Saturday, January 18, 2014

Self-Defense Starts With Getting Out Of Your Own Way

I believe most women should take some form of self-defense course at some point in their lives.  Too many never get around to it or don't find an opportunity, which is a shame.

In Bay View (our neighborhood on the south end of Milwaukee) we had several incidents of sexual assault out on the bike paths and streets last year, and one woman was shot for her purse while walking with her boyfriend on Halloween weekend.  It's unnerving to say the least.  The level to which women are made to feel unsafe in our society is staggering.  It's easily the most daunting aspect of raising girls.

In response to the assaults in our community someone organized a self-defense class last fall for women and girls ages 11 and up.  The admission fee was a donation of some non-perishable food items for a local food pantry.  I decided Aden and I should go.

Over a dozen years ago I earned a black belt in jujutsu, but I stopped going to classes when I was four months pregnant and my gi no longer fit.  (Besides, the sensei began only doing meditation exercises whenever I showed up for class at that point, and it seemed unfair to all the non-pregnant black belts that we never got to move anymore.)  If such things can expire, I declare my black belt officially done because I am too far removed from any of that experience to apply it to anything with any grace.

However, there is still value in having had that experience to grapple with men, even in such a controlled environment.  It's good to know where the limits are for both them and you, and most women have no idea.

Many boys play at wrestling.  My brothers certainly did (and do, given the opportunity).  It's common for men and boys to get a sense early on of what forceful ways bodies can be used against other people.  For girls this is less typical.  We can end up with a distorted sense of our own power or lack of it.

I am not small.  I'm 5'10", weigh more than I should, and I'm fairly strong.  I am seldom in vulnerable attire (having only worn a shoe with any kind of heel once in my life) and I would say I walk with purpose.  I don't think I look like a target, but I'm also not often in situations where I'm likely to feel threatened.  It's easy for me to get lulled into a sense of feeling safer than I am.  But when I was in college I once found myself arm wrestling a male friend, and I was stunned at how much stronger he was.  He wasn't a big guy, and I would have thought if in some peculiar scenario I'd had to fight him I would have been able to hold my own.  I was frightened in that moment to realize it wasn't so.  It was a sobering to discover how much stronger the average man can be, and I never forgot it.

Taking jujutsu was like that, too, getting to lay hands on other people and being able to form a more realistic concept of how their weight or height affects how you can handle them.  It also helps to experience moving your own body to throw a punch or kick without waiting for an emergency to do it for the first time.  (I know that even just from violin, that you can't magically expect your body to perform something it's never tried with much success.)

I wanted Aden to start having an idea of what her body can do, and to know what it was like to push in some way against another person.  I need her to start seriously assessing what potential threats are around her, and to have strategies to deal with them.

I wish we didn't have to have such discussions, but the truth is at this point I'm being negligent if we don't.  Aden looks older than she is, and she's beautiful.  She's started to attract unwanted attention that she doesn't know how to handle.  I didn't ask her if she wanted to take the self-defense class.  I told her she had to.

When we showed up for class we were the last to arrive and things were already in progress.  The instructor was a woman trained in krav maga (an Israeli martial art) and she was explaining in blunt language that attackers and rapists can come at us anywhere, anytime, and we must be prepared to fight for our lives.

I could tell this was upsetting for my daughter (understandably), but I was unprepared for the tears when it was time to practice a few basic strikes.  I was supposed to hold a pad and she was supposed to try hitting it with her palms.  She refused to "hit" her mom.  I told her it was fine, that she wasn't going to hurt me, but the concept of using any force in my direction was so anathema to her that she simply broke down.  There were offers for her to pair with someone else, but by then it was too late and it was clear to me that Aden was not going to be able to absorb any lessons the class was trying to teach that night.

Rather than take her home, however, we went out to dinner.  I took her to a local restaurant that we used to visit half her life ago after a pottery class we took one summer.  We ordered appetizers and pie.  And we talked.

I explained to Aden why she needed the class.  I told her I knew she wanted to stay an innocent little kid, but that the world didn't see her that way anymore, and she didn't have that luxury.  I didn't want to scare her, but I needed her to be aware of scary things.  The world isn't fair.  Especially for young girls who should be able to walk alone if they wish but can't without fear as a companion.

I reminded her of a time when we visited an isolated piece of land a block from our house near the railroad tracks, and we enjoyed exploring it as a group, and how she asked me if she could please go back there by herself sometime to look around some more and I had to tell her no.  I said it was a place with nowhere to run, and if she encountered someone back there it could go horribly wrong.

