Monday, 8 June 2009

Womens's self defence - is it just an illusion?

Here's a copy of the blog post I recently wrote for Martial News:

Why do women do martial arts? I’m sure they have a variety of different reasons but I expect that if you asked around in your dojo virtually all women would have the following two phrases in their answers: ‘to get fit’ and ‘to learn some self-defence’. Well I’ve no doubt that if they put the effort in they will get fitter, I know I am certainly stronger and fitter than I was two years ago before taking up karate, even though I was a regular attendee at a gym.

Unfortunately I have some doubts as to whether women actually learn a useful and effective self-defence strategy. They will learn many self-defence techniques that seem useful such as escapes from strangles and grabs; blocks and counter strikes to various kicks and punches and maybe even defences from the ground. But I have some doubts as to how useful all this really is in a real life attack situation.

I am taught exactly the same techniques as the men in our dojo are. It is my observation that the men can generally get to grips with most of the techniques and get them to work, they seem fascinated with the whole bio-mechanics of things and will spend ages getting complicated locks on.

Women on the other hand are a bit more pragmatic in their approach and are more discerning about what works and what doesn’t. There is often much chatter amongst the women along the lines of ‘I’d never try and do that – it’s too fiddly,’ or ‘ That would never work on a big bloke,’ or ‘I’m not strong enough to do that one,’ or ‘ It’s too complicated, I’ll never remember that’. I’m often the one saying these things!

I’m not actually surprised by this, after all martial arts of all styles were developed by men for men to fight other men. Traditionalists have ensured that ancient fighting techniques have been preserved and so most martial arts taught today seem more effective for the male body form than the female one. On top of that we have ‘sex equality’ issues and ‘political correctness’ to throw into the mix. It would probably take a brave instructor to treat male and female students differently because of their differences in body shape; particularly if he were male, the risk of sounding sexist or patronising could be enormous.

In the dojo that I train in men and women are treated exactly the same in all respects. On the whole this works well, after all I have two legs and two arms like a man so I can do most of the same things that a man can do, so I have no complaints about being treated the same. I will partner the men almost as often as I partner other women and I think this is a good idea as I can learn what it is like to throw or apply techniques to a much larger, heavier person.

So, what is my problem? Well, being a male orientated fighting system, karate teaches you how to deal predominantly with a male on male attack. If a man is attacked it is most likely to occur in the street by a random attacker or by a ‘rival gang’ or in a pub brawl or somewhere like that. Statistics suggest that women are rarely attacked by strangers in the street.

Eighty-five percent of women who are attacked are attacked in their own homes or in the home of someone they know by someone they know. There is often an emotional attachment between the woman and her attacker which the attacker plays on and manipulates; or her attacker may have got her drunk or drugged prior to a physical attack. A woman is often already defeated before the first blow is struck.

An effective self-defence system for women needs to help her deal with the events that go on between her and the attacker before the physical attack starts so that she can learn how to diffuse or prevent an attack from occurring. This requires quite a different approach than simply learning combative techniques.
I’m not saying that the self-defence techniques that I am learning are no good; indeed if I am one of the few unfortunate women that are attacked by a stranger in the street then I feel confident that I may be able to help myself.

However, my training does not adequately prepare me to deal with the more likely event of being attacked in my own home by someone I know or trust. A woman’s biggest mistake is to believe in will never happen to her – it may never be your husband or partner that attacks you but he could be a neighbour, family friend or colleague, or someone you just met in the pub, you just never know.

I think women’s self-defence is a specialist area. Women are different to men, both physically and psychologically, whether we acknowledge this in the dojo or not and their self-defence needs are different. Even the method of attack is likely to be different and requires a different approach.

Not every club is equipped to deal with this and there is no reason why they should be. A martial arts club teaching traditional or modern techniques has much to offer women and should be free to teach what its instructors want. After all martial arts are not just about self defence. But even courses that are specially designed and sold as ‘women’s self defence’ courses are often still based on the assumption that a woman will be attacked by a stranger in the street and don’t touch on issues of date rape or domestic violence which is much more common.

All that I am asking is that if a woman wishes to join your club and says that she wants to learn some self-defence, if you don’t offer any specialist training for women, please be honest with her about the limitations of the self-defence she will learn. Don’t let her be lulled into a false sense of security. Don’t allow the empowerment a woman may feel from learning a martial art to simply turn out to be an illusion.
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John W. Zimmer said...

Hi Sue,

My take is it is better to know how to fight than not. While I think women's self-defense classes’ deal with the physiological issues - when the fighting starts - having the formal martial arts training will be better than the short-term class.

