Nicola's Got Nerve

Nicola’s Got Nerve: Boundary Setting at Home and at Work for Self-Protection on the Street

This post is part of our Nicola’s Got Nerve series by Nicola Briggs.

I believe that it’s vital to practice boundary-setting every day. You might think that that sounds like a lot of work, even a bit paranoid. But if you practice in environments that feel non-threatening, you’ll be gratified to see that you can rise to even the most surprising and stressful situation. Even if, God forbid, a do-or-die moment comes along, you will be ready. It’s difficult to think of getting into the right mind set to save your yourself from harm if you don’t continually work on establishing appropriate boundaries.

So what would some examples be in different settings? One could be refusing to allow your new boyfriend or girlfriend to show up at your house or work unannounced. You see, little transgressions like this, while seemingly cute and endearing at first, tend to escalate into even more violating behaviors.

Here’s an every-day example: Say you have a neighbor in your apartment building or on your block that continually asks about your private life. It always makes you really uncomfortable, but you seem to end up giving the information that he or she wants, just so you don’t appear rude. Well, that person is actually acting like a bully (even if they don’t realize it) and if you don’t want your privacy violated again, it’s time to look after yourself and set some boundaries in a polite way. Changing the topic of conversation to the person asking the questions, or even to another non-personal topic is a great way of deflecting attention away from yourself, thereby safeguarding your privacy. Information is power, and no one can take away your power without your consent.

Boundary setting is vitally important in the workplace as well. When I was fresh out of college, I once had a supervisor who tried to assert dominance over me by draping her arm over my shoulders each time she visited me in my cubicle. She kept doing it, until I had to tell her that it made me uncomfortable. Instead of respecting my request, she tried to save face and put me on the defensive, saying something to the effect of, “Well, everybody likes hugs, why don’t you?” It really doesn’t matter whether the someone doing this is male or female, if action is inappropriate and makes you feel uncomfortable, you’ve got a right to speak up against it. Or it will keep happening, and sometimes escalate.

I have seen so many people in authority do this so many times, that I’ve actually given it a name. I like to call it, “The Supervisor Hold.” Mind you, this is not simply a casual, friendly act between equals, because I have never seen an employee do this to their employer. Now, this is something you want to become aware of, because some supervisors might be doing it unconsciously, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very effective method of coercion. There’s something about the touch of a fellow human being that we all respond to, and if that person is not a stranger, then we’ve already been conditioned on some level to accept that touch, no matter what it’s real intention is. So it behooves us to examine whether we really feel comfortable with this kind of contact, especially if its coming from a superior. Some people might not say anything about it, just because they feel it might put their position in jeopardy, not because they actually like the contact.

And if you want to speak up about it, how should you go about that? From my personal experience, if you want the unwanted contact to stop, but want to maintain a working relationship, the best way is to have a private, short, direct, but respectful conversation with the person who’s making you feel uncomfortable. By establishing boundaries in the home and work environment you won’t hesitate to make sure that someone on the outside of those “safe” zones doesn’t run rough-shod over your personal space, either physically or psychologically. This is vitally important for your safety, and will allow you to move about your world with greater confidence.

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Nicola's Got Nerve

Nicola’s Got Nerve: Is Safety Really Coming for Egypt’s Women?

This post, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series of posts that we call Nicola’s Got Nerve. You may remember Nicola from this incident caught on camera which was viewed by more than 1.5 million people and which sparked outrage from all corners of the globe, bringing street harassment to the forefront of women’s rights issues. We admire’s Nicola’s ability to turn a traumatic event into focused action through writing and activism, and we think you will too.

Egypt, a country in which street harassment of urban women is now so frequent as to become almost normal, seems to finally be making a commitment to stamping it out. Published in Ahram Online, the article which headlined plans for this new policy had a disturbing photo of three young men chasing after a woman crossing the street, one of them clearly grabbing her backside. The look of distress on her face is obvious, as she extends a hand behind her to try and remove his, which has already made intimate contact with her body. I personally shuddered when I saw this, as any woman who’s experienced this would do. The look of glee on their faces and their obvious youth relative to that of the victim might bring to mind the phrase, “boys will be boys,” giving them a free pass; in fact, until recently, the Arabic term muakssa was used to imply that this behavior was merely “playful.” Now however, understanding of the dangerous, sexually violative nature of it has changed, and the word tahharush, meaning “harassment” is now used. In recognition of just how prevalent this problem is for women in Egyptian society, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, his Ministry of Interior, and the National Council for Women are in the process of drafting a new law which seeks harsher penalties for those who perpetuate the epidemic of sexual violence against women.