Because people are different when they think others can't see them, and for some that means they suddenly feel free to inflict harm.  The monsters in our world aren't aliens who drop down out of nowhere.  They are regular people all around us who, given the right opportunity, become monstrous. 

I told Aden people she knows and loves have been raped and molested and attacked.  I was not going to betray their trust by saying exactly who without their permission, but she needed to know these problems were real and closer at hand than she probably realized.  It's sad, and it's frightening, and it's not right.  But it's true.  And she needs to know.

And she needs to be empowered.  The first step toward that was for her to be willing to stand up and try.  I informed my daughter that we would be going to the second class the following week.  She didn't have to participate, but that I was going to.  And she was going to have to stay for the whole thing.  She would have a week to prepare herself, but it was going to happen, because if anything her reaction that night proved to me she needed to face it, not be shielded from it.

So we did go back.  And luckily the second class included people we knew, one of whom was a long-time friend from school that Aden was able to pair with which helped her feel more comfortable as she tried some basic moves.  Her strikes were tentative, and I wouldn't say she ever truly embraced the activity, but she did it.  She even volunteered to go at the man in the padded suit for a bit.  She learned some useful tips.  She got a sense of what her options are in a crisis.  She got to practice reacting rather than defaulting to paralysis.

Some basic concepts we took from the class were these:  There are places on the human body that are equally vulnerable on both men and women, including the eyes, ears, throat, jaw, nose, and fingers.  It doesn't matter if an attacker is twice your size and strength, if you know where to inflict it you can do damage.  A pen is an excellent weapon if held firmly in your fist.  If someone questions you on the street it's wise to keep moving away even if you choose to answer.  Never use self-defense to protect property, only your life.  If you can put up a serious fight for a good ten seconds that's usually enough drive the average attacker off.  Ten seconds of flat out pounding on somebody can deplete nearly all of your energy.

I was proud of Aden for giving the class another shot.  I was even more proud of how much of it she really thought about afterward.  She asked me when we got home about a technique she didn't get to try in class that she was curious about.  One of the last things we were shown was how if someone has you pinned down on your back on the floor and they have hold of your arms or wrists, bucking up with your hips forces him (or her) to let go in order to avoid smashing face first into the floor.  Aden wanted to know if doing something she had in mind with her legs or knees was as effective, so I told her to try it.  I had her lie down and then I pinned her, and she quickly discovered her way would not work.  So I told her to do the move we saw in class, and she was delighted that sure enough, my instinct to protect my face forced me to let her go for an instant when she raised her hips quickly.  This is exactly the kind of thing it helps to have tried on some level ahead of time.  I hope neither of us ever have to use any of the things we were taught, but the mere fact that we know what the possibilities are in such an emergency could prove useful.

I was reminded of all of this the other day when Aden and I curled up on the couch together to watch Downton Abbey.  It's been something we've enjoyed as our own little activity for a while, but last season got somewhat intense, and the recent episode involving the unexpected rape of her favorite character was incredibly disturbing.  I then had the unpleasant task of telling her that in real life the perpetrators of such acts are seldom punished.  It was awful, and frankly the program gave me nightmares.  If I'd seen it coming I would not have subjected Aden to it.

Watching the fictional fight I couldn't help but wish the victim had known some moves.  I wanted her to crack her attacker in the nose with her elbow or bite off his ear or gouge out his eye.  Realistically she probably wouldn't have had any idea what to do.  But Aden might.  And part of me hopes that the reason Aden was able to handle that scene better than I would have expected is because maybe in her mind she was reviewing what possible things she would have done differently.  I don't know.  But I do believe even just one little class can be the difference between viewing yourself as helpless and believing you have the ability to take some control.  I hope so.

In the meantime, Mona has asked if when she turns 11 can she please please please take such a class with me.  I told her of course, and we may even look into doing that sooner.  Maybe I can sign all of us up for something along those lines over the summer.

My children are all sensitive, gentle people.  However, life is such that there could be moments they need to be anything but.  I want them all to have the skills to protect themselves.  And I hope every day that they may never, ever, have an occasion to use them.


  1. KICK ASS PARENTING. Not a pun. I wonder a lot About what to explain to Kid 1 and when. As a toddler we've only addressed the "who can touch YOUR body" topic. I get so sad thinking about these things. Nothing seriously terrible has ever happened to me but that's in part just luck. Karate or tae kwon do or something would be a great joint activity. Thank you!

