Via Gawker, I heard about a new trend in women’s self-defense. Now, as a general rule, I’m suspicious when I see phrases like “women’s self defense.” Because isn’t that just called ‘self-defense?’
What makes women’s self defense different? Well, as we’re all generally aware, the implicit rest of the phrase is “women’s self defense against rapists.”
But like most things modified with ‘women,’ the message eventually becomes “self defense that’s pinker and weaker than the regular variety employed by standard (male) humans.” And you get classes like this: “Girls’ Fight Night Out.” Forty-two year old girl Betty Ryan described her reason for attending: ““This was about fun and self-defense, which is why I chose to go.”
Listen, rule of thumb: if you’re learning self-defense against rapists, it’s not gonna be fun.
Now, some backstory from yours truly. I took my first self-defense course when I was five. It was lots of fun. I got to make the grown-ups laugh by banging my fists on the private parts of a man in a padded suit: “Bam bam bam SQUEEEZE.” They really liked how I said squeeze, drawing out the “eeeeeez.” I mean, I assumed that’s why they laughed.
But you know why it was fun? I’d never been kidnapped. I didn’t have any traumatic associations with being picked up and carried off by strangers. The point was to teach me to make a noise if this very unlikely event occurred. It also focused on teaching kids to pay attention to our surroundings. If an adult man had actually decided to carry me off, it’s unlikely that these moves would have been as effective as getting the attention of an adult nearby.
Ten years later, I went through the women’s class, which, among other things, included a lot of full-contact “reversals” (previously known as “simulated rape”) encounters with the ‘muggers’ from various vulnerable positions. We even had one class that focused on dealing with an aggressor in a mock-elevator constructed with gym mats! (I know, right? Elevators are like the safest place for women!)
It was very emotionally draining, and I was still a young teenager, barely conscious of my developing sexuality. I still didn’t have any traumatic associations with what we were doing, but I was dimly aware of rape culture and, given the onset of tits, was reminded fairly often of my inherent rape-ability.
Women’s Class: Part 2
A few weeks ago, I took the class once more. There were several people in the class – as in any haphazard group of women – who had experienced abuse, rape and harassment. During the first full-contact fight, one woman fought off a mugger who had dragged her to the ground and tried climbing on top of her. She kicked him clear across the mat. Once she “knocked him out” (they are trained to signal the end of the fight after a certain number/intensity of strikes), she stood up, looked around and realized the fight was over. I saw her shoulders roll in, her knees bend, face twist in grief for her own past and the recent loss of a family member to male violence. She collapsed, weeping.
She was the first, but not the last, to be triggered. But then, that’s the goal of the training.
By the end of the class, she could really fight. And she didn’t cry anymore. Instead, she made damn sure to high five everyone in the room, her inner strength renewed and her grief abated somewhat with newfound confidence – with a real sense of empowerment.
So the fuck’s your point, Yessenia?
This class was NOT FUN. It was the opposite of fun. It was depressing, frightening, infuriating and exhausting. It’s infuriating that we even need to take classes like this. It’s not about fun; it’s about survival in a world where some men choose to attack women because they are women. It’s about feeling a little more secure when walking alone out on the street at night. It’s about making it in a world where even the men who don’t attack women will still ask, “What did she expect? What was she doing outside by herself? What was she thinking, drinking in a bar?” Where we have to fight for our lives because we can’t expect justice on the other side of violation.
Theoretical Brain Stuff!
But I digress. The theory behind their model of full-contact training is twofold: men who attack women don’t fight fair and neither should we, and that when attacked, adrenaline surges, tunnel vision sets in and suddenly all that information you learned in a relaxed fun setting is temporarily inaccessible.
Think of test anxiety. It’s essentially the same process. You study and study and study, but when you sit down in the lecture hall to take the exam, your heart starts racing and suddenly you’re not even sure you bought the right textbook.
