Washingtonian – August 1989

Fighting Back

If Attacked,
Should a Woman Submit,
Try to Talk Her Way Out, or Fight Like Hell?

washingtonia By Sherri Dalphonse

His thick hands clench my neck, his 200-pound body straddles my waist. “I could kill you now, bitch,” he snarls, digging his fingers deeper into my skin. He jerks the pillow from beneath my head and tries to push it over my face.

“No!” I shout, shoving him upward and jabbing my fingers into his eyes. Lying on my left side, I draw back my right knee and slam my foot into his head, then his groin, then his head again. I am kicking furiously, as if my foot has taken on a life of its own. Within seconds the attacker is sprawled on the floor, motionless. I scramble to my feet and stomp on near his head (three feet away).

The audience cheers. I have just graduated from a self-defense course for women.

The most recent Justice Department National Crime Survey suggests that 8 percent of white women and 11 percent of black women are raped. But according to the book The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, when date and acquaintance rape (approximately half of all rapes) and under reporting of sexual assaults are figured in, one out of every three women in this country will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. And rapes are most frequent in the summer.

Instructor Carol Middleton brought Model Mugging to Washington in March. Working with her are “muggers” Jim Sorrentino and Tom Elliott, each dressed in 50 pounds of padding and armor.

Instructor Carol Middleton brought Model Mugging to Washington in March. Working with her are “muggers” Jim Sorrentino and Tom Elliott, each dressed in 50 pounds of padding and armor.

It was last August that I decided to take a course in self-defense. I was paying for gas at a service station on New York Avenue at 9 am on a Saturday when a man pushed me to the pavement, wrestled my wallet from my hands, and ran off. I wasn’t injured, but the incident made me realize how vulnerable I was.

I also realized how little I knew about defending myself. If someone threatened to rape me, would I be able to talk my way out? Should I tell him that I was pregnant or had AIDS? Would it discourage him to do something disgusting- vomiting was a popular suggestion or to somehow convince him I was crazy? (A friend’s mother advised her to babble in a foreign language and cluck like a chicken.) Should I carry Mace? A knife or gun?

Or should I submit to a rape attempt, so as not to risk my life? As violent crime escalates in the Washington area and more women live and travel alone, it’s no surprise that women are increasingly taking steps to protect themselves-many by enrolling in self-defense training.

“At first, only militant feminists who knew how common rape was were doing it,” says Pauline Bart, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has done a study on rape victims. “But now corporations offer it to their employees. And gyms often offer self-defense. The idea that there’s all this violence against women isn’t such a dirty little secret anymore.”

Self-defense first teaches awareness and avoidance of danger. It improves your ability to assess a situation. And it arms you with techniques to react to an attack.

“All the research I’ve seen suggests that learning karate and such is not necessarily learning self-defense,” says Leslie Wolfe, director of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington. “You have to learn how to scream bloody murder. You have to learn how to disobey. But you also have to learn when to recognize your life’s in danger and not to be foolish.”

The course I took is called Model Mugging, Matt Thomas, a West Coast martial artist, developed the program after a karate classmate had been raped; her black belt skills were useless in a street fight. The problem, says course instructor Carol Middleton, herself a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, is that martial arts don’t teach women to fight on their backs, where most women end up during an attack, using their legs, which are five times stronger than their arms. And martial-arts training doesn’t allow you to strike all vulnerable spots with full force.

Learning to Hit Hard

It is a Thursday evening in early June, and as I wait for class to start, I’m upset. Ever since I signed up for Model (as in role model) Mugging, an eighteen-year-old course brought to D.C. this March, I have worried about the training I’m to receive. After five classes, some 30 hours in all, I should be able to render an unarmed assailant unconscious in seconds.

Author Sherri Dalphonse fights off padded assailant in Washington DC Model Mugging course.

Author Sherri Dalphonse fights off padded assailant in Washington DC Model Mugging course.

But will I be capable of fighting? Except for childhood skirmishes with my brother, I’ve never hit anyone. My colleagues at work have joked about how tough I’ll become, and I wonder what male friends and dates will think of a five-foot-five, 115-pound woman who can not only protect them but knock them flat.

I discover that the twelve other women in the class share my worries, and that there are other fears as well. The more petite women think that they aren’t strong enough to fight. Some of the women, who are in their twenties and early thirties, have been physically or sexually abused, by fathers, stepfathers, ex-husbands, boyfriends, and aren’t accustomed to resisting. Many of the wives, mothers, and sisters in the room-women who have been taught to nurture men-can’t imagine summoning the anger needed to kick and punch, especially in such vulnerable areas as the eyes and groin.

