Body Language and Assault Prevention - Brad Binder | Rape | Sexual Assault

Body Language and Assault Prevention: A Review of the Literature

by Brad Binder, Ph.D. © 1999, 2007
Please do not reprint or repost this article without first obtaining permission from the author.

It is a commonly held belief that training in self defense or a martial art leads to greater self-confidence and a reduced likelihood of being attacked. A number of studies support the idea that training of either sort leads to greater self-confidence (Fuller, 1988; Weiser et al., 1995; Heyden et al., 1999). What has been less studied is whether or not displaying a high degree of self-confidence reduces the likelihood of assault. One often hears that assertiveness in walking, standing, talking, eye contact, etc. will help reduce the likelihood of being targeted and assaulted by a criminal. While this advice makes a great deal of sense, and is probably true, it would be nice to know if the idea is supported by research. Research in this area falls into two general categories: 1) comparing the psychosocial profiles of survivors of assault to either non-assaulted subjects or survivors of an attempted assault; and 2) analysis of non-verbal cues to isolate behaviors that are interpreted as conveying vulnerability to assault. At this point, some disclaimers should be made. First, this paper summarizes published data about body language as related to assault prevention. In no way do I wish to infer that victims of assault are inviting attack or are in any way responsible for the assault on their person. Second, there are many factors relevant to assault prevention. For instance, Bart and O'Brien (1985) identified variables such as: the time of the assault (day or night), locale of the assault (inside or outside), use of physical force, and use of a weapon as factors that influenced the outcomes in sexual assault. Finally, it is clear that one may have to use multiple strategies in self defense. Research supports the idea that using several strategies leads to a better likelihood of escaping assault (Bart and O'Brien, 1984, 1985; Quinsey and Upfold, 1985; Zoucha-Jenson and Coyne, 1993), at least in the case of sexual assaults. While this paper examines one strategy to reduce the likelihood of assault, it would be wise to remember that other strategies such as fleeing, making noise, verbal techniques, and physically resisting may be necessary.

Are Survivors of Assault Different from Survivors of Attempted Assault or Non-assaulted People?
An early study by Selkin (1978) compared 32 women who had survived rape to 23 women who had

dominance. type of walk. While these reports show psychosocial differences between survivors of sexual assault and either non-assaulted subjects or survivors of attempted sexual assault. Rape victims were more likely to report feelings of fright. Under the conditions of this study. Significant others of survivors rated the assertiveness of their partners lower than significant others of control women. and assertiveness) may help prevent sexual assault. only 4 of these characteristics showed significant differences between the victim and non-victim groups. it is unclear whether or not these differences predate the sexual assault or not. athletic ability.survived attempted rape. women who had survived a rape scored lower in assertiveness. drug or alcohol abuse (past or present). An equal number from each group was chosen to fill the non-victim group. In order for this to occur. What are the Non-verbal Cues That Convey Vulnerability? Several studies have examined how nonverbal cues affect perceptions of submissiveness and vulnerability. The movement of each was analyzed using Labananalysis. handicaps. achievement via independence. All subjects were volunteers recruited from public appeal and through community groups. and dominance than women in the control group. and feeling "frozen" than avoiders. participation in self defense classes). The study was conducted over a one year period and used the Cornell Medical Index (CMI). it is hard to draw any concrete conclusions. A scoring system to rank assault potential was developed with the aid of 12 prison inmates incarcerated for violent assaults. This analysis looks at a variety of movement characteristics including: stride. terror. social presence. the California Psychological Inventory (CPI). neurocirculatory symptoms. arm movement. head movement. Myers et al. Results from the CMI showed that the raped women had higher scores for fear and inadequacy. depression. and energy in the movement. people in the non-victim group . These were: type of weight shift. mental health as determined by psychiatric histories. (1984) compared the coping skills of 72 survivors of rape to 72 non-assaulted (control) subjects. and a questionnaire about rape. Each of the 4 groups had individuals perceived as easy victims. women who appeared under 35. and physical characteristics (height. The rape questionnaire evaluated the subjects' emotions experienced during the assault. The videotaping was done at the same location for all people and was done without the knowledge of the videotaped individuals. nervousness and anxiety. For this reason. They were asked to the rank assault potential of each person on the videotape. I will use the terminology of Bart and O'Brien (1985) and refer to them as raped women and avoiders. Grayson and Stein (1981) made black and white videotapes (no sound) of 60 people walking in New York City. uprightness. gaze. Using the CPI. they do suggest that there may be some differences and at least some of these differences (such as increased social skills. there must be some sort of behavioral cues that assailants pick up on. The taped subjects were divided into 4 groups (men who appeared under 35. He calls the first group "victims" and the second group "resisters". It seems likely that at least some of the differences have to do with the assault experience itself. weight. strength. cognitive abilities. type of walk. For this reason. and foot movement. although. body movement. weight shift. Videotapes were then shown to 53 prison inmates (out of 80 solicited) incarcerated for a variety of violent assaults. it is unclear from the report whether either group resisted. women who appeared over 40). tempo. However. They focused on vulnerability to rape as a function of coping skills in 5 domains including: psychosocial characteristics. and startle response while results from the CPI showed that avoiders had higher scores for dominance and scales related to social skills. Essentially. men who appeared over 40. humiliation.

