What You Should Know About Street Harassment and Self-Defense: An Interview with Erik Kondo

Meet Erik Kondo, the founder of NOT-ME!, a non-profit organization that completely transforms the art of self-defense.  His workshops incorporate skills and strategies beyond the scope of traditional, physical self-defense workshops; participants are encouraged to understand their own potential, build confidence in their abilities, and follow a system of preventative strategies.  If you can’t make it to one of his workshops, check out his incredible blog about street harassment.

In this interview, Kondo speaks about the importance of self-defense, the prevalence and underlying causes of street harassment, and issues relating to power, communication, and fear.

What was your motivation for starting the organization, Not Me?

I started NOT-ME! with the intention to advance self-defense education for at-risk populations. As a long time practitioner of the martial arts, I came to the realization that the majority of self-defense instruction is based on teaching mostly physical technique. As a person with a disability, I understand the limitations of using physical technique for self-defense. Most attackers are bigger and stronger than their intended victims. Therefore, it is far more effective to outsmart an attacker with a powerful strategy such as the 5D’s of Self-Defense, then it is try to “out fight” them. I created NOT-ME! in order to advocate the importance of using strategy and incorporating the mental and emotional realities into self-defense education and training.

What can people take away from your self defense workshops?

Truly learning self-defense is similar to learning how to swim. It takes a lot of time and effort. But, the first part of learning how to swim is how “not to drown”. In terms of self-defense, “not drowning” means having a realistic understanding of your personal strengths, weaknesses, and instinctive nature. It means understanding that the most effective means of self-defense is prevention executed by active deterrence. That is the message I convey in a workshop.

What has been the most rewarding story you have heard from a participant in your program?

Not long ago, I did a private session with a young woman who was planning to travel alone to Chile for the summer. Along with personal instruction, I provided her with reading materials for the plane. While, in Chile she encountered a young female traveler who had just been robbed. She passed the materials on to her.

The goal of self-defense is to minimize the consequences of aggression and to provide peace of mind. When she returned, she had no problems to report. But she had felt better prepared for her trip than her unlucky fellow traveler. To me, this is a great example of the purpose of self-defense instruction, to provide people with a means to be better prepared and for them to pass on their knowledge to others.

What makes certain individuals more at-risk for street harassment?

It is impossible to answer this question without running into the danger of “victim blaming”. One of the difficulties of street harassment is that in most situations the harassing behavior cannot be avoided or deterred by the target of harassment. The term “street harassment” encompasses a wide variety of behaviors, starting with leers and comments and ending with predatory testing and stalking. It is simply not possible to prevent someone from making inappropriate public comments about you, nor do I believe it is advisable. Avoiding street harassment by wearing baggy clothes or by limiting public travel has the effect of magnifying the overall negative effects of harassment.

An episode of street harassment differs from a self-defense situation in that the damage caused by street harassment is by definition not physical. Street harassment is an attack against the target of harassment’s psychological well-being. It is the constant repetition of the incidents combined with the target’s feeling of powerlessness than creates long term damage, especially among adolescent girls.

What advice would you give to someone that is experiencing street harassment?

While every incident of street harassment has similar elements, the particular circumstance of each incident differs widely. Therefore, my advice is a flexible strategy that follows the three steps; Acknowledge, Assess, and Act.

Acknowledge that you or someone else is being harassed. It is impossible to take positive action without first recognizing and confirming that there is a problem. You must break the destructive cycle of deny, delay, and do nothing.

Assess the situation. The type of response you make is totally dependant upon the type of person that you are dealing with, your own personal strengths and weaknesses and the existence of potential helpful bystanders or harassing confederates. For example, dealing with the Charmer Wannabe is less threatening than the Overgrown Bully, unless the Charmer Wannabe is really a Predatory Tester in disguise.

Act in a proactive manner. The type of action executed is determined by what has been previously assessed and taking into consideration your ability and willingness to confront the harasser. While an assertive statement is typically the most effect response, it is also difficult for many women (and men too) to be assertive without practice.

Assertiveness is not an emotion. Anger, fear, irritation, and uncertainty are examples of emotions. Assertiveness is a method of communication, in the same way that whispering and yelling are methods of communication. People are born with the inherent ability to feel emotions. They are not born with the ability to be assertive. Assertiveness must be practiced and perfected over time. The two most common reactions to harassment are variations of the powerful emotions of fear or anger. These emotions lead to either passive behavior or an angry outburst.