Of the 85% known to the women - many of them can be fought too, probably. True if someone slips you a micky - there is no defense against that (except for applying common sense to drinking in public).

Also children are supposed to be protected by their parents... not a perfect system but it should mostly work if the parents are not trusting (but the bad buy to their kids unfortunately).

Domestic abuse if the harder one but if a women will not leave the abuser - how will she fight back until she snaps - then arguably knowing a martial art and being able to fight should be an advantage.

You have posted on a huge issue that is very complex but I really feel martial arts dojo's should focus on what they do well. There are good studios that do focus on women's issues specifically - maybe a good answer might be buyer beware?

I think you are onto something but I'm not sure how to implement it or if it would be desirable to change the focus of the school. When I ran a school in the 80's. I tended to focused on the mechanics of fighting and the martial art rather then awareness, avoidance and boosting self-confidence. I figured that is someone got into a pickle - they would have a better chance if they could fight their way out! :)

Sue C said...

Thanks for commenting John.

I tend to ebb and flow a bit on how effective I think my martial arts skills would be in a real fight, but I've only been training for 2 years. I agree that self defence training should be a long term commitment - short women's self defence courses are probably of limited value. I'm still worried though that some women feel more empowered than their training justifys.

Michele said...

Sue: Another great post!

I agree with John...formal martial arts training is better than a short term class.

Each person has a different self-defense strategy. The instructor in a formal program should be able to work with the students and provide suitable techniques that match their self-defense needs. (Women have different scenarios than men...etc.)

Sue, I agree that women's self-defense is a specialty. My husband took volunteer classes at the local women's crisis center. It was a valuable experience and impacted the way he teaches women's self-defense.

I have taught several short term women's self-defense sessions. I leave each one with the same concern you expressed...are they "more empowered than their training justifys." Before the class ends, we tell them that they need to practice. We encourage them to start formal martial arts training. We suggest more training and refresher classes.

Sue C said...

Michele, thanks for commenting. There's an excellent article on what makes a good women's self defence strategy on this website:

John W. Zimmer said...

Hi Sue,

Thanks for the discussion on my site as it really lets others see what the issues might be they need to consider.

Discussion also brings out points of view that I may (and everyone) have not considered. Why I really like blogging.

Anonymous said...

You certainly raise some good points and questions and it is, as John remarked, a rather complex issue.

The point I’ll be trying to make (in my usual long-winded way) is that the issue of women’s self-defense and indeed the question whether or not it’s even possible for women to adequately defend themselves ultimately boils down to mental and emotional aspects, far more than issues of style or male vs female physique. The main obstacle for women in the MA is whether or not they can develop and maintain confidence in themselves, the technique and their teacher in order to make MA work for them in a self-defense context. A good lock will work on anybody (unless they’re totally drunk or drugged), a kick in the groin will down even the strongest man, a proper choke will render anyone unconscious in a matter of seconds and you’ll have basically won the fight… Yet if you don’t act quickly, with speed, accuracy and aggression no amount of training can ever keep you safe. MA are not about strength, they were developed to allow smaller individuals to fight and defeat stronger opponents and that is exactly the situation women are likely to face one day. A martial-art that relies solely or even primarily on strength is not a genuine MA in my opinion, or at least one that is highly unsuitable for most people. Think about it: on a battlefield you’ll never know beforehand who you’re going to run into, in that context it would make sense to develop techniques that don’t rely on factors you have absolutely no control over. That is why the concepts of taking an opponent’s balance and attacking the naturally weak parts of his body were developed and this is something that comes back in nearly every style in one form or another.

Just last friday when we were practicing kick-defenses I had to break up a pair of women because they were going way too easy on each other: their kicks were just too weak, slow and ineffective (it seemed they weren’t even trying to connect) and naturally this made for a pretty crappy defense. I took one of the women and assigned my male partner to the other woman, the first thing she said to me was something along the lines of ‘go easy on me’ or ‘you won’t hurt me, right?’ I know I shouldn’t be too impatient when this happens but still: are you here to learn self-defense or should I treat you like a porcelain ballerina? They know perfectly well I will never hurt them on purpose and my control is good so why even bother to ask? I’m really starting to despair here: should I go easy on them and always respect their comfort-zone (knowing full well what will happen if they ever have to use this stuff for real) or should I put a little intent and speed in my attacks, even though they’ll probably hate me for it? She even complained my block was ‘too hard’, go figure. Nearly all the women in our dojo seem to fear me to some degree: when I invite them to train with me (normally I’d rather train with men but I think it’s important to give women the opportunity too, always pairing up with other girls isn’t such a great idea for obvious reasons) they all give me this look that seems to suggest I’m some kind of ogre or a sadist who likes to hurt them. In our dojo there aren’t any higher belts beside me (and sensei of course) so I can’t really compare to see if it really is me or they’re just intimidated by my rank but it is something that’s been bothering me for some time now.

