It surprises me how, years later, a blog post I wrote about being a woman doing a martial art is still getting comments. Particularly, people are STILL debating the merit of hitting a guy in the nuts as a tool of self-defence. Most don’t really have much of a relationship with this other than “oh yeah, I saw that in a movie once, it seemed to work”. Some will explain in detail why it doesn’t; a few have expressed outrage and horror that I would even say much a thing, and one individual announced my remark about male genitalia in a life-and-death situation was so abhorrent that I deserved to be sexually assaulted.
‘Cos… the internet.
Over the years I’ve written a few articles about the experience of going from being, honestly, scared of most things, to feeling like I could throw a punch a bit. Having not touched on it for a while, I figure now is as good as time as any to do an update.
I have now passed my Grade 8 in escrima. This means I’m two exams away from really sorta having to look like I know what the hell I’m doing. Joyfully, the more I’ve learned, the more I’m pretty convinced I don’t know what I’m doing. Oh sure, there’s a cocky moment around Grade 6 where you’re all like “I can hit hard! I can move my feet! FEAR ME UNIVERSE!” Then, a bit like that moment in Physics A-Level where you discover everything about GCSE Science was a lie, you are forced to take what you know and amp it up to 11, and suddenly every error you never spotted is a fatal weakness, and your brain starts melting out of your ears.
However. I have also been teaching women’s self-defence. I do not bring any remarkable skills to this. I cannot teach you to be a ninja in an hour. I teach people the absolute basics of how to hit and how to move, because having that tool might just let you think. As someone who’s been physically threatened and feared for my life in the past, I have some experience of how hard it is to think in that moment. Fight-or-flight has a third survival mechanism, and that is to freeze. I teach self-defence largely to offer a psychological tool to keep you moving through fear, as much as to help with punching.
This said, I may as well unpack a few things that commonly arise on this theme….
- De-escallation is beautiful. Working in music venues, you get a lot of alcohol and a fair bit of aggro, and over the years I have come to appreciate the capacity of a really good doorman to radiate calm. Calm talking; calm composure. Calm that has probably seen a fight, and knows that it doesn’t need that again. And the calmest guys can throw a punch, and know it, and having that tool enables them to look a drunk shouty dude in the eye, and chill things out. On the swing of that, you see many a dude who doesn’t want a fight, but is so convinced that the world is out to get them that they practically invite the conflict. Wound up with tension, they walk through life looking for the threat, and all it takes is meeting someone as wound up as they are for everything to escallate for no damn reason at all. Awareness transitions to hyper-awareness easily, but whereas one is driven by caution, the other is fuelled by fear, which already puts you in a dreadful place for conflict. Being able to talk a situation down can and should be trained.
- Run away. What’s that you say? Seven years of martial arts and you’re gonna leg it? Why yes. Yes I am. Because ultimately a) if I don’t know who I’m fighting, or how they’re armed, then I’m not fool enough to think I can get away without going to hospital if say, my attacker pulls a knife; and b) even if I do win a fight, what the hell have I achieved? Badly hurt someone? Got myself arrested? Guys: if you have the option, if it’s safe to do so, RUN AWAY. And no, sometimes you can’t run. Sometimes you have to fight. But if you’ve already thought about running and discarded that option, at least you’re still thinking, and that’s a good step in the right direction.
- YOU’RE SUCH A WUSS. This has been screamed at me before, including by readers of my blog. And yes; yes I am. I am far less scared now of the things that I’ve been told I should be scared of by our culture and stories, but I err on the side of common sense. See: how it’s not worth being in hospital. I have nothing invested in this. I have no machismo, no self-worth, no hunky might in play. None of that interests me half as much as keeping all my teeth. If I was a badass MMA fighter, this would disqualify me instantly. I’m not. I’m a woman who likes learning a skill, and staying safe. Sometimes staying safe requires me to produce massive quantities of aggression on short notice, and that’s fine. But if I do scream in your face while attacking like a feral chinchilla, it is 100% because that aggression and violence is the safest, wussiest thing to do in this situation.
- ENOUGH OF THIS SHIT, WHAT ABOUT THE TESTICLES?! Ok: let’s cover this. If you are forced to fight, is it worth hitting a guy in the nuts? I’ve heard a great deal of debate on this theme, and after much mulling I’m coming down on the 75% “yes” camp, with two caveats. Firstly, the effect can take a wee while to kick in, so in the name of all that’s holy don’t stop hitting. You wouldn’t think your one-punch super-strike could stop an attacker under normal circumstances, so what’s so magic here? Keep moving, keep hitting. Secondly there’s no one solution to every fight. I will respond differently to a big guy who moves well to a tiny ball of aggro. Anyone or anything that promises you the instant solution to all your self-defence woes is, frankly, fibbing. As for the argument that even talking about this is problematic, I’m afraid I must reply that we also need to talk about domestic and sexual abuse, Brexit, climate change, rising rates of male suicide and the cervical smeer test in our society, ‘cos they all matter. None are particularly fun; but pretending they don’t exist is unhelpful.