We share our apprehensions in a group discussion, and learn kicks and gouges in a series of choreographed drills. Then each of us, in turn, endures the first of our practice “muggings.”

Carol Middleton frequently stops the action to correct our form. Even so, we are surprised by our own fighting spirit. By the end of this first five-hour session, a sense of camaraderie has begun to build among us.

But our anxieties aren’t easy to overcome. Women are encouraged to be passive and polite, says Crystal Hurndon, community education coordinator for the DC Rape Crisis Center. “You can get out of an attack without knowing anything about self-defense,” she says, “because your survival instincts will kick in – we all have that in us to fight back. But women grow up having that taken away. Girls aren’t encouraged to use their bodies, to defend themselves as boys do. As adult women, we have to go out and get that instinct back.”

Another reason a woman is often reluctant to fight back is the misconception that if she resists, she’ll anger her assailant and get hurt more. Some police departments traditionally have believed in a policy of nonresistance and refuse to endorse or participate in self-defense courses.

“One objection to self-defense was always that people would say that if you fought back he’d get angry and do something worse,” says Jennie McIntyre, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who has studied victims of assault. “What I found was the opposite-women who were severely hurt, it was the nature of the attacker, it was not something she did.

“Many people fail to understand that rape has little to do with sex – most rapists are already sexually involved with girlfriends or wives-but a lot to do with power. Any form of resistance, fighting back can mean evasion, deception, shouting, as well as kicking and hitting-robs the attacker of control. An assailant who loses control over the attack often gives up the fight. “I’ve seen plenty of studies that say the worst injuries are to women who were totally passive and didn’t fight back,” Middleton says. “Seventy to 80 percent of the time, a show of concerted resistance means you get out of it.

“Having said that, the next thing self-defense experts say is that every attack is different. Self-defense classes seem to be less about guarantees than about making you more aware of situations to avoid, while giving you an arsenal of weapons to deal with an attack.

“I would say very emphatically that it’s worthwhile to try to defend yourself, because the chances of avoiding a rape are quite good,” says McIntyre. “I would be just as emphatic in saying that no matter what a woman does or how hard she tries, she can’t always succeed.” While a majority of rapists are usually deterred by a show of resistance, a small percentage-Middleton says an estimated 5 percent hurt victims who scream and fight more. (Because there’s no way to tell at the time, it becomes a matter of trusting your instincts – another lesson of self-defense.) Also, says Inspector Melvin Clark of the community relations division of the D.C. police, if you’ve nowhere to escape to, you’re trapped in an elevator or parked on a deserted road, for example lighting back can be risky.

If an aggressor is armed, that also changes the response. Middleton says that only about 20 percent of rapists carry weapons. usually knives. Even in such a situation. experts don`t rule out fighting off an assailant, but they advise using caution. “Anyone would be a fool to say you should always fight,” Middleton says. “But women need to know they can tight back. You simply have to give them the tools, so they have some choices.”

Most courses also agree that if it’s just your wallet or purse the assailant is after, you should probably hand it over. Assault and rape are different.

“Bite! Elbow! Eyes! Kick!”

It’s the second Model Mugging class, and although by now I’ve been “mugged” three or four times, my heart still quickens as my turn on the mat approaches. This scenario is one we’ve practiced before: being grabbed from behind. To summon enough anger for what I’m about to do, I imagine before me the face of the man who snatched my wallet last summer.

The self-defense course Model Mugging arms women with the techniques to knock an assailant unconscious. Here, the author fights her way out of a simulated attack, while her classmates urge her with shouts of "No!" "Elbow!" "Kick!"

The self-defense course Model Mugging arms women with the techniques to knock an assailant unconscious. Here, the author fights her way out of a simulated attack, while her classmates urge her with shouts of “No!” “Elbow!” “Kick!”

Now, as the strong arms of the “mugger” wrap around my torso, my mind goes blank. But my muscles have been conditioned by the drills-we’ve kicked and gouged into the air, stomped and punched fellow classmates in slow motion. As I’m grabbed, I reflexively stomp on both his insteps, then shift my hips to the left and slam my right fist into his groin. That loosens his grip, and I swing around and knee him in the groin. After three hits, he doubles over. I grab both sides of his head and knee him in the face

For a few seconds I feel as if I have left my body and am hovering over the scene, amazed at how quickly my knee is moving-over and over it hits its target, with enough force, it seems. to go through to the back of the head.