    1. The biggest point we drove home to our kids when they were tiny (and continue to repeat today) has nothing to do with strangers or anything along those lines, but that if anyone tells you to keep a secret from your mom it's a red flag and to tell us immediately. Telling someone to keep a secret from a parent is a trick. Most people who hurt children go at it in stages starting with figuring out who is a safe target, and a kid who blabs everything to mom is a bad place to go.

  2. I've never taken a self-defense class, although I've always thought it would be a good idea (just never got around to it). What a great idea to do it with your kids!

    And I have to say that I definitely emphasize with Aden on Downton Abbey. I was kind of shocked / horrified by that (and Anna is my favorite character too!). As I was reading your post this morning I was thinking, "How timely!" because I just watched the episode yesterday.
    -Lisa K

    1. Go find a class! Even just 20 minutes with someone who knows what they're doing can change how you see yourself and reorient you in the world in a smarter way. To know what kind of power you can or cannot exert is basic information you should have about yourself.

      And that Downton episode broke my heart. If that man does not get broken and battered by the end of the season I may not be able to keep watching. I need some justice in my fiction even if there is seldom any in real life.

    2. If they use it to drive a wedge between her and Mr. Bates (which it kind of looked like that's where they are going?) I will be even more upset because she needs support and help to get through this.

      Also I am excessively irritated that apparently "empathize" got autocorrect to "emphasize" in my first comment. I don't get it, empathize is a real word...

  3. Brien and I have talked numerous times about what it's like to be a woman and always planning ahead what you would do in xyz situation. I'm always planning, always aware of my surroundings. I'm trying to slowly instill that in the girls. It's a gradual process and you don't want to overwhelm. But, bad people are all around.

    We talk about "tricky adults" and not strangers. We too talk about people who tell you "it's a secret" and ask kids for help. What grown-up is going to ask a kid to help them with something?

    I took self-defense classes a long time ago, but could certainly use a refresher. When Lil's bit older, she too will be taking a class. It doesn't hurt to be prepared.

    Poor Aden. Growing up can be so hard.

    1. Honestly, the hardest part for me about being a parent is shattering my kids' illusions about the world they think is out there, while not discouraging from trying to make it real.

  4. How awesome that you did this with Aden and that you talked her through it, too. I'm in awe of your parenting, honestly.

    I'm pretty fit and lift weights, but I also know I'm a small woman (<5'5") and realistically if most men were determined to rape me the odds aren't on my side. It is sad that most of the time the best anti-assault advice we can give is to make sure someone else is an easier target, but there it is.

    As your kids get older, you might be interested in the "Yes Means Yes" way of framing consent and sexual behaviour. I've found it really useful not only for myself but as a way to explain proper consent to others.

    1. Also: as you say there is no substitute for actually practicing the techniques of self-defence. Girls in our culture(s) are so unused to hitting that we are most often frozen when we need it most.

    2. They're also unused to making noise. I've read several accounts where victims of rape were literally rendered mute with fear. In the class we were encouraged to shout and yell, and those are basic things many girls are never comfortable doing. It's good to have a place where you can practice screaming "No!" and feel what that's like.

  5. This was more than a little heartbreaking, but you're such a great mom to do this with Aden. It's so important. I took a basic self-defense class years ago, but this makes me want to take a refresher course. Maybe I will. And when my girls are older…sigh.

    1. It is sad, but one of the things I tried to explain to Aden at that dinner was that even though the statistics of 1 in 4 women experiencing assault is horrifyingly high, it still means 75% of women do not suffer anything like that. The odds are good she will be fine. I've been fine. I really don't want her to be scared, just aware, but that's such a hard balance to strike.

  6. Thanks for this, K, it's so thoughtful and knowledgeable. I have been thinking about taking a class for quite some time. I should do it. And, I've had that experience you mention. In Madrid, I was mugged by a skinny little teenage boy. I was 20, he was maybe 17. He wanted my money wallet, so did I. We fought for it for about 2 minutes before my screaming brought help. I couldn't BELIEVE how much stronger he was. It still rattles me.

    1. Yes, in all your free time you can take a class! (HAhahahaha!) But maybe if you did it as a one night thing with a group of friends it could serve double duty. Definitely worth it if you can make the time.