So you finally decide it’s time to learn
self-defense. Perhaps recent events stirred
some What if scenarios.
As you take your evening stroll or board
a plane, you fretfully wonder, Could
I take that guy? Could I escape his clutches?
What about that guy behind him?
Off you head to the nearest martial arts school or warrior woman
class. Off come the makeup and jewelry; on goes the uniform or sweat
The drills—striking, kicking and hitting the pads—are
just what the doctor ordered. Your confidence rises and your fear
recedes. Then, just when you thought you had it wired and it’s
time to deliver your first real blow against a sparring opponent
or maybe a menacing padded attacker, some unexpected force hijacks
your body and holds you back. Instead of charging in, you recoil,
cringe or maybe even cry. Your warlike kiai (martial arts shout)
or snarling “No!” is usurped by a timid, “You
want me to what?” It’s unmistakable: You feel like prey—and
it’s as infuriating as it is terrifying.
If this sounds like you, or how you imagine yourself feeling, relax.
You’re not a wimp, and you’re definitely not alone. “So
when’s the last time you struck someone in the head, drove
an elbow into a throat or kneed a groin?” I ask women to quell
their anxieties. The cringe response is natural; it’s part
of what gets re-conditioned.
We have come a long way, baby. But some things can’t always
be erased in a few punch-and-kick lessons. It takes some grubby
work to blast through fear and get those fierce survival instincts
back on line. Once unearthed, these primordial powers are potentially
lifesaving—as gracious as they are gritty.
The Perils of Socialization
Let’s face it: Few women are groomed for combat. Until recent
times, fighting back in self-defense wasn’t even on the map;
avoidance behaviors—a litany of “don’ts”—were
women’s primary form of self-protection, imprinting fear deep
into the female psyche. On the contrary, fighting back and baring
the teeth goes against the grain of feminine and cultural conditioning—a
system of rewards and punishments which, by and large, rewards women
for being pretty not fierce, courteous not confrontational, and
values looks over competence. All these factors can atrophy your
female-animal muscle. It’s precisely this pacification and
disconnect from our baser selves that fosters victimization, increasing
our vulnerability to being snared by a predator.
Now the good news: survival is hard-wired in all creatures and
human females are no exception. Just as we’re endowed with
a maternal instinct, so too are we equipped with the capacity for
aggressive self-protection—the ability, when all else fails,
to trade in our polite selves for our animal selves and save our
own pretty skins. Knowing that you too can be a dangerous creature
and not just the endangered one lies at the heart of female safety.
This attitude is essential to survival, to warding off creeps and
predators who roam the human jungle. And it embodies the true spirit
of reversal, a term which denotes turning the tables on your attacker
in a potentially lifesaving “switch.” Embracing this
attitude reminds us that our bodies, not just our hearts and minds,
are instruments of power.
Popping the Corset of Constraint
Practical self-defense is ultimately a blend of technique and fighting
spirit, strategies and instinct, skill and will (something women
possess in ample supply). It isn’t just a matter of doing,
but of undoing. To recoup your primordial other self and liberate
the fighter within, you must throw off the yoke of conditioning
and shed dangerous misconceptions that could hold you back or generate
potentially fatal hesitation.
To get your fighting heart pumping and back on line, work on purging
these myths from your psyche:
Myth of Female Defenselessness
We’ve heard it a million times: Men are the warriors and
protectors, women are the nurturers and protectees; our bodies are
too fragile, our spirits are too weak, we aren’t made of the
right stuff to fend off predators. In other words, we are helpless
in the face of an attack. Nonsense! It’s precisely these internalized “can’t
do” messages that sabotage women’s self-protective abilities,
quelling our more primitive and heroic instincts, courtesy of Mother
While we do have some disadvantages, women also
possess some unique strengths: speed,
agility, surprise, cunning, good intuition,
a lower center of gravity (excellent for balance and maintaining
a base of power) and powerful emotional reserves that can transform
petite women into formidable forces of nature. But unable to protect
ourselves? Hooey! Tell that to my student who, when accosted by
a group of thugs, made pulp out of the ringleader’s groin
and knocked his accomplice unconscious before making a getaway.