All in all I’m a pretty decent guy and I really do care about our students (while I’m only a sempai teaching and supervising students is my responsibility too, at least to some degree), I just happen to think I won’t be doing them a favour by going easy on them or allowing things to get sloppy. Confidence should result from ability which in turn stems from diligent and realistic practice. …

Anonymous said...

Yet I know from experience it doesn’t have to be like this: on occasion I teach my niece some self-defense (on the way to school she has to traverse a pretty rough neighbourhood) and she’s everything you could ever wish for in a student; devoted, diligent, a quick study, tough… Even though she didn’t have any martial-arts experience before not only did she catch on quick (probably quicker than I did back in the day) she also has exactly the right mindset and I never had to slow it down to an unrealistic speed or worry she couldn’t take the pressure. She’d probably be a handful to any attacker even before my instruction (she’s strong for a girl and has an iron will) but now I’m pretty sure she’d just kick or knee a guy in the nuts if he ever tried to attack or abuse her in any way and that’s exactly what a woman should do in a dangerous situation: don’t hesitate, hit the vitals and run. She’s always been fond of sports and has been involved in competition-swimming (nowadays long distance in open water), this is probably why she’s so tough and dedicated (getting up at 5.30 am to go for a swim before school is not for the faint-hearted) and she has a great physique and dexterity. Not all women are timid or fearful but for the great majority dealing with aggression (however simulated) seems to be an almost insurmountable obstacle and that is the challenge instructors face (and the women themselves of course): how to get them beyond fear and self-doubt and into a realm of confidence and automatic, aggressive reaction to danger.

In my view techniques don’t need to be modified a great deal to become useful in women’s self-defense (humans have only two arms and two legs so the possibilities are pretty limited anyway), women need to be trained mentally to get rid of fears, reservations and self-doubt. It is quite possible certain techniques are not that useful for you, just like a head-butt isn’t all that useful for me since I’m a pretty tall guy, just avoid those and concentrate on techniques that are suited to your body-type. Just don’t forget one thing: in order to develop effective skills you need to work hard and master them thoroughly. So many times when I trained with women I’ve heard complaints like ‘you’re too tall, strong, experienced, aggressive…’, or ‘I’m just a girl/woman’ and I always tell them that a) it’s not my fault (work on your technique and I will go down, JJ does not rely on strength or size) and b) they should stop making up excuses. This may sound rude but if you’re always complaining, self-sabotaging (if you don’t think you can do something chances are you won’t) and basically asking me to mask flaws in your technique by going down on request you’re not taking training very seriously and as a consequence your techniques will fail you when you have to use them for real. This clearly isn’t your instructor’s fault, or your partner’s or the style you’re training in, if it is find another instructor, train with other people or practice another style or system.

Women’s self-defense is entirely possible (there are enough examples out there) but it’s up to the women to take responsibility for their own safety and train just as hard as the men. Instructors should take into account some techniques are better suited for shorter people but on the whole MA shouldn’t be altered although some MA are certainly more suited for self-defense as opposed to ring-fighting or martial gymnastics. I don’t use my strength in training and I’m effective, if a woman puts in the same effort and time she’ll get to that point too and get the same result. It’s all about coordination, speed, will, understanding and confidence and women are just as capable of acquiring those traits as men. Where’s feminism when you need it?


Sue C said...

I think you are correct in saying that how effective a woman will be in self-defence comes down to mental and emotional commitment. A lot of women attend martial arts classes not really wishing to learn self-defense (despite what they may say). Their actions speak louder than their words! They hope to pick up some useful tips as a by product of going through the motions of learning MA. This is probably because they do not perceive the risk of being attacked as very high (and they are right - not many women get attacked in the street). The women who are more committed to self-defence training are ones who have been attacked, know someone who has been attacked or feel under threat (threatening partner, lousy neighbourhood, a job where they regularly deal with confrontational people etc). If a woman does not feel threatened by violence she will not be motivated to learn how to defend herself seriously. This unfortunately is the female psyche.

You have to remember that women join MA classes for different reasons to men. They join to encourage their children to go along (and to be able to keep an eye on their progress), they join for fitness & flexiblity, because they like the physicality of training, the aesthetics of it (karate has a dance like quality to it, particularly kata), the sociability of it and, oh yes - for self-defence. Their priorities are different to mens. They may list self-defence higher up the list but many women, through their actions will show that they don't mean it.