Jim Sorrentino, a student of karate and Aikido who plays the mugger, is shielded in 50 pounds of padding and armor. If not for the custom-built suit, the women couldn’t hit with full force, which is the idea. While the blows don’t hurt Sorrentino, he is trained to judge what they would do to an unprotected man.

These repeated, realistic attacks are the essence of the course. Each time this creature charges at me, my knees buckle, my stomach twists and turns. But I don’t panic or freeze. Screams become strong shouts of “No!” Instead of being consumed by fear, I am channeling it into the strikes. I use the rush of adrenaline instead of trying to calm down, as women are often taught to do, “We don`t take the fear away,” says Sorrentino, “because we want them to learn how to fight with that fear.”

One finding of a study published in 1984 by Pauline Bart of the University of Illinois at Chicago supports the idea of preparing for attacks by acting them out. “Women who used self-defense were much less likely to be raped.” she says, “not so much because they used the techniques, but because they`d role-played situations enough to not freeze.”

Statistics on Model Mugging graduates seem to support these claims. Of the 8,000 women who have taken the course nationwide, 40 subsequently have been attacked. Twenty-eight women knocked the assailant out in seconds, and ten others disabled or disarmed the attacker and got away. Only two submitted, both of them to armed rapists. Another assertiveness weapon: yelling. I have problems screaming-when I’m in uncomfortable situations, my voice either leaves me or refuses to rise above a whisper. But by the third class, my shouts are loud and clear. Assaults are often stopped simply by verbal techniques, Middleton says, which could include shouting to attract attention.

Should you have to strike an attacker, your blows will have more power if you yell a word like “No!”

This is why, in Model Mugging you shout out your hits “Bite!” “Elbow!” “Eyes!” “Kick!” And your classmates yell along with you. Graduates have later reported that, in actual attacks, they could hear in their heads the shouting telling them to kick or go for the groin. Yelling and speaking assertively are effective because they communicate anger and resistance.

“One of the advantages of resistance,” says Bart, that too many men believe rape is no big deal, that women enjoy it. If you were actually yelling or hurting them, they might realize that this is not what you want to be doing, that you are not having a good time.”

“Go Ahead, Try It”

An important lesson of Model Mugging is to minimize the need for women to use the skills they have learned. Middleton says that hundreds of graduates have avoided confrontations with a combination of verbal techniques and confident body language.

end of fight

Author Sherri Dalphonse finishes her Model Mugging ‘s fight during 1990 course in Washington D.C.

Some studies say that muggers single out their victims, both male and female, more by body language than by clothing or physical attributes. If you walk with a firm, purposeful stride, head erect and shoulders straight, maintaining eye contact with passersby, you`re a less likely victim, these studies say. More vulnerable body language would include a hesitant stride, or eye contact with the ground-anything that helps create an intimidated presence.

A recent study by the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime focused on 41 convicted rapists, responsible for 847 rapes and more than 400 attempted rapes. One rapist would size up his victims by asking for a light. Women who fumbled in their purses and apologized for not having matches became his targets. Women who answered with “I don`t smoke” or some similar line, then walked on, he left alone.

“A lot of times men use harassment as a way of testing you out,” says the D.C. Rape Crisis Center’s Crystal Hurndon. “Self-defense helps you change how you are in your space. You’ll start walking more assertively. You’ll be more aware of your surroundings.

“As I walk to my car after class I lift my head high and straighten my shoulders, “Go ahead, try it.” I repeat to myself. The men sitting on their stoops as I pass just stare.

Fighting back, then, can simply mean a show of defiance, not necessarily actual combat. If you prefer not to fight to the knockout, or if you’re not physically able to, what else works?

There is considerable disagreement. Some self-defense instructors highly recommend what others tell you never to do. Some encourage women to hit an attacker in the face; others recommend the groin or the knees. Pleading, flailing. and other behavior that increases an assailant`s feeling of power and control are generally considered unsafe options. On the other hand, women have fooled attackers into thinking they were scared and willing to submit, then have run away at the first opportunity. Some women have discouraged attacks by acting crazy or throwing up. But none of these is foolproof.

There are tales of women who have talked their way out of attacks, quoting Bible verses or praying, telling an assailant they’re on their way to visit a dying father. Does it work to tell the rapist you are pregnant or have AIDS? “Occasionally, but not usually,” says the University of Maryland’s Jennie McIntyre. “If someone’s decided it’s something he’s going to do, he’s not that easily deterred.” Besides, adds Pauline Bart, some rapists wear condoms.

