We are delighted to highlight guest blogger Hannah Kohn’s reflection on her experience with empowerment self-defense training.
I am in bed, under the sheets. The lights are dim. As I sleep, the man I am in bed with climbs on top of me. I wake up in the midst of his assault. But there’s a twist: this isn’t a bedroom, it’s a large room with a pile of exercise mats stacked up to look like a bed. Likewise, the man on top of me is not a rapist, but a padded, fiercely feminist instructor. The staff from PREPARE, a feminist self-defense program, have agreed to recreate the space in which I was raped so I can reclaim a moment I have long felt was stolen from me. Mind racing, flashback roaring, I toss the padded instructor to the side with my hips, strike him in the eye, knee him in the groin, and land a devastating punch on his helmet. I hear the whistle of the instructor. My classmates shout the familiar mantra: “look!” (around my surroundings, to identify my path to safety) “assess!” (is the aggressor still a threat?) “go get help!” (whatever that means to me). The scenario is over. I have successfully stopped the aggressor from completing their assault.
I was first raped when I was sixteen years old, but as is the case with so many women who experience sexual violence, my truth was systematically rejected. Adding the scars of gaslighting and victim blaming to the experience of rape, I became increasingly confused as to what constituted a violation of my body. Convinced by the people around me that what I had experienced was not, in fact, rape, I was subjected to sexual violence many more times without ever putting a name to it. I arrived at university, and was assaulted yet again in my freshman year.
Simultaneously, I was exposed to much more information regarding sexual violence. President Obama was in the White House, and at long last a President was calling out the national crisis of rape on campuses across the United States. Mandated by law, colleges had no choice but to educate students on consent, rape, and sexual assault. I was lucky to be on a campus that actively supported these mandates, and I found myself heavily involved in sexual assault prevention on campus, throwing myself into every opportunity for activism that came my way. However, despite the barrage of bystander intervention training, consent workshops, and awareness raising campaigns I went to and organized, I continued to be raped and assaulted repeatedly. I could easily understand how other were assaulted and raped, but remained oblivious to attacks on my own body. How could that be?
When I was in high school, I would have sworn on my life that I really just wanted to be “nice.” I was the most agreeable, generous, patient doormat of a girl there ever was. Nonviolence was a way of life, an unmoving principle, applying to every measure, action and thought. I went through the world timid to move too quickly, should I unwillingly send a reverberation through the air. However – and I would never have admitted as much at the time – behind my unshakeable kindness, there was a motive. I longed to be accepted and liked and adored by everyone, because…well, because of course I had been conditioned to please. I had been conditioned as a woman. And what a good woman I was turning out to be!
This all changed, of course, when I enrolled in a self-defense class with PREPARE.
Junior year: now a fully-fledged Women’s and Gender Studies student at Drew University in Madison, NJ, complete with Audre Lorde quotes on my wall and critical discourse analysis on my mind, I enrolled in a class called “Gender, Violence, and Women’s Resistance.” I had been told repeatedly that I should knock someone over to get into the course, as it was life-changing and chronically had a waitlist of disappointed students. As it turns out, the class is currently the only one of its kind in the nation: the first twenty hours, or five weeks, are spent completing a beginners’ empowerment self-defense class. The rest of the course focuses on the theory around self-defense and gender-based violence. Excited but completely unsure of what to expect, I went to the black box theatre where we would be learning to defend ourselves.
The first day, as we sat quietly in the black box, our Lead Instructor (a certified IMPACT instructor) bustled in. She is the embodiment of the phrase “I don’t give a c**p what you think,” if these words were uttered in the most feminist and compassionate of voices. She is comfortable being her authentic, loud, powerful self. She lives her work, and it’s impossible not to want to be exactly like her.
Within a few minutes, our instructors had transformed the room of well-behaved students into a united group of ambivalent fighters, yelling the word “no” at the top of our lungs. Confused theatre students wandered in and out of their space as we powerfully used our voices and bodies and practiced moves in the air as if there were invisible attackers in front of us. They weren’t invisible for long, though: padded instructors soon came in for us to practice our moves on. Working through adrenalized responses, each member of the class faced the padded perpetrators, yelling “no!” with each strike. I had thought of myself as non-violent my entire life. This perception changed over the course of that one class.
Reader, I dearly miss kneeing a padded man in the groin every Friday morning. I would be lying to myself if I pretended for a moment that I didn’t relish each and every strike I landed on the padded instructors. I would never want to be faced with a situation outside the classroom where I would have to use these strikes; indeed, I hope and pray never to confront such a situation again. But allowing myself to be unkind to someone who was acting as an aggressor, to say no, to shake the deeply entrenched norms of femininity I had embodied for so many years, was endlessly liberating. So liberating, in fact, that I organized an advanced PREPARE workshop a year after the beginners’ class had ended. The final advanced class brings us back to the bedroom scene I described earlier.
I had the unique experience of taking part in the PREPARE workshops as I worked through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in part related to my history of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of intimate partner violence. Reclaiming my right to make decisions over my own body, my right to space, my right to confidence, and my right to my own reality impacted my recovery in a truly transformative way.
Although I appreciate the use of bystander intervention and consent education alongside empowerment self-defense classes, I speak from a very personal place when I say that alone, those forms of sexual assault prevention are not at all transformative. Why should I rely on a bystander to rescue me, or a potential perpetrator to miraculously change his mind due to consent education and not attempt to rape me? Data doesn’t back up these techniques long-term, and quite frankly, I’m not particularly comforted by the idea that a knight in shining armor will a) save me from a villain or b) not be a villain. If anything, I would prefer that the knight in shining armor reevaluate his benevolent sexism before talking to me. No, I would really like to stand on my own two feet and learn to protect myself, challenging the normative gender script of female damsel/male savior as I go.
Through taking part in self-defense training, I have come to understand why my involvement in bystander intervention wasn’t enough to allow me to recognize assaults upon my own body: its sole focus is on rescuing others, and so my perspective never faced inwards. Only through learning to protect myself did I come to recognize what it meant to be personally harmed. Bystander intervention didn’t stop me from being raped; it didn’t even help me to understand that I had been raped. On the other hand, self-defense restored my sense of self-worth, helped me to preserve and protect my boundaries, and made me realize that I am a goddamn warrior who will leave anyone who tries to hurt me in a state of deep, painful regret.
Since taking my first PREPARE class, no one has attempted to assault me. Not once. I guess I scream out “I will maul your groin if you get anywhere close to me” nowadays. I like that.
I have recovered from the worst of my PTSD. Where I was once convinced by a terrible ex-boyfriend that I was too stupid to go to college, I have now graduated Summa Cum Laude. I am in a relationship with a feminist who loves and respects me deeply. Most of all, I feel safe as I walk through this world, armed with the knowledge that I am, against all the perceptions my younger self held dear, a fighter.
Hannah Kohn is a graduate of Drew University in Madison, NJ. Having grown up in London and Hong Kong, she now lives in New York City. She is a fierce feminist with no patience for masculinity complexes. When she’s not geeking out over feminist theory, she can be found working on subversive cross-stitch projects, marveling over Central Park, and nagging her members of congress to vote against the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She is one of those untrustworthy people who likes both cats and dogs equally.