A couple of weekends ago, I went to SlutWalk Tampa Bay in downtown Tampa. There are quite a few legitimate criticisms of SlutWalk out there, many of which I agree with, but I went because I wanted to take part in what has become a highly visible public action against sexual assault, especially since it no longer seems like Take Back the Night is a thing.
At some point, I noticed a pair of women walking around handing out fliers and packets. I grabbed their papers and was delighted to see that the women are members of the awesomely-named Hot Ninja Defenders, a group that teaches anti-rape and self-defense techniques to women.
This is how the Hot Ninja Defenders describe themselves on Facebook:
Using the power of woman-confidence and practical street-fighting knowledge to inspire women to step out of limiting self-beliefs keeping them restrained in roles of lack of power, submissiveness and lack of self worth. This program prepares them to respond and commit to attack back in a violent situation.
Pretty fucking awesome, right?
I think a lot about self-defense, which I think is pretty standard for most women (and many men) in our society. Most women have a list of things we do, almost reflexively, to protect ourselves. I know my list includes walking with keys sticking out between my knuckles, scanning beneath my car and in the backseat before getting in, parking near street lights, etc. etc. (I no longer check every room in my house when I come home alone at night, thanks to our new adopted greyhound, whose horse-like stature belies his true nature, which is that of goofy dork-dog.)
But does any of this actually work? Or are they just behavioral talismans I perform to help me feel like I’m taking some control over my personal safety? Are there things I can do that don’t just generate a mirage of safety, but that will actually improve my chances should my fears come true?
The promise of legitimate self-defense education is what was maybe most appealing to me about the class description on the flier, which includes sections on self-defense techniques and knife and gun tactics. I read that and I was like, fuck yeah I’m taking this class.
This is how I found myself standing in that yoga studio with two dozen other women on Sunday afternoon. Most of us were young, with a few women who looked like they might have been in their late 30s. Some came from SlutWalk, some from a nearby college, some from the studio itself. Most of us had never taken a self-defense course before.
We began with a section on female empowerment exercises, led by a woman named Niki, who was like the Tony Robbins of ass-kicking. “You have the right to defend yourself,” she told us. “You have the right to fight!” I got goosebumps when she said that.
She went over a few scenarios – an attempted carjacking in a mall parking, a persistent first date who follows you home without your knowledge, having your drinks spiked at a bar – and explained the best course of action in each one. (For the record, “do whatever you can to get away,” “tell him to get out of there and call the police,” and “find a person you trust to get you to the hospital as soon as possible.”)
Then she emphasized the importance of being aware of our surroundings, of trusting our intuition and of not being afraid of being rude. Finally, she talked about personal force, which is the kind of attitude you project when you walk and move. I’ve mentioned this before on my blog, that would-be attackers will seek out potential victims who they do not think will fight back, and so lest you think I’m just making shit up, know that professional self-defense instructors say the same thing.
Next up was a brief stretching session, courtesy of the owner of the yoga studio, before we moved into the self-defense technique part of the class. This part was taught by Caroline, whose booty shorts, twinned hair knots and impressively muscular legs called to mind a go-go dancer, if the go-go dancer was capable of breaking your neck with her thighs.
With the help of one of the other instructors, she showed us how to break the grip of a would-be attacker who grabs our arm, how to deal with someone who is attempting to choke us and how to get out from beneath someone who is preparing to rape us.
We had to pair up with another member of the class to practice these moves, and my partner was a sweet girl with a nose piercing named Stef. At first, we felt rather awkward, grabbing each other’s arms and yanking or pulling each other’s wrists under our sweaty pits. At one point, we had to straddle each other to practice escaping from beneath an attacker. At that point, I nearly melted from shame. Once the initial embarrassment went away, though, we took our tasks seriously, working with each other to figure out how best to twist our bodies, to push away and to grab hold of arms.
Our final section was taught by April, a martial-arts instructor who is extensively trained in weaponry. Think of every male action movie hero you’ve ever seen, and then combine them into one person and make that person a young woman, and you have April. She showed us how to defend against someone attempting to stab us in the stomach with a knife, then how to deal with someone holding a knife against our throats. April was very adamant that we know these situations only happen if our first three lines of defense – awareness, intuition and escape – had failed. This was our last line of defense, and that it was entirely possible that we would, in her words, “buy the farm.”
Stef and I were given a piece of blunt knife-shaped metal that served as our knife, and we practiced the moves April showed us. It was deeply surreal, to see myself in the mirror as I held the fake knife up to Stef’s neck. I could honestly say that was never a position I’d ever experienced before and, barring the zombie apocalypse, I hope to never experience it again.
I’m not going into too much detail about the moves themselves in the post because they are the kinds of maneuvers you have to see another person perform, and then you have to actually do them yourself to really commit them to muscle memory. Truth be told, I feel like I would have to take a few more classes like this before I would have the kind of confidence necessary to feel as though I could successfully pull them off. I’m actually considering signing up for mixed martial-arts classes, not because I want to be a bad-ass (although that would be a nice side effect) but because I want to know more.
That said, even this one class left me feeling all sparky and energized with possibility, like I have a little extra ammunition in my arsenal. Just knowing that I have options, that I have ways to fight back…it feels like true empowerment, not that bullshit consumerism peddled in lieu of actual power. I’d strongly encourage any woman who has the opportunity to take a class like this. Odds are good that we may never need to use these kinds of skills, but it never hurts to be prepared, right?
The Hot Ninja Defenders offer group and private classes for women, teenagers and GLBT people around the Tampa Bay area. For more information about their classes, visit their website at hotninjadefenders.com or check out their Facebook page.