Some instructors caution that guns, Mace, and other self-defense equipment, which is often illegal, must be at the ready-and can be wrested away and used against you. “I remember back in the ’70s when different devices were popular,” says Jane Roberts Chapman, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies and editor of the journal Response to the Victimization of Women and Children. “I got one time in the mail this necklace you were supposed to use if you were attacked. Built into the pendant was this wooden-knuckles kind of device. The thought that crime could be prevented with this necklace was pretty ludicrous.”

Instead, many self-defense workshops, like the one offered by Alexandria’s municipal Office on Women, suggest using common objects as weapons: keys, a rat- tail comb, ballpoint pen, high-heel shoe, umbrella, purse or briefcase in the face. But be prepared to use them lethally poking into the throat or an eye if need be.

Other self-defense workshops drill students in hit-and-run defense: kicking the attacker’s knee (which takes  little pressure to break), scratching and clawing his face, butting his head with your own. The object is not to knock him out but to escape his grasp.

“Chances are,” says Pauline Bart of the women she studied, “if they tried three or more things – yelling, fleeing, physically resisting – they got out of it.” And, studies suggest, women who try to fight and don’t prevail, or those with self-defense training who choose to submit, suffer less emotional trauma afterward. They don’t second guess their actions later on.

“I Could Fight if I Had To”

For our fifth and final class, we have invited friends and family to watch us. This adds even more anxiety to what is already a demanding exercise. Many women cry after severe practice “muggings,” or after ones that remind them of past assaults. Verbal abuse from the “muggers” also breaks down many students. Because rape victims are often subdued by threats alone, the Model Muggers call you all manner of foul names, and threaten to kill you or your kids, to accustom you to the intimidation.

Instructor Carol Middleton brought Model Mugging to Washington in March. Working with her are “muggers” Jim Sorrentino and Tom Elliott, each dressed in 50 pounds of padding and armor.

Instructor Carol Middleton brought Model Mugging to Washington in March. Working with her are “muggers” Jim Sorrentino and Tom Elliott, each dressed in 50 pounds of padding and armor.

By the end, though, most women are crying in celebration at having confronted old memories and anxieties. The support of the group is what got me through many a rough time.

Elizabeth Ozer and professor Albert Bandura, both of Stanford University, found in a study of 43 Model Mugging graduates that they not only felt increased confidence about protecting themselves but also carried that confidence into other parts of their lives.

“This program produced a marked increase in perceived self-efficacy in women to defend themselves against assailants, to control interpersonal threats, to engage in activities, to control negative thinking,” Ozer says. “Our results indicate that empowering people with the means to exercise control over social threats serves to both protect and liberate them.”

Empowered is exactly how I feel. My friends in the audience can’t believe what I can do. That`s fair, I’d had no idea that I could fight if I had to. And so effectively. That’s not to say I’m eager to use my new found skills, or that I’m entirely confident that I can get out of every situation, because the course doesn’t cover every situation. There’s no sure way to know how a given attacker will react if I physically resist. And unless it happens, I don’t really know how I’d respond to an attack. But now I feel I have a better chance of escaping or surviving. I know I can stay calm enough to trust my instincts and decide on a course of action. Maybe I have a chance; I certainly have more choices.

One classmate tells us she’s enjoying living in D.C. now more than in the entire year she`s been here, Another has written a long letter to a father she hasn’t spoken to in years, describing her pain over his abuse. Many of my classmates describe how much more at ease they are in relationships with men, how much better they are at communicating their feelings, As for myself, I feel more relaxed about being out at night-walking to my ear or to the store. I don`t take risks; I have no false bravado. In fact, after class, thirteen women who could beat up a potential assailant still walk in twos and threes to their cars.

“I think what you might see with this or any other self-defense course that gives you skills is that you have more options,” says Ozer. “It’s blown out of proportion that if you give women these skills they’re always going to use them. This gives you more flexibility.”

“As long as you live through a rape,” says Dierdre Warren, community education specialist at the Alexandria Office on Women, “you’ve done what you have to do.”


