Response by Teja Van Wicklen
Let’s admit it, women’s self defense is old and tired, it can’t take care of itself, let alone anyone else. What ails it? A dependence on ancient techniques? A blind spot in society? A disconnect between teacher and student? Reluctance to go back to the drawing board? Or all of the above and more.
Two thousand years ago women’s empowerment, self-actualization and freedom of movement weren’t high on the agenda. That doesn’t explain why we are still stuck. Why aren’t female instructors doing more? And why isn’t there more of a demand? Many women are still guilty of thinking that self defense is the same as kickboxing, or that if the police would just do their job, we wouldn’t need all this crazy violent self defense talk and we could just live our lives.
With a modern overhaul women’s self defense could be a grand tool of autonomy. With kids learning from their parents, or early on in school, we could see a drastic decrease in violence against women, epidemic the world over. If we thought of self defense as a series of mental and physical tools that directly addressed the realities of crime today, we might see things change for the better.
I see a class where, through roll play, women, mothers and daughters learn the simple tells and tricks of emotionally unstable people and hardened criminals, so they can identify behavior before it becomes a problem. Students would learn that a man who insists on helping and won’t give in is disregarding their authority and that any self-respecting person responds to the word “no”. Girls would know the many ploys a criminal might use to begin a conversation, get her to share a ride, or borrow her cell so he can call himself and capture her number for a rainy day. A freshman letting loose her first weeks in college would know that no matter how good-looking a man is he may still be a predator and that although he says he knows her friend he may just be a good listener. A woman would know how to fight like a pitbull using every object in reach as a weapon should anyone ever pull a knife and try to coerce her into a car. She would know the statistics are loud and clear that once she’s in that car she’s going to a place of the criminal’s choosing and there’s very likely no coming back.
Unfortunately those who really need self defense training aren’t getting it. Women only look for answers once they’ve been attacked and need to regain a sense of autonomy as part of the healing process. Or they go to a kickboxing class for exercise and a quick infusion of empowerment. For the record, kickboxing isn’t self defense. Kicking in the air is nothing at all like kicking a man who’s fighting back. Most guys barely notice it when I kick them and I have 30 years of training and break six inches of pine with my side kick.
The study of physical movements without an understanding of context, can be dangerous. False empowerment can cause us to jump into situations we aren’t ready to handle, and a lack of understanding about the before, during and after of an emergency, can mean we get in too deep before realizing we had other options. There is so much more women can do to protect themselves and their loved ones than kick and punch. We need a four-dimensional view of self defense – the mental, emotional, temporal and then finally, pointed physical options as a last resort.
Many instructors will talk about self-defense being ninety percent mental, but that’s not what you get in class. That’s because learning to listen to your own brain whizzing away and cultivating the self awareness the enables you to fix things about yourself that get you into trouble, are much more time consuming and complex than any physical technique could ever be. And because this kind of thinking is difficult to teach, it isn’t being taught. Some of this kind of knowledge is available in sports and military endeavors – a team mentality, watching each other’s backs, understanding aggression, quick decision making in which injury or death is at stake. As such, mostly men have had access to it.
There are an infinite number of possible crime scenarios. No number of physical techniques will answer all the variations. Chess players know there are more combinations of chess pieces on a board than atoms in the universe. Crime is an ever-changing game of strategy that requires constant adaptation. And, life is even more complex. We have to learn to think, to see and to make quick, constructive decisions sometimes under intense pressure.
Women are not only smaller and weaker than their attackers, they are conditioned to react to asocial behavior, like threats, with social behavior, like kindness or self deprecation. A woman might be pregnant or responsible for multiple children. Gangs and fraternities work in teams against unsuspecting and weaker individuals. For all of these reasons women’s self defense can’t just be a different version of men’s self defense, it needs to be a different species.
In business, we find our niche first and then create the product around that niche. In architecture, we build the building for what it has to do and the people who have to live or work in the structure. We don’t build a hospital the same way we build an apartment building or a library. The very specific issues women face mean that, to increase our leverage, strength and skill in protecting ourselves, to reach the heights we need to reach to be safe in the world as it is now and to excel, women don’t just need a taller ladder than men do, we need wings.