Street harassment has been on the rise according to women’s rights organizations there, especially in the wake of the revolution, which simultaneously reduced police presence and increased spontaneous civil unrest. To put the scope of this problem into perspective, as far back as 2008 the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights found that a whopping 83 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment, and that a full 98 percent of foreign women have also experienced this. I’ve been to Egypt three times, the last time in 2008, and from these statistics can only surmise that it was sheer luck that I personally never encountered this treatment, but I did witness other women being the target of degrading remarks. To address what has become a social pandemic, this past July protesters against sexual violence filled Tahrir Square, where women have suffered repeated verbal harassment and assault as they have tried to join in demonstrations against widespread corruption. This action/reaction of women becoming more politically assertive and then being “punished” with sexual violation for coming into such a symbolic public space speaks volumes, not only degrading women in the moment, but sending the dangerous and intimidating message that women’s voices are not welcome in the political process. As a response, performers and artists in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities organized open mic sessions and exhibits throughout the summer, giving women a safe space in which to share their experiences and fight back against the silencing of their voices. Understandably, some of the victims have only felt comfortable speaking with their backs to the audiences which had come to hear their stories ~ underscoring the shame and stigma which still hangs on victims of sexual violence in Egypt and everywhere around the world.

Prime Minister Qandil has finally acknowledged the dangerousness of these acts to Egyptian society, saying that they are “dealing with sexual harassment as a disastrous phenomenon.” His government has taken a long time to come to this realization– far too long after a widely publicized incident in which several women were stripped naked by a street mob during celebrations for Eid-al-Fitr all the way back in 2006. At least now Mr. Qandil’s government recognizes that educating young men about harassment will be the key to changing the tacit acceptance of it, and has charged the Ministry of Education to distribute informative materials and create anti-harassment messages to be distributed in the media. While these recent efforts are laudable, Qandil and his peers are latecomers to publicizing this problem with social media, since photographs and videos posted to YouTube and Facebook have already been surfacing for years, after a slew of sexual harassment incidents during religious holidays like Eid. Other new methods being deployed against harassment will be surveillance cameras looking out onto streets and squares in Cairo, which should be an effective deterrent.

But there’s major caveat to becoming too hopeful about all these new measures: there are already three articles in Egyptian criminal law which would seem to offer stiff penalties for harassers, such as thirty days of jail time, a hefty fine for verbal harassment, three years of imprisonment for indecent exposure and stalking, and fifteen years in prison for sexual assault, which does include incidents of public groping. So while I want to remain positive in the face of these new steps the government is taking towards the protection of women in public spaces, I’d like to see more done in terms of enforcement of laws already on the books, and most importantly, rooting out of the social acceptance of this behavior. In the meantime, I applaud the brave Egyptian women and their male allies who refuse to be human targets any longer, and insist upon their voices being counted. Let’s see if their nation will really back them up this time.

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Nicola's Got Nerve

Nicola’s Got Nerve: On Remaining Alert and Using Your Voice

This post, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series of posts that we call Nicola’s Got Nerve. You may remember Nicola from this incident caught on camera which was viewed by more than 1.5 million people and which sparked outrage from all corners of the globe, bringing street harassment to the forefront of women’s rights issues. We admire’s Nicola’s ability to turn a traumatic event into focused action through writing and activism, and we think you will too.

I know how it is: you’re tired because you stayed up late last night studying or with friends, and you just can’t help yourself from nodding off on that long subway ride into Brooklyn for work. So you do because you’ve taken that route so many times, it’s broad daylight, and you’ve seen so many other people do it. How could it be unsafe? But it is, especially if you’re a woman traveling alone.

Or perhaps you’re standing on a busy subway platform during rush hour reading the newspaper. So you don’t happen to notice a man that has been staring at you and getting too close for comfort. Predators like this rely on their surroundings to hide what they’re doing. Above ground, if someone were to stand that close to you, you’d be immediately aware of it and move away. But because we expect to be packed in with hundreds of others below ground, it gives the sexual predator a psychological advantage and a reason to be inappropriately close to you. However, this crime of opportunity doesn’t only happen during rush hours, but can just as easily occur in the middle of the day on an almost deserted platform as well, because predators like this are searching for three things: someone who they perceive is not a threat to them, someone who is not alert, and someone who they feel will not fight back. In short, this type of predator is searching for a woman alone, who they will try to violate.