This research supports the advice commonly given by self defense instructors. All three of these studies suggest that there is a causal relationship between body language and judgments of vulnerability. The men were first asked to rate the women using a standard semantic differential instrument consisting of 17 scales. They found that the submissive women generally gestured with less expansive movements and wore more body concealing clothing than dominant women. In addition. They videotaped each of the models performing each of the walks. making noise. Richards et al. arm. References . verbal techniques. They videotaped these women and showed one submissive and one dominant woman under 4 of 16 conditions to male college students. (1991) suggests that this perception of vulnerability is used in the selection process for exploitation. Both victim profiles had significantly lower scores for confidence and higher scores for vulnerability to sexual assault than the non-victim profile.tended to move with a normal stride and with postural movement. No sound was used for these tests. However. leg. It seems that a person with assertive body language is less likely to be chosen as a target for assault or exploitation. and. Each model was used for all the profiles equally throughout the study. For each person. At least some non-verbal cues have been identified that convey vulnerability or not.) moving in an uncoordinated manner. Neither victim profile significantly differed from each other. after seeing the videotape a second time. The men picked the submissive woman. The men were then asked to evaluate which of the two women he would prefer to approach to do something she did not want to do. (1991) showed men tend to select submissive women for exploitation. the study by Richards et al. People in the victim group tended to move in a non-synchronous or anti-synchronous manner with a stride that was either too long or too short for their height . and physical resistance) to survive a violent assault. These cues are probably used (either consciously or subconsciously) when criminals are assessing whether or not to perpetrate an assault. foot. etc. rank the vulnerability to sexual assault of that person. They showed the videotapes to 41 college students and 33 police officers. These researchers also evaluated the differences in non-verbal cues between dominant and submissive women. each profile was shown with a different model. Murzynski and Degelman (1996) followed this study with one where they trained 3 female models to walk in two typical victim profiles and one typical non-victim profile as described by Grayson and Stein (1981). Summary The papers summarized above support the idea that non-verbal cues can affect perceptions about vulnerability and ease of exploitation by criminals and potential criminals. it fits in well with using multiple other strategies (such as fleeing. the men were able to differentiate the submissive woman from the dominant woman based on the videotapes. Obviously. Under the conditions used in this study. that is they moved their entire body with coordination rather than each part (hand. head. They selected 4 women who had low scores and 4 who had high scores for dominance on the CPI. this will not prevent all assaults from happening. This occurred independent of whether sound was used or not. Each subject was asked to first rank the confidence of the person.

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