It is said that 3/4 of assaults on women are performed by people they knew prior to the incident. This is something I tell participants in my women’s self-defense classes. The scenario of an anonymous, malicious attacker coming at them from an alley or other remote location that women fear most is actually rare in comparison. This is a very important fact to address and should affect the way people teach self-defense for women.
More Common Assault Scenarios
So if the men are usually people that the women already know, what are the scenarios? Firstly, assault doesn’t necessarily mean an attack. An assault can be unwanted touching, like a sexual harassment situation at a night club, party or even at a workplace or at school. On the other hand, it could be more than that. Most rape situations that occur are date rapes. Another consideration is domestic violence involving a husband, boyfriend, father or brother, which is actually a very different type of situation, the scope of which I can’t really cover in this particular post. So what does this mean when it comes to teaching women’s self-defense?
First Line of Defense: Awareness
Awareness is the first line of defense. When it comes to dealing with people previously known by a woman, this can mean different things. It may mean recognizing potential miscreant behaviour in an individual like a man openly eyeing women, making demeaning comments, being very drunk or high, etc. Once a woman is aware of such behaviour, she can avoid situations in which she might come into contact with him or be alone with him, or she could report his behaviour to a bouncer, supervisor, teacher, etc. It could also mean being aware of the actions of people around you, like if a man she knows appears to be following her as she leaves a party, walks home from school, to her car after work, etc.
And even if no “warning signs” are going off, a woman should still take precautions with men she is less familiar with. A woman should not go into man’s home alone when she doesn’t know him very well. She should make sure that people know where she is when she is going on a date, what time she should be home, where she can be reached, etc. And every woman should carry a cell phone. These are just a few precautions.
Second Line of Defense: Boundaries
Once a potential threat has been identified, and a woman is unable to avoid being in contact with the man, she should set boundaries to prevent assault. If possible, the woman should keep physical distance between her and the man. If he is approaching her in a way that makes her fell threatened, she should stand in an interview stance (strong leg back, hands up, palms facing him). If he makes overt advances on her in a way that makes her uncomfortable (verbally or physically), she should tell him to back off in an assertive, non-aggressive tone. If the man persists in his advances, she should increase the strength of her tone as necessary.
Third Line of Defense: Combat
If the threat develops into an assault, the woman may escalate to physical combat as a defense. Now if it is a social situation and the assault is fairly minor (i.e. unwanted touching) and using words and an assertive tone have done nothing, a woman might choose to use a less violent combat method (i.e. sharp kick to the shin, stamping on a foot, etc). I also teach women to combine this with words to gather witnesses, yelling “No!”, “Stop!” or “Let me go!” This will usually be enough in a social situation in which other people are around.
If it is a more serious assault situation, like rape or a violent attack from a man, it makes no difference whether they know the person or not. She may use as much force as is necessarily to nullify the situation. As a woman, of course, she is justified in using more force than the attacker is using on her to make up for her lack of size or strength as compared to her attacker.
Awareness and boundary-setting are the most important skills for women to learn. They are the ones that help women keep out of trouble in the first place. Combat is nice to know and helps with confidence, but ultimately the other two skills are the ones that will be used most often.
In light of the Vancouver-area women’s self defense class I’m running this weekend, I was thinking about the different reactions to aggression in day-to-day life and how the vast majority of physical fights can be prevented with assertive conflict avoidance and de-escalation strategies.
There are 3 main ways people react to conflict. The first two I’ll discuss below are the ones most people use. They are the reactions people have when they give in to their conditioned fear-based adrenal responses in the face of aggression. The third type of response is self-aware, allowing a person to keep their head and stay in control of the situation.
1. Passive Response: This is when a person under-reacts to aggressive behaviour. The person avoids eye contact, turns the shoulders away and/or hunches over. In a woman’s case they might allow aggressor to get close and make physical advances. Verbally, the person would be saying ‘No’ to the advances or saying that they don’t want any trouble, but they do so without confidence or in an unconvincing manner. When you take on a “scared rabbit” victim-like demeanour, it confirms to the aggressor that you’re an easy victim and can bring on further physical aggression and assault.
