Sassy Magazine – July 1992

I Am Woman Hear Me Roar

Street Harassment

sassy magazine coverIt’s summer, that lovely time of year when women everywhere can’t even walk down the street without hearing some idiot make gross comments about their body parts. Street harassers used to intimidate me because I was afraid they’d hurt me. But then I took this amazing self-defense course, and now they’d better be scared of me.

The first time I was sexually harassed on the street I was 13 years old. I got in a fight with my parents at the movies and decided I’d walk home alone. Halfway there, a car full of guys leaned out their windows and shouted disgusting things at me. Exactly what they said, I don’t recall, but I do remember feeling threatened and ashamed in a way I had never felt before.

By the time I was 15, I got used to men honking their horns at me, and I suppressed that defiled feeling. In fact, I felt vaguely flattered. I wanted to be attractive to boys, and if people were noticing me on the streets, that must be a good sign, right? When I was 17, I had a summer job in New York City to make money for my first year of college. One day when riding an extremely crowded and hot subway during rush hour, an old man pressed up against me in a beyond repulsive way. I was totally inexperienced sexually, and this was the first time anyone had rubbed his penis against me. I tried to move away from him, but there was nowhere to go. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed, because I was ashamed. The thought of challenging him did not even cross my mind. When I told my mother, she told me I should be careful about what I wore. (I had been wearing a white tank top and a long, flowing, floral skirt.) She was hinting that I had asked for it.

street harassmentBoyfriends have been as unsympathetic as my mom was that day. I went to see Sound garden play with one ex-boyfriend, and this guy squeezed my ass. I wanted my ex to react somehow, to yell at the offender or at least to commiserate with me. But he just shrugged his shoulders like I was overreacting. Ex-boyfriend, I am still pissed off at you for this. If you had to live life as a girl for a while you would know I wasn’t overreacting. It got so bad last summer that I started keeping a street harassment diary, portions of which I’ve included here.

May 13, 1991: I’m on my way to work its 80 degrees, the first really hot day, and I’m wearing white jeans, a black Lycra T-shirt and no makeup. Three construction workers look me up and down and stop me. “You dropped something,” one says, “your phone number.” They start snickering.

May 20: It’s 4:10 PM, at work I’m wearing a loose floral mini dress over black leggings, with a black cardigan over that. A messenger begins walking close to me as he exits the reception area at the Sassy offices. “Sexy mama,” he says. I turn around and stare at him balefully, trying to intimidate him. “Do you want to go out?” he asks. As if.

May 21: It’s 9:00 AM, and I’m on 7th Avenue, wearing leggings and a jean jacket. A guy leans out of his truck. Leers and yells, “Good morning!” Excuse me, unless I know you, that counts as street harassment. Then at 2:00, right outside my building, a guy eating an ice cream cone stares at my crotch.

August 10: A cab picks me up at the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street. I am wearing a black trapeze top and miniskirt. The youngish cab driver says: “I went through a red light to pick you up because you are pretty. I would very much like to have a cup of coffee with you.” I just laugh, which is the accepted female reflex, even though I’m planning on dating him maybe when hell freezes over. He persists all the way downtown. “Have a cup of coffee, have a cup of coffee.” I tell him I have a boyfriend. “He doesn’t have to know,” he says.

August 30: I am yawning as I order my morning bagel. I’m wearing a short- sleeved cotton dress. The guy behind the counter says: “I see a yawn. Can I see a smile?” I laugh, and then am pissed that I did. That night I’m going home on the subway. I’m exhausted. “Beautiful,” says a lecherous young guy as I walk by him toward the N train. “Ugly,” says his friend, who passes me a few seconds later.

September 11: All in the space of five minutes: As I’m coming out of Grand Central Station, a man in some kind of worker’s uniform says: “You have beautiful legs. Do you know that?” I stare straight ahead. On the corner, a paunchy middle aged man in a gray suit stares at me in a very unsavory way. Up the block. two guys working in a garage leer at me and say, “Look at that.” I am wearing a black jacket and a black miniskirt.