This problem in our subway system seems to be growing, with predators getting more and more brazen. Even the prospect of time behind bars doesn’t seem to deter this dangerous type of anti-social behavior. I should know. After I was attacked in 2010, the perpetrator got out on bail and was caught again just a few weeks later for doing the exact same thing to another woman. So the law, which so far treats most of these crimes as misdemeanors, has not been a deterrent to these criminals. On October 6, at around 1:30 pm, police reported that another woman was forcibly touched and subjected to indecent exposure on the Lorimer Street J train platform. (The litany of cases just goes on and on, doesn’t it?)

Fortunately, we’ve got an influential ally in Public Advocate Bill De Blasio who’s trying to change the categorization of these sexually violent offenses to that of felony. He understands the danger that New York women are in if we can’t secure greater penalties for this type of offense. In the meantime, he advises using self-defense to protect yourself and others, by specifically using the power of your voice to defend yourself. “If you feel uncomfortable; you feel something is about to happen, make noise,” De Blasio said. “Make that scene, because it might save you or other people on the train from an attack. Better to make the noise; better to create the distraction, that to wish later you had.”

I could not agree more. I know that if I had not raised my voice (for exactly 8 minutes of controlled screaming, calling attention to the perpetrator and waiting for transit police to arrive), the perpetrator would have gotten away and violated someone else that day. So while it’s more than unfortunate that women have got to remain on alert, it is within our power to defend ourselves just by raising our voices. By using your voice and announcing what is happening to you, you’re able to present yourself to a predator as not standing for this type of behavior, and to onlookers as a person in need of (and deserving of) their help. In short, the power of your voice can protect you from harm and can protect others. It may not seem like the polite thing to do to raise your voice in public, to announce in graphic terms what a predator has tried to do to you, but as De Blasio explains, it’s better to act now so you won’t have regrets later. Remember ladies, raise your voices, and don’t let good manners ruin your day.

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Nicola's Got Nerve, Uncategorized

Nicola’s Got Nerve: On Freezing in the Face of Danger

This post, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series of posts that we call Nicola’s Got Nerve. You may remember Nicola from this incident caught on camera which was viewed by more than 1.5 million people and which sparked outrage from all corners of the globe, bringing street harassment to the forefront of women’s rights issues. We admire’s Nicola’s ability to turn a traumatic event into focused action through writing and activism, and we think you will too.

“It’s not your fault, even if you did nothing.” Many women who have been the target of a sexual attack, whether in the form of public groping, molestation, or rape, have heard this said to them, but find it hard to believe this true statement, because they “didn’t try to get away” during the moment. There are so many valid reasons why this is factual, and must be taken to heart. In many situations, it can be extremely unsafe to act against a predator, which include a fear of aggravating the situation and incurring further harm; but what most survivors of sexual violence don’t know is that their response, freezing in the face of danger,  is actually one of the most common and natural responses to a threat.

For example, imagine a herd of impala grazing peacefully by the river. They are alert for danger, but also relaxed and enjoying their afternoon meal. There is a gentle breeze that blows across the river, and on this breeze, mingled with many other smells, they can detect something very familiar, but not exactly reassuring. A few heads look up from their grazing, but they don’t spot anything out of the ordinary, so their heads go back down, concentrating on their meal. This is the moment the cheetah has been waiting for. He charges out of the nearby tall grasses where he’s been hiding and the herd instantly reacts. As one unit, they start racing across the Savannah  and the chase is underway. But one young impala trips on a rock, and even though he immediately recovers, that split-second of vulnerability is all the cheetah needs. The young impala tries his utmost to get away, but the cheetah overtakes him at 70 mph and, with one last lunge, brings him down. In the moment either just before or at the moment of first contact between the impala and the cheetah, the prey, the impala, suddenly drops lifelessly to the ground. And he’s not even wounded yet.

So why does this happen? It’s called the “immobility response,” or you might know it as “playing possum.” It’s one of the three ways that reptiles and mammals have to react in the face of overwhelming threat, the other two being fight or flight. All are instinctual efforts at self-preservation. The young impala may be torn limb from limb in the next instant by the cheetah, so “freezing” allows his body and mind to go into another state where they feel no pain during this brutal death. This instinctual “freezing” would also allow him to remain in another state, perhaps while his body was dragged into the cheetah’s den to be consumed later. In which case, he would effectively “wake up” and have a chance to try and escape again.

I’ve used this nature tale to not only illustrate how animals are effortlessly wise, but to validate an often maligned response to danger– freezing– which for many survivors of sexual violence can be a key to surviving the trauma of being attacked. Remember, it’s never your fault, especially if you did nothing. Because you did nothing wrong at all.

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Nicola's Got Nerve, The Movement

Nicola’s Got Nerve: Your Mindset Can Predict the Future

This blog, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series on perspectives about street harassment.

