Category Archives: Self-defense

Five Striking Truths

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1. Strength Is Overrated  

Bulked-up muscular strength, that is. Big biceps will help you choke someone out, but don’t do as much for straight-on strikes as the coordination of muscles with tendons and ligaments and overall body alignment. And if the muscles were strengthened with isolation exercises, chances are the result will be reduced mobility, shortened reach and increased risk of joint injury.

There are indeed a few athletes who can carry their bulk with unbelievable agility, but that takes an incredible amount of skill, is really hard on the joints, and is an ability more the exception than the rule.100_2182

In storytelling, the victory of the seemingly-weak over the hulking enemy is older than the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. It endures because there is truth in it. Sure, a haymaker thrown by a bulked-up fighter can indeed break a jaw and knock someone out cold, just like a sledgehammer strike. But there’s a reason bodybuilders aren’t boxers. Lots of reasons, actually. Most of those reasons have to do with agility and coordination. While the Bulky Guy is swinging that sledgehammer of a punch, you can land a few hits to his most vulnerable targets and get out of the way before the punch lands.

Speaking of vulnerable targets… Continue reading Five Striking Truths

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Violence and Viewpoint

In self-defense, hesitation can kill.  We’ve talked about that One-Mississippi before, yes?  Waiting to act—even when that wait is a natural “Is this really happening?” moment—can mean the difference between striking before the attacker grabs, or having to fight with a bleeding head injury.  It can mean the difference between an escape made on your feet or fighting a losing battle the ground.

That push against hesitation must be balanced against circumstances, though.  If a drunk gets handsy with me in the pub, I shouldn’t hesitate to stop him… but I should not slam the ridge of my hand against his throat, gouge out an eyeball, and stomp his ribcage until I puncture a lung. 100_2182

Hesitation can kill a story, too, especially when it comes to emotional impact.  We writers shouldn’t shy from realistically portraying the cost of making choices or exploring the consequences of action and inaction. But writers must, too, find a balance—especially when depicting violence in accordance with genre expectations.  Continue reading Violence and Viewpoint

Grounding In Real Life

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Grounding and energy generation—the basis of so many combat and meditative arts in real life, and referred to directly or indirectly in a multitude of fictional magic and fighting systems. In the latter, it’s often described as rooting, or as drawing from the earth, or in other non-specific and spiritual-sounding ways. Gripping the earth with our feet, sinking or connecting, and other aspects of energy use.

I’ve also seen some rather ridiculous demonstrations that can best be deemed Karate Magic or Sensei-Fu—the great and powerful master who uses a pinky finger and hand-wave-um to send faithful students tumbling and sprawling as a demonstration of great power drawn from the earth and channeled into superhuman chi. Here’s an example of what happens when self-delusion walks into reality.

Ahem.100_2182

I’m more of a practical gal, I suppose.

Yes, I could say grounding gives you a connection to the earth beneath your feet—and indeed modern research demonstrates an incredible energy exchange when one walks barefoot on soil—but that isn’t extensively useful in a sudden and unexpected fight.

Think about it: the notion of “grounding” as tapping into the earth’s energy means you cannot expect your powerful techniques to work if you’re on a boat, on a plane, in a high-rise, or having to defend yourself within the confines of a spaceship. Or, for that matter, on a yoga mat on the gym’s second floor. Grounding might make one feel connected with the earth or with the universe, but that’s the result of the act rather than the act itself. It’s a metaphor that has, by some instructors and fiction writers, been taken way too far.

Grounding is not a spiritual act dependent upon the Think Method.

Continue reading Grounding In Real Life

The Expectations and Fault Follow-Up

In the comments to Making the Nice-Guy Challenge a Safe One, mrissa and scallywag195 both shared questions and perspectives I wanted to answer in more detail. That “more detail” ended up being much longer than I thought… but here it is!

Questions from mrissa first:

My question is twofold:

1) In what context would his actions have been reasonable in a class/mat setting? In what context is “respond as though someone who is not in pads etc. is the actual attacker” the correct scenario? If this was a mismatch of reasonable expectations, I am having a hard time seeing where his expectation was reasonable.

The short answer is, “When Sensei says so.” Continue reading The Expectations and Fault Follow-Up

The Snarky Partner

It is easy — terribly easy —to shake a man’s faith in himself.

