Women’s self-defence: myth or reality?

By Ruth Davenport

I’m prefacing this week’s Headspin with a disclaimer. I don’t want to undermine self-defence courses. I believe the philosophy is sound and I admire the positive intentions. With that said, I’m disturbed by the number of women coming out of self-defence courses in greater danger than they went in.

I’m coming at this from my perspective as an ardent–albeit delinquent–martial arts student. I can testify from personal experience that self-defence isn’t as much about the techniques as it is about gaining the confidence needed to seriously hurt someone.

I can hear the snorts from the peanut gallery now. Confidence needed to hurt someone? How stupid is that?

Not as dumb as it sounds. Women in our culture are conditioned from the time they’re little girls not to kick, not to bite, not to punch and never to be motivated by rage. The raw self-defence instinct triggered by natural adrenaline is tempered and stifled as little girls, then teenagers, then adult women learn that natural reactions to emotion get labeled as hysteria and don’t get them anywhere. Today’s "effective woman" deals with conflict and confrontation coldly and un-emotionally.

While this training may set a woman up for success in the corporate world, it leaves her vulnerable on the personal safety front. Women tell me all the time that under threat they’d scream, bite, kick and fight like a tiger if it meant the difference between personal safety and personal harm. I do not believe them. It took me a full two months of sparring practice in my tae kwon do classes before I started throwing punches with the genuine intent of making contact, and the first time I landed a kick in an opponent’s ribs, I had to stop all movement to rationalize what I had done. Five minutes of fury cannot overcome 20-plus years of conditioned pacifism.

Neither can a few hours of positive self-talk and practice on a padded attacker whose moves have been carefully choreographed to jive with the victim’s. I am alarmed by the increased level of confidence with which women emerge from these dances and trot off into the night, somehow believing that if a furry troglodyte emerged from the shadows carrying a machete and their only option for escape was to jam a thumb into said troglodyte’s eye socket and flip the eyeball into the gutter, they’d be alright. It’s likely that not many women, regardless of training, would emerge from this encounter unscathed. However, the difference is that women who haven’t taken a self-defence course are aware of their vulnerabilities. Women who are perhaps deluded as to what they’ve actually gained overestimate themselves a bit. Are they safer? No. Their sense of false security places them at greater risk of harm.

I do not advocate teaching small children to regularly bop each other every time they have a disagreement, but I wonder if there’s some way to teach girls to be more assertive about confrontation so that if the need ever arises to hurt someone in the interests of self-preservation, they can do it. Self-defence courses are a band-aid solution. Until women are taught that sometimes it’s OK to throw the sticks and stones, they’ll continue to promote this notion that personal safety begins with fists and feet–not with the mind.

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