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Why do self-defence?

Why do self-defence?

By Imogen Thomas, Professional Martial Artist and Self-Defence Trainer

I’m going to start with a very simple figure. 86%.

As far back as 1984 it was discovered that a woman had an 86% chance of avoiding rape if she applied two assertive techniques, and these could range for shouting and running, to kicking out and striking, or pretty much any form of resistance she could summon to mind at that moment of terror.

So why aren’t more women doing some form of self-defence?

I’ve been involved in self-defence and martial practice now for nearly 24 years, as a martial artist and teacher, and as a Personal Safety Trainer for the British Police for 11 years. The face of women’s self-defence is changing, slowly, but we still seem to suffer from a lot of undermining mythology. So, let’s explore this:

First up the idea that “It’s not going to work.” I get this, I do get this. It is the most commonly asked question of me by other women is “will this really work”? Yes, it will. Believe me, it is extremely easy to hurt the human body. How many times have you walked into a coffee table or a lamppost without thinking, and pretty much crumpled up in agony? So you have all that force in your power, and you still don’t think you can hurt someone if you really need to?

The question should really be why do we think it won’t work? Who exactly has told us this? We stand now at a fantastic moment as women, a moment when we can question, challenge and re-frame the normalization of male entitlement and sexual harassment. So old assumptions such as this need to be questioned.

And while we’re doing that, an even bigger question looms behind women’s self-defence. Why is it always the women who have to take responsibility and sort things out? Why do we have to in effect weaponise ourselves through constant threat awareness and potential use of force, when the objectionable behaviour is not ours?

This too is a reasonable question, but I would say that this bigger picture, though changing, will not change fast enough for some of us who will experience sexual harassment on a daily basis. We need to be safe now. But by all means keep that anger. Keep it close to you, and use it, it is a really important much underestimated power.

Anger is a natural reaction. It tells us things are wrong, and we have had restricted access to it for too long. Aggression too has been annexed to the realms of fighting for others, particularly our children. It’s the acceptable face of female violence. Even the great Sarah Connor was fighting out of maternal instinct for her son before the hero protected her from the Terminator. We are allowed to fight for our family, but not ourselves. That’s not acceptable. And we should not have to rely on a guy to do it for us either.

Even now, in this ever changing landscape, when I title myself Professional Martial Artist, men will say; “oh, I won’t pick on you then, I’ll be careful what I say” because obviously I’m a loose cannon nut job who will go off at the nearest provocation. Oddly, my male counterparts normally get nods of approval, and the usual conversation around “oh, I used to box” or some such male bonding comment. We still have a way to go.

Let’s therefore re-frame this. Yes, force will work. It benefits male culture that you should think differently. Whatever you choose, if you apply it hard and fast, it will happen. And use that righteous anger, right here, right now. Stop worrying about hurting the man, he’s trying to hurt you. Stop worrying about the law, you have the right to self-defence. Finally stop worrying about making him angry and therefore him hurting you more. This is another big myth. There is plenty of research to prove that resistance does not increase injuries to women, and some that points towards injury increase for women who submitted or merely offered verbal resistance.

But what about before hand? What can we do before the crunch moment?

The world has woken up to Threat Assessment and Situational Awareness. This is what I teach. Basically you probably do it already. For example, you don’t walk blindly into the road thinking, “well, here goes nothing”. You stop, you look, and then you go when the threat is lessened. We all threat assess pretty much every person we meet. Some of us also like to know where the exits are, how close the taxi rank is, and how fast we can get away from any situation should our radar get pinged. It’s also the part of you that no longer jogs with earphones in, and zips up your bag in public spaces, and walks the well lit route.

But let’s not mistake this for avoidant patterns. Most ideas around rape prevention have been agreed on by men. This is where the fallacy about “don’t make him angry, you’ll make it worse” comes from. So stop me if you’ve heard this before, but don’t go down to the park at night, don’t wear that skirt, don’t drink too much etc. etc. So suddenly there is a lot of stuff that we can’t do and places that women can’t go for fear that our very presence will so incense men that we will be get assaulted. Once again it’s the woman’s responsibility to make sure sexual harassment does not happen to her. You knew the risks, what were you thinking?

So we change it up. Instead of looking at what we can’t do, we look at how we can enlist help in any given situation. We look at what we can do for ourselves. I routinely practice counter -surveillance techniques if someone is uncomfortably close behind me in the street. And we must allow ourselves to see someone’s behaviours rather than being the nice girl who puts up with them, and if we instinctively don’t like them, if they make us feel unsafe, we call them out, we leave, we call the attention of others to it. Notice I say instinct. If you’ve felt something is wrong, it is. Later you will maybe understand what pinged your radar, but now you have to set boundaries, fast.

And that’s the big one. We must set boundaries. Becoming a more alert observer shows us early warning signs from a person’s body language as to what their expectations are. This is why sexist and racist language should be noted and when we can, challenged. It may not always fit into a bigger more dangerous picture, but there is a long association between acceptance and support of typical traditional gender stereotyping and male entitlement or coercive behaviour. Start asserting yourself earlier in the conversation. Stop worrying about using the word “no”. You really don’t need every man to like or even tolerate you. Never feel indebted to any man for any attention. And the one that fails to hear the word “no”? Go to the bar staff and look for their support, find another woman and enlist her help, ask for support from bystanders on public transport. A person who fails to allow you boundaries normally has none themselves, and it will get tougher to assert the longer this goes on.

So how do you get more of this assertive spirit? A report published by the Violence Against Women Network showed that women who attended a self-defence class were quicker to use verbal resistance and set boundaries. It also revealed that women were successfully using the classes as a means to deal with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following assault and gain greater body confidence, often lost after assault. They also showed less avoidant behaviours (e.g. agoraphobia) less anxiety in general, and most importantly less self-blame. It’s also a really good way to meet women who’ve had a similar experience to you, as at least 30% of women attending any martial arts or self-defence course will have suffered some form of abuse. They’ve chosen to use their anger wisely. How do I know? I’m one of them.

So, maybe you should come and enjoy a little of your own power?


Sister Courage: Training on street safety

Join us for a series of workshops that have been developed as part of the Bristol Street Harassment Project and look at reclaiming control for women in situations where harm may become present.

The first workshop starts with Situational Awareness, which trains the observer to explore the environment for points of advantage or threat. This increases confidence in the decision-making process which enables women and girls to set boundaries earlier and therefore limit harassment and abuse to a bare minimum.

The second workshop looks at developing a toolkit of de-escalation tactics through use of voice and physical presence. This assists in establishing healthy boundaries and reframing victimisation through greater recognition that responsibility for conflict and abuse is never the victim’s.

The final session is all about simple physical self-defence for those moments when conflict has become unavoidable. Rather than the traditional presentation of risk and threat on all sides which can only promote avoidance strategies, the desire here is to foster proactivity sooner, so women and girls can assert themselves before the threat level rises.

The workshops with be taking place in the Events Space at Hamilton House on:

  • Wednesday 12th December 7-830pm
  • Wednesday 19th December 7-8.30pm
  • Thursday 20th December 7-8.30pm

To find out more and to book a place on one or all of the workshops see www.facebook.com/pg/BristolStreetHarassmentProject/events


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