However, if a woman perceives the risk to herself to be higher then it will be a different matter entirely - the self-defence aspect will suddenly be much more important and they will take it a lot more seriously. This is why women seem to either be very good or very bad at the self-defence aspects of MA.

You have to accept that many women who do MA do not really want to learn to fight (however incongruous that sounds). Such women are probably better off learning a more budo art where there is more emphasis on self improvement and living the Way. Though women are suited physically to more bugei arts such as jujitsu they are probably best not to do them unless they have learning self-defence as their main priority (and mean it)!

Welcome to Planet Woman!

Anonymous said...

Hmm, what can I say? This boggles the mind: people who say one thing and actually mean another (while fully aware of the conventional meaning of the words) are plain crazy. Yet at the same time it does make a lot of sense: they’re delusional about their desire to learn self-defense and that’s why they stink at it. They’re there under the pretense of learning self-defense while their real motivation is something completely different: it can’t be to monitor their child since we simply don’t offer children’s-classes (I’ve no interest in training Dennis the menace nor in starting a day-care, thank you), this leaves fitness, physical training and social contact. It can’t be aesthetics since ju-jutsu, like most truly effective fighting-systems, isn’t designed to look pretty but to get the job done. We train to be able to break bones and slam our opponents into the ground, there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about a body lying in a heap on the floor.

This narrows the list even further: most of them are probably there because they like the close proximity of other bodies, since most women are heterosexual (although that’s not even a given these days, apparently a lot of women are ‘bi-curious’, another great invention of women’s magazines and sexologists looking to graduate or further their career) I’m assuming they must have a preference for male bodies. This is actually good news: since I’m arguably one of the finer specimens of the male sex and there happens to be a pretty hot young blond in the class there’s a good chance she’ll actually like to train with me if I go lightly on her and indulge her every whim, since she’s just horsing around like the other women (thus totally not interested in self-defense inspite of what she says) there’s no reason not to ask her out since I wouldn’t need to be professional as assistant-instructor. Learning effective self-defense is probably the last of her goals so it wouldn’t matter if she succeeds or fails. Boy, am I looking forward to the next session of ground-work - man, you’re good: I couldn’t escape this hold even if I tried. This brings us to the last item on your list: social contact. Check and double-check since they usually spend more time yapping than anything else.

From now on I’ll stop giving a damn and just treat them like you’d treat a dim-witted child or a lunatic: smile and agree with everything they say, however absurd. “Yes, there are indeed little green men on Mars and yes they’re planning an invasion as we speak, you’re totally right, lets prepare our defenses!” “Yes, you’re absolutely right: it is my fault your technique doesn’t work, why oh why am I so tall/strong/experienced/ aggressive. Lets just do this again and I’ll happily dive to the ground, there isn’t that better?” (pat on the back, polite smile)

This has been a truly enlightening Dharma-talk Sue, you’re a great source of information on the follies of the female sex. Am I glad to have been born a man (at least I know more or less what I want and what I don’t want, on top of that I’m actually capable of rational thought instead of having to rely on feeling), they really should rewrite the passage in the bible where Job curses the day he was born to “accursed be the day it was said in the house of my father: a female child was born”.

Conclusion: women are crazy, plain and simple. It’s something I’ve always suspected but now it’s been confirmed by a completely objective and reliable source (if a woman can’t understand women no-one can). Again, you have my thanks.

It’s also the answer to the age-old mystery as to why men and women have such trouble getting along, giving birth to the equally old musing of guys on the verge of a mental-breakdown: “women: you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them”; classic catch-22. Basically it all boils down to the fact men can never beat women in a fight (verbally), as Chris Rock put it: “Women don’t let a little thing like sense f***-up their argument” One might add: or anything else for that matter.

Zara (a whole lot wiser thanks to you)

Sue C said...

I get the feeling some of my comments have angered you somewhat. This was not my intention - I just thought it would be helpful to let you into the mind of a woman in order that you can think about more useful ways of encouraging and motivating the women you train, not to give up on them! Some of your comments were overtly sexist - I hope you don't now intend to view the women you train as merely sex objects just because they refuse to train like men (I hope the blonde turns you down). You are wrong about the women just wanting to get close to male bodies - there is nothing worse than having to grapple with a hot, sweaty man. We just have to put up with it!

I think we have managed to rattle each others cages a bit here - this was never my intention and I would rather put it behind us. I think it is good for men and women to share each others perspectives about MA training - but we must make efforts to understand rather than deride each others position.