Here are some things that are wrong with women’s self defense in general:
- Martial arts – the origin of self-defense – has been created by men out of ancient war arts often involving often antiquated weapons and/or horseback, and handed down mostly unchanged over generations. Many so called self-defense styles have failed to evolve with the times. Self defense has been retrofitted in an effort to suit the needs of modern women, but really it was built for something entirely different.
- Modern self-defense classes tend to spend a majority of time training for fair fights.
- When a man attacks a woman, it is rarely a fair fight. Fighting fair can put you at a fatal disadvantage. When Instructors do discuss or attempt to recreate unfair attacks, a number of things go wrong. They either spend a very small percentage of overall time on the complex issues, oversimplify the dangers, or extrapolate from their own situation and training and come up with answers based on the false premise of man-on-man violence or matched size violence.
- Instructors also tend to focus on altercations between people who are facing one another, rather than one blind-siding the other or using charm or the element of surprise to get into position for a crime.
- Today’s self-defense is often disconnected from everyday realities, like kids, strollers, overwork, physical handicaps, lack-of-sleep, age, illness, arthritis, depression, distraction, travel, traffic, pregnancy. Life! For reasons such as insurance premiums and convenience, self-defense is almost always practiced by people in comfortable clothing on smooth floors. No obstacles, no furniture, no cars, wind, rain or darkness. All of these things must be part of your consciousness or it will be like learning to drive by playing a video game.
- Due to the popularity of stunt-heavy Hollywood movies and sports martial arts, we often see a lot of cool, creative moves I call Finesse Techniques that are more acrobatic than practical. These techniques might work for someone somewhere under very particular circumstances, but a self defense technique you depend on to save your life should be like a good doctor – reliable as much of the time as possible.
- Self-defense is often unhealthy for our bodies, which is in direct conflict with safety, since bad health and injury put us statistically more at risk than most other things.
- Martial arts and self-defense classes are often more about following a leader than expanding our own minds. And what could be safer than seeing and understanding more? If you ever find yourself in a martial arts class – or a relationship of any kind – where you are discouraged from thinking and asking questions, don’t just get annoyed, get out.
- Most people think kicking and punching is the main aspect of self defense. In general, modern self-defense is primarily concerned with the moment of the attack and neglects the Before and After. It leaves out all the things we can do that will diminish our presence on the criminal radar and neglects the aftermath, where stress can affect us adversely and cause us to make things worse. Self defense is more about good decision-making under stress than any other single idea or physical technique.
- Self defense is about empowerment. That’s a big word these days. We all want to feel empowered to be who we want to be and to take the world by storm. But HOW we do it is important and rarely addressed. Blind or reckless empowerment can get you in trouble if you think it means being assertive out of context. Not that plenty of people aren’t better off for having learned a few moves, but I think we can do a lot better. We love to hear about the grandma who fought off an attacker who tried to take her purse, but the fact is there are hundreds of other versions of this story that went badly.
New Women’s Self Defense should…
- …have aspects of martial arts, but also psychology, sociology, health and fitness, among other things.
- … include the study of trickery, goal oriented and criminal behavior.
- … cover attacks the way they are most often perpetrated against women or whomever the class is meant to address. Men, women and children are attacked in different ways, under different circumstances.
- …be based in reality. It should take into account the kids, strollers physical handicaps and other craziness life is made up of.
- … be simple to perform and to remember. When your mind and body are under extreme stress they respond very differently than they do in a class under controlled circumstances. Time both slows down and speeds up. You freeze, you fail to hear someone right next to you calling your name, you drop things involuntarily. You’re unlikely to be able to remember, let alone execute, a series of intricate movements, even with years of practice.
- …involve strengthening muscles and improving coordination and range of motion so our bodies get stronger and work better. What point is self defense if you are your own worst enemy, daily grinding yourself into dust.
