I deliver full impact self-defense training—the kind where we role-play typical attacks against women and hit the guys (they’re fully padded) for real. Though my teaching partners and I work with kids and adults from a variety of socioeconomic brackets, our main gigs are at girls’ private schools. The commutes are long and classes tend to be short, which diminishes the hourly rate of pay significantly. But I find the experience of bringing self defense training to girls in grades three through twelve so politically radical and rewarding, so pure a manifestation of my fantasies, that it borders on science fiction. I only have to squint to see—among the rows of 10-year-old girls stepping forward in unison and yelling “NO!” as they drill a front counter attack—potential Slayers, Storms, Rogues, and Mystiques, crouching tigers and hidden dragons.
Teaching 10-year-olds to fight is almost easy. Teaching teenage girls is much more difficult. Carol Gilligan’s observations about teen girls’ backsliding self-esteem play out with painful predictability. At age 10, the girls are warriors; by 14, many of them are duds. They file into the classroom, typically used for drama rehearsals, looking wary and bored. They lower their heads and slouch their shoulders. Even those a whole head taller than I am manage to look up at me through long hair falling forward out of headbands and breaking free from elastics.
In ninth grade, they wear less make-up than I did at their age, but show more leg on account of the private-school uniform: gray, pleated skirt—formal only in theory and just as trashy as can be once the girls have folded it up one, two, three times at the waist until it hangs inches below their butts. This creates a problem when they try to sit without showing their underwear. While they tug at the skirts’ edges, which are suddenly made of too little fabric to provide adequate cover, I notice thick, chubby legs, long, scrawny legs, lean, muscled up-to-there legs. Years ago, I would have seen only the bared skin of schoolgirls, and it would have caused me to worry. Now, I see weapons, and it’s good.
Many will ignore my instruction to form a seated circle, frequently disrupt class, and roll their eyes before I’ve said a word. As predominantly rich, white, well-socialized girls, they are, as their school’s web site no doubt suggests, “the leaders of tomorrow.” But I’m not looking to inspire the kind of power that gets them into Ivy League colleges. I just don’t want them to get raped, ever. I don’t know how much they know already—or how much they want to know—about sex, violence, and the ugly comingling of the two.
Their wariness at taking the class does not necessarily mean they don’t want to learn how to fight. At this age, it mostly means they don’t want their classmates to see them learn how to fight.
Whether they do it well or poorly is hardly the issue, since either could bring negative social consequences. They fear coming across as too strong just as much as they fear being seen as weak. By design and definition, realistic attack scenarios loosen a girl’s grip. The dread she feels upon seeing my male colleague and me in her classroom rises in proportion to how much effort is required for her to maintain her image in front of her peers. When a guy wearing a giant helmet, football jersey and shoulder pads, and diaper-shaped groin protector under his pants grabs you from behind and pulls you to the ground, keeping one’s composure is difficult. Those who don’t erupt in a fit of nervous laughter may blush beet red and become enraged by the emotional overload. This is not what they were looking forward to as they headed off to school today.
Which brings us to another reason that adolescent girls are wary of this training: context. No girl wants to be reminded of her vulnerability to any kind of attack—least of all rape and sexual assault. But adrenalized fights are a tough sell at any age, and it’s not just girls who need convincing. In spite of a cultural shift in recent years where women’s heroism is glorified on TV and in the movies (even kids’ movies, such as Shrek and The Incredibles, abandon the notion that a woman would arrive on the scene with no fighting skills of her own), women of all ages continue to resist, avoid, and ridicule this training.
The rate of crimes against women and girls being what they are, this intrigues me.
