I was sent a link to a women’s magazine article giving five tips for self-defense that were credited to a woman with an advanced rank in karate.
Look: I respect any woman who has trained so long—particularly a woman who began at a time when women weren’t much wanted or expected to be in a dojo. That’s a woman like one of my own primary instructors, whose courage and determination made the mat a safer and more welcoming place for me to be in more recent years. But I can’t help pointing out when advice can be not all the useful, or useful only to those who have a lifetime of good physical agility and ability.
Before I say more, I’ll share a couple points.
First, I didn’t start training before I turned thirty. Though I’ve trained for over a decade, in my dojo, that makes me a baby. I know I’m not an expert, and can’t imagine any time in the future I’d call myself one. The fact my own primary instructors have been actively training for over four decades has much to do with that. Most times I feel like a middle school student hanging out with post-doctoral scholars.
Second, I spent the first thirty years of my life dealing with and trying to hide my hip dysplasia. I was born with one leg turned inward ninety degrees, and the other turned almost completely backward. (My most comfortable seated position is one the floor with my knees turned inward and stacked atop on another.) By the time I was in my late teens, my hips would partially dislocate, without warning, from something as simple as walking. Though I looked fit, and usually appeared completely “normal,” there were a ton of things I knew I couldn’t do without expecting to fall on my face. Those things got more numerous the older I grew.
Those two pieces give me a different perspective than some martial artists over the age of forty. Coming to training later in life meant I had to overcome a lifetime of adult physical habits and conditioning. Training with a minor disability meant efficiency in self-defense was more important than complicated technique. Put those together, and you’ll find my opinions of self-defense are different from those who began training young, and who could always count on their bodies to do what they wanted.
So in the article, the first step was to get mad. No problem. I’m on board with that.
The second step was to… hold your purse in front of your chest to protect you. The third was to throw your wallet on the ground to distract your attacker so you could run away.
Anyone want to try doing both those things at the same time while an attacker is in your face? Neither do I. If it’s a mugging, I’m more than willing to toss over my purse or wallet or whatever. But I can’t hold my purse in front of my chest and dig out my wallet at the same time. And if it’s not a mugging, I don’t want to count on tossing my wallet around as the thing that gives me time to escape. The fact those are considered the second and third most important points of self-defense troubles me.
The fourth step is to kick off your shoes if you aren’t wearing flats.
So try this one at home. Put on a pair of heels, then ask your partner, roommate or friend to stand three feet away. Try to kick off both shoes and run away before your friend can grab your arm or your hair. Now imagine trying it while under attack.
And the fifth step is to take out the attacker’s knees before running away. I’ve recommended this one myself, to many students and friends. But it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Ask martial artists to kick at the knees, and they’ll usually glare at the attacker while the foot connects. Ask folks without training, and they’ll do something totally understandable and extremely dangerous: they will look down to locate the attacker’s knee. They will take long enough to visually locate the knee for the attacker to prevent them from kicking. And if they are able to kick, they will, quite often, miss the small target.
Here’s what I would personally consider more effective.
First, scream. And I mean SCREAM. Make noise. Your attacker would prefer no one notice what’s happening. Screaming and cussing and yelling breaks the barrier of secrecy the attacker wants, and it lets the attacker know you are a threat to his success. It causes a startle reflex in your attacker and, if it’s loud enough, can temporarily damage hearing. Physically, screaming gives the added benefits of forcing you to breathe deeply, increasing your adrenaline, and temporarily hardening the core muscles.
Maybe the noise will attract help, but don’t count on it. Never count on help. Chances are your attacker—who will usually fear being caught and hurt—has done his best to ensure help isn’t close enough to be helpful.
Second… Well, I can’t give you that. I don’t know your physical strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know how agile you are, whether you can flee an attacker, or even if your state/country permits certain forms of counter attack. There was a time in my life when telling me to kick my attacker—in the knee, in the groin, even stomping a foot—would have been useless because I couldn’t lift my foot more than a few inches, and had no strength with which to stomp. There was a time when I couldn’t run away. Other women will have difficulty raising their arms far enough to gouge an attacker’s eyes. Others still will lack the strength the strike with meaningful force.
And that, I suppose, is my point. So much that’s touted as the so-bestest self-defense assumes the woman is between fifteen and forty-five, in good shape, and possessing full mobility. It’s written mostly by folks who don’t know what it’s like to struggle up a flight of stairs, who don’t know how it feels to be unable to lift their arms above their shoulders, who can’t well remember a time before their bodies were conditioned to physical challenge, who have worked so long and often with the physically able that they don’t consider those with challenges.
So I guess the second piece is to know your own limitations now and, rather than lament them, work around them. Think about what’s in your “natural” target zone–anything from eyeballs to toes. And please don’t let someone tell you MMA fighting will teach you all about self-defense. I promise many of those fights would be much shorter if testicle-twists and nose-hooks were permitted. But fighters can’t do that in the cage. You, however, can choose something like that to make your attacker go away.
Most importantly, my goal is to convince my attacker he has made a very bad mistake in choosing me. I want him to want to leave me alone as much as I want to be left alone. I just don’t see holding up my purse and kicking off my shoes as the best way to ensure my safety.
Karate is to be used in self-defense. Assuming that means all of its techniques are only defensive, however, would be a mistake.
(Also posted at These Certain Musings)
Edited 06-01-13 to correct grammar and sentence structure.