2. Aggressive Response: This is when a person over-reacts to a situation. They display a defiant attitude. The non-verbal communication that is usually displayed is hands on hips and/or puffed chest, firmly set jaw and direct, menacing eye contact. The person might also point their finger at the aggressor in a menacing fashion. Verbally, the person would talk back to them defiantly, oftentimes swearing. Basically, the person puts on a show that they’re unwilling to back down, which fuels the fire to the point where aggressor loses face and has no choice in his or her mind but to escalate things with a violent response.
3. Assertive mode: Responding assertively means assessing a situation and responding appropriately. Every aspect of the person’s response exudes non-threatening assertiveness. They stand in what we call the “interview stance,” both knees bent with the strong leg back and the hands up with palms open for protection in a way that looks non-threatening. The person has confident body language, which includes a straight back and firm but non-menacing eye contact and tone of voice. The person keeps a safe distance while talking. The verbal response is also assertive. A woman might say to a man’s unwanted advances, “Look I’ve already told you once that I’m not interested. Go away now!” Here is an example of what a man could say to an aggressor who is accusing him of hitting on his girlfriend: “Stay back now. We can talk things over just fine from there. I was just asking her where the washroom was. I didn’t mean anything by it. Let’s just all go back to having a good night, ok?” When it comes to verbal responses, a person should modify their intensity appropriately until the person backs off, whatever the situation.
Physical defense should only be used as a last resort when avoidance and de-escalation tactics have failed. By being assertive, not passive or aggressive, you can usually keep yourself physical fights.
You don’t need a woman who has trained in martial arts for 20 years to tell you that men feel uncomfortable hitting women on the mats. They’ve been taught all their lives that hitting women is wrong, so when they find their way to my mats and are expected to strike a female partner as part of their training, even with the barest amount of contact, they are understandably reluctant. This post covers how to deal with that.
Start Off Slow
If the woman is new to martial arts training, go easy to start with until they are mentally adjusted to receiving contact. This should be done with all beginners, regardless of gender. And if you’re a beginner yourself, the level of speed and contact you use should be very light anyway until you develop a good sense of control. Then as the person progresses (and as you progress) you can increase the level of contact gradually so that the person can start to understand the effects of strikes to different areas and so they can better assist their partners with their targeting.
Don’t Coddle Her
As a woman starts getting more comfortable with contact while training, you should increase the level of contact gradually until you eventually get to a level that is comparable to what others take for the same level. This advice should be applied regardless of gender, but many men never bring up the level of contact with women because they feel uncomfortable hitting a woman with any force at all. While it may be true that you might not be able to hit a smaller woman as hard as a much bigger man, she should still get the benefits of higher intensity training that is scaled appropriately for her size as it becomes appropriate for her level. If she never gets this, she’ll be coddled and won’t become stronger at taking hits. In the worst cases, I’ve seen women with black belts that can’t even handle the barest levels of contact and as result don’t receive the same level of respect as the men of the same rank.
Advice for Women
As a woman who wants to be treated equally, be free with your encouragement to the guys. If you’re comfortable with contact, let your male training partners know that they can hit you and help them find the level of contact that you’re comfortable taking. It’s a lot easier for them to feel comfortable hitting you if you encourage them to do so. Also, if your dojo uses contact strikes to the groin, you should wear a groin protector. It hurts us too, it’s just a different kind of pain, but also men will feel a lot more comfortable hitting you down there if they know there is another layer.
Every time I teach a women’s self-defense class, inevitably one of the women will leave the class and want to show their boyfriend, husband, brother, father, male friend, etc. what they’ve learned. It is something I discourage women from doing for 3 reasons, which I’ll cover here.
1) You don’t have the element of surprise.The techniques that are taught in a women’s self-defense class, like the one I teach, are designed to make use of the element of surprise. If you tell a guy, “Grab me and I’ll show you how I can defend myself,” they’ll do exactly as you ask, but they’ll be ready to try and counter you because that’s what you asked for. A real attacker is usually looking for an easy victim. If you’re attacked, your goal in self-defense is to make it so you aren’t an easy victim. Mounting any sort of defense in combination with yelling things to make it clear you’re in need of help, is known to disrupt most attacks. Your would-be male attacker friend is just trying to stop you from defending yourself. There are no real negative consequences to his actions here, particularly, because of the next reason I’ll cover.