According to the United States Department of Justice Statistics, young women are four times more likely than any other group to be the victims of sexual assault and the least likely to report their victimization. Women who were raped or abused in girlhood are twice as likely as those with no prior sexual assault history to be raped in college, and girls and women aged 16 to 24 experience the highest per capita rates of violence by someone they know. Though the overall crime rate is down nationwide—since 1993, rape and sexual assault rates have fallen by more than half—USDOJ estimates put the number of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault victims at 204,370 in the year 2003–2004. Nearly two-thirds of these crimes were committed by men the victims knew. When we do have the misfortune of being selected for an attack by a stranger, about 10 percent of those assailants present a weapon. Half choose guns, half choose knives, and their goal typically is not to kill us, but to scare us so bad we don’t dare fight back.
For the majority of women and girls just trying to live our lives, it comes down to this: when we are raped, it’s usually by men or boys we know who are so confident in their ability to overpower us, they don’t even think they need a weapon. As insulting and depressing as that sounds, it’s not the worst news. This is an enemy we can beat.
Like so many things mightily feminist, adrenaline-based personal safety training for women was developed in the 1970s. Its founders, most of them martial artists, aimed to address the fact that martial arts as a mode of self defense for women is highly impractical. (Or, as the male instructors I work with put it, “No one bows to you before they attack you.”) But the genius of what is officially called the IMPACT curriculum goes far beyond the fact that “you hit the guys for real.” It’s grounded in four basic components: 1. the most common ways women are attacked (predatory-style, tricked, grabbed from behind, raped by our dates and other men we know), 2. how we’re built (strength concentrated in our hips and thighs), 3. how we’re socialized to behave (stupidly), and 4. the physiological effects of fear and trauma (adrenaline obstructs clear thinking and acting but can be managed, with practice). Today, women can train in this system of self defense in cities around the country.
It took me five years of knowing that there was a full-impact self defense class in my city before I decided to sign up. I was already plagued by misery and self-loathing at having endured abuse in my relationships and sex life. The thought that I might be raped “for real” or by another brilliantly coercive boyfriend left me in a paralyzing rage: The last thing I wanted was to have my fears dramatized (and my anger unleashed) in a class that uses realistic scenarios to trigger an adrenaline rush, approximating what one might feel during an actual attack. I rejected the idea that the solution to my suffering was to pay some guy to call me names until he let me knee him in the groin.
Women I talk to about self-defense training echo these reasons for avoiding it. They’re all too aware that they might be targeted as crime victims. They walk around all day knowing it, step onto elevators with men knowing it, join their friends for drinks knowing it, go to bed with a man knowing it, and wake up in the morning still fucking knowing it. Why should they pay $495 to have someone manifest that awareness by pinning them to some blue mats, talking all kinds of trash, and daring them into a fight?
“If I get raped, I’ll deal with it and move on,” a woman said to me recently when the subject of my work came up. But I’m determined not to be raped. I don’t think any of us should have to deal with it and move on: Raising awareness and publishing bleak statistics keeps people informed, but it fails to stop men who commit rape from raping us. Wonderful therapists who help us heal do not stop men who already raped us from getting away with it. The only thing that stops the rapist from raping us is when the girl or woman he has chosen physically prevents him from raping her, either by flight or by fight. Rather than prepare to deal with a completed rape and move on, why not prepare to defeat the person who may attempt to rape us and move on?
Many women I’ve talked to feel that they are too angry to take the course. They imagine they will explode if they so much as lock eyes with their own anger and could kill somebody if given half the chance. Some worry it will make them too sad—unable to buy groceries, pay bills, go to work, and be nice to their loved ones. They can’t afford to feel that way right now, or ever. Others expect it to be too self-helpy, an intolerable 20 hours of witnessing other women break down and tell their horrible stories about being molested by their fathers or uncles and raped in the upstairs bedroom at a high-school party while all their friends were having a ball not 15 feet away. In truth, there are often tears in the class—some from rage, some from despair. But if ever there were an example of “less talk, more action,” an adrenalized full impact self defense class is it.