A man asked me the other day, upon learning of my years of training in Tai Chi movement and meditation, “Do you know how to fight?” I told him that I would do anything I had to in order to secure my physical and psychological safety in that moment, and so would anyone else with a healthy appetite for life, and that I’ve devoted more time developing training and awareness in that area than the average person. I think he may have been disappointed in this response, perhaps expecting me to flip him over my shoulder and prove myself to him, but I wanted to make clear the implications of what he was asking.

Do I have a repertoire of techniques practiced over many years which have become instinctual by now? Yes. Do I, or does anyone else truly have what it takes to react fluidly and appropriately the moment danger is there? Hopefully, yes. But even people with many years of training in this arena can freeze, so anyone without that training has got to realize that the equalizing factor in that type of stressful situation is not necessarily experience, but mindset.

Having what it takes to survive and even take control of a threatening situation is a matter of mental preparation. This doesn’t mean that you’re looking around every corner or over your shoulder all the time in a paranoid way. It just means that you know yourself, and that you’re willing to get in touch with something I like to call your ‘Inner Tiger,’ if necessary, which I’ll explain further in future postings. It also means you are willing to become even more open to the signals that your environment is sending you at every moment: who is close to you, who has their eyes on you, and what is the nature of their intention? Only an increased sensitivity to your surroundings will provide you with the correct answers to those critical questions, and ultimately give you the best chance of staying out of harm’s way.

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Nicola's Got Nerve, The Movement

Nicola’s Got Nerve: What is the true meaning of violence?

This post, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series of posts that we call Nicola’s Got Nerve. You may remember Nicola from this incident caught on camera which was viewed by more than 1.5 million people and which sparked outrage from all corners of the globe, bringing street harassment to the forefront of women’s rights issues. We admire’s Nicola’s ability to turn a traumatic event into focused action through writing and activism, and we think you will too.


Let’s consider this word in all its power for a moment, not only by looking at the first Merriam-Webster definition, “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse,” but by another entry, which terms it as an “intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force.” The first one underscores the physicality of the act, but the second one gets to the heart of both definitions, with the word destructive. I think most people wouldn’t hesitate to agree that sexually abusing another person is a deeply abusive and destructive act; but if this is really the consensus of our society, why then the confusion in the court system today?

Recently, the New York State Court of Appeals dealt a real victory to what law enforcement terms, “subway grinders,” by allowing another abuser, Jason Mack, to get off almost scott-free for his masturbating against a 14-year-old girl on a packed subway car in 2002. The Court of Appeals ruled that the perpetrator could not be charged with a felony as the action itself wasn’t deemed “violent.” Because the amount of physical pressure applied to another person’s body during a sexually abusive act like rubbing or fondling is “soft,” or “gentle,” does that mean that it isn’t a violent act? This justification is incredible, especially to anyone who has ever been the target of such abusive behavior. In fact, what Mack and others like him have done can actually be considered violent on more than one level: Physically: Doing this to someone on a crowded train, bus, etc. without another’s consent makes the action possible in the first place, especially if one cannot move away from the abuser. Emotionally: Whether the victim knows what is happening at the moment of the abuse, or when she sees her stained clothing in the aftermath. And finally, spiritually: Most targets of sexual violence do not feel comfortable coming forward and speaking about the experience, either to law enforcement or even their own families. Doing so can bring stigma and shame which in many instances, a woman or girl can carry with her the rest of her life, with serious effects to her self-esteem. To argue against any of these known facts is to turn away from the victim’s experience without empathy.

By international human rights standards, violence against women not only comprises obvious behaviors such as battering, but also includes acts of sexual abuse, whether perpetrated behind closed doors or inflicted out on the street. Why then, at the state level, are we once again parsing words? We, as a culture, continue to dance around the fact that sexual abuse, in the forms of street harassment, and most virulently, unwanted sexual contact with another individual, is at the core a deeply rage-filled, anti-social act designed either consciously or unconsciously to strip the target of dignity, power, and worth as another human being. To use someone like an object, in an abusive manner, is the very portrait of violence. And I believe that to ignore the fact that the vast majority of offenders are men, and that the victims of these crimes are women, points out the glaring sex bias in the court system. If the Court of Appeals has effectively taken the teeth out of prosecuting a sex abuser, what hope does society have to send a message to avert these traumatic situations in the future?

Violence. We, as Americans, have got to expand our understanding of this word to encompass the full definition of it, if we want to truly say that our great, shining society does not, in fact, condone violence against women.

The world is watching.

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