To take advantage of that to break a man’s spirit is the devil’s work.

–George Bernard Shaw

Train or talk about martial arts and self-defense long enough, and someone will invariably want to test you.  It’s usually annoying or amusing to varying degrees, depending on the person’s attitude, but it can sometimes be frightening.

I’ll talk about that frightening aspect next month.  This time, I want to talk about a specific sort of challenge most often laid down before the new student whose combination of budding knowledge and excited inexperience makes them vulnerable to emotional undermining.100_2182

It happens early on in training, usually in the first month or two.  A student who has been doing well walks into class with a little less confidence.    A little less enthusiasm.  Why?

“Sensei, my boyfriend wanted to see me do that wrist escape we learned last week, and it didn’t work!”

This sensei hates when this happens.  The disappointment and self-doubt in a student is painful to see, and even more painful for the student to feel.  All the student’s excitement over learning something new—the poise of gained confidence in one’s ability—broken down in a few minutes by someone who professes to care.

I hate it.  I hate with vim and passion.

It isn’t always a boyfriend.  It might be a husband, father, mother, sibling, or school classmate.  But no matter the role, the person sees themselves holding the same position: a superior whose station must be reinforced, and whose station is threatened by the student’s sense of consent-based self-determination.

Oh, sure, some of those folks will claim the most-est and best-est of intentions.

  • “I don’t want you to have a false sense of security.”
  • “You need to know you can’t always win.”
  • “I just want to be realistic.”

And sometimes the comments are more direct and honest.

  • “I told you that karate stuff wouldn’t work.”
  • “Don’t start thinking you’re all that special.”
  • “You’re pretty stupid, thinking you can beat me.”

But no matter the spoken reason, the underlying motivation is almost always the same:

  • “To prove myself stronger and smarter, I must prove you are weak, incapable, and less worthy.”

Yes, I hate it.

*****

Teaching self-defense as a years-long curriculum accessible to students of diverse ages and abilities requires deliberation and forethought on a different scale than a weekend empowerment workshop.  (Not better or lesser, mind you.  Just different.)  So one of the first things I teach students under the “self-defense” topic is a collection of basic hold escapes—what to do if someone grabs your wrist, elbow, shoulder, or shirt front.

The simple techniques teach a skill, certainly, but also the rules and expectations of working with a partner.  Students also learn the principles of leverage and torque, grounding and balance, general body awareness, and the connection between the decision to take action and the resulting consequences.

Hold escapes are a very big deal.

I and my more senior students are always the students’ first partners.  Once the basic maneuvers of a escape are taught sans contact, we start grabbing students. We start off with the tight grip and quick release meant to build competence and confidence.  The better the students’ technique, the more difficult we make it to escape, and we adjust it for each student.  The goal is to encourage, and require, progressive improvement.

We set and enforce standards, and most importantly, tell students to not only respect their boundaries, but to enforce their boundaries with calm skill.

It’s called “teaching.”

Then comes the moment the student, excited and confident, goes home to a person who isn’t all that excited, let alone passing supportive of the student’s martial arts training.  That person listens to the student talk about the cool wrist escape she learned just an hour or so ago.  And that person sees the opportunity to prove their own superior strength.

So that person offers to be a “partner,” and grabs the student’s wrist with as much force as possible (and usually with a grip or angle the particular wrist escape isn’t designed to counter).  The student struggles.  The student, who has known the technique for all of a couple hours, and practiced the technique a couple dozen times at the most, fails to break the full-power, all-strength hold of their supposedly supportive partner.

That “partner” happily reinforces the student’s sense of failure and weakness.

The student feels like a failure.

The other person feels fantastic, having confirmed their superiority.

I.  Hate. This.

Truly, the person who feels the need to subjugate a person they supposedly love and care for is, in my eyes, the weak and frightened one.  It’s the person who’d mock a teenager for learning the difference between the gas and brake pedal before speeding onto an ice-covered highway.  It’s the person who thinks it’s funny to drop someone into a warzone before they’ve learned how to load a rifle.  It’s the jerk who believes proof of strength lies in how well they can beat up someone in handcuffs.

It’s punching down.

It’s weakness.

