New Times, 1987
By Debra Ryll
Model Mugging, a self-defense course for women, is widely hailed by crime prevention experts as the most effective course ever devised. For an increasing number of local graduates, it is also a cathartic, empowering, life-changing experience.
Though Model Mugging, is advertised as a self-defense course, many women derive benefits from it that far supersede the physical skills they learn. Graduates say the five-week course makes them face their greatest fears and allows deeply repressed anger to surface-a liberating process one describes as “the ultimate therapy.”
Viewing a Model Mugging graduation (the only part of the course open to non-participants) is a gut-wrenching experience. A padded “mugger,” spewing verbal abuse, throws his “victim” to the ground and simulates attempted rape. She responds with a variety of techniques, including eye strikes and full-force kicks to the head and groin, while her classmates stamp their feet and scream “NO!” “STOP!” and “KlCK!” in a frenzied chorus.
The simulation is achingly real. Members of the audience gasp and hold their breath. Some sob openly as painful personal memories are rekindled.
When the referee determines that a technical knockout (a blow which would render the mugger unconscious if he wasn’t protected by special gear) has occurred, she blows a whistle and the “victim” – flushed, panting, and victorious – steps off the mat amid wild cheers and hugs.
“You spend all your life pushing it away and running away from it. It’s like letting go of this huge weight you’ve been dragging, when you stop running.”
Model Mugging was developed 16 years ago after a state Karate champion and third-degree blackbelt was brutally raped despite her training. That incident inspired Matt Thomas, a fellow martial artist, to study the nature of violence against women and develop a defense that would work.
Thomas realized that in the martial arts, students “pull – their punches,” and rarely experience full-force contact. He understood that most women never learn to fight, and subsequently think they have no choice but submission in an assault. He found that women had to overcome a “freeze and flail” response in order to fight, and discovered that realistic muscle-memory conditioning, in an adrenalin state, was the most effective method of training.
“6000 women have graduated Model Mugging, and 28 have subsequently been attacked. Of those, two escaped by fleeing, six disabled their assailant, and twenty knocked-out their attacker.”
He armed a group of women with every no-holds-barred fighting technique he knew, padded himself for protection, and became a “model” mugger, letting women attack until their bodies knew how it felt to deliver a knock-out blow. He suffered over 40 severe injuries perfecting the technique and the protective gear.
Since then 6,000 women have graduated the Model Mugging course, and 28 have subsequently been attacked. Of those, two escaped by fleeing, six disabled their assailant, and 20 knocked-out their attacker. Scores of other graduates report using course techniques to foil attacks before they became physically violent.
“We’re socialized not to fight,” says Mary Tesoro, co-director of the San Luis Obispo Model Mugging program. “We‘re raised to think that we’re not strong enough even if we did know how to fight. The women who take this course get in touch with a part of them that’s been denied.”
According to Tesoro, whose job requires her to be a co-instructor, referee, counselor, and facilitator Model Mugging does not teach women to become aggressors or hate men. It’s a system of defense, not offense, a method of breaking the cycle of violence, stopping it before it happens.
Some women are drawn to Model Mugging for the sense of personal power it instills; others seek to be healed of prior sexual assault. For women who have been raped, the course offers the opportunity to relive the trauma and reverse the outcome.
“I felt like I was going through life with thick clothes on, never really able to feel things or be touched. Model Mugging changed that.”
According to Model Mugging literature, as many as one in three women suffer sexual assault, and it can take a lifetime for a woman to get over the emotional trauma of rape. The aftershocks include shame guilt, depression, inability to love, sexual dysfunction, alcoholism, eating disorders, insomnia, and even suicide.
Because the memory of the attack is stored in the body, verbal therapy, though helpful, cannot fully release the fear the way physically re-enacting the event and resolving it triumphantly can.
“I began having real feelings. I began coming alive was able to regain a part of my spirit that died the day I was raped.”
Many graduates say they’ve been liberated from a life crippled by fear. Confidence replaces years of mind-numbing social conditioning that tells them they are powerless, and the impact transcends all levels of their lives. “The release and healing that I see from this process cannot be duplicated by psychotherapy alone,” says Cambria therapist Sharon Rippner.
Model Mugging is designed for women of all sizes, shapes, and fitness levels. The classes include warm-up exercises, instruction, simulated muggings, and center-group sharing. “Emotionally, they are the culmination of every fearful situation you can conceive of experiencing,” says Santa Barbara graduate Lisa Moreno. Facing your worst nightmare and winning – the graduates say leads to freedom. Initially, many women are timid about kicking their assailant and even apologize involuntarily. Some run out the back door, others freeze. All are encouraged to continue, “to tum and face the fear so you won’t be running the rest of your life,” says a recent graduate.
“A padded “mugger,” spewing verbal abuse, throws his victim to the ground and simulates attempted rape.”
Repetitive attacks during the 24-hour Basic course turn women – who in many cases have never hit anyone in their entire life-into warriors. They learn that adrenaline is a healthy adjunct to fighting. They train on the ground, using their leg muscles, which are stronger than a man’s arms. They are trained to use the element of surprise, even a feign weakness until the attacker leaves himself open in an unguarded moment.
“Women’s bodies are not decorations: they are strong, they are powerful, and when violated, they can be deadly.” Geneen Roth, Author
Unlike other self-defense techniques, which rely on specific punches and stances which are rarely remembered in an actual crisis, Model Mugging teaches instinctive moves. They’re not beautiful, but they’re devastating and effective.
San Luis Obispo “mugger” Tom Elliott, a model of strength, stamina, and compassion, is an experienced martial artist who has undergone rigorous physical and psychological training for his role. He endures temperatures up to 107 degrees inside 50 pounds of armor and padding, and loses up to seven pounds of body fluids per session.
The soft-spoken Elliott, like many other Model Muggers nationwide, was motivated to participate when the trauma of sexual assault touched his life: his sister was attacked and his college girlfriend was raped.
“l saw the pain it caused-the unfairness. The conflict and women with no skills to resolve it,” he says.
At present, 35 instructors teach over 100 classes per year in locations from Boston to Honolulu, with the majority on the West Coast. Requests for courses are flooding in from all over the world.
“I’ve learned to trust myself to take risks, and to live more fully in the present moment.”
One recent graduate notices that she deals with problems more immediately – confrontations are no longer dreaded events. Single mother, Trudy Spatari, says that now she knows she can take care of herself, her fear is gone, and she feels more love for humanity in general. Another says she’s stopped seeing men as potential threats.
All three have a confidence that comes from having more than “good grace” and “luck” as protection. Most women alive today were raised to believe that they couldn’t take care of themselves, that they needed men to protect them. As the “weaker sex,” women were advised that the best defense against rape was passivity – stay calm, try to talk your way out of it-and if that fails, try crying and pleading. Model Mugging provides women with another choice besides victim.
In the words of graduate Linda Perkins, “I broke away from lifelong feelings of helplessness, invisibility, fear, distrust, anger and powerlessness. l am, for the first time in my life, at peace with myself and the universe.”
To find out more about Model Mugging’s ongoing classes or to observe a graduation, call 800-590-4687.
Debra Ryll is the Associate Editor of New Times.
Original article in New Times, 1987 – download file size is 1.28 MB
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