(Em)power up! 5


A good friend and training partner of mine recently posted an interesting article on his blog about perceptions of martial arts, where he recounted an amusing exchange between his girlfriend and a ‘muggle’ (i.e. a non martial artist, often characterised by their difficulty to wrap their head around the concept of paying good money to take part in classes where you essentially beat each other up for fun), and it got me thinking about the perceptions of something I’ve seen advertised a lot over the years, ‘women’s self defence’. I’ve seen a lot of people out there offering ‘women’s self defence’ in one form another, whether a regular class, or a one off or short term workshop, but what really is it?

I’m afraid to say that in a lot of cases (not all of course, but a lot), I believe it is little more than a marketing ploy, playing on people’s fears and basically taking a standard syllabus of martial arts techniques and bending them to fit some scenarios (often hot topics of recent news) that the presenter believes women worry about, selling the techniques as magic bullet answers to those scenarios. So what you end up with, is not really self defence for women at all, just some martial arts techniques wrapped around convoluted scenarios, with the marketing aimed at women.

In some cases it’s not even techniques bent to suit particular scenarios, merely a standard class that only accepts female participants. This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, depending on how good the content of the class is, as some ladies may simply feel more comfortable training with other ladies with the same goals and expectations as themselves, rather than big sweaty men slapping each other about, so an all ladies class might be just the encouragement they need to finally try out a class if they’ve been put off by the idea of a mixed class before.

One major buzzword that always seems to crop up alongside women’s self defence, and is the source of the title of this blog, is ‘Empowerment’. In fact I nearly wrote this whole article around this word, but instead decided it went hand and hand with the broader topic. Empowerment is defined in the oxford dictionary (in this context at least) as ‘The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights’, so seems a thoroughly appropriate aim for women’s self defence, to empower women to take charge of situations, not be afraid of being a victim, and gain the skills and confidence to know they can hold their own if ever they are subjected to violence. However, what I often see, is that the word is used first and foremost as a marketing point, while the perfectly valid ideal of it and the attempts to enact it, aren’t always effectively matched up.

Take this example. A self defence class or workshop is conducted where participants are shown a variety of strikes, techniques and responses to various threats, and at the end of the class someone gets padded up and plays at being an attacker, so that everyone can have a go at testing what they’ve learned. Everyone takes their turn and delivers a suitable beatdown to the attacker, and everyone goes away buzzing, feeling great about what they’ve achieved and suitably ’empowered’, safe in the knowledge that they’ve just proved they can fight back against and take down an attacker. What have they really achieved though? Did the attacker actually provide them with a truly determined and ‘realistic’ attack to deal with, or did they just take a lazy swing, or make a half-hearted grab, and let the participant go to town on them, falling down as appropriate to ‘prove’ that the material works, and make sure the defender sees the fruits of their efforts? More often than not, it’s the latter, as a truly determined attack would likely end up with half the participants getting flattened and going away deflated, thinking they’ve wasted their time or failed, which nobody trying to sell a workshop or class wants. Now this is obviously just a hypothetical example of pressure testing done wrong, there are of course also plenty of people who do it right, but it’s something I see all too often, and typically from those who make the most marketing noise about empowerment, and crosses a dangerous line between giving people valuable confidence, and convincing them they’ve achieved something that they really haven’t and giving them a potentially dangerous false sense of security.

As an extension of the above example, now imagine one of the participants of said hypothetical course is unfortunate enough to find themselves the victim of a mugging, and rather than just handing over their handbag/wallet/phone etc. and getting out of there, they remember back to that time they beat down the attacker in that self defence class a few weeks ago, and decide that they are indeed empowered, and will not back down to this scoundrel, and are going to fight back. Now maybe they catch the mugger off guard, maybe the mugger is just an opportunist and will give up at the first sight of someone fighting back, and maybe they manage to fight them off with their new found confidence and vaguely remembered combat skills. Maybe though, they find out that the techniques they pulled off against the nice person in the padded suit who fell down when they hit them, which they learned for the first time a few weeks ago and don’t quite remember properly under the stress of the threat of violence, suddenly don’t work the same way, and that this attacker doesn’t just give up when they’re meant to, and they end up getting beaten up or worse themselves, for trying to take on someone who was simply out of their league when it comes to base violence.