It’s pathetic.

So… after a year or so of teaching, and seeing this drama play out over and over, I made a couple alterations to the lessons.

Yes, I still teach hold escapes.  Yes, I teach them with the same limitations.

Then I tell the students the truth:  “Someone is going to test you.  Someone will want to see if you can really, truly, escape.  And someone will want to prove you can’t do anything at all.  If you try the hold escape, and it doesn’t work, it isn’t because you failed.  It’s because the person holding you thinks they have to beat you.  And that person thinks your fear of hurting them is greater than your fear of being hurt by them.”

Really, that’s the truth of it.  I’ve seen it in the smirks and eyerolls these “supportive” partners give when the student explains to me the hold escape didn’t work.

The Snarky Partner depends on your passivity.  She wants you to hesitate.  He wants you to be afraid of trying.  She wants you to let a loud-mouthed person prove his superiority. He wants to demonstrate his strength is really oh-wow cool.  She wants to make certain you doubt your strength and courage.  He wants to demonstrate how unworthy and incapable you are of determining consent.  The Snarky Partner wants, above all else, to undermine a person’s confidence in self-direction, self-defense, self-determination.

And it doesn’t matter if the Snarky Partner doesn’t actually, deep-down wish you harm.  Because all those things the Snarky Partner wants to prove are the same the attacker wants you to believe: you’re weak, you’re unsure, you’re not worth your own fight.

*****

It isn’t unusual for the Snarky Partner to be the one who accompanies the student to the dojo.  In my experience, the Snarky Partner sometimes goes to great lengths to ensure they’re in attendance because they want to watch the class—to see what the students are taught, how the students are taught, and to find out “tricks” that can be used to encourage a student’s failure.

Whenever possible, I hold my Snarky Partner speech right in front of the watching family and friends.  (Once, I even took the empty center seat in the front row of the observation area because one parent had, week after week, demonstrated his inability to understand by yanking his small son around and laughing at him.) I’ll talk specifically and thoroughly about the Snarky Partner, how to counter that person, and—most importantly—how to either dismiss them as irrelevant or use them as a self-teaching opportunity.

That’s usually enough to end the home-based Snarkers.

But out in real life, where it’s possible you’ll encounter a person who needs to bolster their own ego at another’s expense, chit-chats from Sensei don’t much work.

If my students are children, I must tread a bit carefully for numerous reasons.   They might have abusive parents I haven’t yet sussed out (and I’ve sussed out more than a handful, my darlings), so I must keep in mind the consequences a child might face if they resist a parent.  They might face a challenge at school, where defending one’s self against physical attacks is considered horrifyingly dangerous and grounds for suspension or expulsion.  They might lack the support of a backbone-empowered adult (like the father who let his son be beaten up, day after day and year after year, because he was afraid they’d be sued if his son fought back).

So I tell them this:  “Karate is something to be proud of, but not something to brag about.  If you tell people you know karate, some bad person will try to prove you don’t.  It’s better if you keep your knowledge here, at the dojo, and don’t try to show off to others.  But if you are ever afraid, and if you ever have questions, you come talk to me, and I promise to keep what you tell me safe.  And if you have to use your karate to really, truly defend yourself, I will back you up.  Just remember that the longer you’re here, the more you’ll learn, and every person who is a sensei wants to help you because we were all white belts, too.”

If my students are all adults, I tell them something with a bit more… oomph.

I tell them about Snarky Partners and their usual motives.  As you might guess, I almost always have at least one adult student who’d like to explain why a Snarky Partner doesn’t really mean to be snarky.

“Could they see you were upset?” I ask.

“Well, yes.  But it was just a joke!”

“Were you laughing?”

“Well… no…”

“Then smack ’em upside the head to make them stop!”

There is often some awkward laughter at this point—mostly over the idea of inflicting a small amount of physical discomfort on someone.

So I add this: “The Snarky Partner is hurting you and shaming you.  There is nothing morally wrong with making them stop.  And if that person thinks it’s all right when they hurt you, and not all right when you stop them, you need to think about what that means to you and your children.”

Yes, I do indeed say that—flat out, without mumble-speak censoring.

Because it is true.   Because I hate seeing folks who ought to be supported and encouraged have to instead explain away the overbearing snickering of someone who is being mean.

