When I was a freshman in college, a friend told me about something a professor had said to the class at one point. “She said that if you’re at a party and you’re the only girl left, and things are starting to feel weird, throw a lamp out the window! Then run while everyone’s wondering why you threw a lamp out the window.”
While I can’t give a broad recommendation to throw lamps out windows (you never know who is standing below), the message of this stayed with me: If your gut tells you something is wrong, go with it, even if it means looking foolish or crazy. By then, I’d had enough friends who had been sexually assaulted- one at a party where she was left as the only woman, no less- that it made perfect sense to me.
We often teach teens to not trust their gut, and usually for a good reason: exerting impulse control in a risky situation. But I sometimes wonder if, in teaching teens to stand firm against certain instincts, we forget to remind them that sometimes, gut feelings can be a good thing. I’m not talking about the gut feeling that this girl really doesn’t have any STDs, or that trying heroin once is a good idea, or that it’s okay to skip school today. I”m talking about the gut feeling that says something is wrong here and, sometimes, get out now.
We don’t consider teens to be especially polite, but many teens would never dream of acting “weird” when they’re with a peer group, at least without a very good reason. Likewise, many teens are shy of doing something that might hurt someone else’s feelings: waiting for the next elevator, moving to another seat on the bus, saying a loud, “Leave me alone!” to someone following them around at a party, or refusing a date’s offer to drive them home and calling their parents instead. Even if their gut is telling them that the guy on the elevator is bad news, the girl next to them on the bus is setting off warning bells, the person trailing them is creepy, or getting in a car with that date is going to end badly, they may suppress their gut feeling and do whatever is expected.
Sexual transgressors can be very good at circumventing that age-old impulse. Many times people who are attacked did not get a negative reading from the perpetrator at all. Likewise, some people have gotten a bad feeling from someone who meant them no harm whatsoever. (This is okay, as a firm rejection or quick escape won’t turn a decent person into a violent criminal.)
But in other cases, people have gone against a gut feeling that they now know, in hindsight, might have warned them away from a bad situation. I don’t believe that a gut feeling is a magical sixth sense; it’s simply your brain processing signals that are not of a high enough frequency to transform into logic. It’s adding up a hundred little things and sending you a message: It might be best to leave now.
Talk to your teen about when and how a gut feeling should be acted on. Even if a person driving you home is sending you bad signals, it doesn’t mean you should leap out of the car at 60 mph on the freeway. But maybe it means you should call your parent and loudly let them know who you’re with and when to expect you. If you’re starting to get a bad vibe at a party, you don’t necessarily have to break a window, but running out suddenly and not going back might be the best call. If you’re about to get on the elevator and the guy in there makes something in you feel uneasy, you don’t have to scream, throw something, and run, but you can firmly say, “I’ll wait for the next one.” Or, if it feels really bad, just run.
We tend to focus on young women with this message. While it’s true that a random young woman is at greater risk for sexual assault than a random young man, men can and do get sexually assaulted. They can be even less likely to heed a gut instinct in a bad situation, because our society doesn’t often teach them that they, too, can be victimized. Shatter that myth, and talk to them about safety and instinct. A gut instinct cannot replace basic safety and common sense, but it’s a valuable tool nonetheless.
If this is a topic you want to know more about, for yourself or a loved one, I recommend The Gift of Fear by Aaron de Becker. Someone gave me this book in college, and it convinced me that, sometimes, the best thing to do it throw the (metaphorical) lamp through the (metaphorical) window.