. I think your response was just perfect! However, I’m very small, as well as not very fit, so I would not be able to punch a man hard enough to make him fall down. It would have been good for you to describe what a typical woman, for whom a defensive punch is not really an option, might do in that situation to get the girl free. Maybe instruct the girl to run to the bus while remaining in the path of the perpetrator as a distraction? Link arms with the girl and walk with her to the bus? Blow a whistle (which we should always have handy) to alert others in the area that there is a problem? I don’t know what I would have done, but like you, I would have tried to do something. I had to laugh at his concern over his croissants. If that isn’t just the picture of a cowardly bully, I don’t know what is. You should have smashed them with your feet, just for fun. Good work!

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