Interview with Lauren Taylor, founder, Defend Yourself

Published May 5, 2010

Lauren Taylor, founder, Defend Yourself

We like to highlight individuals in the community who are working to fight pubic sexual harassment. Today, we highlight Lauren Taylor, the founder of Defend Yourself, a self-defense training organization.  Find out what she has to say about pubic sexual harassment, why she believes in self defense, and ways to confront public sexual harassment. If you are left wanting more after this post, register for the Dealing with Street (and other public) Harassment workshop that we are co-hosting with Lauren on May 22, 2010.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background as it relates to your work with public sexual harassment. Specifically what made you decided to become trained in self defense and subsequently start Defend Yourself?
As early as high school I had a deep passion for women’s empowerment centering in and starting with our bodies. A couple of years later, I got involved in the nascent battered women’s movement. About eight years after that I took a self-defense class because a friend told me it was good and because I was going traveling by myself. I found it so life changing that I had to do more, learn more, and eventually, share what I learned.

What impact has pubic sexual harassment had on your life?
I used to walk everywhere, including a two-mile commute to work every day. It was like running a gauntlet. I felt threatened, powerless, enraged, fearful. I think it affected me the way it affects many women, reminding us of the dominance of men in public and private spaces and keeping visible the threat of rape. Looking at my whole life, the first incident I remember was a man exposing his penis to me at the corner of 16th and Military Rd. when I was 16 years old. But I’m sure I’d been harassed before that.

Do you have any tips on ways that individuals can verbally address street harassment?
I feel strongly that we have to have options. Most people ignore harassment; some yell at the guy or curse him out. Those are two choices, but they are limited. Neither does anything to change the oppressive dynamic long term. And the first leaves you walking away holding the feelings –fear, humiliation, anger, degradation, whatever—with you. The second may unnecessarily escalate the situation. So I believe direct confrontation has to be one of our options. “That’s really disrespectful, don’t talk to me that way.” “I am not your ‘baby.’” “Back up, you’re standing too close.” Statements like these tell the harasser what the problem is and hand the weight of it back to him. You may not feel fully satisfied–you still got harassed, he didn’t instantly evolve into a respectful, supportive person–but at least you gave yourself a voice and didn’t have to carry the feelings of powerlessness.

What role do bystanders play in public sexual harassment and assault? What are some tips for bystanders who witness public sexual harassment and assault?
We are all bystanders. By living in this world we unwittingly participate in perpetuating this power imbalance. When it is visible to us, I feel I have an obligation (assuming I’ve assessed my own safety in the situation), to speak up. I usually ask the person being targeted: “Do you want help?” “Is this guy bothering you?” If she is clearly uncomfortable or is setting a limit, I chime in: “She said ‘stop it.’” “Leave her alone.” This extends not just to direct harassment but to more general statements about women and girls, such as putdowns, “jokes,” or disrespectful comments.

What are your thoughts about ending public sexual harassment in DC? What types of things do you cover in your self defense workshops?
We generally cover three things:

  1. Understanding the spectrum of gender-based violence: Where the real risks lie, steps you can take to prevent and avoid attack or abuse
  2. Assertiveness and verbal self defense: Using words and body language to stop obnoxious or intrusive behavior and to keep a situation from escalating, and
  3. Physical self defense: Practical techniques to end a physical attack and get to safety.

We tailor each workshop to the participants, their life situations, and the risks in their lives. Anyone can do this: it’s not martial arts, and you don’t need to be athletic to learn strategies to improve your safety.

Anything else you would like to add?

I love HollaBack DC! and the work you’re doing. It’s such an important strategy for ending public harassment and transforming women’s lives. And I’m grateful that HBDC! sees the role of self defense in that process, too.

Thanks, Lauren. We LOVE you too and all the work you are doing!

One Response

  1. Golden Silence

    I went to one of Lauren’s self-defense classes years ago. She is such an empowering woman and I learned a lot from the class.

    Great interview!