That is the potential result of a false sense of security brought about by prioritising ’empowerment’ over honesty. Now granted I’ve heard it said many times before that the psychological recovery of someone who fights back is often much better than that of someone who just gives up, which makes sense and is a valid point if true (I don’t know what studies or science back this up, it is merely something I’ve heard and makes sense to me), but that is more applicable in cases of people who are actively attacked, not just threatened, and the point I’m making is that a false sense of security can get one into more trouble than simply acknowledging one’s limitations and responding in sensible accordance with those limitations.

Note that in the above examples, I stopped referring to men or women, and that is simply because, going back to the original point of this article, the examples I used are equally applicable to both, in fact I actually don’t believe that ‘women’s self defence’ is really a tangible thing in the way it’s typically presented. Yes there are scenarios that are more likely to affect men or women respectively, and yes men and women may typically think and feel differently about situations, which may indeed dictate a differing response, but ultimately we are all human beings with the same potential strengths and weaknesses. So, while I think there is certainly a market for classes which address issues more likely to affect women than men, and to encourage more women to truly empower themselves, not just buy into a false notion of empowerment, I don’t think physical self defence training is the area where differentiation is needed.

For example the aforementioned women only classes may be a good introduction to training in an environment which many women may feel more comfortable in, but the limitation then is that they won’t get to try out what they’re learning against the blokes, to see if what they’re doing holds up to scrutiny against someone else. As for material aimed specifically at women, that should in my opinion be geared around the theory and mindset side of things, not the physical. Defence mindset, personal boundaries, awareness, vocalisation to name just a couple, all perfectly good topics for personal safety training aimed at anyone, and could indeed be geared around situations more likely to affect women. Magic bullet techniques to beat down the bad man, not so much.

Lets be honest, all issues of equality in perspective, on average men are typically bigger and stronger than women, there are of course plenty of exceptions, but that’s the trend, it’s not sexism to observe that, it’s just biology. At the same time, not all blokes are hulking brutes, and for those of us (myself included) of more modest frame, we face the exact same issues that come with dealing with someone bigger and stronger that women do. If you don’t train with bigger/stronger people and/or those who you are less comfortable with, then you’re setting yourself up for shock factor, and more than likely failure, if you are ever unlucky enough to find yourself in a situation where you really need to defend yourself and the attacker isn’t a pushover of your own size, and that’s true of everyone, male or female.

What this all really comes down to, as is so often the case, is honesty. Truly honest self defence training, isn’t pretty, doesn’t offer an easy feel good factor, and isn’t an overnight fix. The vast majority of physical training goals and requirements are exactly the same for everyone, and areas of differentiation in approach from one person to the next, have far more to do with respective size and strength than they do gender. You could in fact simply replace ‘women’s self defence’ with ‘kids self defence’ throughout this post and it would read virtually the same, the only difference being kids are obviously at a more significant size/strength disadvantage against an adult, and are typically more impressionable as far as the false sense of security aspect is concerned.

There are a few people out there who do manage to get the balance right between marketing and gearing material towards ladies, while still keeping the training honest, but in my experience they are few and far between. In the end I guess it’s the same issue that plagues the martial arts world across all demographics, the misguided with good marketing skills simply have an easier time selling the appealing fantasy, than the utterly honest do selling the inconvenient truth.

Now obviously I’m presenting a man’s opinion on this subject, so while I’m always open to constructive feedback from anybody on anything I write, I’d be particularly interested in feedback from any ladies who might have an opinion on this topic.


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5 thoughts on “(Em)power up!

  • Julia Surname Not Publicly Revealed

    Thank you for this truly thoughtful article.

    I took an intensive women’s self-defense course in San Francisco several years ago, which met a lot of the criteria you mention for a well-done women’s course, and I became a volunteer teaching assistant for the program. The course had a lot of emphasis on verbal boundary-setting and use of body language and voice to support the communication of a boundary. It taught a small number of fast, targeted physical techniques for a smaller person to use against a larger one, and drilled them over and over, in hopes that they could be used even in a real, highly adrenalized state (a small number of “hammers,” to use your metaphor). Women regularly write back to the organization with “success stories” having deterred or even having physically fought off real life attackers. Personally, I don’t feel that it has given me false security (I hope never to have to use any of the physical techniques, and if I ever do, my goal would be to get to safety), but I do see what you’re saying about false security being a potential concern.