September 12: Walking down the hall to the bathroom, I encounter a short, stocky, hairy messenger wearing a T-shirt that says “Big Tits Never Hurt Anyone.” Andrea T. agrees that this counts as sexual harassment because it made me uncomfortable.

September 22: I am at this street fair in NYC, with my boyfriend and his parents. I wander away from them, past a guy working a game where you throw balls to knock down bowling pins. “Wanna play with my balls?” he asks. My boyfriend infuriates me by not reacting strongly enough when I tell him what he said.

October 8: As I enter my apartment building, a man on the street screams, “Let me suck on your clitoris!”

November 2: My mother and I are on our way back to the parking garage after seeing a Broadway play. These guys walking behind us start saying all this stuff, like, “You have a sexy daughter, do you know that?” We walk as fast as possible until we lose them and are safely in the garage.

February 20, 1992: I’m at the YMCA, swimming laps in a black tank, bathing cap and goggles. Suddenly I feel someone grab my ass and squeeze it. I look over and see a man pass me on the other side of the lane. I get out and tell the lifeguard. “Do you have a problem?” he asks the butt-squeezer. “No,” says the man. “She says you grabbed her ass,” says the lifeguard. “No, I didn’t,” says the man. “Yeah, you did,” I say indignantly. “Well,” he says, “if I did, it was an accident.” I storm off, embarrassed and confused because everyone is looking at me and smirking. I even begin to doubt that he did it on purpose.

March 17: The subway downtown from the St. Patrick’s Day parade is packed. As I get on, a man in a trench coat grabs my ass, right in front of two transit cops. I turn around and glare at him. He just looks really amused and invincible. I’m filled with rage, but I don’t know what to do.

April 16: I go across the Street from our office to get tea. Another middle-aged gray-suit wearer stands behind me while I’m making the tea. Singing, of all things, the Mr. Rogers theme song: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood, won’t you be mine?” He then stands behind me at the cashier, singing the song practically in my ear.

THE WORST THING ABOUT STREET HARASSMENT IS THAT it makes me feel so vulnerable. The possibility that any one of these guys might decide to attack me is scary. And as defenseless as I feel when I get verbally harassed, I know I’d be even more scared if I were ever attacked physically.

I started getting mail from this place called Model Mugging a couple of years ago. The name made we wonder, is this a course for models who have been mugged or something? But it’s not. It’s a self-defense technique that was developed especially for women. After a female black belt martial artist was raped in 1972 (1971), a colleague named Matt Thomas was inspired to design a course that specifically teaches women how to fight back He started Model Mugging, which is so named because self-defense techniques are learned by fighting full force against an instructor representing a mugger. A lot of the women who take it have been raped or assaulted, but many just want to be able to defend themselves in case of attack.

The course is now taught by 22 Model Mugging affiliates all over the world. The New York City chapter is called Resources for Personal Empowerment. Empowerment is a big part of the 25-hour Model Mugging Self Defense Basics course that I decided to take, which costs $495 for five five-hour classes over a two-week period. I was really into the concept of empowering myself, despite the daggy connotations of the word. Not only did I want to feel stronger than the lame-ass harassers, my self-esteem was lacking just a tad. So I enrolled, hoping for nothing less than a life-changing experience.

Session #1: I arrived at the fifth-floor gym of a public elementary school in Manhattan, carrying my new Nike Airs, a huge bottle of Evian, trail mix and bananas, all of which we were told to bring. I was the first student to arrive. A pretty blond named Erika introduced herself as the primary instructor. Cindy, the instructor who would portray the mugger, had her long hair in a braid. Cathy, the assistant instructor, had the efficiency and muscle tone of a gym teacher. Jennifer and Tami, the young class assistants, were recent graduates. They all seemed really sensitive and sincere.

I was supplied with a name tag and knee and elbow pads, and I put them on as I watched the other 12 members of my class file in. When everyone was set up, Erika told us to pick a partner — called a “buddy” — and talk about why we wanted to take the class. “Share whatever feels relevant,” Erika said. I told my buddy about my street harassment experiences, and she told me that she had recently moved to New York City and felt very threatened here.