So to compensate for this, this program makes sure your adrenaline is high while you were training: the muggers say nasty demeaning shit to you; when they grab you by the hair, they’re really grabbing you by the hair; they suddenly come at you; they throw you to the ground and maybe even drag you around by your feet; they grab you by the neck and choke you. And your body doesn’t know the difference between a realistic fake fight and a real one.
Sounds awful? Well, yea; it was no fun. But when I’m adrenalized and think I might get into a physical altercation, let me tell you, that training is the only thing I can think about. I will never forget that when being dragged around by your pantlegs, the trick is to sit up and grab your assailant’s ankles and let gravity take over from there.
What’s this got to do with queerness?
Everything. I am by nature an aggressive, argumentative person. But for a good decade there, I had it repressed out of me, and I aspired to be a sweet little wallflower, certain of my own frailty and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Because of the pervasiveness of rape, I was strongly encouraged to conform my personality to an appropriate female gender expression or else.
Instead of teaching women how to fight by actually teaching them to fight, we get this crap:
Damsel in Defense, a new company in Meridian, Idaho, is enticing women the old-fashioned way, following the classic Tupperware party model. Instead of plastic containers, an array of self-defense tools are offered, like pink pepper sprays and stun guns that look like lipstick.
Why?! Why would you want your stun gun to look like lipstick? What possible advantage would that serve, beyond jacking up the odds that you might accidentally stun yourself in the face?
Gender socialization is very relevant here. You take a group of people that has been discouraged from fighting, taught from a young age they’re weak and would lose any fight. Or conversely, depending on race or gender expression, that they’re too aggressive and too violent and need to tone it down. You discourage them from weight-bearing exercise by warning them not to ‘bulk up’ lest they be unmarriageable and a burden forevermore on their parents.
You tell them not to eat so much because they need to stay thin. You tell them all these things, and then you give them pink mace guns to “encourage” them to believe their life is worth fighting for. But if mace guns are threatening and unfeminine and must be pinkified so it won’t burn your skin, fighting is even moreso.
So the message ends up contradicting itself: defend yourself, but femininely!
One of the self-defense programs mentioned in the New York Times article, M.A.M.A., appears to involve some adrenalization training. A video that came up on google showed, among other things, a woman fighting off a man in the pinned-on-my-back position. Unfortunately, since none of the trainers have any padding, the student is effectively learning, “Think about kicking the assailant, but don’t because you might hurt him.” They’ve imprinted a hatred of padded black squares, though.
Friends meet in living rooms and learn how to use the defensive gear safely.
That’s great, if you’re talking about skinning a deer with a hunting knife. But if you’re in a real fight, and you’re digging around in your purse for your lip stick tazer and trying to remember the steps to safely electrocute your assailant, then you’ve effecively disarmed (because your hands are in your purse and not up protecting your face) and distracted yourself.
Adrenalized training – which, I repeat for emphasis, is not supposed to be fun – changes your reaction to conflict, so that if a creep is creepin at you, all you can remember is “Keep your eyes on him. Keep your hands up. Make noise. If he starts charging, step in and heel-palm the fucker and perhaps knee him across the room for good measure.” Looking for your $30 pink kubotan that you had twenty minutes of practice with at your friend’s house a few months back is like texting while driving: the risk posed by the distraction outweighs the benefit.
By the way, the same criticisms can be made of the ‘self-defense’ indusry that targets anxious masculinity. Buy this gun! Protect your family! The thing is, if your only experience shooting the gun is at the range against a paper assailant, your gun will probably be worse than useless when faced with someone who’s actually comin’ at ya, bro. And as with stun guns, if you don’t know how to use a gun when you’re freaked out because you’re literally being attacked, then you’ll be surprised to learn how quickly self-defense weapons can transform into assailant-offensive weapons. Congratulations: your previously unarmed assailant is now tazing you.
The take home
Women have to know – viscerally know – that they may fight, they can fight, and they will fight. Actually fighting is really the only way to accomplish those goals. Pinkified “women’s puny fists of weakness” training is worse than useless; it may actually end up distracting a woman during an actual confrontation.