Since the Ariel Castro kidnapping/sexual assault case broke in Cleveland, many women have asked me what they can do to protect themselves from such horrors. As a sex-crimes prosecutor in D.C., I saw all too often how assaults like this start. Based on my experience, as well as advice from police and women's self-defense experts, here are my top tips for women to stay safe.
IN YOUR HOME
Lock your doors and windows. This seems so elementary, but we forget it all the time. A man known as the "East Coast Rapist" would scope out apartment complexes, looking for openings. Out of a 50-unit complex, he would attack the one woman who'd left her window or sliding-glass door open. Get a good deadbolt and use it.
Lower the blinds when it's dark outside. Some predators look into windows to find places that are empty or where only a woman is home.
Keep the exterior well-lit. Turn on the lights outside your house. Motion-sensor lights are also helpful. Predators are looking for an easy hit. Make your home a hard target.
Watch your back when you unlock your front door. This is a vulnerable time, when an attacker may push into your home.
Get a dog. This is the number one piece of casual advice police officers give about home safety. Predators and thieves just don't want to deal with dogs. Alarm systems have also been shown to be a deterrent.
ON THE STREET
Be alert. Notice what's going on around you.
Don't wear headphones. We use only two senses to alert us to this kind of danger: sight and sound. Don't deprive yourself of one of them.
Walk with confidence. Predators are looking for an easy target. Your gait can communicate that you're physically capable and athletic (even if you're not). Walk quickly, stand straight, and swing your arms a little.
No shortcuts. Avoid alleyways, woods, and the like. I can't tell you how many sexual assaults start in the neighborhood "cut." Walk on well-lit, busy streets.
Walk in groups whenever possible. This doesn't guarantee safety. One of the East Coast Rapist's attacks involved three teenagers out trick-or-treating -- he threatened them with a weapon and sexually assaulted two of them before the third girl texted for help. A few years ago, a gang of young men attacked couples taking walks on the National Mall. But you are much less likely to be attacked if you're with other people.
If attacked, run and scream. A woman who both runs and screams has a good chance of getting away from a potential assailant. On the other hand, if a mugger just demands your purse, give it up. You can throw it on the ground and run in the other direction. Don't fight over things you can replace. Everything in your purse is replaceable. You are not.
Don't take rides from strangers. Each of Castro's victims accepted a ride from him, which is how he kidnapped them.
Fight like hell if someone tries to force you into a car. Your chances of surviving the encounter plummet once you get in. The reason he wants you in the car is to take you somewhere that no one can see what he's going to do. If someone had a gun pointed at my head and told me to get into his car, I'd run. He probably wouldn't shoot me on the street, and even if he did, I'd rather take my chances with his aim then trust his goodwill once he had me in a secluded spot.
Go with friends. Look out for each other.
Watch your drink. Date rape drugs are a problem. Some taste salty or bitter, so if a drink tastes strange, stop drinking it. But some drugs are tasteless. You could be taking a risk if you go back to a drink you've left unattended, or accept an open drink from a stranger. If you do start to feel woozy, have a trusted friend get you home ASAP.
Get tested. If you think you've been a victim of a date rape drug, go to a hospital and ask to be screened as soon as possible. These drugs are metabolized by the body quickly. Time is crucial.
Trust your instincts. We all have built-in alarm systems. You know that hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling. Listen to it. Get out of a situation where you feel something is off -- even if you can't articulate why. Your unconscious mind takes in much more information than your conscious mind does, and it uses those neck hairs to send you the message. When you get that vague feeling, hit the road. You can figure out what exactly made you feel that way later -- when you're safe.
Don't be afraid to be rude. As women, we're taught from an early age to be polite and conversational. Predators use this to their advantage. "My car just broke down, can I use your phone?" is a classic way they get into your home. Same with, "Can I help you bring in your groceries?" Often these guys seem nice at first. Resist the urge to be sweet and polite -- at least to strange men offering or asking for help
IF YOU ARE SEXUALLY ASSAULTED
Call the police immediately. Don't bathe, brush your teeth or wash yourself in any way -- this can destroy critical evidence against the attacker. The police will arrange for a sexual assault nurse examination, which will collect evidence to help prove that the assault happened and identify the rapist. The nurse will also give you medicine to protect against sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. Most jurisdictions will also set you up with an advocate, who can help you locate resources and begin the emotional healing.
If you were sexually assaulted years ago, I would still advise coming forward. A delay in reporting may weaken a case, but doesn't necessarily make it impossible to win. Get the assault on the record so the perpetrator can be held accountable if and when he does it again.
Note: these tips are for avoiding sexual assaults by a stranger. Most violence against women is perpetrated by someone the woman knows, often intimately. Click here for advice on acquaintance rape or domestic violence.