In 1998, I took a self-defense course. It was a 20 hour empowerment self-defense course taught by Prepare, Inc., and I took it because I was afraid.
I was afraid from a lifetime of living in a rape culture. Some of that was specific. I was afraid when news of a serial rapist broke in the town I was living in during my graduate work. I was afraid hearing the stories of the trauma survivors I saw in therapy. But I was also more globally afraid – afraid when I left my lab after dark, afraid when I went to the grocery store at night, afraid to stop at rest stops during my interstate drives.
I wasn’t paranoid. I was afraid. A life time of shoulds and don’ts had settled into my skin – wear this, don’t wear that; stay here, don’t go there; be like this, not like that. I knew these rules were grounded in myths, not realities, of rape, and I could step back and see the irrationality, the false sense of security, the victim-blaming these rules generated. That knowledge made me no less afraid.
Sometimes I kept the rules, and sometimes I didn’t. I was tired of constraining my clothing, my activities, my choices. But I didn’t know what else to do.
And then, in 1998, my friend and colleague made me take a self-defense course.
I say “made” because she made me. I didn’t want to take it, although I didn’t tell her that. I told her I would think about it, that I would do it when my dissertation was done, that I would do it when it was closer to my home. But I was lying. I had no intention of taking it. I was afraid. I believed, in every inch of my being, that in the face of assault, there would be nothing I could do to thwart it. And I didn’t want to take a self-defense class to find out that I was right.
I had spent a lifetime learning the rules of gender engagement – what interaction between men and women could and would be like, especially if rape or sexual assault were threatened or attempted. I knew, in my bones, that as a woman, I had no recourse against a (likely larger, likely male) assailant. I couldn’t imagine resisting, either verbally or physically. Not even in my imagination! The thought of an imminent assault made my mind go blank. I would follow the rules, the shoulds and don’ts – or not – and hope for the best.
But she made me take the class. Ironically, if I had better verbal boundaries at the time, I might have said no, and held to that. But I didn’t want her to think less of me, and I didn’t want to think less of myself. As a feminist therapist who worked with trauma survivors, I wanted to be able to offer more to my clients than a set of rules that I knew would do nothing to maintain their safety. I wanted them to be less afraid, and I wanted to be less afraid.
So I took the class. I was afraid. I cried. I’m not sure I breathed during the 20 hours of training. And I learned that fear, and sadness, and anger, didn’t mean I couldn’t learn to defend myself, didn’t mean I couldn’t execute verbal and physical skills to maintain my safety. In the class, I used my voice and my words – clearly, powerfully, and loudly – to set my boundaries, to tell people what I needed and what I needed from them, and to engage others to assist me. I had many of those skills beforehand, at least in some situations, at least in theory. But it is hard to set boundaries when you are afraid what will happen if people don’t listen. And in the class, I used my body – hands and arms and knees and hips and legs and feet – in ways that were simple and strong and effective in creating distance, creating pain. I learned to fight off an assailant, an attacker, a rapist. I learned to fight back.
And in doing so, I learned that my female body was not as frail, as vulnerable, as rapeable, as I had been taught that it was. I learned that male bodies had points of vulnerability that rendered them human. And I was still afraid at times, but less so, and differently, because I knew that I had verbal and physical skills to manage that fear, and that I had a range of options available to me in a threatening situation that were going to be far more effective than the should and the don’ts.
I’ve been involved in self-defense research and training and teaching and activism for 17 years now, and so far, off the mats, I’ve never jabbed someone in the eye or kneed someone in the groin or kicked someone in the head. But I know that I can, and that those skills are there for my consideration and choosing should someone try to assault or rape me.
And yet, I’ve used what I learned in self-defense every day for the last 17 years. Because self-defense training changed my life. It taught me that I am worth fighting for, and that I can be the person in that fight. It taught me that I can stand up for myself and for others because I know what to do if a situation turns threatening or violent. Because I can fight, I don’t necessarily have to.
Self-defense training afforded me choices I don’t know if I would have seen without it. I made the choice to let the spouse and infant son of an abusive colleague live with me until they could find safe and affordable housing. I verbally addressed the young adolescent men at my college who muttered that they should have “grabbed [my] ass” as I walked past them. I told an intoxicated man to step back and let my son and I pass in a public park. And when a family member was menacing me and screaming obscenities in my face, I remained calm, stood confidently, put my hands up to create distance, and told him to back off. I could do all those things because I knew I had the physical resistance skills to turn to if the harassment and threats turned to violence.
Those are the big choices, where my physical safety and integrity were threatened, and where there was the potential for physical violence. But self-defense training has changed my life in a thousand other ways. I stood my ground through a multi-year divorce process full of conflict, emotional abuse, and economic threat. I set boundaries with colleagues or administrators who disrespect my time and my work. I stay calm when a student becomes angry and agitated and disrespectful. I feel entitled to challenge social injustice, be that a sexist or racist or homophobic joke, or telling a doctor not to tell my son a procedure won’t hurt when we both know it will. I can tell the people in my life what I want and need, and what doesn’t feel good to me. And I have taught physical and verbal personal safety skills to hundreds of men and women, students and colleagues.
When I hear people say that women shouldn’t have to learn self-defense, I am not inclined to agree. I am grateful that I did not wait for attitudes to change, for people to decide on their own to respect my physical and psychological integrity, for a passerby to intervene on my behalf. I would be delighted if people always treated each other as equals, if they abided by the boundaries other people set, and if they acted as engaged bystanders because they are part of a caring global community. But because of my self-defense training, even in that Utopian paradise, I would know my own strength, feel entitled to use it to preserve my health and well-being, and be able to make choices that feel healthy and right for myself.
Imagine a situation where a college woman- let’s call her “Jane” – is being targeted for sexual violence. Jane, like most women targeted, knows her perpetrator, a fellow student – let’s call him “Dick”. Dick wants to have sex with Jane. Maybe they are on a date, maybe they are at a party. Maybe he’s been drinking – maybe she has.
Dick wants to have sex with Jane.
Jane does not want to have sex with Dick.
Maybe Dick is trying to get Jane alone. Maybe Dick and Jane are already alone. Dick knows what consent is, and he knows the definition of sexual assault. He doesn’t think of himself as a rapist. But Dick has decided he’s going to have sex with Jane tonight.
Now, imagine that someone intervenes. What would that mean? It could mean that someone tells Dick that Jane is not interested, and suggests something different to do. It could mean that someone tells Dick, clearly and directly, that Jane is not going to have sex with him, and that he does not have the right to coerce or force her into having sex.
It could be that Dick listens. It could be that he doesn’t.
Someone now takes intervention to the next level. What would that mean? It could mean that someone creates a scene, making a private assault an opportunity for public help. It could mean that someone yells at Dick to stop what he’s doing. It could mean that someone strikes Dick or kicks Dick or knees Dick to create some pain that will allow Jane to get away.
Now, imagine that someone is Jane.
Self-defense training is training to be your own bystander. It’s not a guarantee of an outcome, it’s not a requirement to respond in a particular way, and it doesn’t tell women what they have to do or should do. But it absolutely expands the choices women have in the face of assault. We have a responsibility to offer that training to women.