2) You don’t want to hurt him.In the self-defense class that I teach, I bring in male “attackers” who will grab the women and react appropriately to their strikes when they strike on target, without the women having to hit them with full power. When you try the moves on some male acquaintance though, they won’t react the same way… unless you hit him for real. But of course, you don’t want to actually hurt him, so ultimately, you’ll hold back on your strikes and he’ll keep holding on, then maybe take you down, and conclude at the end, “Well, I guess your self-defense doesn’t work.” And even worse, you might question its effectiveness too, which doesn’t help you at all as it might make you hesitate to fight back if you’re attacked.
3) You never know if you’ll have to use it on that same person.The majority of assaults on women are by a man that you already know. While it’s unlikely that your father, brother or close friend will attack you for real at some later time, there is a little less certainty beyond that. Someone you’ve recently started dating might seem okay, but until you’ve really gotten to know him, you don’t really know. That holds true for male friends that you’re only loosely acquainted with. For this reason, it’s better to keep your knowledge to yourself, so if you ever have to use it, they won’t know what to expect.
For all the above reasons, it’s really better off that you don’t try out the self-defense moves you learn from a course or martial art on men outside the training itself. Unless of course, they do something that warrants it.
Being a smaller woman, I have naturally attracted a few students who are smaller in stature. One of the things they like about training at my Vancouver Jiu-jitsu dojo is the fact that they can relate to me physically. They see me throwing and applying joint locks/ submissions on much larger people and it’s easier to imagine that they too can do these things. That being said, when you start out as a smaller individual with no martial arts experience, the challenges can seem insurmountable at first.
When starting out, bigger people usually have less trouble because what they lack in technique, they make up for using strength. Then, with practice and good instruction, they will make adjustments to eventually do it without relying on their strength (in theory). Smaller people don’t have this luxury when training with bigger people. They often struggle to perform the same techniques and naturally get frustrated when they can’t do them as easily.
What I often suggest in these cases is for smaller people to try out techniques that are more challenging on people closer to their size at first. That way they can develop the feel for the technical details (i.e. stance, footwork, weight transfer, leverage, balance, momentum, etc). Once the person develops that ‘feel’ or at least a sense of it, it then becomes easier to apply it on a bigger training partner.
And if you happen to be a smaller, struggling martial artist, fear not. It gets easier. In fact, you’ll have the advantage over the bigger students in the long run. Since you can’t rely on strength for shortcomings in technique, you will develop stronger technique in less time than it takes a person who continually uses strength to make things work.
My students come in all shapes and sizes. I have one tiny student who isn’t much bigger than an 11-year-old, despite being a fully grown adult. I also have a few very large students who are significantly taller, weigh quite a bit more, and are much stronger to boot. When we grapple, however, we all end up working together, using all different sizes of partners. Being a smaller person myself (5’4″, 130lbs), people often ask how I am able to make up for it when grappling with bigger, stronger people. Here’s how…
Develop Superior Technique
When your technique is spot-on, you use less strength and energy to shift your body or apply locks and submissions. If you’re going to grapple with people who are bigger and stronger than you, you should strive to make your technique superior to theirs. This is what helps me get the better of my bigger opponents.
Being smaller usually means you can develop your speed more easily since you don’t have as much body weight to drag around. When you can shift your body more quickly, it’s easier to prevent larger opponents from using their weight against you by staying in or shifting between optimal positions. You can also use your speed to slip into submissions and get them locked down before they can use their strength to get out of them.
Use Strength Wisely
When you do get a submission locked down, don’t fool around. Use your strength at these key times to ensure submission. If you were fast enough to get your submission locked down, your opponent is less able to rely on technique to get out. In which case, you can bet your opponent will try to use his or her strength to stop your submission, and, because he’s bigger and stronger than you, you can justify using a bit of strength to solidify your submission attempt with less risk of injuring your opponent. That being said, be careful when using strength to apply joint locks. If you use it too explosively, your opponent may not have the chance to tap out before you cause them injury.
End It Quickly
If your opponent is bigger and stronger than you, time is not on your side. The longer it takes you to end the match, the more likely you’ll eventually tire out trying to manipulate your opponent’s bigger, stronger body, especially if he has decent technique. And once you’re tired out, it’s very easy for them to get a submission in. Your goal in dealing with a larger, stronger opponent should be to try and end the match as quickly as possible, before your body gets tired and you’re less able to defend yourself.
Go forth, Davids and take on your Goliaths! Here’s a little inspiration for you to take with you. The fight between Fedor Emelianenko (6’0″, 235lbs) and Hong-Man Choi (7’2″, 330lbs). You can guess who wins…