Sticks and Brains

Recently I attended a seminar on self-defense for women.  It’s totally my cuppa tea.  There are very few Causes with a Capital C in my life, but environmentalism, literacy and women-awesomeness are probably the top three, followed closely by respect for the scientific method, and maybe a campaign to lower the price of belgian chocolate ice cream.  (Why is it always the most expensive?!  Why?!)

We did various bits and bobs – a lot of moving, a lot of attacking back immediately, which makes total sense since a) you don’t want to stand trading blows and grappling and b) if you can win a fight in five seconds, why not aim to win it in three?  (Another side-note: why don’t people ever move their feet in movie fights?  Both double-stick fighting and fighting with more readily available weapons such as pens and bits of furniture seems to be on the up in films, and yet no one ever bothers to move their feet, merely stands there and takes it.  Perhaps, thinking about it, they are taking it Like A Man.  Or rather, in the interest of fairness and to skew the gender within the statement: Like A Very Silly Person With Out-Dated Notions Of Masculinity.  Anyway…)

At the end of the seminar, the teachers asked if there were any questions.  Mine – partially to see what the response of the room was – was to ask if we could do more stuff where we, as women, specifically faced off against Big Men.  Preferably, Big Stupid Angry Strong Drunk Men since they can frequently present a problem.  What happened, I mused, when we failed to get out of the way, when we were caught off-guard or someone managed to grapple with us?  What then?  It’s a generic nightmare for all women – the moment someone a lot bigger and stronger simply crushes you into submission.  Not least, because lurking just beneath this scenario is another, blacker thought of the threat of sexual violence.  We almost dare not say the words, dare not acknowledge it even in a class dedicated to women’s self-defense, but it’s there in the unspoken terrors, a thing so vile we hesitate to speak of it.  A question for the floor: how can we ever end rape and sexual violence against both men and women, if we as society do not have the courage to talk about it?  Go.  Discuss.

However, before our thoughts could walk too much further down this path, one of my teachers spoke up.

“Yeah,” he said, “So like, if someone tries to strangle you or that, I mean, there’s things you can learn in other classes.”  Cue: a demonstration.  A strangle hold was broken by rising up through it; a grapple was broken by twisting to the side and pulling the attacker’s weight down.  An arm grab became a wrist-lock etc. – all stuff I vaguely remembered skirting the surface of in jiu jitsu and which my chen-style-tai-chi-sometimes-sparring-partner does without thinking twice.

“But the thing is, yeah,” he went on, “It’s all like, total bollocks.”

A moment here while he wondered if ‘bollocks’ was something you’re allowed to say in front of women.  Bless my teachers, I love them so much, but I’ve never before seen them hesitate before when trying to explain to their students the notion of ‘you can attack the testicles’.  Chivalry isn’t dead, it’s merely hopelessly, hopelessly bewildered.

Thankfully, ‘bollocks’ seemed the most appropriate word to describe my teacher’s feelings on this subject, so on he went.  “If someone tries to strangle me, yeah,” cue: strangulation, “They’re like, using both their hands so I’m just like, you know…”  cue: he sticks both his thumbs in his enemy’s eyes.  “I mean, it’s simple, yeah?”  cue: clothes grab.  “Someone grabs you, just give them pain,” cue: more thumbs in eyes.  “They’re busy with their hands,” cue: more strangulation, “and like if they’re bigger and stronger than you then bollocks, all that bollocks, all that fancy stuff, it ain’t gonna work on someone bigger than you, don’t do that fancy shit, and I know, I did it for years, that fancy shit don’t mean nothing when a guy comes at you in the street so just…” cue: thumbs + eyes.  “‘Cos a big guy’s gotta be able to see, yeah?”

There was a bit of a pause while the room considered this.  Tactically, there was nothing to argue against.  The thumbs-in-eyes strategy has a lot going for it.  And indeed, there were several people in the room, including a friend of mine, who’d been surprised in the course of the seminar to discover a great deal of pent up and willing aggression within themselves.  The day before the class my friend had wailed, “But I don’t want them to come at me with a knife, even a blunt one!” and by the end of the seminar she turned round and said, “I think my problem is that if I feel threatened by someone, I just keep attacking them until they’re dead, because that’s just what comes naturally to me.  I’m really surprised to discover how much anger I’ve got.”

I suspect the problem, perhaps for all martial artists, but for untrained women in particular, is not so much about moves – strikes and counter-attacks, footwork and body mechanics – but about will and control. The will part is the first and most important – and arguably most difficult – bit.  Are you willing to hurt someone?

Are you willing to hurt them?

Stop and think about it now.  Picture someone coming at you.  They’re going to punch you.  Perhaps they’re going to hit you with something.  You don’t know if they’ll stop.  You hope they will.  You have a moment to decide.

Are you going to hurt them?

Can you picture yourself kicking their knees hard enough for something to fracture?  Are you willing to try and break their elbow?  Will push your fist into their face?  Are you willing to stick your thumbs in a stranger’s – or an acquaintance’s, since most violence happens between people who know each other – eyes?  Perhaps you have a weapon – something small, simple.  Are you willing to stab someone with the sharp end of a pen?  Drive the butt of a mobile phone into their throats?

