A month before I left home to travel the world solo at 18, I signed up for a women’s self-defense class. My high school counselors said it would prepare me for the situation everybody warned me about: getting attacked by a stranger while walking alone late at night.
Women’s self-defense classes popped up in the United States as far back as a century ago, supposedly empowering women to fight back against assailants, combining tactics from boxing or martial arts. From the beginning, the classes focused on repelling apparently inevitable attacks by strangers, always assumed to be men.
In my week-long self-defense class I was taught to aim for a man’s groin and face, and what kind of language might help de-escalate a threatening situation. I role-played scenarios I might encounter, including physically countering attacks by a man wearing protective gear. Fewer than twenty percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by strangers, but the physical training I completed focused on “stranger danger” attacks. The instructors skimmed over the complications inherent in physically fighting back against someone I knew — a situation I was far more likely to face.
I role-played scenarios I might encounter
I took the class with a friend, who came away from it feeling more exposed, more aware of threats where there probably weren’t any. But I left the class more sure of myself and more prepared for what might happen. Or so I thought.
About a month into my trip, a taxi driver attempted to assault me. In the altercation I used “stop sign” hands to get him to step back, and I kept my voice even, instead of raising it, so as not to anger him further. We did not speak the same language — something my training had not prepared me for — but still, I got away. I felt shaken but proud of myself for successfully using my training.
Thinking back to my self-defense class, my proactive choice was a step towards feeling in control of my physical safety. But that’s the thing: it was just a feeling…