We are not the damsels: Self-defense training as therapy

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Photo credit: Morgan Bright

By Hannah O. Brown

The day after Trump was elected, I signed up for a self-defense class. I felt like I needed to prepare, to be ready to stand up for myself. I also tucked away a Tupperware with some dried rice and beans. You know, just in case things went south. Preparing was my way of coping, and as a woman wading through a barrage of misogynistic words and actions from the weeks before, I felt it was particularly important to be ready.

Months later, the self-defense class finally came. I spent twelve hours of the past two weeks learning the basics from the R.A.D. program, Rape Aggression Defense, offered by my university police department. Four late nights, three hours each night with about 40 people I’d never met before. The course culminated in about half of those women fighting their way out of scenarios where men in heavy padding grabbed us from behind, pulled us to the ground and chastised us from all sides.

As someone who finds solace in kickboxing, I expected this to be an enjoyable experience. I’ve always felt strong and powerful, and I wanted to see what it felt like to not hold back. Surely, I would be a natural.

What I found in the R.A.D. program was most definitely a sense of empowerment, but I also woke up to tensions within myself that I had never noticed before. I was terrified of hurting someone. And I felt a sense of shame within myself anytime I noticed my instinctual aggressiveness.

“It became clear that as women the value of politeness often outweighs the merits of self-preservation.”

The class was not meant to be an emotional exploration, but it seemed like many women couldn’t help but revisit feelings and experiences of men oppressing and objectifying them in the past.

On the first night, one woman broke down in tears in front of the room full of strangers while telling a story about an older man who approached her while she was at work and described what he wanted to do to her in his bedroom. She was under 18. Still in high school.

When coached by the instructor on how to tell an unwanted attacker to leave, it became clear that as women the value of politeness often outweighs the merits of self-preservation.

She painted a scenario where we had a flat tire and the man helping was acting inappropriate.

“How would you tell him to leave?” she asked.

“Excuse me, I think you should leave,” one woman answered.

“I think you need to leave,” said another.

“How about: You need to leave now,” the instructor said in a stern, assertive voice.

A light bulb switched on in my mind. Whoa, you can do that? I looked around, and the faces of the women around me mimicked my own. Clearly, being assertive was not something we had been encouraged to do in the past.

But as the training progressed, we cheered each other on while slogging punches and kicking imaginary groins. We laughed about moves like the “grip and rip”(you can imagine why). And we became more and more comfortable with our tremendous physical power.

The second night was the hardest for me. We learned a move called the hammerfist, where you raise your elbow high and then pound the side of your fist into a forearm, a thigh, a face.

“Feeling like I had been carried away by my aggression was not a feeling I was used to or comfortable with.”

While practicing, the instructor grabbed my wrist, and I slammed down once, twice, three times on the pad she was wearing until she yelled, “Let go!” In the confusion of trying to execute the move correctly, I had held onto her hand, keeping her there to impale her with hammerfists instead of just trying to get away.

The moment was a small one. No one was hurt. It was a simulation where people often make mistakes. But I sat with a feeling of shame for days after. Feeling like I had been carried away by my aggression was not a feeling I was used to or comfortable with.

I started telling the story to others. My grandmother squealed with delight: “That’s my Hannah!” My brother and sister both lost it laughing on the other side of the phone. And my best friend and I started joking about hammerfisting everything in sight.

Talking through that feeling of shame helped. By the last day of the class, I was raising my boxing gloves up the air in true Rocky-style while walking into each simulation. The shame was there, but deeper beneath that was instinct and the satisfaction of feeling like I can take care of my damn self. No mace needed, no need to make passive excuses. I can be a direct and intimidating advocate for myself, and it is a completely ladylike thing for me to do.

We don’t have to be the damsels. The story of women as passive agents is primarily a socially constructed one, and with just a shift in our own mindset, we can change the narrative. This change in thinking could save us from being captured by an attacker, but it could also help us speak up at work or make our opinions known to a loved one. We as women are totally and completely capable of defending ourselves in the world, we just have to realize our power. I’m definitely waking up to mine.

For more information about the R.A.D. program, and to find courses in your area, check out this link. 

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Photo credit: Morgan Bright 


Hannah O. Brown is co-editor of The Renaissance Woman. She is also a doctoral student in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida. Hannah has a master’s in mass communications from UF as well, and has worked as a professional journalist for the past eight years. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_0_brown, or check out her website.