Self Defense: What Are We Selling to Women?

“Have you seen the video of the girl who chokes out a guy wearing a t-shirt??” say any number of supportive men as I smile and try to cringe only a little. “She doesn’t even need a gi!” they say as I think – great! When I’m raped, I can be in street clothes… 

And we have martial arts magazines trying to be supportive like this: 10 Self Defense Strategies Every Woman Needs To Know To Survive! I needSurvive? You mean I can’t just walk down a street like anyone else? What is wrong with society that every time a woman goes outside, we think it’s common sense to give her advice as though she’s going out on combat patrols

There are a slew of videos wonderfully named “rape choke defense” that I found while trying to find the first hyperlink. Until today, I didn’t know two hands on the throat was a “rape choke,” so thank you, Internet, for that. It looks so very similar to a choke; I had no idea I was supposed to call attention to the lack of value society has for women by adding “rape” to it when you’re choking a woman.

When I began martial arts, I couldn’t talk about self defense with the terminology of a 30 year practitioner, but I knew why it was important to me: stress relief, testing my limits, it being exercise you can stick with long term as well as getting comfortable with an opponent in my personal space putting his hands on me. I think that’s an off putting aspect of jiu-jitsu for many women, but I feel more comfortable having the training. It’s not really about a theatrical fight scene where I knock out my attacker. I’d like to think that, instead, training will help me gain a few seconds to escape possibly or it may help counteract the impulse I and many women have to freeze up in an unwanted confrontation. Given all the positives, it was very hard for me to pinpoint my misgivings with men recommending self defense in response to sexual assault in the news. After all, it can really work! (See 2017 story of jogger fending off an attacker.)

On the surface, it seems like creepy marketing. There are some ground styles that sell a lifestyle complete with diet and a mindset that is reminiscent of religion: that this is not something you do, but it’s what you are. You can take that or leave it. And then to bring in women, some of these styles emphasize or add self defense to round out their systems because what else is there to offer women? Equal respect and welcoming training space? Nooo. Self defense in the face of rampant toxic masculinity, of course! It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to be told or made to feel that it’s my responsibility not to be attacked and on top of that, I should pay to obtain this life saving information. (Kind of like when you see free condoms being given out and meanwhile you’re paying a luxury tax for tampons for something you wish you could abstain from… Google pink tax for more fun reading.) 

Marketing aside, there’s no denying the threat women face is real, though. The recent #metoo and #timesup movements should have made it very obvious that all women are at risk and are affected by misogyny that can manifest as violence. I don’t want to downplay that at all. School shootings and other mass shootings of late are case in point. The common thread in these acts of domestic terrorism is, terrifyingly, white men with a history of domestic abuse. Since we can’t solve this (and by that I mean smash the patriarchy) in a day, I can understand why both men and women might see self defense as a possible stopgap solution or a way to feel like you’re doing something constructive when you feel powerless.

I was introduced to ho sin sool, or self defense, through Tang Soo Do. Being about 33 or so when I started, I hadn’t grown up in it and so I absorbed all the quirks, personalities and trends of the sport through others who had – everything from the magical pressure point ideology to the differences between each martial art (it’s not all karate, believe it or not!) to the women’s self defense phenomenon. Self defense wasn’t my primary reason for seeking out martial arts instruction, but I’m not going to lie – I was eager to find out what I could use to defend myself should I need it. I somewhat reluctantly* started Tang Soo Do in about 2010 (and later, BJJ) to get in shape and do something besides running which is really boring and ruining my knees. Fast forward to 2018 – I’m an enthusiastic (in my own way) chodan in Tang Soo Do and purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.     

*= we can talk about introverts and my feelings about joining groups another time…

Being involved in martial arts, I have heard many a discussion about self defense: what are the best methods, different techniques for different attacks, applying the same basic motions to all attacks, weapon defenses, debates on the probability of actually restraining an attacker in real life, and on and on. I find it hard to speak up in these discussions because I worry that my conflicting feelings about the topic won’t be accepted or taken seriously. Self defense is a fraught term for me as a woman. The concept is useful, but there’s an uneasiness too. There’s a fitness aspect as well as preparedness or confidence – that sounds empowering, right? But for me (and maybe many women) there is a persistent, unnamed dissonance surrounding it. Well, I’m going to name it.

My problem with the term “self defense” is this: it can be empowering or exploitative depending on who is wielding it and for what reasons. Learning it from two of my respected teachers in Tang Soo Do is empowering. Hearing some guy comment on a news story that girls need to learn self defense so they don’t get raped feels like victim blaming and is the opposite of empowering. Both of these things bounce around in my brain when I hear “self defense.” 

The author of Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly (the inspiration for my blathering on about self defense in the first place) perfectly distills my feelings about the goals of self defense. I don’t read many martial arts tomes, so I was surprised to run into the topic while reading about what to do with all the simmering and explosive rage that all women feel as a result of growing up socialized with sexism and misogyny. Naturally, there is a section about taking up boxing or self defense as an outlet. I was prepared for the usual advice on exercise being good for health and mood, which she gives in saying, “Studies of athletes show a strong correlation between body competence, self-esteem, and healthier anger expression.” Check. I also guessed there’d be maybe even a suggestion to take up boxing to punch and kick the anger out. She does that – sort of – but I like the way she handles it by tying sports and self defense together accomplishing the same things. She really nails the discomfort I feel about self defense being advertised as a solution for rape or bullying and instead zeroes in on what she calls “body competence:”

“In sports, you are able to develop mastery over a honed sense of the potential of aggression, with or without anger, to alter your environment as well as what professor and cultural historian Maud Lavin (the author of Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women) describes as the “sheer physical joy of exerting aggression outward instead of inward.” “

That’s what it’s all about: knowing what a punch feels like, knowing your kicking distance, knowing you can break a board or two, developing muscle memory and trained reflexes. It’s more about learning and testing your limits or potential than defeating attackers. The techniques are no guarantee against a bigger attacker who has the element of surprise, size, strength, familiarity with location, weapons and everything else going for them. Also in an attack, so much is up to luck or chance. When you are attacked, chances are you won’t be in a safe space with an instructor watching, on mats in comfy clothes, hands empty, brain anticipating someone grabbing you, and your attacker likely won’t respond to you tapping out. The idea that you can in any situation fend off and immobilize an attacker with one hand and call the police with the other is not reality. If you want fantasy, you can use your library card. Ursula Le Guin is great. You can’t control what this other person will do, but you can gain some understanding of your own body and what you are capable of, which, in turn, builds some degree of confidence.

Learning what you are capable of isn’t always just a physical thing. We have to learn to overcome our silence in many ways. In a story that hits way too close to home, Chemaly recounts the story of a Brazilian woman for whom the hardest part of self defense wasn’t the physical part, but the yelling part (Brazilian Women Can Learn to Yell). I still have trouble making our kihap in Tang Soo Do forms. As in the article, I spent 30+ years making myself as small and polite and even as unnoticeable as possible, so it’s a hard habit to unlearn. Equality in the abstract is an easy concept to grasp; actually taking up the space I deserve is an entirely different matter.

Since most stand up arts have a self defense curriculum, I get that people could think it’s an unnecessary division, but women’s classes can be a good place to learn from each other without the, at times, complicated gender/power dynamic. Despite the problematic nature of men making money off women’s self defense to combat violent misogyny in a culture where male is the default, I do believe it can be beneficial for women to commiserate and turn anger at inequality into something constructive. 

Women’s classes have value. Self defense in general has value. We just need to be clear about the objectives and about what is being sold (and about what is NOT being sold). 

Training and body competence are valuable; selling safety is a dangerous lie.

Chemaly ends with this, and I will too:

“The point is that you cultivate a strong sense of your body, its capabilities, and your use of it.”


Reprinted from my other blog, here:

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