The Long Read: Self defence or self delusion? The foundation tension in approaches to women's self defence

This month's long read comes out of a response to a repost on the BBRD Facebook page that was titled The martial arts delusion and how it hurts women. It is in itself a long read but worth a peruse. The comments were by Susan Speekenbrink, a martial arts instructor here in Toowoomba. The core of her argument was that the original author did not provide enough credit to the good things that martial arts can provide women, while acknowledging the central point of the article: That martial arts training as it often is conducted for women is wholly inadequate in preparing them for the actual scenarios of violence that they are likely to encounter— and at the core of this is a failure to acknowledge the gendered nature of violence.

The following is a reworking and extension of my initial response to Susan. I think that is is worthwhile that this conversation be more widely put and commented on, as it goes to the heart of many debates around the extent to which the "martial" in much of what we as a community practice is of any practical application to real world violence.

The first thing to acknowledge is that violence, like every human activity is fundamentally a socially mediated phenomenon. We can, of course, make an observation that the human body has a specific physical repertoire regarding how it can perpetrate an act of violence, and that the reason there is a persistence of martial arts traditions is because there are rational "high percentage" responses to these acts.

But this only really tells half the story. The other half is that the type of violence you are likely to encounter is entirely mediated by the social circumstances in which the protagonist in embedded. In Australia, we are neither a habitual knife or gun carrying culture. As a result the likelihood of being stabbed or shot in Australia is statistically much smaller than the USA or the Philippines. But ironically, far larger than contemporary Japan.

Another way to look at it is that in every respect, if someone wants to successfully enact violence on someone else, then they have to be completely aware of the cultural constructs that they will be facing. Is the weapon/technique used going to be effective against the clothing/armour that the defender may be wearing? Is this likely to be a duel, and ambush, or a melee? Will the attacker face social/legal sanction for committing violence in a particular way? These are all social questions that are addressed in the type of training and rehearsals that people engage with before they engage in said act. 

And we always fight like we train, regardless of the circumstance.

What this means is that unless you are specifically training for the type of violence that you are likely to face, then you are always going to be at a disadvantage against someone who is dictating the terms of engagement and has used them to marginalise your attempts to defend yourself. In other words, "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight", as said by Sean Connery in The Untouchables.

This, of course, brings us to the whole nature of training for such circumstances. For instance, an immediate hurdle that women face is that much of the environment for acquiring the skills or a martial artist is done in a heavily masculinised. This is not to take away from the many highly skilled women who teach and practice martial arts and combat sports, or the dedicated well meaning men that also practice and teach in that space. It is just to acknowledge that the overwhelming proportion of instructors and practitioners are male.

I argue that this gender loading has three effects. First, it reduces the opportunities for women to train as they do not see themselves reflected in the class space. Second, it often skews the teaching of technique that on balance favours a physicality that most women are alienated from. Third, and most seriously, it can create blindness to the actual dangers that women face.

The first effect is a perennial problem for the martial arts in general. Even in the most egalitarian and welcoming of spaces, it can be hard to attract women to participate. Fighting is still not seen as a particularly feminine activity to engage in, notwithstanding the sporting and commercial successes of women such as Kayla Harrison, Holly Holmes or Ronda Rousey. Women's physicality is still highly proscribed at the best of times. Without support from family or friends, or a specific reason to want to start training in a martial art, the vast majority of women will not enter the dojo to begin with. Many more might consider a women's self defence course at some point, but I will talk about my reservations concerning that below.

The second point I wanted to raise is about what is actually taught to the women who do make it through the doors. If many of the teachers and practitioners are men, then it stands to reason that the technical focus will favour the physicality of the people training. If it didn't then many more would simply not put in the hours of training necessary to perfect those techniques. This goes down to the fact that size and strength does provide leverage and power advantages, and to ignore that in either a combative or competitive situation would be foolish. There is a reason that there are weight divisions in combat sports such as Judo, Boxing or MMA. And why, of course, Connor McGreggor was unsuccessful in trying to fight two weight divisions above his then current weight on very short notice. Without specifically acknowledging this, then your approach is unlikely to be effective for your student and they will either give up, or, worse still, have a belief that what they know will be useful is a "live" situation.

"So", I hear people say, "what about arts where you don't need strength to be effective?" My response is that these arts usually involve some form of weapon-based equaliser where precision and speed are more important than power. Or where there is a very large disparity of skill. Or where the social framework in which the act takes place systematically allows for strength and skill to be less of a factor. "But 'X' art was created by a woman!", and yet almost all the practitioners are men. "But I can use my Ki/Chi to influence the attacker into making the critical error as as such requires minimal/no strength/touch!" We have all seen videos on You Tube as to where that kind of thinking leads — such as here or here

Don't get me wrong. Arts like Aikido have excellent aspects, including techniques that can be highly effective against a larger attacker. But they will almost always require some form of translation from the drills repeated in the classroom to a real life "live" situation. These are often acknowledging the subtle social circumstances that allow for the technique to be used in that way.