- Any actual practical advice? 90% of everything is the ability to think, and that is something that can, to a degree, be trained. You can learn to think while having a huge stress responce. You can train your body into habits that will keep you physically safe even while your mind is going “aaaaaaahhhhh!!!” But this isn’t just thinking in terms of the immediate crisis: this is thinking before the crisis strikes. One of the most important words in the world is “no”. “No, I don’t want that drink.” “No, I don’t want you in my personal space.” Abuse, violence and control frequently begins with the other party, male or female, not listening when you say “no”. Recognising this is the first step to recognising that you’re in danger. Respect your own fear. A lot of fear, particularly for women, is constructed by a culture that paints us all as victims waiting to be nobbled by unseen terrors. Statistics state this is not so. You are most likely to be hurt by someone you know, in your own home. However if you feel scared, respect that. A lot of our fear – our genuine fear – is a primal, nameless thing. (If you want further, but hard in terms of content, reading on this subject, then Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear” is excellent.) All that said, if you’re looking to do some self-defence, or even a martial art, you have a lot of choices. Here’s a quick run-down on some options….
- Types of martial art/self-defence. What follows is a gross over-generalisation, that misses a huge amount in a quest for brevity. Each martial art has something interesting to offer, and many have either a spiritual element or a long and rich cultural history that, alas, I don’t have time to cover here. But with all martial arts, if you don’t get on with the discipline or your teacher, move on. There will be another dojo, another style, that suits you fine. Equally, if you are a 4″11 woman being told on day 2 that you should be able to throw a 6″4 man using nothing but your hip action, take it with a pinch of salt. Over time this might be true – most martial arts require years of study to become even remotely helpful – but it’s important that you feel the martial art you’re learning reflects who you are, as much as you are there to learn from it.
- Japanese martial arts. These include karate, jiu jitsu, kendo, aikido and a dozen in between. The common theme is discipline, respect and a fixed structure of learning. A lot use patterns that you repeat to perfection – katas – and there’s often an emphasis on physical conditioning. Be prepared to earn your belts, bow to your Sensei and learn to count to ten in Japanese. Jiu jitsu and judo are both extremely good for close-quarters grappling. (Brazillian jiu jitsu takes this to an extra practical extreme.) Aikido specialises in softer, controlling techniques and tumbling. Karate dudes can hit like badasses.
- Taekwondo. Have you ever wanted to kick someone in the face while doing a double backflip? Korea’s national martial art is for you! It shares a lot of features with the Japanese martial arts, and takes time to master. But hey… those backflips….
- Phillipine martial arts. The include arnis, kali, escrima, and are frequently weapons-based. You know that dude who can spin his swords REALLY fast while going aarrrrgggg? There’s a lot of that. Again, there’s a lot of variation across the schools, but if you fancy being super-duper-sneaky from a tradition that grew out of jungle fighting against colonial guys with guns, then this is for you.
- Chinese martial arts. These range from chen-style tai chi (slow, careful movements) to yang-style kung fu where you will learn how to kick someone in the face while balancing on one leg with nothing but your chi and 15 years of training. Or perhaps you’re down with wing chun, the only martial art said to have been invented by a woman, in which your hands become a blurring wall of clever, or qi gong, as your body becomes hardened steel, or bajiquan and its explosive power? All have been stolen from regularly, which is a high form of praise. Even the old-lady tai chi you’ve sometimes seen on a village green is a martial form, performed slowly one step at a time so that the balance of its practitioners is absolutely perfect for that moment when, without seeming to move, they throw you half way across the room while smiling benignly.
- Muay thai and MMA. I’ve bunched these together because the dudes who do these sports are at some point likely to get in a ring and smash each other to shit. And if you want to know how you respond in a massively stressful environment, being pumelled and pumelling back like a muscly, fighty dude of awesome, then these are for you.
- Krav Maga and Systema. Israel and Russia have both produced badasses; their native martial arts will teach you anything from the fastest way to kill a man in the dark, to the easiest way to disarm a dude with an assault rifle. If you’re ok with being bruised basically for the rest of your life, then nothing says brutally efficient like Israeli special forces.
- Boxing. I know – it has rules. There’s far less immediate gouging in traditional boxing than many of these arts. But for sheer conditioning and learning how to hit hard, you can’t really go wrong.
- Capeoira. It’s fun; it’s pretty. It’s great for your overall health, and there’s music and a community vibe there that basically makes it awesome. Is it gonna be useful in day-to-day defence? Hum. I have reservations. But my god is it fun!
- Some more obscure ones – such as, say, French stick fighting, English quarterstaff fighting, medieval broadsword – are all funky as. But while in time they all teach you how to move under stress, and are probably great for your health, unless you take your broadsword shopping they’re probably at their best for fun, or for conditioning yourself psychologically for stress.
- A good, old-fashioned self-defence course. You know what; I’ve seen a lot of ads for classes that promise to teach you how to defend yourself against a knife. These make me tense. Knives suck, and making these promises is a kind of snake oil, playing on our deepest fears. Equally, your kung fu skills will not save you from being hit by a car or heart disease, both of which are far more likely than you actually needing your badass fighty skills. So my question is: what do you actually want? If it’s a bit of confidence, and an honest understanding of fear and the tools to combat it, then frankly, a self-defence course is grand, and there’s loads to chose from. Just don’t accept any false promises! If you want to delve into a skill, improve your health or test your macho metal, then hey, you’ve got more choices than ever…