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Teaching Teenage Girls to Say No

Survival Signals
Forced Teaming
Too Many Details
The Unsolicited Promise
Charm and Niceness
Discounting the Word ''No''

I wish every young woman in America could have seen these signals as clearly as I did on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. I was seated next to a teenage girl who was traveling alone. A man in his forties who'd been watching her from across the aisle took off the headphones he was wearing and said to her with partylike flair, ''These things just don't get loud enough for me!'' He then put his hand out toward her and said, ''I'm Billy.'' Though it may not be immediately apparent, his statement was actually a question, and the young girl responded with exactly the information Billy hoped for: She told him her full name. Then she put out her hand, which he held a little too long. In the conversation that ensued, he didn't directly ask for any information, but he certainly got lots of it.

He said, ''I hate landing in a city and not knowing if anybody is meeting me.'' The girl answered this question by saying that she didn't know how she was getting from the airport to the house where she was staying. Billy asked another question: ''Friends can really let you down sometimes.'' The young girl responded by explaining, ''The people I'm staying with (thus, not family) are expecting me on a later flight.''

Billy said, ''I love the independence of arriving in a city when nobody knows I'm coming.'' This was the virtual opposite of what he'd said a moment before about hating to arrive and not be met. He added, ''But you're probably not that independent.'' She quickly volunteered that she'd been traveling on her own since she was thirteen.

''You sound like a woman I know from Europe, more like a woman than a teenager,'' he said as he handed her his drink (Scotch), which the flight attendant had just served him. ''You sound like you play by your own rules.'' I hoped she would decline to take the drink, and she did at first, but he persisted, ''Come on, you can do whatever you want,'' and she took a sip of his drink.

I looked over at Billy, looked at his muscular build, at the old tattoo showing on the top of his wrist, and at his cheap jewelry. I noted that he was drinking alcohol on this morning flight and had no carry-on bag. I looked at his new cowboy boots, new denim pants and leather jacket. I knew he'd recently been in jail. He responded to my knowing look assertively, ''How you doin' this morning, pal? Gettin' out of Chicago?'' I nodded.

As Billy got up to go to the bathroom, he put one more piece of bait in his trap: Leaning close to the girl, he gave a slow smile and said, ''Your eyes are awesome.''

In a period of just a few minutes, I had watched Billy use forced teaming (they both had nobody meeting them, he said), too many details (the headphones and the woman he knows from Europe), loan-sharking (the drink offer), charm (the compliment about the girl's eyes), and typecasting (''You're probably not that independent''). I had also seen him discount the girl's ''no'' when she declined the drink.

As Billy walked away down the aisle, I asked the girl if I could talk to her for a moment, and she hesitantly said yes. It speaks to the power of predatory strategies that she was glad to talk to Billy but a bit wary of the passenger (me) who asked permission to speak with her. ''He is going to offer you a ride from the airport,'' I told her, ''and he's not a good guy.''

I saw Billy again at baggage claim as he approached the girl. Though I couldn't hear them, the conversation was apparent. She was shaking her head and saying no, and he wasn't accepting it. She held firm, and he finally walked off with an angry gesture, not the ''nice'' guy he'd been up till then.

There was no movie on that flight, but Billy had let me watch a classic performance of an interview, that, by little more than the context (forty-year-old stranger and teenage girl alone), was high stakes.

Teach girls to protect themselves

By the time a girl has reached her teens, she has gone from being an occasional sexual predatory prize to the leading sexual predatory prize. Accordingly, I don't think there's much information she need be protected from. Her understanding of how persuasion strategies work and her understanding of how targets are selected, is now her armor. Often, merely seeing that armor will incline a predator to choose someone else. We never want him, however, to see the absence of armor that is revealed when a teenage girl violates nature's basic safety rules.

The example I see most often is a teenage girl jogging or walking along in public enjoying music through headphones. She has disabled her hearing, the survival sense most likely to warn her about dangerous approaches. To make matters worse, those wires leading up to her ears display her vulnerability for everyone to see. Another example is that while young women wouldn't walk around blindfolded, many do not use the full resources of their sight. A young woman who believes she is being followed might take just a tentative look, hoping to see if someone is visible in her peripheral vision. It is better to turn completely, take in everything, and look squarely at someone who concerns you. This not only gives you information, but it communicates to a pursuer that you are not a tentative, frightened victim-in-waiting. The message for every teenage girl (and woman): You are an animal of nature, fully endowed with hearing, sight, intellect, and dangerous defenses. You are not easy prey, so don't act like you are.

Unfortunately, modern technology has discovered a way to temporarily turn off all of a woman's defenses, and since millions of teenage boys and young men know all about it, teenage girls need to as well. Imagine a pill that costs as little as a couple of dollars, is tasteless and odorless, dissolves completely into a drink, incapacitates whomever ingests it for hours, and then erases the person's memory. Aptly known as the date-rape drug, Rohypnol has a slew of street names: Roofies, R2, roofenol, roche, la roche, roachies, and rib. In a typical Rohypnol-rape case a young woman accepts a drink and then feels dizzy and disoriented. To all observers she looks like she's drunk, but the person who dropped a Rohypnol in her glass knows better. Though he seems the gentleman as he walks her outside, he takes her somewhere to rape her. Most victims have little or no memory of what happened, but they piece together evidence that they've had sex with someone.

There are thousands of investigations into Rohypnol-rapes each month, which means there are likely thousands more women who never figured out what happened to them, or if they did, chose not to report it. An obvious way to improve what is already epidemic in some states (worst in Florida and Texas) is government classification of Rohypnol in the same category as drugs with a high potential for abuse, such as LSD and heroin. Hoffman-LaRoche, which manufactures Rohypnol, resists that and notes in their defense that ''Alcohol is the number one date-rape drug in the country.'' Okay, so Rohypnol is the number two date-rape drug in the country - but it is still aiding thousands of predators to victimize girls and women.

I consulted with prosecutors on a complex case of a man who drugged a female co-worker on more than one occasion. The young victim was raped several times over a period of months, but recalls little of what occurred. ''Someone had sex with my body,'' she says. ''Even now, months later, a sound I hear or something I see will ring a distant bell in my head. I am suddenly overcome with grief, fear or horror, and I know that deep down my brain is remembering something horrible that happened to me while I was drugged.''

The main defense against Rohypnol-rape is knowledge about the drug. Then a young woman can be cautious about accepting drinks and carefully watch that nobody puts anything in one's drink.

Nearly all of the hazards teenage girls face can be reduced by teaching and mindset, but parents must first un-teach the cultural lesson that girls are not able to defend themselves. The book to read on this point is Ellen Snortland's already classic Beauty Bites Beast. ''It's not a how-to book,'' she writes, ''but a 'How Come?' book. How come the females of every other species on the planet are fierce, regardless of size, and are the ones who train their offspring, male and female, in defense and hunting?'' Snortland says that self-defense training for girls should be as automatic as teaching them to swim.


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