Will you do it?

I’ve been doing escrima for a couple of years and even now, I’m not 100% sure.  I attack people who attack me in class, and that’s fine.  But on the spur of the moment, when my life – and possibly the life of my attacker – is on the line, will I do it?  To merely disable an attacker, to take them to the floor so they can’t hit you again, is far, far harder than just frickin’ hurting them.  Takedowns require skill and confidence, and bring with them risk.  Thumbs in the eyes don’t.  Moreover, I’ve only come close to experiencing proper violence-threatening fear maybe twice in my life, and it’s fast and it’s paralysing.  You reason; you try to think; you can’t quite believe it’s happening.  You ask yourself what you’re doing wrong, long before you think about how you’re going to fight your way past this instant.  Martial artists train themselves so that the movement of their bodies become instinct, but kick-starting the brain into action is, for my money, far, far harder to drill.

Then there’s control.  From being really rather nervous about hitting or being hit, my friend went in the course of two hours to being an explosion of pent-up aggression and fast-firing punches.  (I realise I should have seen this coming from having played her at chess.  A defensive opening style always gives way to a stunning series of aggressive moves in the middle game….)  My mate had ‘will’ totally nailed: now what was missing was control.

“So yeah, we’ve got like, some things from lady’s handbags,” explained my teachers, producing a collection of mobile phones, deodorant, mascara pens and a hairbrush.  (My rucksack looks nothing like this.)  “We want you to learn how to think of everything as a weapon.  So like, if I attack Cat,” cue: attack, “she can use the sharp end of the mascara case as a weapon.”

He was right: that’s precisely what I was doing, holding it so that the pointed plastic end of the case was a couple of inches from his eyes.  Turns out that the ‘go for the eye’ instinct is fairly well embedded.

A few minutes later, I’d swapped mascara for a biro, and a teacher was explaining how to use that as a weapon.  “So yeah, you can like jab it into nerve clusters,” he said cheerfully, prodding a few bits on the body.  “You can work up the arm – like, really drive it into the muscle,” cue: a demonstration ow, “rake it down the spine to push their body out of shape and off balance,” more ow, “jam it into the thigh which is like, god it just hurts so much, or just use it for shock effect and run!  But be careful with something pointed, like a pen, because you don’t actually want to kill them.  I mean, there’d be like, court cases and the law and that, so don’t actually stick it in their throats.”

At this juncture, I paused to consider where I was holding the biro.  Instinctively, it turned out, I was holding it point-first a few inches from my partner’s jugular vein.  A medley of feelings ran through me at this moment.  On the one hand, this was Bad.  My body was instinctively putting itself in a position where it could inflict massive, possibly terminal damage on someone else, and I didn’t like it.  Fail.  On the other hand, this was Very Good Indeed.  Even if my mind froze up, would my body still fight?  Would I blink in that moment of animal terror and discover that I had, in fact, fought the good fight for the 0.7s that mattered without even noticing it?  This could certainly be handy, if my mind failed.  More important though – vastly, infinitely, ridiculously more important, is that the end of the biro was still a few inches from my opponent’s throat.  The sharpened end of a mascara case had not, in fact, wound up in my teacher’s eye.  Instinct had made me ridiculously more aggressive than I realised I was, but control stopped my arm every time.  And not bad control either – not, I suspected, the kind of control that means I won’t strike, that means my arm is trained to pause, which would be the greatest disaster of all.  Good, conscious, calm control.

So here I am, at the end of the day, a little bit bruised and very happy.  I didn’t learn a huge amount beyond what little I already know about techniques or footwork – but that wasn’t the point of the day.  We all took different things from it, but I think what I mostly got was all in the head.

I picture people attacking me now – random, violent, unprovoked attack – and find that I’m not hugely afraid.  I don’t think I can win anything particularly, since I’m still pretty junior, but I don’t think I’ll seize up either.  I picture myself fighting back, and yes, my body is automatically working to inflict massive amounts of violence, and that’s fine, but as I run through options and targets in my mind, I can also choose to find other, less fatal targets, and should things escalate, still have the options and tools of aggression at my command.  Will it work in reality?  No idea.  Sincerely hope never to find out.  Am I a little bit closer, a little more prepared in my mind for it?  Perhaps, cautiously: yes.  All the rest – all the footwork, all the techniques – are a distant second concern.


  1. I was involved in an incident in my youth (being punted by friends on the upper river near Grantchester, attack by a couple of drunken townies). What I did in response to a physical attack on one of the other people in the punt (paddle to head of attacker) showed me once and for all that I had, as you put it both (a) will and (b) control, since the paddle hit flat (not edge) on just above his ear and with the force sufficiently calibrated not to kill him, and I remember deliberately making sure that it would not. I did get the shudders afterwards, contemplating how easily I could have killed him (which would have been rather bad for my future prospects; i was unconcerned about his). But it was a salutary lesson and has I think had a deeper effect on my general confidence and attitude to life than I realised for many years afterwards.

  2. Pingback: Review of our recent Women’s Self-Defence Workshop! – Urban Escrima – Self Defence Classes in London

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *