Self Defense: Is It Worth Learning?

If I hadn’t studied martial arts and self-defense for many years, I doubt I’d be the person I am today. Taking karate and tai chi classes helped me to learn how to protect myself, assert myself, and be more confident. As have many other martial arts students, I became an advocate for studying it and have taught lessons to groups and individuals.

Earlier this year I taught a self-defense course for three sessions to a co-ed group of adults and kids. But I have felt the most passionate about teaching such courses for women and girls. Too many females have not acquired fighting and protective skills and modes of thinking, and I’ve wanted to help them to learn how to protect themselves.

As a point of reference, my initial reason for beginning to study karate was due to being bullied during junior high school. Eventually, the bully (a girl who was taller and heavier than I) kicked me in front of other students– and I turned around and slugged her in the neck. This was a pivotal moment in my life, and the girl never touched me again.

Learning Your Inner Strength and Courage

There have been a few times in my life since then when I had to “act tough,” and two times when I was touched inappropriately by males. I retaliated against both guys and they regretted it. I screamed at both, got one in trouble with administrators, the other I chased and watched stumble and fall to the ground. I would consider myself to be fortunate, but all the training and enduring blows strikes, and falls certainly helped to toughen me.

And that’s why I have become such a strong proponent of teaching martial arts and self-defense. I strongly advise people, especially women and girls, to take karate or other classes, to practice various techniques, and to fight if necessary. I’ve also counseled them to be careful in other ways as they conduct their lives: to avoid excessive drinking and drugging that could impair them, to cultivate a mindset of “by all means necessary” when faced with being assaulted, and being continually hyper-aware of one’s surroundings.

Learning a Different Mindset

Many people have thanked me for doing these things, but others have complained and even criticized me. The primary reasons for my being criticized are that I may be encouraging women and girls to go beyond their actual strengths, and to a lesser extent I have been accused of “victim shaming.”

This latter criticism happened a few times on Facebook when I commented on two particular pages about ways in which to fight off rapists and other assailants. I was harshly taken to task on a few occasions and I thought this was absurd. But it also got me to wonder: was I engaging in “victim-blaming”, either intentionally or unintentionally? Or was I trying to impart valuable advice? 

Very few people mean to engage in victim-blaming. You don’t want to say “She was asking for it” to a rape victim. No one ever asks for that. That kind of statement and thinking is hurtful and damaging. But I do think that I should be allowed to educate women and girls about how to avoid many (if not all) dangerous situations, and how to defend themselves. 

I’ve also had people scoff at my suggestions that if a person (or people) try to assault a woman or girl, that she should fight back in no-holds-barred ways. I’ve taught techniques such as poking an assailant in the eye with a finger or pen or keys; biting an assailant’s body parts (it could even be as graphic as biting a rapist’s private parts). I’ve discussed how to scratch, punch, kick, and pull hair roughly, and do lots of other discomforting techniques. I’ve helped some women and girls to see how this kind of street-smart fighting can protect you.

But others have told me that I am setting up victims for escalating violence, by angering attackers. Or that I am setting up victims for legal problems. And some students will gripe “Ugh, I can’t bite or scratch, that’s disgusting.” It is, but it’s better to ward off an assailant than endure a full assault, in my opinion. Yes, there is quite a bit of gray area to this topic, and it’s not pretty nor easily discussed. But I have realized that if you don’t talk about it and don’t teach about it, it doesn’t make the problems of sexual assault and physical battering go away.

Further, I’ve been scolded for telling women, especially teens and young women, that drinking alcohol is not a good idea, especially in public social settings but even if you’re one-on-one with a man, even someone you have considered to be a friend. Again I’ve been accused of “victim-blaming” for broaching this topic. But I disagree: I think it needs to be discussed and discussed in depth. I have known a few women who were raped or assaulted in other ways, and drinking was involved in most of those cases.

There is also the factor of peer pressure, and I’ve discussed this with students and strangers on social media. I’ve discussed how women and girls should feel that they have the option (most of the time) NOT to drink or engage in activities or go to places where they feel unsafe. I have told many that they should trust their instincts if they feel something is awry, and that they should become attuned to “bad vibes” and dangerous situations. Often the easiest and most effective way to avoid an assault is to get up and leave.

Why shouldn’t we teach this? Why shouldn’t we discuss it? And why do some people equate this with “victim blaming”? It bothers me as well because that attitude might lead to some women shrugging off protective thinking, and acting too passively.

Learning to Fight Back

And let’s face it, many women and girls are not taught to get tough, to fight back, and then they don’t know how to act this way. When I was a senior in college, I accompanied my friend Mindy to an on-campus self-defense session. I wasn’t sure I’d learn much there (I was already a purple belt in karate) but I was curious to see what techniques and mindsets the instructors were teaching. One of the best parts of the seminar was squaring off against a heavily padded teacher whom we were meant to punch, kick, and defend ourselves against. Most of the young women present were not able to summon up much of a fight; finally, I got up there and began slugging and striking the “assailant.” People seemed shocked, but I told them they had to exert themselves in order to learn how to react.

Mindy agreed with me but a few students told me I was being too rough, too aggressive. I was taken aback; the main instructor of the class then had to encourage the students to be even tougher than I had been. A few made an effort but most still seemed reluctant, intimidated, unsure what to do.

I believe that we need to push women and girls to be tougher, more aggressive, cannier, and street-smart. Awareness and “healthy paranoia” are important attitudes to cultivate. This has been one of my goals as far as teaching martial arts. Knowledge and preparation are tools to use, to empower; they are not intended to be modes of victim-blaming, not at all.

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