- … encourage us to think for ourselves and to question everything. An instructor should be a guide and a roll model, not a disciplinarian. A roll model should NEVER discourage us from forming ideas about our own protection.
- …cover the Before, During and After of a crime event or emergency, rather than just the During.
- …instill a healthy form of empowerment so you can be a big dog in spite of your size. You shouldn’t feel you need to bark right away. You want the space and peace of mind to sit back, watch and evaluate before making your decision. This is the essence of true empowerment. Self-defense should be a place women can draw strength from.
- …include knowledge, tools and games women can pass on to their children, for obvious reasons. Imagine a daughter who won’t give a good-looking but predatory guy a second look, or who won’t allow peer-pressure to cause her to drink or have sex when she doesn’t want to, or who will never accept a drink she didn’t see the bartender mix. Imagine a son who has the decision-making skills not to do a favor for a friend that might get him into trouble. Or a son who stands up for his female friends even if it might cause him to lose face with his peers – a son who sets standards rather than following dysfunctional ideals of manhood.
- …give us the means to practice daily in our heads or in small moments since we cant always get to a regular class. In other words self defense training should be scenario-based so it isn’t dependent solely on practicing physical techniques but on mental prowess and an understanding of situations, danger and how emergencies form. We need to cultivate the ability to extrapolate and learn from the mini dangers we experience every day.
- …be about anxiety mitigation since worry and anxiety make us more susceptible to crime. Self-defense needs to help us name our worries and fears, put them into context and then remove the unproductive ones from our daily plate. This also makes real dangers easier to identify when the worry noise isn’t so loud.
- …put Preparation in an exulted position as part of a daily routine. Preparation for the day, contingency plans, CPR training, etc. can all be made part of basic knowledge and life training.
- If the highest goal of self-defense is to learn to protect yourself and your family from
- violent crime and the threat of death or severe bodily harm, then clearly it should train and utilize mental skills above all else, since avoidance is always preferable to survival and healing after the fact. Staying out of trouble first, getting out of trouble only if the first fails.Protective Offense, The New Self DefenseLet’s take this concept of self defense even further and give it a new name. “Self defense” is how you describe to the judge why you hit him with the baseball bat. Let’s reserve it for legal matters. The “self” in self defense leaves out others we are responsible for and the word “defense” is too reactionary. What we want is something inclusive of the people who need us that is both more proactive and more powerful.Protective Offense is the term I’ve been using for about ten years now-Offense with the emphasis on “Off”. When I hear Protective Offense, I think offense for the purpose of self-defense, “Offense” as in Chess or football, seeing and thinking a few moves ahead, projecting your desired outcome and being able to map a course and make changes on the fly, being aware of patterns.When I did TaeKwonDo, in my teens and twenties, I attracted more than one drunken doofus. As it turned out, what I really needed then wasn’t a stronger side kick, but a brain. Actually, what I needed was for the guy not to be bothering me at all, but that goes more to a discussion of effecting culture. Looking back, the guy who came at me in a club when I was 19 and wouldn’t let go, was pushy, not dangerous, and by kicking him I could have escalated the situation to something physical when I would have done better by keeping my emotions at bay, smiling, telling him I needed to go to the bathroom, and then disappearing. After I pointed him out to the bouncer.My good friend Karim Hajee like to say, “Trouble doesn’t happen to us, it happens because of us.”
If strength were the only important resource we would all be out of luck. The bigger, stronger person would always win. And that isn’t the case. Things like instinct, determination, will to live and resourcefulness play a huge part in survival. In the wild, smaller animals scare off and outsmart larger, stronger ones all the time. Dealing with crap is part of life and dealing with it physically is not usually the best way. Since women are rarely stronger than men it’s a good thing we have lots of other resources to draw on. We need to get back in touch with those skills and hone them. Civilization supplies us with HGTV and heated seats, but an unfortunate side effect is that we put way too much responsibility on others for our safety and decision-making. Police, lawyers and doctors can all do their jobs better if we do our part.