One of my hopes for this year is that I’ll get to hit people again.
It’s unusual, I know. But of all the types of contact I gave up for the pandemic, striking another person with the full power of my body is the one I miss most.
I’m not an Ultimate Fighting champion. I’m a reluctant athlete who started teaching self-defense after years working nights in a domestic violence shelter and days helping abuse survivors navigate the court system. If this were a normal school year, I’d have spent a lot of it on dusty mats in high school gyms.
The students — mostly teenage girls — would hear the word “self-defense” and expect a fight scene from an action movie. But self-defense is more than physical striking. It’s about speaking up, advocating for ourselves and others, avoiding fights, and staying calm under stress. And since most gender-based violence is perpetrated by people we know, a big part of self-defense is emotionally preparing ourselves for the reality that someone we like, love, trust, or respect might try to harm us and that the blame for sexual assault rests with the perpetrator, not the victim.
I teach with a co-instructor who wears 50 pounds of protective padding and plays the role of a realistic assailant. Together we present common assault scenarios. One takes place at a party: My co-instructor plays a guy who invites a student to an upstairs bedroom — to have a conversation that doesn’t require shouting over loud music, he says.
He makes an advance. She refuses it. He says something like “I thought you said you wanted to be more spontaneous.” This is coercion, and it is how sexual assaults often start. We teach that it’s OK to stick to “no.”
Other times he uses intimidation — blocking a door, raising his voice, trying to make her feel small and stuck. We teach the students to make noise and attempt to leave the room. If no other options are possible, we teach them to use their physical skills.
Our students learn that using strong parts of their bodies against vulnerable parts of an attacker’s — the head, the groin, the eyes — is the best way to equalize any disadvantage in size or physical strength.
Every virtual class we’ve taught this year has filled me with a mix of relief, heartbreak, and gratitude. This has been the unexpected upside of having to go virtual: Discussions go deeper. Some students feel freer to open up about past assaults from the privacy of their bedrooms.
But self-defense training, while not just about kicking and striking, does rely on our ability to create scenarios that are realistic enough to produce a physiological stress response. Physical training gives students the visceral experience of feeling fear and responding with power. Virtual self-defense classes cannot make this possible. A year without that intense physicality has shown me why it’s so important.
When young women practice resisting sexual assaults, they are pushing back on the cultural messages that teach women, children, people with disabilities, and so many others that our bodies are weak. They’re pushing back against every explicit or subtle message that being a girl is about pleasing people. That someone else’s anger or discomfort is to be avoided at all costs, even when that cost is the integrity of their bodies.
There is growing evidence that sexual assault resistance programs for women are effective. Studies of college women and women of all ages have found that self-defense reduces sexual assault by 50 percent or more. Criminologist Sarah Ullman analyzed decades of National Crime Victimization Survey results and found that forceful strategies — such as yelling and kicking — are effective at stopping rape. Self-defense has also been shown to result in decreased self-blame, fewer physical and psychological symptoms, and more rapid recovery from trauma. Research also shows that self-defense training reduces women’s inclinations to sacrifice their own wants and needs to please others. There is much less evidence that programs for boys about consent and respect are effective at reducing sexual violence.
Sexual abuse depends on silence. It thrives when people are scared or ashamed, when those who speak up are blamed, not believed. The inclination to please and placate is not always conscious. It takes more than a few hours of critical thinking to change entrenched and often invisible patterns. Training our bodies to strike is one of the most powerful ways to access the less conscious places where a lot of those norms live. I’m proud of what my students have learned and shared in our online sessions. Yet I remain convinced that no virtual experience can replace the power of fierce physical resistance.
Meg Stone is the executive director of IMPACT Boston, an affiliate of Triangle Inc. Follow her on Twitter @megstoneimpact.