One of the gravest concerns I have for women's self defence style courses is that the method and time over which they are most often taught can only provide the barest of skill transfers. Let's place this into context. If you go and do a two day blacksmithing course at "Ye Olde Museum" and learn how to make a letter opener and a fire poker, how confident would you be that you could successfully make a replica Japanese-style sword five years later without any intervening practice?

Unfair? I want to put a spotlight on the actual things taught in these type of courses.

By way of an anecdote, I remember a specific women's self defence class I was involved with many years ago. It was coordinated by my then teacher at his daughter's school — an elite private girls school, where we were helping to "prepare" the girls in year 12 for "what them might face" going to the Schoolies event at the Gold Coast. I spent much of the time thinking that what we were doing was broadly useless because:

  1. A day spent hitting focus miss and kick shields is not going to provide you with the ability to do so again under pressure some weeks/months/year later
  2. There was little chance that the message being given would connect with the lived experience of any of the girls in that room. It is statistically very unlikely that any of them would ever be attacked by a stranger, let alone the mugger/rapist on every corner fantasy that was being spun to them
  3. The fact that there was not a single female instructor out of the group of us there ought to have rung alarm bells. What we were teaching was more relevant to male on male violence, and worked if you had a certain level of size and strength, something that most 17-18 year old girls lack.

In other words, it was a text book case in what not to do in relation to running such a course.

Sometimes self defence courses can provide a pathway to regular training within a competent school. However, while I would observe that there are many well intentioned martial arts instructors out there who are not particularly clued in to what their practice has to offer in terms of creating personal safety. As a result, they can create dangerous mindsets in the practitioners of that art (male or female).

What martial arts can develop if done well include:

  • mental resilience
  • physical resilience
  • sense of self regard/respect
  • situational awareness
  • some appropriate physical responses in specific threat scenarios.

There is a large amount of generalisability that comes from this list, and much of this can make you more safe than if you were not exposed to it. I absolutely agree with the notion that the martial arts, when you train in a supportive environment, can help to build your strength and expand your horizons so that you can undertake more things that provide you with even more tools to keep you safe, especially for women.

However, we can only really be confident in doing what we train for. At a functional level, there are many "theories" out there in martial arts land that are just plain suspect. Knife defences or gun defences that even to a casual observer are patently dodgy. And little in the patter of the instructor that acknowledges (or even understands) the difference between a foundation drill, a "feed", a psychological drill, and "pressure testing" during a simulated attack.

The third effect is the most problematic for the assertion that martial arts helps people, especially women, with self defence. Ironically, Sean Connery's character in The Untouchables was immediately the victim of his own aphorism, gunned down because he misread the situation and brought the wrong type of firearm to the fight he was actually in. And this, I would argue, is a metaphor for much of what we often fail to recognise in the martial arts.

Our "sacred" spaces, no matter how well meaning, diligent, or authoritative by their nature should rarely train for the type of violence that most women face. This is especially so in functional Clubs/dojosthat create high challenge but high support environments as the type of violence most women face is actually far more likely from someone they know rather than a stranger. It is likely to be subtle coercion than builds to an act of physical and/or sexual violence, and it is violence that is in a large part aided and abetted by social and legal frameworks that systematically increase a woman's risk of experiencing that violence and reducing her recourse to addressing it.

Women are far more likely to be attacked by someone they know, and in that circumstance is is likely to be a man that is part of their social circle, they are dating, or they are living with. Those girls to whom we gave the "self defence" lessons to were highly unlikely to be jumped randomly by a stranger. They were far more likely to be pressured into sex or raped while in no fit state to provide consent by someone they knew well. They would more likely internalise the blame for that, or be blamed by outsiders (too drunk, too provocative, ought to have known what it would lead to). Punching and kicking pads, no matter how well meaning, is not going to train you for that situation.

I contend that the underlying disrespect that women face is the root cause of the "uselessness" of much that "women's self defence" offers because it starts with the premise that women are vulnerable, provides them with a "solution" that is unlikely to be tested (i.e. random stranger violence), often does so in an environment that doesn't acknowledge its own shortcomings as a response to a violent situation, and fails to consider that the response to your husband/boyfriend/Sensei/acquaintance/cousin/brother/uncle/father is always going to be far more complicated than striking "eyes, throat, groin".

So the answer?

First, we all need to be honest with what can and can't be done within a particular physical practice. Second, we all need to actively work towards providing a safe but challenging space where people can grow in physical and mental confidence. Third, refuse to tolerate the whole range of misogynistic behaviour from the extreme end of predatory sexual behaviour on the part of an instructor through to blokey "locker room" talk that reduces women to commodities related to their physical appearance or their sexual virtue. Fourth, hold people to account for their behaviour and ensure that you do not walk away from speaking a discomforting truth.

Only by doing this can we actually work towards providing the conditions for women's self defence — by being a positive societal change agent, by creating spaces that are respectful, and by calling out the poor behaviour and attitudes that aids and abets the rationales that underpin violence directed at women.