Erika stressed that it was important for us to take emotional risks in the class. “Tears are really welcome,” she said. Then she told us that anything that was said by others was not to leave the room. To promise that we would not betray that confidence, we got in a circle and made eye contact with one another — what’s called an eye circle.

Erika then asked us to split up into buddies again to learn the protective stance. That is how you stand during a fight or if you feel you are about to be attacked: feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, your weight on the balls of your feet. That way you are stable and won’t fall over if someone shoves you. You are also supposed to hold your upper arms against your sides, bent, with your forearms and palms in front of your breasts; this protects your vital organs.

fighting back images

Knockout blow to the head the class.

Erika also showed us some basic fighting techniques. For the eye strike, you make one of your hands into a little beak and poke your mugger’s eye with a sudden, forceful motion that comes from the hips. Most important, you have to yell “Eyes!” as you do it. This makes your strikes more powerful, keeps you from holding your breath and intimidates your mugger. She taught us to yell from way down in our guts, so the tone would be deeper. We also learned the elbow strike, which you use to target the face or neck if you are grabbed from behind, yelling “Elbow!”; the knee to the groin, in which, of course, you go for the testicles, yelling, “Groin!”; the knee to the head, in which you grab the mugger’s head and smack it over your knee, yelling “Head!”; and the side thrust kick, a very powerful technique done from the ground while yelling “Kick!” Model Mugging maintains that most women are thrown to the ground when attacked, so the side thrust kick is very important. We did all of these techniques over and over, to program them into our bodies so they would become automatic if we were mugged.

Then they separated us into drill teams and taught us choreographed sequences of strikes designed to knock out the mugger. Once he had been knocked out, we were supposed to immediately get up, get into the protective stance, look around for any other muggers, yelling “Look!”; check to see that he was really knocked out, yelling “Assess!”; stomp our foot, yelling “No!”; and then run to safety, yelling “911!” This finishes the fight and reminds you to immediately get home or to call the police.

Finally it was time for our first practice on an opponent. Cindy donned what looked like a space suit, and carried a huge helmet. She explained to us that she was very well padded and we would not be able to hurt her, so we should fight as hard as we could:

“While I have the helmet on, I am not your friend, I am the mugger. I want to hurt you.” In the suit, Cindy was depersonalized and believable as a mugger. Erika explained that we should yell (Groin!! Head!! etc.) with each of our classmates during their fights. The muggings were videotaped so the instructors could view them later and see where each of us needed help. I felt really nervous before my turn, because I’m not that good at learning sports and I hate doing them in front of people. But I think I did okay. I knocked out the mugger, as did everyone in the class.

The mugger did not let us go until she had felt a blow strong enough to knock someone out. At the end of the session, we did another eye circle to reestablish the difference between Cindy and the mugger. Then Erika distributed folders and handouts, which we were supposed to bring to each class. She told us to practice the physical techniques, and do visualizations of ourselves doing the techniques. I went home and collapsed in bed.

Session #2: Still exhausted from the night before, I stayed home from work and read the handouts. One explained that it was very important to make it to every class, even if we were sick. “It’s a gift to know that you can fight when not feeling well.” It also suggested that we explain to our significant others that we were going through an emotionally and physically intensive program and would need their support.

At the class, Erika warmed us up and reviewed all the techniques very thoroughly. We also did a lot of drills. We learned what are called “reversals.” These are rape scenarios where the fighter reverses the situation of being a victim into being a fighter to knock the mugger out. First we all laid flat on our backs, with our bodies relaxed and our minds active. When Erika yelled “Strike!” we were supposed to get right up into a side thrust kick or an eye strike. This was to teach us to go from 0 to 100 percent in a split second and take the mugger by surprise. We learned that no matter how in control the mugger seems to be, there will always be an opening for the woman if she just trusts her instincts and waits.

