Every woman has the right to walk down the street and feel safe, but it’s a right we still have to fight for sometimes—literally.
About a year ago, two experiences radically changed my thinking about self-defense, which is to say, they inspired me to think about it at all. The first was learning to punch and be punched. I began taking boxing classes and learned to throw a proper punch for the first time (at the age of 28). The second was becoming a volunteer on a sexual assault hotline, where for a few hours a week, I talked with women and girls who suffered violence at the hands of men.
Listening to their stories made me realize how tenuous my newfound feelings of strength were and how illusive my sense of safety. Sure I could throw a right hook within the padded confines of the gym, but if called upon to actually defend myself, would I be able to do so? Probably not, which is why I checked out five different courses that teach people, and in some cases, specifically women, to defend themselves.
Here’s what you should know about what I learned.
1. Boxing and Kickboxing
Boxing has become a trendy fitness fad over the past few years, with many of fashion’s most famous models —Adriana Lima, Karlie Kloss, Gisele Bundchen, Gigi Hadid, Joan Smalls — raving about its benefits. I started my experiment by trying out classes at CKO in Brooklyn and Overthrow in Manhattan.
The gyms offer similar setups: spare rooms with a mat on the floor and heavy bags hanging from the walls, loud music, and teachers yelling out instructions. The classes are co-ed, although often dominated by women. You will burn calories, get an intense cardio workout, and use muscles you didn’t know you had, but you won’t really learn how to fight. This is fine, unless your goal is to learn how to defend yourself.
That said, I found value, beyond pure fitness, in strapping on a pair of gloves and punching the shit out of a heavy bag. It felt cathartic and empowering, and helped me feel more comfortable letting my aggressive side fly free. Boys are raised with horseplay and risk as part of growing up, but girls are taught to avoid risk, to be careful, and to smile. Putting on boxing gloves forced me to confront the weight of these expectations. I had to grow comfortable with the idea of deliberately trying to inflict harm on another human being and resist the impulse to cower when faced with an attack. Even though the priority wasn’t on teaching self-defense, these classes made me feel stronger, more confident, and courageous — that armor is valuable.
2. Krav Maga
For my next experience, I tried out a women’s only self-defense class at Krav Maga Experts. Kelly Cutler currently spends 27 hours a week at this gym, training and learning to become an instructor. Five years ago, she was raped, and said that learning Krav has been one of the most powerful elements of her healing process.
“So many women who train here were assaulted,” Kelly said. “Learning Krav changes how you see yourself and walk around the world. It was the first time I heard, ‘you have control over your own body,’ and now I not only feel like I have the skills I need to survive, but also the confidence.”
The class taught specific moves that involved deploying our “weapons” against an attacker’s “targets.” For example, hitting someone in the chest won’t accomplish much, but no matter how big or muscular an assailant is, a palm strike to the nose hurts everyone. We mimicked the moves and then partnered up, alternating who played the aggressor and who played the intended victim.
“While sexual assault is a concern for almost all women, men don’t have that feeling,” said the instructor Tsahi Shemesh. “We specifically gear classes towards women’s needs because they face different problems than men and experience the world in a different way. We want to teach women that no matter their size or strength, they can fight back.”
Of all the classes I took, this Krav class emphasized partner work the most and I found this to be saliently helpful. Feeling the unwanted pressure of someone’s arms around me made the lesson visceral. We were not practicing in a void, and this is essential for the movements to crystallize into a form of defense.
Why? Because self-defense techniques are only useful if a woman can call on them when confronted with an attack. In the face of a threat, the brain’s circuitry causes people to freeze, which is why victims find themselves unable to breathe, much less say “stop," yell, or deliver a swift snap kick to the groin. Overcoming this impulse requires rewiring the brain’s natural, innate reflex to freeze with a new reflex — to fight. Like forming any new habit, the mantra is “practice, practice, practice.” Physical practice can be the difference between, if not life and death, acting and freezing.
3. Chinese Hawaiian Kenpo
The Chinese Hawaiian Kenpo Academy claims to offer the longest running free self-defense class for women in New York City. The studio holds classes every Tuesday evening led by Grandmaster Sifu Jack. Most of the 20 people in the class were there for the first time, and it seemed like an on-ramp of sorts for women who were interested in self-defense, but not ready to commit time or money to a dedicated course.
This session was less a self-defense class and more a venue to hear Sifu’s digressive ramblings about his life and the universe. Over the course of the 90 minutes, I learned that his mother was a ninth degree black belt, he started training in martial arts as a young boy in Hawaii, and he joined the Marine Corps at 17. His views on capitalism, political correctness and healthy eating also came up.
The few drills we did involved one person practicing a move at a time while, again, the rest of us stood idle and watched. Meanwhile, male participants from the advanced class that followed filtered in, so men were spectating the “all women” class. The class’s high point was when we each got to attack “Robert” the inflatable doll for 30 seconds at the end.
While I appreciate the impulse to offer free self-defense classes for women, the thought behind it only goes so far if the students aren’t actually learning.
4. Anti-Violence Education
My final stop was the first session of a five-part self-defense series held by The Center for Anti-Violence Education. The course is conducted by women for women and trans people on a sliding scale. It unfolds over five weeks, which is enough time to teach a spectrum of skills, reinforce learning, and set the groundwork for new muscle memory. This class was the most diverse in terms of ages and backgrounds.
The class moved fluidly between honing physical maneuvers and anchoring those moves in the larger cultural context of violence against women. We learned how to do palm strikes and knee kicks, but also discussed non-physical strategies for keeping safe.
Like the Krav Maga class, this course was all women; focused on teaching moves that didn’t require people to be physically strong, fast or experienced to execute; and emphasized reinforcement. The teachers created an atmosphere that felt safe and nurturing, and while I didn’t break a sweat, I began thinking about self-defense in a new, deeper way that was connected to the roots of violence in our society, the ways that different people are vulnerable, and how staying safe is not just about escaping in the moment, but a distinct way of moving through the world.
Does self-defense work?
Many of them women I met during this journey began taking self-defense classes after personally experiencing violence or knowing someone who did. The prospect of being assaulted can seem like a distant threat until it happens to you, or a sister or a friend. One of the questions I set out to answer was whether self-defense could actually help women protect themselves. There are plenty of skeptics out there who say fighting back is impossible, futile, or not relevant in the scenarios where sexual assault is most likely to occur.
However, research shows that self-defense training decreases the likelihood of assault and that forceful verbal and physical resistance has a proven association with rape avoidance. A report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice study found that resistance can reduce the risk of rape by more than 80 percent. Another study from the University of Oregon found that “[It] is one of the most promising interventions to prevent violence against women.”
Self-defense may not be prophylactic nor a cure for the epidemic of violence against women in America, but it is a mistake to underestimate the power of women who are willing to fight back and are equipped to do so.
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Rebecca Grant is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She writes about women's health and reproductive justice, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Vice, Newsweek, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, Mic. and others. You can follow her work at www.rebeccaggrant.com or @bekahgrant on Twitter.