In order to be assertive, you must be neither fearful nor angry. You need to have the stern matter of fact voice and demeanor of a tough elementary school teacher. Therefore, if your idea of assertiveness is “Please pass the salt.” as opposed to “Now pull up your pants little Johnny. And don’t let me catch you doing that again!”, then you need to create an action response that works for you.

Why do you think street harassment is often justified and trivialized?

Those are two separate questions. I believe that street harassment is trivialized because as I stated earlier, it encompasses such a wide variety of behaviors. Very few people would say that when an adult man stalks or engages in predatory testing of an adolescent girl, it is a trivial matter. But, on the other end of the scale, if a man says to a fully grown woman he passes on the street “Looking good today!” it is possible to wonder “what’s the big deal?”

The issue is not the words; it is the context and implication of the statement that create the problem. For instance, in the Middle Ages, that type of statement to a Queen would most likely get a man upside down in a kettle of boiling oil. Why? Because the implication of the statement is the existence of disrespectful familiarity, one that has a sexual context. What should exist between strangers is a common desire to treat each other with respect. Therefore, keeping one’s head out of boiling oil, means changing disrespectful comments to simple acknowledgement greetings such as “Hello” or a nod of the head.

Why street harassment is justified is another matter. Typically a behavior is justified by one person or group when another person or group places blame for the behavior. Assessing blame is a sure fire way to guarantee a justification response. Women blame men for harassing them. Men blame women for blaming them. Women blame men for blaming them. This is a self-enforcing destructive cycle.

Justification is similar to an excuse, and excuses are for those who need them. There is no logical or rational reason to be disrespectful to a stranger on the street. Therefore, that type of behavior needs to be “rationalized” and “justified” in order it to continue.

Studies have shown that women all across the world experience street harassment, regardless of race, class, and ethnicity. Why is it that street harassment is such a global phenomenon?

Cultural based street harassment such as that seen in NYC, is a toxic byproduct of three main ingredients. They are (1) a male dominated power culture, (2) a cultural fear of male violence among women, and (3) a culture of disempowered bystanders. When these three ingredients exist in a society somewhere in the world, that society is likely to experience its own version of street harassment.

What do you see as the most effective measure in preventing and combating street harassment?

I believe that street harassment can be defeated by a three petal plan that involves Prevention, Intervention, and Mitigation. That means preventing street harassment from occurring, intervening to stop it when it occurs, and mitigating the negative effects after it has occurred.

This plan must be implemented by society as a whole, by bystanders to incidents of street harassment, and by women as targets of harassment. The harasser’s themselves are part of the plan in that their behavior is the central focus of the plan. Specifically,

1. Society must create a culture of intolerance for street harassment in order to eliminate the behavior.

2. Bystanders – must learn strategies and methods to intervene and mitigate when observing incidents of harassment.

3. Targets of Harassment must learn strategies and methods to directly voice their disapproval when harassed.

Every situation of street harassment is different. Each situation requires a different response. But the overall strategy is the same: Society, Bystanders, and Targets need to communicate that street harassment is unacceptable behavior and will not be tolerated.

What do you think street harassment tells us about society?

I believe that street harassment is not just a “cancer” than needs to be eradicated. I think it is a symptom of a greater problem. This problem is more than just a power struggle between the genders. Street harassment is evidence of a break down in people’s ability to effectively communicate with each other on a face to face level when removed from controlled social situations.

Street harassment is in effect unwanted or forced communication. The harasser uses his method of communication to not only intimidate, silence, or anger the target of harassment, but also the surrounding male and female bystanders. Neither the target nor the bystanders know how to communicate their displeasure to the harasser. Despite the fact that the balance of power is in the hands of the bystanders, but in most situations, they do nothing.

In a typical harassment situation on a subway train with a captive audience, the Target doesn’t effectively communicate her displeasure to the Harasser. She doesn’t effectively communicate her desire for assistance from the male and female Bystanders. Neither the male or female Bystanders effectively communicate their willingness to support the Target, or their displeasure of the behavior to the Harasser. The Harasser is able to capitalize on this breakdown in communication and take control of the situation.

Therefore, while it is possible to point the finger of blame squarely on the Harasser, it is the inaction of the majority that enables the Harasser to do his dirty work.

Street harassment is everyone’s problem. Everyone must share responsibility for its existence and for its defeat. While everyone may not be directly involved in incidents of street harassment, everyone suffers to some degree from the same problem with intrapersonal communication. Every man that silently watches another man harass a woman is at fault in the same way that every woman who automatically looks down at the approach of a male is at fault. These behaviors create the environment that makes cultural street harassment possible.

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