Safe and Sound Advice

Many safety tips are common sense: asking for identification from policemen and repairmen who come to the door; leaving your first name off the mailbox and out of the phone book; carrying your keys in your hand to and from the car. There are other precautions:

  • If you live alone or with other women, have a male friend record the message on your answering machine. Don’t put your name on the recording; if you do, include two or three fictitious roommates’ names. You can also list such names on your mailbox.
  • After moving into a new residence, have the locks changed.
  • Arrange for a security inspection of your home or apartment with the community relations division of the local police department. (Not all jurisdictions offer this service.)
  • When on an elevator with a stranger, try to stand close to the control panel so you can push a button for help.
  • When riding the Metro late at night, sit in the car nearest the conductor. On a bus, sit close to the driver. While waiting at a bus stop, stand with your back to a wall to avoid being approached from behind.
  • Maintain a confident, steady walk: Step heel to toe, rather than lifting the whole foot; move naturally, swinging your left arm with your right leg. Don’t use strides that are much faster or slower than other pedestrians.
  • If you suspect you’re being followed, drive or walk to a police station, fire station, or public place, not your home.
  • If you like to jog very early in the morning or late at night, try to organize a jogging group.
  • If the car parked next to yours on your driver’s side is occupied, get in on your passenger side.
  • If your car breaks down at night, and you’re not near a phone or public place, stay with the car. Lock the doors, turn on the hazard lights, and put the hood up. You might want to carry a can of flat fix in your trunk.
  • Don’t put your first name on vanity plates.
  • If you`re in a hotel alone and a maintenance man calls to say he needs to come to the room, call the front desk for confirmation.
  • Above all, trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable on a date, excuse yourself and leave. If you have misgivings about a cabdriver or the only other person on an elevator, wait for the next taxi or elevator. Better to feel a little foolish than to endanger yourself.

Going on the Defensive

Here are some local courses developed and taught by women.

Whatever course you take, be sure the instructor discusses a range of options for given situations. “When you find someone who says, “This is what you should always do,” warns Roy Hazelwood, a supervisory special agent with the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, “that’s the person you should be worried about.”

Model Mugging (800-590-4687), while probably the most intense and comprehensive of local programs, is one of the most expensive.

The DC Rape Crisis Center (232-0789) offers, four times a year, a course by Carol Middleton that uses the principles of Model Mugging without the simulated attacks, You learn more of a kick-and-run defense: how to escape holds, not how to knock someone unconscious. The next session is in October. Fees are based on a sliding scale, from $40 to $100, although no one is turned away. There’s also a free two-hour workshop on self-defense and a two-hour workshop on confronting harassment on September 16.

Anne Arundel Community College (301-541-2307) runs a self-defense course on Mondays and Wednesdays, 1 pm to 1:50 pm, from September 5 to December 15. The class costs $47 for county residents and $84 for residents of other Maryland counties.

The Alexandria Office on Women (838-0970) presents, four times a year, a three-hour workshop that covers the myths and realities of rape and provides tips on avoiding assault. There’s a short segment on ways to escape holds or temporarily disable an attacker, The free, single-session work- shop, while not comprehensive, is a good primer. Alexandria residents are given first priority.

Other Resources The Best Defense for Women may not teach any defensive moves, but this audio tape is well worth listening to for its straightforward explanation of rape and the principles of fighting back. It’s available for $6.95 plus $1 shipping through Listen USA, 60 Arch Street, Greenwich, Connecticut 06830; 203/661-0101

Among the better books on the subject are: Her Wits About Her: Self Defense Success Stories by Women, edited by Denise Caignon and Gail Groves (Perennial Library, 1987); Stopping Rape: Successful Survival Strategies, by Pauline Bait and Patricia O’Brien (Pergamon Press, 1985); and Fear Into Anger: A Manual of Self Defense for Women, by Py Bateman (Nelson-Hall, 1978).

Besides the DC Rape Crisis Center and the Alexandria Office on Women, women’s centers in other counties also provide information on avoiding sexual assault; The Center for Women Policy Studies, 872-1770; Fair- fax Victim Assistance Network, 360-7273; Women’s Center of Noithem Virginia, 281-2657; The Sexual Assault Center at Prince George’s Hospital Center, 3414942; Montgomery County Sexual Assault Service, 649- 9420; Anne Arundel County Sexual Assault Crisis Center and Hotline, 301/280-1321; Community Crisis and Referral Center (Charles County), 301/645-8994; Howard County Sexual Assault Center, 301/964- 0504; Heartly House (Frederick County). 301/662-8800; and Sexual Assault Victims` Advocacy Service for Prince William County, 703/368-9626.


Original article in Washingtonian, August 1989 – pages 104 to 107 and 219 to 220; download file size is 4.81 MB.

Other Model Mugging Self Defense Articles