    In any case, with really sad statistics about sexual assaults against women specifically, I think it is critically important that well-done women-specific courses are offered. What you mention about women being more comfortable in environment of other women cannot be underestimated, especially when exploring such emotionally-loaded topics as rape. And unfortunately, there are huge differences in the social training boys and girls get from the time we’re young, about what it means to be “polite and nice.” I could go on about this for many pages – basically, people find some assertive ways of behaving to be likable for men and consistent with leadership, but if a woman behaves in the same way, she is considered very unlikeable (if you do an internet search for Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk “Why we have too few women leaders” you’ll find more information about this). Unfortunately, the social nicety training that a woman receives throughout her lifetime can be in direct conflict with what she needs to do to set a boundary, even when her safety is at stake.

    In the past few years, many of my female friends and family members have come to me with stories of date rape, domestic violence, and other unwanted touching or boundary violation. Another friend came to me last week, with a story about a really bad date with someone who really pushed her around. She was raised in a country where women are expected to be very submissive, and was taught social behaviors that are not consistent with the ability to set safe boundaries at all. We talked for hours and found it deeply meaningful. We decided there is too much wrong with the world, and we want to do something about it. She said she will help me organize my own “women’s verbal self defense” course here in Cambridge.

    You sound really thoughtful and knowledgeable about self-defense. I’d really like to talk with you about the course I’m putting together, especially regarding resources for referring students on if they want physical training. Please email me if we could video chat or meet for coffee sometime.

  • Julie Surname Not Shared Publicly

    Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    This is a topic that is “near and dear” to my heart, and I felt it important to share that I think your post overestimates the problems that women-specific courses could have, and underestimates the value that well-run women-specific programs have.

    I took an intensive women’s self-defense course in San Francisco several years ago, which did meet a lot of the criteria you mention for a well-done women’s course. The course had a lot of emphasis on verbal boundary-setting and use of body language and voice to support the communication of a boundary. It taught a small number of fast, targeted physical techniques for a smaller person to use against a larger one, and drilled them over and over, so that they could be used even in a real, highly adrenalized state (a small number of “hammers,” to use your metaphor). Women regularly write back to the organization with “success stories” having deterred or even having physically fought off real life attackers. I was very happy with the training I received, and actually became a volunteer assistant teacher for the program.

    Personally, I don’t feel that my training has given me false security – I hope never to have to use any of the physical techniques, and if I ever do, my goal would be to get to safety. I don’t think it would usually give false security to other women either. I learned from the class surveys that over 80% of the students in the courses had been through some form of assault or abuse, and I really don’t think that feeling overconfident against an attacker is likely to be a problem. You pointed out that a little basic training does not mean a woman would be prepared to defeat a “truly determined” attacker, but I believe most men who attack women are not “truly determined” attackers… instead these men are cowards looking for an easy victim to intimidate. Studies show that women who fight back are more likely to escape an attack unharmed than those who don’t, and that sometimes a single, determined act of resistance, like shouting NO is often enough for an attacker to change his mind.

    With really sad statistics about sexual assaults against women specifically, I think it is critically important that women-specific courses are offered. What you mention about women being more comfortable in environment of other women should not be underestimated, especially when exploring such emotionally-loaded topics as rape. And unfortunately, there are huge differences in the social training boys and girls get from the time we’re young, about what it means to be “polite and nice.” I could go on about this for many pages – basically, people find some assertive ways of behaving to be likable for men and consistent with leadership, but if a woman behaves in the same way, she is considered very unlikeable (if you do an internet search for Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk “Why we have too few women leaders” you’ll find more information about this). Unfortunately, the social nicety training that a woman receives throughout her lifetime can be in direct conflict with what she needs to do to set a boundary, even when her safety is at stake.

    In the past few years, many of my female friends and family members have come to me with stories of date rape, domestic violence, and other unwanted touching or boundary violation. Another friend came to me last week, with a story about a really bad date with someone who really pushed her around. She was raised in a country where women are expected to be submissive, and was taught social behaviors that are not consistent with the ability to set safe boundaries at all. We talked for hours and found it deeply meaningful. We decided we want to take action, and she said she will help me organize my own “women’s verbal self defense” course here in Cambridge.

    You sound really thoughtful and knowledgeable about self-defense. I’d really like to talk with you about the course I’m putting together, especially regarding resources for referring students on if they want physical training. Please email me if we could video chat or meet for coffee sometime.