ThinkSafe Pre-Assault Cues

Guide to Recognizing Pre-Assault Behavior

There is no guarantee that all attackers will behave in a certain way. Some are unpredictable due to substance abuse or emotional disturbance. However, many are rational, and often exhibit similar “cues” of their intentions. Many survivors of violence have reported similar pre-assault behaviors, often including one, or combinations of several of those listed below, on the part of their attackers.

Attackers will often Assess a potential victim, Approach with some sort of “innocent” conversation, and then Attack, if he feels confident of success.

  1. Looking Around – Often predators will have some kind of harmless-looking verbal contact with an intended victim. If the predator begins to glance from side to side, he may be checking for potential witnesses to his intended assault.
  2. Repeated Phrases  Often an attacker may use an attempt at conversation as a way to get within attacking range of a potential victim, and also to get a sense of her level of vulnerability. As the predator prepares to attack, he may experience a “fight or flight” adrenal response. This means that the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for conversation, becomes less active. As he prepares to attack, he may be trying to maintain casual conversation, but has diminished capacity to do so. He may repeat the last thing he said, or the last thing you said, and appear disengaged.
  3. Silence  This is similar to the Repeated Phrases, in that contact has been made, and the attack is likely imminent. The predator becomes silent as he prepares for action.
  4. Change in Breathing  An attacker may begin to breathe heavily or in a way un-warranted by circumstances. This may be another sign of an adrenal response.
  5. Change in Complexion  A predator’s face may become suddenly flushed, which may be a sign of anger, or pale, which may be a sign of a fight-or-flight response.
  6. Unusual Sweating – May be a sign of the body’s preparation for combat.
  7. Fist-Clenching – May be a sign that the predator is “psyching himself up” to strike.
  8. Rubbing the Back of the Neck – Under adrenal stress, the backs of our necks experience a prickling sensation. If this happens, a common reaction is to rub the neck so the sensation goes away, but it also may mean that an attack is imminent.
  9. Weight-Shifting – In almost any athletic activity, it is natural and practical to assume some kind of a slightly crouching “ready” position before taking action. Think of a boxer, wrestler, or MMA fighter in his fighting stance, or even a tennis player ready to return a serve. If a predator is trying to appear casual, he must not assume any kind of a fighting stance. So he might shift his weight from one foot to the other, to help disguise and prepare for his upcoming movement. The weight-shifting might also be a sign of nervousness – a rational attacker may likely be nervous – fearing injury, failure, bystander aid, or witnesses. He also may be experiencing a surge of adrenaline (picture the fighter bouncing in his corner moments before the opening bell), and feel the need to move, but also the need to appear casual.
  10. Securing the Scene – An attacker who has made his approach and determined that he will go ahead with his assault, may feel he needs to “make room”. He may move a chair, table, or other object that happens to be between himself and his intended victim. He may remove a coat or glasses, put down a package or a drink. He may close windows or drapes that would otherwise reveal his actions to potential bystanders. As obvious as it seems, he may even ask for some kind of confirmation of your vulnerability, “So your husband isn’t here?”
  11. Drawing the Line – This is an attacker establishing his perceived “right” to assault his target – convincing himself that you have “crossed the line.” “So you’re not going to give me any change?”  Maybe, “So you think you’re too good for me?” Or, as one mental health-care provider reported before an assault, “So you’re not going to give me my meds?” It may likely sound more like a statement than a question, “So you told the cops what I did.”
  12. Threatening Language – Specific threats may be made, and should be taken seriously. But more often the language may be vaguely threatening, “You need to learn some manners”, or you shouldn’t be out here alone”. The wording may not be very well– chosen, as the attacker may not be very articulate when trying to be subtle about bad intentions. One intended victim reported the predator saying he needed to “significate something” with his target. Inappropriate or suggestive language may be used so that the response it generates helps to determine an intended target’s vulnerability. A victim who blushes and looks meekly away might be seen as a better target than one who responds calmly but assertively.
  13. Target Glancing – An attacker may focus his vision on the area of the victim’s body that he intends to attack – a “blind” lunge at a target is less likely to be successful. The attacker must visually identify the target and make a brief, unconscious assessment of how he will reach it. This cue may be difficult to perceive, because of its subtlety – an attacker engaging in conversation may be looking at an intended victim’s face, whether or not he intends to strike it.

These pre-assault cues typically are reported to occur in combinations – a predator stops talking, breathes deeply, shifts his weight, and clenches his fists. Women who have been assaulted may report having noticed none of these specific actions, but describe having a “creepy” feeling about their attackers. The gut response should be trusted over any specific analysis of behavior.