New Woman – February 1988

“Make My Day”

Women Who Fight Back

(And Know How To)

Record numbers of women are adapting to a violent world by muscling up and training themselves in self-defense techniques.

By Tobie J. Sullivan

You`re rushing home down a deserted street late on a moonless night. You suddenly realize a man is following you. You’ve never felt so helpless in your life. There’s little point in running in your flimsy high-heel shoes, but there’s no point in waiting to be mugged – or worse. What’s a woman to do?

That question grows more urgent with each report of yet another victim who has been beaten, raped, robbed, harassed, or simply scared out of her wits. In one survey after another, fear of crime consistently ranks among Americans’ leading concerns, and with good reason. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, estimated rapes in 1985 totaled 138,000, or 1.3 women per thousand. For the crimes of robbery and assault, female victims numbered more than 2,084,000, or 20.7 per thousand. And though women are neither murdered nor robbed more often than men, we nevertheless seem to feel more afraid. After all, until quite recently, most females have been more vulnerable to violence and less able, physically and psychologically, to fight back. That’s why those determined not to become statistics have been taking steps to protect themselves: women in record numbers are adapting to an increasingly violent world by strengthening their bodies, schooling themselves in self-defense techniques, and, as a consequence, undergoing significant changes.

Many women take courses specifically designed for self-defense; many more are running, lifting weights, and otherwise working out. Bobbi Snyder of Pittsburgh, treasurer of the 655 member National Women’s Martial Arts Federation and a karate instructor for 25 years, estimates that almost 60,000 American women are training in the martial arts. Over the last five years, her organization’s membership has more than tripled. “Women are victims because we weren’t socialized to be assertive or aggressive,” she observes. “But there’s been lots of psychological barrier-breaking. Self-defense and martial-arts training are not just mechanical – they’re growth experiences instilling confidence and self-esteem.”

Saving Yourself through Zen

A dozen barefoot, white-clad women wearing belts colored green, blue, purple, and white – women of assorted sizes, shapes, ages, races, and styles – move gracefully to the soothing tones of New Age music. Spinning and hitting, they execute ancient combinations of movements. “Keep your elbows down so you don’t expose your ribs,” instructs second-degree black-belt instructor Roberta Schine, director of the Karate School for Women in New York City.

As her students change clothes to resume their workday lives, Schine explains, “Karate is a holistic art that encompasses self-defense. But no one keeps coming just for that. There’s also the Zen aspect – the coming together of one’s physical and psychological selves, a feeling of understanding, clarity, and connection to the universe.

“Women show up in all conditions – young and athletic to older and out of shape. Things start simple and get faster and more complicated: the women learn a direct punch, then how to punch from different angles. Beginners take classes twice weekly, while intermediate students come in three or four times. Some women stay for weeks or months, but most stay for years. You lose your reflexes if you don’t keep up. Besides, it’s a social thing.”

Schine’s ten-week self-defense class is more practical than social, however, and is less concerned with technique. “A lot of self-defense is avoidance,” says Schine. “If that doesn’t work, you yell, try to defend yourself, and finally hurt your assailant. We tell students to beware, keep calm, think clearly, and assess what’s happening before making a decision. Will your attack be effective? The most important thing is to save your life, and we never put a woman down for deciding not to fight.”

In the martial arts, men and women are equal, at least theoretically, once they know the rules; size and brute strength are less important than speed, strategy, agility, and coordination. Yet, sad to say, women are not necessarily protected from harm by their theoretical knowledge – not if they’re unable, for psychological or practical reasons, to overcome their inhibitions and use their skills. “Many women trained to ward off rape knew what to do but couldn’t do it,” affirms Malkah Notman, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical School in Boston. “They froze and felt guilty afterward because they didn’t bargain with their own fear. A woman who’s aggressive at tennis may fail at self-defense, because training alone isn’t enough – taboos remain. But people can be conditioned to make that momentary shift to a fighting mode.”

Shifting to a Fighting Mode (Model Mugging Self Defense)

The best-trained female fighters can’t always make that shift, and superb martial artists may be helpless in street situations, especially if thrown to the ground (as rape victims often are). In 1971, a female black belt was brutally beaten and raped, having succumbed because she hadn’t been taught to fight from the ground and, perhaps more important, had never struck anyone full force. Martial-arts expert Matt Thomas, outraged by this inadequate training, developed Model Mugging, a unique rape self-defense course that combines modified martial arts with street-fighting techniques and exploits the fight-or-flight reflex that accompanies an adrenaline rush; primal screaming is included, because the voice is the first line of defense.

“Women change when they realize they can transform their anger into the power to respond instantaneously to assault,” says Thomas. “The course consists of a series of gradualized encounters, beginning in slow motion and increasing in intensity, so students get used to working their muscles. They learn strikes to the nose, elbow strikes, knees to the groin and head, and low kicks that are critical to use from the ground.”

Students of Model Mugging, which is based in Monterey, California, and has been taught at Harvard, Wellesley, and Stanford, are “mugged” 30 times during the 21-hour course by a “model mugger” wearing 50 pounds of protective gear. In a simulated bedroom rape scenario, for example, a “sleeping” student might gouge her attacker’s eyes and then kick him hard enough to incapacitate him for at least five minutes – long enough to escape.

Women do not graduate until they can deliver the equivalent of a knockout blow to the padded mugger. Because of what Thomas terms muscle memory, such lessons apparently last (though he does recommend that students return for four-hour refresher classes). Of 4,500 graduates, 22 actually have been assaulted; the 17 who chose to fight back knocked their opponents unconscious within five seconds or less.