The purpose is to train to fight, and there is great fun to be had. The thrill of vengeance and promise of recovery are pleasant side effects. We can envision ourselves as Vampire Slayers, Charlie’s Angels, or other superstar badasses portrayed by Uma Thurman, Halle Berry, Zi Yi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh. What woman hasn’t felt momentarily breathless with envy at the sight of Linda Hamilton advancing on her molten nemesis in Terminator 2?
And though is seems fantastical, what a woman takes away from the fantasy is a practical self-defense strategy and set of skills imprinted on her muscle memory that are based on weapons, targets, and her body’s innate intelligence and protective instincts.
These days, with such a fantastic array of superwomen in movies and TV shows we love, it surprises me that women aren’t lined up to take a class that teaches real fighting to ordinary women so we can defeat actual bad guys. If we love watching women fight in the movies, what’s not to love about watching women we know fight on the blue mats? There’s the resistance to feeling our own anger, yes, and the sadness, of course, and the sickening thought of hearing too many incest stories. But I sense that the some of what keeps intelligent, self-preserving women from taking advantage of this training is that it isn’t sexy enough.
On superchicks like Uma Thurman, fighting is hot but it isn’t real. We don’t know anyone who can fight like she did in the Kill Bill flicks, or anyone who would need to. (Swords? Come on.) The downside to this reality check is that it sneaks into our daily lives and perceptions, into realms where a woman fighting for her right to not be raped or coerced is not so far-fetched. As common a crime as rape and sexual assault is, we should all be emotionally and physically prepared to deliver a series of pain-causing, disabling techniques starting in girlhood. But at no point will these techniques ever include a spinning, flying back kick. There’s no sexy outfit, no skipping up the side of a hut and floating over rooftops. The moves are basically: get out from under him, hurt his head, hurt his testicles, repeat as necessary—not as easy as it sounds, but just as unglamorous.
Movies and comic books uphold this mythology of ordinary vs. extraordinary women. We are delighted to idolize female characters who are bionic, chosen, endowed, mutant, and heavily armed to defeat enemies great and small, robotic and extraterrestrial, diabolical and reptilian—but always with the stinging reminder that such power is fiction. Even when it’s meant to be real, it’s less believable. None of us is dropping into our abusive ex-husband’s apartment through the skylight to surprise and kill him, as in the Jennifer Lopez domestic-abuse-payback movie Enough. Neither are we delivering a punishing backwards roundhouse kick to a bruiser college boy, as the mortal character Lana does on the sci-fi show Smallville, to convince him to drop a lawsuit. The ridiculousness of these real and unreal women exerting physical power leaves us at a distance from our heroines. While we might allow ourselves to try on some super strength for a sexy Halloween costume, we don’t trust that we could adopt that powerful a stance in our everyday lives.
At the start of every class, my fellow instructors and I gird ourselves for the onslaught of what-ifs: What if he’s 300 pounds? What if he’s drugged and insane? What if he chokes me, ties me up, or blindfolds me? What if he puts me in his car and starts driving away—am I supposed to open the door and roll out? What if he has a gun? A knife? What if there’s more than one person? What if I accidentally kill someone?
Every question wants a direct answer: Tell me what to do with my body and with his. Each also hides additional questions up its sleeves: What if I’m too scared to do this in the moment? What if I’m not strong or coordinated enough? What if I miss? What if he laughs at me and then rapes me anyway? What if you aren’t teaching me the one thing I will need to know if I get attacked?
No self defense or martial arts course can guarantee that its graduate will never again confront a moment’s trouble. Any of us may find ourselves in a situation where there appear to be no more options. The company I teach for covers a ton of ground by offering classes that deal with increasingly challenging and threatening situations: environmental what-ifs (what if I’m on the subway, in an elevator, blindfolded, in my bed), weapons what-ifs (gun, knife, bat), and what if there’s more than one.
