Years ago, a high school classmate of mine forwarded me an email from a friend of hers listing some principles of women’s self defense. I had learned and taught in the self-defense world for several years at the time, and summoned some wisdom from my experience to write her a response. In the interest of disseminating more accurate information about assaults against women, and what women can do in response, I am posting my letter to my classmate below. On the one hand, I hope it is helpful to women (and men). On the other hand, I hope you find no use for it at all.
I was interested to receive your email about self defense strategies for women. I took a self defense class in 1993 in Boston at Impact/Model Mugging, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and in several other countries besides (Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and Israel). After 25 hours of learning verbal and physical techniques, and using them with full-impact on a padded male “assailant” (instructor), I decided to become an instructor myself. I trained for a year and a half, and taught women to fight to a knock-out against unarmed assailants, multiple assailants, and assailants with edged weapons and guns.
I agree with some of the information in your email, particularly that most attackers do not use weapons, look for someone who won’t fight back, and are deterred by a woman who puts up her hands and uses her voice to set limits (doesn’t scream; YELLS, like at a dog tearing up her flowerbeds). Some of the other stuff I found problematic. Most women do (and should) choose a hairstyle based on comfort and what suits them and their appearance, not whether they present a likely target or not. Same thing with clothing. And who can avoid going through her purse, using public restrooms, or being out in the early morning? The basic point that comes through, though—that women should be as alert and attentive as possible while out in public—is most crucial; these other details should be less important to women.
A year or so ago, a friend of mine asked me for ten key points of women’s self defense. The following is what I wrote:
The Ten Commandments of Women’s Self Defense
(in chronological order)
1. Believe that you are worth fighting for. Some women will fight for others: their spouse or their children. What happens when we’re alone? We are all worth fighting for—even when we are sick, tired, or feel bad about ourselves.
2. Decide in advance whom you’re going to fight. Sometimes situations come up which you might not expect: having to fight someone you trust, someone who is supposed to take care of you, someone you love. Decide in advance whether there are situations in which you would choose NOT to fight. An urgent situation is not the time to stand and think. Try to envision as many scenarios as you can, such as fighting against your boss, your clergyman, your male relatives, other women, or even children.
3. Have a plan. Leave yourself room for escape from every situation possible. Where are the exits? Whom can you call in an emergency? Where can you find safety?
4. You are responsible for your own feelings, not anyone else’s. Women often believe (or are told) that if they fight, they will only make the attacker mad. Think about this: What kind of person goes around attacking people? The attacker is already angry! You are not responsible for the attacker’s feelings—just your own.
5. Breathe. For women, this is often the first thing to go in an assault. The way to prevent it is to start yelling. One need not scream like in the movies; yelling works better. Yell at the attacker to stop. Yell at him to go away. Yell out a description of him if he is harassing you in a public area. If he’s a stranger, yell out that you don’t know him (especially if he is trying to make it look like a domestic dispute). Or simply yell NO! And don’t stop yelling until the fight is over.
6. Set clear boundaries. Some people do not realize when their behavior poses a threat. Others are deliberately testing us to see how far we will let them go. Even with those we love, whom we allow to get close to us, we have the right (indeed, the obligation) to set boundaries that are comfortable for us. Tell the person to stop. Tell him to go away. If he is too close, tell him to take a step back. Tell him you are uncomfortable with what he is doing. Start in your normal speaking voice. If he raises the intensity or volume of his voice in response, respond to him, matching the intensity of his voice. This is not a shouting match; you are simply standing by your boundaries. If he does not respect your request, repeat one or two phrases (e.g. “Back off!” “Go away!”) until you sound like a broken record. Eighty percent of potential assaults end with the women setting a clear verbal boundary.
7. Sound authoritative, rather than questioning. Many women talk in such a way that the pitch of their voice goes up at the end of a sentence. In a verbal confrontation, this makes you sound uncertain of what you are saying. Practice speaking in a voice that goes down at the end of the sentence. (Pretend you’re giving commands to a dog; this helps.) Then practice doing it as your voice gets louder. Your voice should communicate unflinching firmness.
8. Fight through the fear. Sometimes setting boundaries does not have the desired effect; sometimes a confrontation leads to a fight. Women who successfully win fights against assailants are not superheroes. They are ordinary women who feel just as afraid during the attack as we would. The key to coping with fear that can sometimes paralyze us is to use it in the fight. Turning that powerful emotion into fighting fuel rather than letting it shut us down can empower our fights. Use this in tandem with breathing (#5).
9. Target sensitive areas. Beating your fists on his chest like they did in the movies is a waste of time. Pinch together all five fingertips of one hand and go straight for the eyes. If he’s behind you, jab your elbow in his face or solar plexus. Ram your knee up between his legs, as if to lift him by the testicles. If he is on his knees, plant your knee in his head. If you are both on the ground, get on your side as if you are doing leg-lifts, stabilize yourself with your arms, and use your top leg to kick target areas (head and groin). In the fight, do not look at his eyes or pay any attention to what he says; just look for whatever target is easiest to hit.
10. Don’t stop fighting until the end. When is a fight over? When he flees or when he’s unconscious. (This is why the head target is so important). If he begs for mercy, yell at him to leave. After all, you were the one attacked. If he does not leave, keep fighting.
One last thing to remember is that 80% of attacks are by lone, unarmed assailants. These statistics fly in the face of many of the media’s representations of attacks. Even an assailant who uses a weapon is usually just trying to make the assault go more smoothly; he does not always plan to use it.
If I were to add an 11th point to this list, it would be the following: don’t let yourself get tied up, and don’t let yourself be transported. This is in response to the fact that some men do, indeed, try to transport a woman to a location that is safer or more convenient for the man, and invariably more dangerous for the woman. Start fighting BEFORE he gets either of these advantages.
Of course I support the idea of women taking defense courses, and the more hands-on, the better. But even from the course I taught, I know that a woman who just came to a graduation/demonstration was able to walk away with enough knowledge and determination to knock out a man who attacked her in a public park weeks later.
I could go on ad nauseum about this because it’s one of my favorite things. I just wanted to acknowledge your service to friends in forwarding your friend’s email, and add my two cents to it. It’s important, and not enough can be done to protect oneself and other women.