Female but Not Weak

Students of the Eastern-influenced martial arts, which stress avoidance of conflict, claim that their new found physical proficiency enhances their alertness to danger and creates an aura of confidence that repels potential assailants. “The way a woman carries herself changes,” notes one martial-arts teacher. “Few martial-arts women are attacked – they’re more careful, less timid, less likely to be involved in a situation where self-defense is necessary.”

Students at the Karate School for Women seem thrilled by the changes their art has wrought. “As a child taught to repress my anger, I felt that if I unleashed it I’d kill someone,” says Lenore Jean Jones, a C.P.A. and white-belt martial-arts novice. “Now I’ve learned to respond, not repress. With karate, you learn your life is worth another’s in a life-or-death situation. It gives me a sense of self-worth.”

“It’s a wonderful release when you let loose and throw a punch, something I couldn’t do for the first forty years of my life,” offers Ann Slayden, a musician and purple-belt, or advanced-intermediate, martial artist. “I’m female, but I’m not weak!”

When Powerful Women Are Enraged

Even women who wouldn’t stoop to exercise are cultivating what Lisa Sliwa, national director of the controversial public-defense group Guardian Angels, calls “attitude”: a staunch refusal to acquiesce to their own victimization and a firm commitment to fight back, as she did in 1983 when she was attacked by three men set on rape. The tactics she advocates in her outspoken new book Attitude – Commonsense Defense for Women include biting, scratching, eye-gouging, and groin-kneeing – virtually any move that will stall an assailant long enough for his potential victim to flee.

But it isn’t always rage, revulsion, and revenge that fuel those females building their biceps and perfecting their lateral kicks. Though some insist that exploiting one’s anger is essential to fighting one’s foes, many students of self-protection, particularly the martial arts, disagree. “Self-defense can be taught with little emphasis on personal growth, but martial arts training teach discipline,” stresses Elizabeth Fodor, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a student of Aikido. “Martial arts don’t teach anger, they teach control.”

To Fight or Not to Fight?

So there you are, being followed down that dark, deserted street. Would you be better off if you were trained to fight? Opinions vary. Some warn that crash courses in self-defense, especially those offered by unqualified instructors, can do more harm than good by instilling false confidence and inspiring reckless bravado. Others maintain that retaliation against an aggressor may have a positive effect, if only a symbolic one. “Even among those who sustained injuries or loss of property, crime victims who battled their assailants were left with fewer psychological scars than those who did nothing,” writes black-belt Sliwa, “The women who fought back knew they hadn’t submitted totally, thus their self- esteem was intact.”

For women who want to learn self-defense, official advice is mixed. Department of Justice data indicates that resisting a crime or fighting back does increase the likelihood of personal injury to the victim but decreases the likelihood that the crime will be completed. According to Leonard Sipes, director of Information Services at the National Crime Prevention Council, “There is absolutely no way to determine what an offender will do as the result of a potential victim’s actions. If a woman has time to think through her choices rationally, and if she diligently keeps up with whatever training she chooses and is willing to disable her attacker, self-defense courses may prove useful. But this scenario applies to very few women. She must decide beforehand what she’s willing to do – you don’t want to leave an offender angry, you want to escape the confrontation. A slap across the face when he’s announced his intention to rape you could provoke a violent attack or allow you to escape. It’s impossible to tell.”

“Self-defense is whatever keeps you alive, and that may be to cooperate,” agrees Tamar Hosansky, cofounder of New York City’s Safety and Fitness Exchange (SAFE), which offers training programs across the country. “But it’s a fallacy to say that a woman shouldn’t fight back. It isn’t true that you won’t get hurt if you submit, and women do have choices. We tell them to trust their intuition, weigh the odds, and submit when they feel that it’s the safest thing to do.”

Says first-grade detective Ellen King of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Detective Bureau of the New York City Police Department: “We neither endorse nor condemn self-defense courses. The police cannot decide for a potential victim whether she should fight, take flight, or submit. We don’t want to adversely influence someone who believes a course can build self-confidence, make her more assertive, and increase her chances for survival, but we do object to false advertising that makes it seem a cure-all for crime. For any woman, trained in self- defense or not, whether to fight or submit is a judgment call that can be made only at the time of confrontation.” Ultimately, then, what a woman should do depends upon the woman.

About the Martial Arts

Martial arts is a generic term that encompasses approximately 100 different fighting systems, most of them Eastern in origin and based on sets of patterned movements. Jujitsu, the original martial art, was developed in sixteenth century Japan by the samurai, or warrior class, for survival in close combat. Over the next several centuries, it spawned many other systems – including Judo, Karate, Aikido, and Tae Kwon Do for fighting either bare-handed or with weapons. Today, the martial arts are also practiced for exercise, for competitive sport, and for the mental training that lends practitioners an Eastern serenity and self-knowledge.

“Philosophically, the martial arts are defensive in nature,” explains Bobbi Snyder, who teaches Okinawan-style karate. “You’re in harmony with the environment, and you’re trained to evade attacks. All the martial arts are art forms. Just as ballet tells love stories, martial arts tell war stories.”

Judo, an aggressive, weaponless sport, is based on four techniques: throws, holds, arm locks, and neck locks. Its international popularity boomed after World War II; by 1964, Judo had won a place in the Olympic games. Karate, which is similar to Kung Fu, entails hardening of the hands and feet to transform them into weapons; during a karate sparring match, punches, strikes, and kicks are pulled back before contact. In Aikido, a passive form of martial arts, force is met with avoidance; the defender uses the attacker’s loss of balance to score. Proficiency in most martial arts is indicated by the color of a player’s belt, ranging from white for beginners to black for experts.

Tobie J. Sullivan writes on a variety of subjects for national publications.


NEW WOMAN – February 1988

Original article in Make My Day – article in New Woman Magazine, Feb. 1988 – pages 50 to 53: download file size is 1.62 MB

Other Model Mugging Self Defense Articles