I took a self-defense class this weekend

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.

24 responses to “I took a self-defense class this weekend

  1. Caitlin, this sounds great! I took a self-defense class in college that was called “Self-Defense From the Inside Out” that also focused on the mental ways we can defend ourselves–identifying thought cycles that might lead to us being vulnerable (like “nice girl” syndrome, denial of intuition, etc.). That was even more helpful to me than the physical stuff. (I also did have to use the physical skills I learned once, and it worked. Not as magically as we practiced in class, but it worked.)

    • That’s such an awesome idea for a class. Because really, so much of it is perception, you know?

      Also, I really want to hear about how your physical skills worked out for you. I figured it wouldn’t be nearly as clean or simple as the instructors made it look, and I wondered how it would actually play out in a real-life situation. (Glad to hear it worked for you, btw. That is so fucking scary.)

  2. This sounds really great. My husband has been teaching me some moves as well, but it’s hard to focus on the moves when it’s him teaching them to me… Let’s just say, I easily get “distracted” by the teacher (which annoys the crap out of him, to say the least, but still makes him smile).

    Thanks for the great article and useful information. I may have to check out one of these hot ninja defenders classes for myself!

  3. I’ve actually been taking a women’s self defense class since February. It’s based on mixed martial arts. My instructor is a guy and there are 3 other girls in the class. At first it was VERY awkward when we would grapple (wrestle), especially since my instructor is a male. But he is professional and you get over it eventually. I will say that it takes a long time to really learn these moves, and that being in a “live” situation is COMPLETELY different than practicing. During my yellow belt test I had to go live with my instructor. He was basically attacking me with a lot of aggression and strength, similar to the way a real attacker would but without physically harming me. I had a panic attack because I was nervous and it was so intense. I did pas the test, but I was shaking and crying the whole time. Not that I’m trying to scare you or anything, haha. Just saying that I can’t even fathom what a real attack would be like, even at this point in my training.

    If you’re interested in taking an MMA class, I say go for it, totally. It’s very empowering. There are times that I get frustrated because it’s very challenging. I mean, it’s martial arts. You don’t learn this stuff overnight. But it’s such a rewarding experience that I keep going back.

    • Thanks for the info. I figure it will be totally scary but I can deal with a certain amount of “scary” if it’s in a reasonably controlled environment. And maybe even not so reasonably controlled…after all, I’ve been scuba diving before, which is scary no matter how you look at it.

      I’m still really interested in it. My biggest worry is that it will somehow interfere with my running, and specifically my marathon training. Did you ever get seriously hurt?

      • I’ve never had a serious injury in my life. However since I started the self defense class I’ve had to be careful with my joints. Practicing submissions can be hard on them, and after a class where someone has been doing arm bars on me my shoulders and elbows tend to hurt. After a somewhat intense class I definitely can’t lift. Not sure how it’d effect your running though. But I think if you keep up with mobility work and stretching you’ll probably be fine.

      • That’s good to know. I figured it would hurt but I just would hate to mess up my running, as that is my primary sport and if I was no longer able to do it, I would be tremendously sad. Maybe I should wait until marathon training is over. Sadly, I say that about a lot of things I want to do.

      • Well if it’s something you love, there’s no need to be sad about it. It’s your top priority!
        Also, in the beginning stages of MMA training (at least in my experience), there’s barely any physical exertion because you are just learning basic movements. So the potential for an injury is pretty low.

  4. Great article as usual! Have you read The Gift of Fear? I think it should be required reading for everyone, but especially for women. It really ties into the psychological aspect of self defense.

  5. 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.

    Okay, so, I kind of have a problem with this, because to me it feels somewhat like victim-blaming, but instead of “short skirt she deserved it,” it’s “well, if you act like a victim you’re going to get treated like one” (which is something that’s been launched at women even before miniskirts were invented). I mean, I wasn’t there, so maybe she did at least mention that rapists are always 100% at fault. And of course, the skills themselves are things we should know even if it sucks that we HAVE to learn them because some men don’t know not to rape. But I guess I can’t see something that blames — even in an oblique way — my attack on my “attitude” as empowering.

    • I get what you are saying, but I don’t see it as victim-blaming as much as I see it as practical information. I mean, if predators are saying they actively seek out people who look like they won’t fight back, isn’t it a good idea to at least front like you would?

      Conversations about victim blaming are important, but I don’t think this qualifies. Saying that a woman shouldn’t have gotten drunk in public, or shouldn’t have dressed a certain way, or shouldn’t have brought her date home? Yes, that’s victim blaming.

      But talking about how predators say they specifically search out people who look like they won’t fight back? That’s using the predator’s tactics against them for your own protection, and I see nothing wrong with that.

      • I mean, if predators are saying they actively seek out people who look like they won’t fight back, isn’t it a good idea to at least front like you would?

        Of course, but I could ALSO see people then turning around on a woman who’s been attacked (because no matter how bad-ass your attitude or how well-prepared you are to fight back, you still could be… and that’s a sobering thought) and say that it’s her fault because she looked weak. You wouldn’t say that, and maybe this instructor wouldn’t say that, but I could easily see it being said by SOMEONE.

        Then again, some people will stoop to any level to blame a woman. So maybe it’s not that useful to predict what victim-blamers will say, because it could be anything.

      • Your last paragraph is exactly what I was thinking as I read your statement. People who think women deserved to get raped are going to seize on anything they can to blame her for her rape. I’ve heard people blame women who are TOO conservatively dressed for presenting a challenge. It’s gross, really.

        That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant about victim blaming, of course. But I am also wary about not promoting self-defense education in case it comes across as victim blaming, which is a strain of thought I’ve seen in feminist discussions about rape. I’d like to think the conversation has room for both condemnation of rapists AND practical defense techniques for women, that it’s not like we choose one at the expense of the other.

        P.S. And yes, all the self-defense ed in the world is not a 100% guarantee of safety. it sucks that that’s the world we live in. 😦

  6. Saweeet article, girl! Its me Caroline Portugal the creator and self defense instructor of The Hot Ninja Defenders. Thanks so much for writing this article. Please view the video we recently created from the Introductory Class you participated on September 25th. We are extremely proud of this video. Please check it out and share the word of awareness:

    • Hey Caroline, thanks for sharing the video, and also for the great instruction you offered during the class. I have to say, I am completely unsurprised to learn that you are a MMA cage fighter. You were fucking awesome. All of you ladies were.

  7. Thank you so much for the awesome write-up!!!! We just found this the other day!!!! This is the link to the commercial that was filmed that day you attended our class! Please feel free to repost if you would like! Follow us on facebook and twitter! We are excited to be involved in the empowerment of women! Thank you for your involvement as well!!!

    • No, thank YOU! I loved the class and I loved having the opportunity to take part in it. The video is wonderful – and not just because I have a half-second shot in it – and I will definitely be sharing it on my various social networks. Keep up the awesome work. I love what you ladies are doing.

  8. I was extremely pleased to uncover this great site. I wanted to thank you for your time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it and i also have you saved to fav to check out new information on your blog.

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