Some Snarky Partners really don’t understand what they’re doing to their partner/child/spouse.  They do indeed think dragging a weaker person around is just plain funny.  And a subset of these folks take well to being told and will change their behavior.  I’ve even had a boyfriend approach me to ask the best way to help!

Those are the easy ones.  The tough cases require a bit more of a direct approach.  So I go on to explain one of the foundational concepts of successful self-defense: you don’t have to make an attacker let go.  You can instead motivate them to let go.

Ram the heel of your hand—the hand they’re not holding—right between their eyebrows or under their chin.  Or grind your knuckles into the back of the hand holding you.  Or set your foot on the side of their knee and say you’ll kick if they don’t let go.  Or just give them an open hand slap across the mouth.   Yank on an ear.  Poke them in the armpit.  Spit.

No, the Snarky Partner will not be expecting any of those things.

They might try to tell you that as a way of excusing the fact they let go, to make you feel bad for making them stop their bad behavior.  They might even fall back on, “That’s not fair!”

Which…  Oh, ye gads.

Really, my darlings, I cannot even force myself to write about that piece of ridiculousness.

Y’see, self-defense isn’t about being stronger and tougher than an attacker, or even working some clever technique against an attacker.  It’s about doing what the attacker doesn’t expect and gaining the few precious seconds you need to escape.  But most importantly, it’s knowing—deep down and without a doubt—that you are worth defending.  That you’re worth your own defending, and you don’t need someone else to defend you in order to understand your own value.

The Snarky Partner doesn’t like that much.

They can go on not liking it for as long as they wish.

You don’t have to go on with them.

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Putting “Run Away!” In Its Proper Context

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 *  *  *  *

Run away when you can!  First rule of self-defense!100_2182

Hang around martial arts and self-defense instructors long enough, you’re bound to hear this advice given over and over.  Some would tout it as the most important advice, but it’s most akin to, “Major in engineering (or whatever is financially lucrative),” or perhaps “Always eat organic foods.”

The temptation to make “run away” the foundational principle of self-defense lies in its simplicity.  But since the advice is usually given rather than taught, its limitations are rarely considered, and how to use it as a successful and integrated portion of an overall strategy isn’t much discussed.

The most important piece of self-defense advice is actually, “Avoid the fight, or make it as short as possible.”  That’s the defining strategy to avoid harm to self and others.  “Run away” is but one of many possible tactics in support of that strategy.   But the conditions under which it’s the best  option are limited, and teaching it as one’s primary technique is as responsible as teaching everyone in the world to take the stairs instead of the elevator in order to improve their health.

Since most self-defense instructors were taught by—and teach, and are themselves—people of a certain baseline fitness and physical mobility, the assumptions behind “run away” aren’t always examined.  So let’s take a look at them, and narrow down the circumstances under which running is indeed the best option.

First, understand running away is not a passive act.  It is resistance.  It is an escalation.

Continue reading Putting “Run Away!” In Its Proper Context

Where the Boundaries Are Drawn

 

(This article originally appeared on These Certain Musings in July 2012.)

This story troubles me greatly.  It’s taken me awhile to pinpoint exactly–beyond the obvious–why.  During this morning’s karate class, I think I figured it out.  Now to see if I can articulate it.  I’m using a bunch of newbie-author italics and bolds.  Oh, well.

The decision made by the Readercon board says to me that harassment happened, and that witnesses backed it up.  It says the behavior was not acceptable–but it was excusable.  A short-term banning says the boundary-crossing–which I understand included physical contact, correct me if I’m wrong–was determined to be not nice, but not a big deal.

But there’s another notion I want to discuss–a related tangent, if you will–that this situation triggered for me.  I don’t think it’s anything new, and it incorporates what others are saying, but I decided to post it anyway.  While the situation I’ve read of is the jumping-off point, I am not talking about that specific situation.  I’m talking about generalities and probabilities, not specifics and certainties.

Statistically, the larger danger is not the creepy stranger lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce.  It’s the family member or acquaintance who keeps his behavior just inside the lines of what society tells us we should expect to accept, the level of behavior we should treat with subtlety and civility, until he’s ready to attack.

But the primary danger is where society puts those lines.

