When University of Wisconsin sophomore Marie Piontek was walking home with her boyfriend downtown on a recent Saturday night, she had no idea they would soon be involved in a potentially disastrous situation.
Piontek said they were attacked by a man who was visibly drunk and confused, and pushed them to the street.
"I was really surprised because it was so random and had nothing to do with us," Piontek said. "We decided to just go home and he followed us, but we kept going."
With numerous strong-armed robberies in the Madison area in recent weeks, some students like Piontek are looking for ways to protect themselves in the urban environment.
Kelly Anderson, executive director of the Madison Rape Crisis Center, said the first step in self-defense methods is avoiding potentially dangerous environments.
"It's really about recognizing situations and avoiding them," Anderson said.
According to MaryAnne Thurber, Madison police crime prevention officer, students should consider forming a safety plan for unexpected situations and inform someone of where they will be throughout the night.
"They just need to learn the new environment for urban living," Thurber said. "Are you making wise choices when you're meeting new people?"
Thurber stressed the importance of simple decisions before going out — like limiting what students carry in their pockets and how vulnerable they appear to a potential perpetrator.
"You also should consider: Are you a good witness? Could you give a description of people, places and their direction of travel?" Thurber said. "If you're intoxicated and wandering the streets, you're a target, and when crooks size a person, they consider if your full mental faculty and physical ability is intact."
Although many think of stranger assaults when they consider self-defense, Anderson said 90 percent of sexual assaults are by someone the victim knows and either in the victim’s home or the perpetrator’s.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, males are much more likely to be victimized violently by a stranger while about 7 in 10 female sexual assault victims said the offender was an intimate, other relative, or a friend.
Around 74 percent of robberies of males are by strangers compared to only 48 percent of females who didn't know their attacker.
Taking vocal action
In the event of an attack or a potential attack, Anderson, who coordinates self-defense instruction through Chimera — a part of RCC — said nonverbal and verbal messages are the most effective methods.
Anderson said a large portion of their introductory course focuses on getting past socializations about being nice and not hurting feelings.
"We are taught to not hurt anybody's feelings and not to be rude," Anderson said. "Like at a bus stop where someone is standing too close, you should say, ‘You're making me uncomfortable,' but that's really hard to do, that's really transgressive."
According to Anderson, the most powerful tool is the word "No" used forcefully, instead of high pitched screaming.
"If you yell, ‘No! Go away, Call the police,' that's the information you need — it increases the likelihood that someone will get you assistance,” she said. “They want you to scream and be scared; they don't want you to stand assertively yelling at them."
Chimera offers UW students discounted rates on their self-defense training classes offered year-round at Gordon Commons.
"We work on things like a defensive stance poised in a way to offer a counterattack," Anderson said. "There's also front step kicks, heal palms and others where you don't need to be a black belt to use them."
Since many women don't have the “roughhousing experience” men sometimes take part in, Chimera has mats and pads to encourage women to strike as hard as they can and avoid "the classic kick for the crotch" that many women attempt.
"If you step on his instep and take out his knee, he won't grab at you like he would if you grab for his crotch," Anderson said. "The key thing is to protect yourself enough to get to a safe place — we're not about turning people into karate-chopping death machines."
Former UW kinesiology self-defense instructor Brad Binder agreed the crotch is not always the best target since men are all too aware of that weak area.
"It's sometimes better to do something else first and then maybe a knee to the groin," Binder said. "If you can distract them by doing something else, then that target might become available."
Thurber said being protected by prior decisions are still the most important, as it takes some time to commit the fighter attitude into "rogue memory."
"Everyone is wired with a fight or flight nature," Thurber said. "The response mechanism is very complex."
In addition to the several self-defense training programs offered in Madison, some students chose to pursue education at private martial arts studios.
Theresa Wideman, spokesperson for Black Belt America on Odana Road said they offer a combination of martial arts including kickboxing and Mui Thai style fighting, along with self-defense.
"With our adults, we work on different grabs and knife and gun defenses," Wideman said. "It really depends on the person — it's all about awareness and reaction time and if you're that kind of person who can be aware of your surroundings and have the skill and physical shape."
Binder said he sees the skills learned studying martial arts are often more long-term.
"For self-defense, you're looking for a short-term, quick, easy way of doing something," Binder said. "With martial arts, it's a life-long pursuit."
Wideman agreed the studio can offer sophisticated skills that could take a long period of time to master.
"Depending on many factors, it could take as long as a year," Wideman said. "You can pick up real quick how to scream real loud."
Arming for safety
Some students also turn to pepper spray and whistles as a convenient carry-along for additional protection against potential attackers.
Pepper spray has been criticized as a "feel good" many women carry without proper knowledge of the tool.
"It can be a fine thing potentially on the street if the wind is right and you know how to use it, and it's in your hand, and he's susceptible to it," Binder said.
Thurber said another important consideration when choosing some type of weaponry is the fact it could be taken away and used against the victim.
"Mace is illegal, pepper spray is legal, but anything you have can be taken and used against you," Thurber said. "If it's at the bottom of a book bag or if you get sprayed, you'll suffer the negative effects."
Anderson said instructors at Chimera put more emphasis on verbal tactics than training on sometimes unreliable equipment that people envision as a "magical talisman" keeping them safe.
"We don't promote [pepper spray] — it's a very rare situation that you'll be standing upwind, and unfortunately you're already too close," Anderson said. "The far more important thing is to be willing to make a scene."
As stranger assaults increase in Madison, Anderson warned of students feeling less safe on the street and neglecting the constant dangers in their lives.
"As much as someone walking late at night after the bar might be at risk, that same woman is more at risk if she's going home with somebody because more assaults happen in the perpetrator’s home or your home than on the street," Anderson said.
With high profile cases like the ongoing investigation of Kelly Nolan, a 22-year-old UW-Whitewater student who went missing near the Madison campus and was later found dead in a nearby town, students are constantly looking for ways to become safer.
"It's a balancing act, but the reality is it's really about looking at who the perpetrators are and why they do what they do," Anderson said. "There's only so many ways you can change your life thinking you might be a potential victim."