Erika said the day’s theme was protections, or defense mechanisms, behaviors (like overeating, drinking, temper tantrums) people use to protect themselves from stressful situations. Protections are developed in childhood, but as an adult they can be crippling. Erika told us to each take a new buddy and talk about what protections we used. I confessed that I “leave my body” — i.e., space out and start daydreaming—when I’m in a situation I don’t like. This is very dangerous. If I left my body when I was mugged, I would be completely without defense.

We got in line for the reversals. The scenarios were really realistic and painful to watch. One of the girls who had been raped as a child was sobbing after her turn, and a couple of us cried with her. When it was my turn, Erika asked me what I wanted to work on. “Not leaving my body,” I said. Erika brought me to the mat, and I lay down and closed my eyes as if I were sleeping. The mugger got on top of me, and I squeezed my eyes shut and froze. I couldn’t think of what to do. “Open your eyes, Christina!” Erika yelled. “Stay present! Use your voice!” Finally I remembered “Bite!” “Elbow!” “Eyes!” and was able to knock out the mugger. After I finished, Erika said, “We’re going to give Christina a chance to do that again.” I was a little more effective the second time, but I felt like a loser for having to do it twice. Cathy was very supportive, though, and when we did the drills the next time, I felt like she was putting extra effort into helping me learn the techniques.

At the end of the class, Erika gave us our assignments. We were supposed to read handouts and a manual we’d been given on avoiding assault that teaches verbal techniques for defusing an assailant. The handouts were particularly relevant to me: “The Opponent Within” was about how self-criticism keeps you from learning, and “Stored Pain” discussed how repressed painful feelings are bad for your health, and the only way to get rid of them is to re-experience them.

look assess

Look! Assess! No! 911!

Session #3: We immediately went into the circle, and Erika and Cindy introduced Janusz, who was the guest mugger. He was there so we could experience a different energy and also to give Cindy a break. “You are all getting more powerful and my body can’t take that many blows,” she explained.

For the first reversal, my mugger was a real psycho. He kept turning me over from side to side. “Do you know what is happening to you?” he said creepily. I was silent. “Answer the mugger,” Erika coached me. “No,” I said to him. “How old are you?” he asked. “30,” I said. “You are 30 years old and you don’t know what is happening to you? What sign are you?” he asked. “Virgo,” I said. “Good,” he said. “I never had a Virgo.” All this time I was worried that I should be doing an eye strike or something, but it didn’t feel right. Finally, he began traveling down my legs and I went into a side thrust kick and knocked him out in short order.

Back in the circle, Erika talked about how women fight much more powerfully when they use their emotions. She asked us to get with a buddy and discuss what emotion we would like to tap into. I said that since my father got cancer and died two years ago, I have been carrying around a lot of grief. I decided I’d use that. But when my turn came, I dissolved into tears and was not that effective in using my emotion to fight more powerfully. After finishing, I went to the end of the line and cried on Cathy’s shoulder. “I want to give Christina another chance,” Erika said. “She seems to be feeling something that could be very powerful for her.” My second fight was more focused.

At this session, we also did what are called “custom conversation” scenarios, in which you’re allowed to tailor a mugging to whatever you wanted to work on. You could: I) Repeat an event from your life, and change it around so you are the victor; 2) Imagine a situation that is especially frightening to you; 3) Imagine a fight against something metaphorical, like the part of you that says you aren’t good enough.

My scenario involved a street harasser attacking me. I walked down the street and the mugger started verbally abusing me. “Back off,” I said strongly, as the avoiding-assault manual had suggested. “If you get any closer I will consider this an assault.” I still felt threatened, so I gave the mugger a strong knee to the groin, followed by a knockout blow to the head. I thought I had been pretty powerful, but Erika made me do it over again because I had been the attacker; the mugger was actually planning to walk away. This time, the mugger came up to me and said, “Hey, what are you doing, trying to excite every man around?”“Back off,” I said. “Why?” he said. “Because I don’t feel comfortable with you standing this close to me,” I said. “Okay,” the mugger said, shrugging, and walked away. I felt so incredibly relieved.