Alas, many acquaintance attacks begin with the same behavior that many would deem “mere clueless rudeness.”  But following from place to place, invading personal space, seemingly casual touching, refusal to stop–all are behaviors we know can lead to a life-threatening attack.  We know this at a deep and primal level.  That’s why it makes us uncomfortable.

And society as a whole has agreed we may not take defensive action until after the aggressor has attacked.  In other words, it’s perfectly cool for the man to say he misinterpreted a woman’s actions, even though the woman is left fearing for her physical safety.  But if the woman takes definitive and physical action to stop an attack before it escalates, she is usually blamed for overreacting.  Shamed for being rude.  Castigated for embarrassing the one who is crossing boundaries.

Y’all know I teach self-defense.  One thing we discuss and practice at length is the correlation between distance, time, and safety.  The greater the distance between you and danger, the more time there is to react.  The more time you have, the greater the likelihood of reaching safety.

But the good manners women are taught draw the lines of “appropriate” response inside an average person’s reaction time, inside the point of likely success.  It isn’t the man’s superior strength or size that is most dangerous.  It’s the fact we’re not permitted to take action against him until he’s already gained the advantage.

If society wants the woman to take defensive action only after she has been isolated, restrained, or struck, society is placing the woman’s right to protect herself far behind the man’s desire to avoid being embarrassed by his own behavior.  Clueless or intentional–I don’t care.  The aggressor’s feelings are given a higher value than the woman’s safety.  And frankly, it’s the ones who claim cluelessness who are more dangerous.  If they claim they don’t understand, “Please leave me alone,” they can’t be trusted to understand, “I don’t want to have sex with you,” either.

There is one thing I try to hammer home–for myself as much as for my students–in an attempt to override that societal conditioning:  If someone places an unwanted hand on me, that person has forfeited the right to said hand.  If it is on my body, it belongs to me, to do with as I think appropriate for the situation.  That might mean a pointed but low-key removal of the hand from my shoulder, or a blatant and painful pinky-finger twist, or something more aggressive.

(If my intuitions–which should be trusted–are telling me the man isn’t going to comply with my words, I hope to all that’s worth hoping to I’d do what I’ve been trained to do.  Saying with complete conviction that I’d do X would really be nothing but bravado.  We all hope we’ll know what to do, but it’s after you’ve faced a confrontation that you realize how unpredictable it can be.  Anyway.)

My actual response isn’t as important as knowing, deep down, that a person who harasses me, touches me, and tries to corner me has forfeited the right to polite words and civilized reactions.  I don’t need to be his teacher first, and verbally remind him to be a man rather than asshole.  If he hasn’t already learned, that isn’t my problem to solve nor my fault to bear.

If you tell a woman her “appropriate” boundary is within an unwanted hug–when her ability to strike is impaired, her ability to flee gone, and her body possibly at the mercy of another person’s strength and mass–you’ve decided you’d rather see her come to harm than upset the “civilized” nature of an event.

Really think about that for a moment.  Consider the term “acceptable losses.”  Now put faces to those losses.  Put that in context of what price we’re willing to pay to keep those lopsided and threatening situations from being an “embarrassment.”  The physical and emotional wellbeing of the person  is of less value than the feelings of a man who may choose to pursue a woman who tells him to leave her alone.

Distance = time = safety.  No amount of training can compensate for a societal requirement that the woman wait until she is hurt and restrained before fighting back.

I can’t speak to what Readercon’s decision means to those who are involved or those who have faced similar situations.  That’s for others–who have more con-going experience than I–to explain and discuss.  It’s just this little sliver of self-defense I’m addressing.
Notes:
1.  All of the above applies equally to men who have been assaulted by men or women, and women who have been assaulted by women.  I struggled with what pronouns to use, and decided to default to the genders specific to the Readercon situation for the sake of clarity.

2.  I’ve had women ask me some variation of, “But what if it’s one of your husband’s friends, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t mean any harm?” My response is some variation of, “But what if the next time he cops a feel, it’s your teenage daughter?”

3. Yes, it’s possible to turn an unwanted hug to your advantage, but not for the average person.  If that nitpick is the best response someone can come up with, I expect it to be followed by, “So let’s give everyone a year’s worth of Krav Maga training!”