Or my friend whose slender legs immediately went into action kicking
like a madwoman when a psycho, disguised as her kitchen trash bag,
leapt up and attacked, knocking her to the tile floor. Her relentless
kicks and screams, fueled by terror, worked—her attacker fled
out the window. This, not Hollywood stunts, is real self-defense.
I’m Afraid I Don’t Have It in Me
Sure you do. This just calls for a little reversal of thinking.
Think way back to once upon a time in prehistoric days, when we
coddled our young one minute then stomped on snakes and speared
marauding bears the next. Strength and survival, not just fear,
dictated our every move; our nurturing and aggressive natures entwined
seamlessly. Thankfully, we’ve evolved: We’re less hairy
and more upright with bigger brains and better makeup, but the Beast
Woman rocks on. And she is with you all the time, lurking beneath
the modern day veneer. Recovering this ancient capacity is one of
the many benefits of self-defense training. But even without training,
when a woman’s survival or integrity is threatened, this innate
ability routinely punches in.
But I’m So Small and He’s So Big
There’s a wonderful saying: “It’s not the size
of the woman in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the
I don’t want to sugarcoat the harsh realities of being attacked,
nor the benefit of being strong and in good shape. However, size,
shape, prowess, or the fact that women have less muscle mass than
men, ultimately has little to do with survival.
When engaged in a battle for survival, fighting spirit often prevails;
will is as important as skill! The combination of resolve, willpower,
determination and fury are often our most formidable weapons. Intention
fueled by fighting spirit really is the mother of technique. It
can work like a charm, filling women with “supernatural” powers
that become their saving grace.
In her self-defense book, Attitude, Lisa Sliwa, cofounder of the
Guardian Angels, recounts her brutal attack by three “well-groomed” men
who beat then attempted to rape her in an abandoned city building.
What saved her wasn’t fancy technique but the power of will,
her uncompromising decision that “the angry man kneeling over
me was not going to rape me.” “What that day showed
me,” she wrote, “was that it isn’t your physical
strength that’s going to help you get through a violent situation.
It’s your attitude. My commitment to survival is what saved
Fear, Risk and Submission
Fighting back (or using a weapon) is always a last resort, but
it may be the only one that saves your life or integrity. Of course
it carries risks and, yes, you might get hurt. Visualize it and
become accustomed to the idea— as though being raped, beaten
or worse doesn't constitute injury?
The consequences of submitting may even be grave. Sexual assaults
can quickly escalate into life-threatening situations. Instead of
fixating on fear and succumbing to a criminal’s disingenuous
words (“Do what I say and you won’t get hurt,” for
example), you must ask yourself, “What will happen if I don’t
take immediate action and facilitate escape?”
Thankfully, research on resistance strategies has dispelled the
myth that fighting “makes things worse.” Immediate and
aggressive responses are effective. Conversely, pleading, reasoning
or appealing to a criminal or rapist’s humanity is not—the
latter being “almost universally futile,” notes Dr.
Judith Herman, author of the bestselling book Trauma and Recovery.
Tragically, the fear of injury, partially instilled through feminine
conditioning, is far more injurious to women than resisting attack,
particularly when we possess the explosive skills, tactical thinking
and fighting spirit to back it up. Good self-defense training not
only arms you with strategies and the ability to realistically assess
your situation, but it also liberates courage, and the ability to
move beyond fear.
Anyone who has been there knows: The aftermath of assault can be
devastating, resulting in nightmarish trauma that, in the words
of many survivors, “never really ends.” Whether or not
a woman fought back can make a huge difference in her recovery. “The
women who fought to the best of their abilities were not only more
likely to be successful in thwarting the rape attempt, but less
likely to suffer severe distress symptoms,” writes Herman. “By
contrast, women who submitted without a struggle were more likely
to be highly self-critical and depressed in the aftermath.”
But what’s most important is that you possess the option
to fight and are prepared in body and spirit to do so. While there’s
no substitute for good judgment in the moment, decide in advance
where you draw the line: What is non-negotiable? What is worth fighting
Changing the Face of Female Fear
All women possess the powerful inner resource of self-protection.
This instinct lies deep within us all. Unearth it. Respect it. Learn
to bring it to bear. Recouping this power is not only life saving,
but life changing. Once you own your capacity for dangerousness,
you not only become safer, you become more whole
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