Before going home, we watched the video of our last mugging. I saw that I was not as powerful as I had thought, and I got really depressed. And wouldn’t you know, that day’s handout was about how clearly seeing your fault is an essential step in the learning process.

Session #4: Erika called to ask if I’d come early to the next class so we could work on some side thrust kicks. I felt like I was the worst in the group and they weren’t going to let me graduate. But when I got to the class, Cindy made me feel so much better. “You have a lot of power that you’re afraid to use,” she said. I told her that I was just freezing up and not remembering which techniques I was supposed to use, and in what order. “Just concentrate on getting your legs between yourself and the mugger,” she said. “Your legs are your weapons. Concentrate on really kicking through your target, and really use your voice.”

During class, we learned a few new techniques, did tons and tons of drills and a lot of muggings and reversals. Everyone really supported me during my fights, and once I stopped worrying about looking stupid and concentrated on fighting more powerfully, I did much better. In the circle t tie end of class, I felt great. We were all really excited about our next and last class, our graduation. And guess what the handout was about? Commitment. It explained that the moment you definitely commit yourself to something, you virtually ensure your success.

Session #5: GRADUATION!!!

The mood was so positive when we arrived on Sunday morning. Part of the graduation was going to be in front of an audience. Recent graduates were encouraged to come, and we were supposed to invite friends and family who are really supportive of us. They would be taught to use their voices with us during the fights. My boyfriend had a “prior commitment” (band practice), but Mary Kaye and my good friends Val and Pam promised to show up. Before our guests arrived, we had time for two “private muggings,” as Erika called them. “That was the first time I saw you really kick through the head,” said Cindy after my turn. I was so happy. I had succeeded in something physical.

graduation circle model mugging

The graduation circle of bonding.

We went into a separate gym to wait while our supporters were seated. Cindy and Erika had us split into groups of four, and we were all supposed to say something positive about the other three. One of the girls said that I had improved a lot: “In the beginning you seemed really timid, and you kept your eyes shut when the mugger attacked you,” she said.

Finally we went into the other gym. Our friends cheered as we entered the room. Past graduates joined us in a circle, and we introduced ourselves. The empowerment and bonding in the room was palpable. I looked out and saw that Mary Kaye was wearing sunglasses and immediately knew she was already crying.

I was second in line for the reversals, and I knocked my assailant out with a few side thrust kicks. It was so quick that I was almost disappointed when it was over. Then, when I was standing in line waiting for my second turn, I got a surprise mugging. I was totally taken unawares and afterward couldn’t even remember what had happened. I thought I had fought the whole thing standing up, but when I saw the video later, I realized I had fought from the ground.

After the muggings, our guests congratulated us. Mary Kaye said the vibe of support in the room was overwhelming, and she literally couldn’t stop crying. She, Pam and Val all wanted to take the course. They were asked to leave after about 20 minutes, while we were treated to a yummy meal prepared by a recent graduating class. Then we got into a circle to give one another little presents called inspirationals. Tami, one of the class assistants, gave us all marbles. We were supposed to throw them into our purses, to remind us of our empowerment. Some girls gave flowers, one girl wrote a short story inspired by the class, and another made a funny video. I gave everybody endangered-species soaps from The Body Shop, so they could have nice relaxing baths.

We hugged good-bye. I felt so close to my classmates after our 25 very intense hours together. “Good surprise mugging today,” Cindy told me. “Everything came together for you in a very powerful way,” said Cathy. Their comments really meant a lot, and whenever I’m feeling vulnerable, I think about them.

MODEL MUGGING WAS ONE OF the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. It made me feel stronger and just better about myself. But, of course, my knowing how to fight isn’t going to stop people from harassing me. The other day I went out to get lunch, and I had to walk past the corner construction site. “You dropped something,” said one of the workers. I was very irritated at first that he thought he could just say that to me. But it also felt really good to know that I could knock him out if I had to. I was more powerful than he was, and he had no idea.

Sassy Magazine, July 1991

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Original article in Sassy Magazine July 1992 – pages 60 to 63, and 87; download file size is 3.54 MB.

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