I hope we can continue to have productive conversations in the future.

Anonymous said...

It was meant in jest, I wasn't serious (I really should have put smilies in but I thought you'd get it anyway). Of course I won't treat women as mere sex-objects (I never did and I never will) and I'm not planning on abandoning teaching women just because their minds operate differently than men's. Just yesterday I had an interesting conversation with an old friend of mine (used to be my training-partner for years) and he said it's always best to adapt to the level of your partner, otherwise they'll just tense up and become fearful instead of confident. Let them work on their technique at their level and at their pace and we'll see what becomes of it. We're not training delta-force after all and the likelihood of them getting assaulted are pretty slim, this isn't Iraq or some slum in Brazil after all. Too bad there aren't any higher belts to properly train with although there are a few guys with some background (be it judo, karate or JKD) that can actually take a bit of stress and rough treatment.

I'd never disrespect anybody who steps onto our mats and my perspective on the MA isn't necessarily theirs. I have been training for years now and for me it's a passion (I'm really hoping someday I can open my own dojo), for others it's just sports or a past-time.

I'm actually glad there are women willing to train with us (especially since it's JJ and it does involve close bodily contact which I can imagine is a problem to most girls), women are fun to talk to and it's an extra challenge teaching them. If they're having a good time and become healthier and fitter that's great, if they happen to develop into decent martial-artists and can use this to fend off attackers that's even better but not absolutely necessary.

I'd like to thank you for your insights and I hope you realise I was just kidding around (reductio ad absurdum), I actually thought it would be funny but then again you don't know me personally and my sense of humour isn't exactly average or conventional.


Sue C said...

Hi Zara,
Sorry about the misunderstanding. I was puzzled that your comment did not fit with the type of comments you have made before and assumed that my comment had upset you in some way. It didn't occur to me that it was meant to be tongue-in cheek! This is the problem with purely written communication - I can't read your body language or facial expressions. I used to hate those smiley face things, they seemed a bit twee, but they are actually quite useful and I have started to use them myself recently.

Anyway, no hard feelings, let's get back on track....

Welcome to Campus Services said...

Hi Sue (and Zara)

As a female helping to teach MMA and self-defence, this has been a fascinating and enlightening exchange of views.

I actually agree with both of you!

I would also add though that one of the biggest problems I have come across is that of 'socialisation'. Perhaps a better epithet might be social conditioning.

What I mean by this is that girls appear to be conditioned from a young age to believe that "nice girls don't" in respect of the physicalities of rough and tumble. Girls are supposed to be caring and sharing and not hurt others. That's fine up to a point, but makes teaching self-defence v difficult. In my experience, it takes time to build up a woman's confidence. Getting girls in younger (ideally pre-puberty when they are largely less self-conscious) generally seems to help. Good female role models in class also helps a great deal.

On the flip-side, when I've been working with male training partners, I often find that I have to encourage them to strike harder because I won't break or get upset with them!

Thank you to Sue for raising this issue. It's one that we all face and all ideas for overcoming it are welcome.


Sue C said...

Hi Avril, thanks for leaving a comment. I agree with you that social conditioning is a problem for women and getting girls into martial arts pre-puberty might help with this. I don't know if you've read any of my other posts but I have touched on this subject in a few of them (I have a bee in my bonnet about it!). If you're interested the main posts to read are: 'Should women train differently to men in martial arts' and 'Forrest Morgan interview - women in martial arts' Both are accessible from my side bar in the 'Articles that may interest you....' section. I'd be interested in your response.

Welcome to Campus Services said...

Hi Sue

I'm working my way through your archives, so I shall certainly comment on the other posts as I reach them.



The Strongest Karate said...

You wrote, "There is often an emotional attachment between the woman and her attacker..."

This, right here, is probably the biggest failing of every TMA, RBSD, and WSD I have ever seen. They do not adequately address the emotional resistance a woman may have to striking someone she knows or loves. And when they do it is nearly always boyfriend/husband. I've never heard of someone even mentioning the reality of needing to defend against one's own father, grandfather, or other male relation.

But covering that is hard, training to overcome it is even harder. So let's just take the easy way out and do random bear-hug drills.

You know, Sue, I think you should write an e-book on the subject of women in martial arts. You've got a lot of valuable things to say on the matter and more people should hear them.

Sue C said...

Hi Brett,

Me write an e-book? I'm not so sure. My only real qualification would be that I'm a woman! I think I can identify what's wrong with martial arts from a woman's point of view - I'm not sure I have the solutions though....but thanks for the compliment ;-)


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