Should You Yell ‘Fire’ During a Rape?

October 12, 2011 mindset, rape, women's self-defense » Add more comments.

In a news story which featuring the video of the woman being attacked in Brooklyn, a person identified as the self-defense expert at the end of the story continues to promulgate the theory that yelling ‘fire’ is more effective than yelling ‘help’.

This theory holds that you are more likely to attract people’s attention by yelling ‘fire’ with the corollary being people are also more likely to respond since a fire effects them as well vs. yelling ‘help’ which dissuades people from intervening because they don’t want to get involved. I’ve always been skeptical of this idea.  It sounds good from an intellectual angle and enough experts have said it that is sounds reasonable so you think: That’s what I’ll do, I’ll yell ‘fire’ if I’m ever attacked.

But, the problem is that under stress you resort to primitive emotional survival responses, not intellectual responses. You can tell yourself all day long that you’ll yell ‘fire’, but when you are attacked that all goes out the window. Notice in this story the woman yells, “Help me! Please someone help me!” and “Get off of me!”  We’ve found that in full-contact role playing for women’s self-defense, this is typical for defenders.

I maintain that you will naturally vocalize what is happening to you at the time. It’s a bit like telling yourself that you’re going to yell ‘peanut butter!’ the next time you have a near collision in traffic.  The two don’t fit.

Plus in this particular attack, the witnesses in the area said her screams were the very thing that alerted them to trouble.  One guy even goes as far as saying that she saved herself with her screams.  If there are people within earshot, it’s not a problem attracting attention and alerting people to your problem by yelling for ‘help’ vs. ‘fire’.  It might be another story whether or not they choose to help.  Let’s say people initially respond because they heard your calls for ‘fire’. But then find out that there really is no fire, instead you’re being raped on the sidewalk. What makes you think they will decide to get involved if they would not have responded to your calls for help?

Face it, people are either going to help you or not. Help may be in the form of a call to the police instead of direct intervention. I’d like to think people will help. Maybe I’m an optimist.

But the point is to attract attention so you have the opportunity to be helped and to make your attacker believe that someone might be on their way to help you.

Remember his biggest fear is the fear of being caught.

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Sharon Bonewicz
October 16, 2011
9:35 pm

Thank you for this article. I get this question a lot at the self defense seminars and I have always heard mixed things. This gives a very clear and precise explanation I can give the ladies when this comes up again. I also have been studying up on the Bystandard Effect and read something really good in Influence by Cialdini. By singling out someone and directing them to call for help gets a higher response rate. I know this doesn’t apply in this type of situation, but seems useful for other type of emergency issues someone could face. Thanks again

Melissa Soalt
November 1, 2011
10:42 am

Long time no speak Brad.

Quick stop in here to say I ABSOLUTELY agree with you re:(1) One will in reality will vocalize what’s happening or calls or shouts for help of one kind or another- and whatever dffing works to attract help or create a strong commotion / fear of being caught or seen, thus persuading perp or criminal to abort his / her mission. THIS BS about needing to yell fire is promulagated by newbies and ignorant folks who think it’s a good soundbite. And usually have no reality based experience. Or even common sense for good sake.

ALSO utterly agree with this, your point, and your sarcasm: ” There are some in the women’s self-defense field who are very knowledgeable about the criminal psyche and follow the “you-must-know-the-type-of-rapist-you-have-encountered-so-you-can-use-the-correct-tactics” school of thought. I’m not one of those. I contend that non-expert criminal profilers like us cannot possibly know the motivations behind his attack. All I know is that I’m under attack right now and I have to effectively resist so I can get back to my family tonight .”

Again, IMO and experience, you want responses to be instinctive and in concert with the reality and strengths of “limbic brain” functioning (read, to save your pretty ass) and survival mindset. The last thing I want to do, as a veteran women’s self defense trainer and advocate, is to unnecessarily encourage women to waste precious moments going into “their head” and higher brain functions … and become anyalytical (“Gee, let’s think… what kind of rapist is he. I wonder if…”) thereby exiting their body AND their critical senses and immediate direct perceptions of “what it is.”

That’s not to say that there might not be a time for this – but a more inutitive assessment however – as many rapes do involve phases ….and opportunity (for lack of better words) to use other skills of intuition, empathy (often as trickery) etc…or sometimes dialogue happens and you need to hear and listen for clues and cues…and read the intent you’re faced with .

Most women, naturally, already have a challenging time staying present – BEYOND THE FREEZE OF PANIC RESPONSE, FEAR TENDS TO EJECT ONE OUT OF THE BODY AND engender (MALADAPTIVE) rationalization.

So further encouraging this when nanoseconds count and all systems need to be go, and you should NOT split your attention or be wondering this or that, is insane and IMO potentially endangering.

Nice bro! XO

Ryan Robinson
November 16, 2011
11:55 pm

I don’t really believe that yelling Fire! would promote more of a response during an attack. I would think people would want to run from fire as apposed to at it.

I do certainly believe a strong level of verbalization in that type of situation is paramount, however. If people are within ear shot they will either help you or not, but I believe it goes beyond that. The screaming you do during an attack is showing the perp that you have no intention of ever submitting, and it is the first line of your fight. Combining a powerful shout with muscle movement can summon tremendous strength and possibly provide the gap necessary to escape.

It would be nice to think we could always rely on a good samaritan to come to our aid in times of trouble, but sadly we can’t.

Max Loh
July 7, 2013
1:07 am

Yell whatever is happening and be truthful.

If someone yelled “fire” while being raped or beaten, I would be running around with unabashed curiosity looking for the flickering orange flames, not necessarily even going towards the voice, and essentially chasing butterflies.

Yelling “help” has a much better chance of attracting the right people to the right place. For example, I don’t train all that MMA/krav stuff just to stand around doing nothing when bad things start happening

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