The skepticism that fuels students’ questions also drives the material. It’s an instructor’s job to constantly test the moves and question the theories behind it. Students’ hypothetical horror scenarios show they’re thinking, invested, strategizing. Except when this line of questioning serves only to delay actual learning. Often, women continue to resist what a class like this can offer even after they’ve shown up, by pursuing a steady stream of what-if questions. Consumed by what they don’t know, they bat away opportunities to learn some simple techniques that could prevent a rape. The woman who founded the chapter that delivers this training in New York City compares it to learning to swim: Does the fact that you know how to swim mean you will never be in danger of drowning? No. Is the solution, then, to not learn how to swim?
Let’s look to our heroines again. On seasons one through five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy saves the world from five apocalypses, escapes from Hell, turns bullets into doves with a wave of her hand, and claws her way out of her own grave, among other feats. In season six, Buffy is almost raped by a distraught ex-boyfriend on the floor of her own bathroom. What stops him is not her Slayer strength. Instead, she pleads with him, begging and squirming for an agonizing and believable amount of time before managing to work her knee in under his chest and giving him an old-fashioned, no frills shove across the room. It doesn’t hurt him, but startles him enough to realize he was out of line. He’s speechless for a moment, then apologizes. Normally, I would object to a scene like this for pandering to our culture’s collective hard-on at seeing a woman we desire and respect overpowered sexually and disgraced. But it illustrates that a strong woman can still get raped by a man who is familiar to her and points to sizable psychological barriers women face as we dare to object violently to being raped—both on principle and in reality.
“I could never do that class,” I’ve heard women say. They’re not afraid of their anger, creeped out by other people’s abuse histories, or looking for something a little more Aeon Flux-y. They just have trouble envisioning their own deft, perhaps even nonviolent, handling of an ordinary man who is behaving terribly. What would that even look like, in an ordinary woman who refuses to be raped (especially by a former lover!) and has trained to defend herself against it? We then make the tragic error of attributing our disbelief to reasonable skepticism. Rather than demonstrating how shrewd we are in not falling for some whacked, West Coast self defense regimen, this skepticism betrays our profound fear that we will fail in any attempt to save ourselves from harm, “get ourselves” raped, and be exposed as the irrational fools our oppressors would like us to go on believing we are. Worse, if we’ve taken self defense training, we will have no one to blame but ourselves (and the course) when our strategy doesn’t work.
In this method of self-defense education, it has never been and never will be women’s responsibility to stop men from raping us. That burden belongs to the man or boy who doesn’t understand that what he’s doing is rape (it’s time he learns) and the one who sets out to commit rape. Like the feminism that drives it, this training offers options to women where historically our choices for dealing with an attempted rape are abysmal. No more rape whistles, no more pepper spray rolling around in the bottom of our purses, no more time wasted wondering what we would do, should’ve, could’ve and wish we’d done. We don’t choose to be selected as victims—not when we are girls and not as grown women. We can choose to know more about our real life enemies and our honest-to-god ability to beat them.
Even 14-year-old girls who resent our twisted scenarios and have never experienced a moment’s trouble begin to get off on the permission we give them to fight back as hard as they can, with as much intensity and aggression as they can generate. Even they laugh after landing their first solid knee up and under a well-padded groin. Even they shriek at seeing their friends roar out a sidekick to the head. It only takes a few classes, a few thumps to the helmet or groin protector, for girls as overprotected as these to absorb what this training means. Rather than robbing them of their sex appeal and desire to have fun, it adds to it.
When this shift has occurred in the room, it’s safe to teach the hip toss—a move that can be done once forced penetration has already occurred—followed by a slam-grab-and-throttle to the testicles. These belong to you now, I say to them, not letting go of the handful of my colleague’s black, oversized pants, which I’ve gathered into my fist. I make a show of giving the implied testicles another extra-brutal tug, the way my female instructor once did for me. He gave up his claim to this part of his body when he tried to overpower yours. You can do with these whatever you wish.
The girls groan and giggle into each other’s hair. But one or two or three of them may blush and look right back at me, right in the eyes. There is joy in this destructive power, they realize, and obviously, freedom.
-This article originally appeared in Bitch, 2006.