I have been in several conversations about the nature of self-defense training in the past few months and as a result I have been puzzling about how to address women’s real needs when it comes to self-defense.
(Please note: I have not included any self-defense photos in this post so I could avoid potential triggers for people. There is a video from 1933 posted at the end but the still image is staged so it seems unlikely to be a trigger. Proceed with caution.)
With my second degree black belt in Taekwondo I feel pretty confident about my ability to defend myself in a fight. I have a fair amount of self-defense training and I’m a pretty skilled kicker and puncher. If someone outright attacked me, I could likely deal with it.
The problem is, of course, that for most women, the ‘stranger in a dark alley’ is the dangerous scenario they are least likely to encounter. We’re much more likely to have to deal with someone we know or sort-of-know in a situation that goes from normal to needing-a-defense-strategy all of a sudden.
If my life was in actual danger, I know I could act. If the situation was unclear? I’m not sure that my instincts would be sharp enough. I fear that my social conditioning to ‘be nice’ would override my instincts, especially if it was someone I know. And I would be reluctant to cause them any real harm until I was sure they meant to hurt me, and then it might be too late to use what I know.
I know that the big picture solution involves the social change all of us fit feminists are working toward but what’s the solution for while that change is in development?
How do we help women deal with the people who take advantage of the fact that we are trained to be ‘nice’ and agreeable? How do we get them past the fear of hurting someone they know but who is willing to hurt them?
It’s a huge issue, I realize that. In thinking about it, though, I have been tying together bits and pieces of my experiences and conversations with experts so I can start working on at least a piece of the problem.
A few years before I started Taekwondo my friends and I took this one time only self-defense class offered by a local martial arts school (not my current one). I learned lots of great moves and I enjoyed practicing them on people in full body armor. I felt like something was missing though.
The instructors gave us good skills but there was little or no mention of when and how to tap into our instincts. And the instructor did not seem to understand that as women in their thirties and forties we couldn’t necessarily follow the same rules for walking down the street safely as as he could as an advanced black belt male in his 50s. Basically, the class was great but limited. The instructor was missing the cultural and social context of when and how most women would need to use these skills.
One of my TKD instructors is working on this issue already. She has lots of great self defense skills to teach but it is really hard to teach women to defend themselves in the sort of situation they’re most likely to encounter. It gets into that grey area where you need to teach skills beyond the physical.
After all, how do you learn to defend yourself against someone whose nose you don’t want to break or against someone that you’re going to see again (and probably not in a court of law)?
Last week I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches women’s self-defense and again she was concerned with that same gap. Her practice is able to address it a little more directly but since every student has individual things to overcome, it’s tricky to address in a wholesale way.
This is one of those situations where physical fitness and training will help. After all, both of those things bring confidence and give you physical leverage. However, the problem is broader than being confident and physically capable.
How do we teach women to further develop their instincts, to trust them and to act on them?
How do we find ways for women to defend themselves when causing physical harm will have additional social repercussions? (I know that defending yourself should be your first priority and the repercussions should be your last concern but that social conditioning to be a ‘good girl’ will get in the way.)
How do we help other women (and ourselves) to recognize that a threat is a threat, no matter who it comes from? That the harm that comes from someone we know is as bad as harm from a stranger? To recognize that we should be allowed to protect ourselves, no matter who is hurting us?
It’s hard enough to learn that it is okay to say no. And to understand, on a fundamental level, that we have the right not to be harmed in anyway. How do we help women to reinforce that no without creating further danger for them?
How do we address the fundamental changes in thinking (and in social indoctrination) that all of this requires?
I know that the answer lies in the social change we talked about. I know that it is really men that need the lesson about doing no harm and taking responsibility for their actions. And there are tons of changes above needed above and beyond that.
But those are long-term changes and waiting for things to get better is not a viable option.
I want women to be equipped to deal with the things they have to face now. I want them to have the skills they need and the confidence to use them. I know a lot of people are working on it, I just want to be part of that working group, too.
The embedded video below shows a Women’s Self-Defence Tutorial from 1933. It is in black and white and features May Whitley demonstrating jiu-jitsu.