Martial Arts delusion and how it hurts women.
“I want to be able to protect myself.” From the hundreds of fellow martial artists I’ve talked with about why they train, this phrase sticks out at the top of the list. Over the years, I’ve become less and less convinced that martial arts actually does relate to “self protection” goals. There are ways in which almost everyone who does martial arts may be “safer.” (Exercise is healthy, improving balance and learning to fall safely will protect against common accidents…). Some people, like law-enforcement officers or people who live or work in really bad neighborhoods, may have specific risks that martial arts can help them address. For the rest of us…it’s a great hobby. It’s nice to feel like a badass. It’s good for bonding with people. Discipline, strength, confidence…it’s a hobby (or lifestyle, or obsession) worth pursuing. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Many martial artists train for those reasons, for sport, or just because it’s fun. Wonderful reasons.
But the “self-protection” delusion is a problem. I would like to see that delusion sliced open and its guts strewn in the dirt: in martial artists, in school marketing, and in the general population. I would like to see women’s self-defense training that addresses the real risks taught more widely, and see things that are not women’s self-defense marketed accurately “women-only martial arts class” rather than “women’s self-defense” for instance.
It’s a big problem. Specifically, it’s a huge problem for women, whose risk profile is entirely different from men’s. Women are led to believe and trust that by studying martial arts they will be safer from the risks they face, and that is at best a very small partial truth and at worst outright wrong.
When men come to martial arts to learn how to fight off an attacker, it’s an active shooter, a violent mugger, a carjacker, or a drunk in a bar. Risks that (other than the aforementioned LE officers and people in sketchy neighborhoods) they are beyond unlikely to face. For most people those are some of the least likely actual risks in their lives. Giving up fried food, taking a defensive-driving class, and updating an eyeglass prescription would eliminate more risk from most people’s lives than decades of martial arts training.
So the harm to men from martial arts training is that they get a great hobby with a lot of benefits, for reasons that are mistaken. That’s even sometimes acknowledged among us, that we have to be crazy to do this stuff when it’s almost certain never to be needed.
When women, however, come with the purpose of learning self-protection, it’s sexual assault and abuse that they’re worried about. “I want to learn to protect myself” means “I want to feel safe from rape.” That’s where the delusion becomes a problem. A big problem.
Martial arts training is a hammer, which makes every “protection” problem a nail. Everyone has heard “the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman is acquainted with.” But when women sign up for a martial arts program, what they’re getting is stranger-attack skills. In the real world, women’s acquaintances are not hiding in the bushes or in deserted parking lots to leap out and subdue their friends. Spending just a little time thinking about the on-the-mat skills taught in almost every martial arts school anywhere, and comparing with the scenarios encountered routinely by 1:4 women in their teens and twenties shows the obvious. That isn’t training for the risks those women will encounter.
Assault by friends, boyfriends, husbands, co-workers, teachers, bosses, and relatives, the monumental majority of assaults inflicted on women, start with emotional manipulation. Controlling behavior. Envelope-pushing behavior. Boundary erosion. Manipulation. Creation of ambiguity. Drugging of drinks. Encouraging of more alcohol or drug use than a woman intends. Undermining confidence and self-worth. A vast array of behaviors that can make an assault into a loathsome morass, a situation where punching and kicking are worthless. Different skills are needed.
Kayla Harrison is an example of exactly that. She was already a gifted Judoka when she was assaulted. If anyone could defend herself with martial arts, probably even as a small child, it would have been Kayla Harrison. If martial arts skills are supposed to apply to acquaintance rape, and she couldn’t apply them, then people with no athletic skill walking in to a random school a couple of days a week surely can’t. But that wasn’t the problem. Kayla’s skills were not the problem. Many women martial artists are raped every year in spite of their belts, training, and ability to put a foot directly through a man’s abdomen. Martial arts skills are the wrong tool for that situation. Totally and completely wrong.
Knowing what skills are needed starts with risk analysis. Risk analysis is something woefully deficient in most martial arts training. Most martial arts instructors enjoy various combinations of: punching, kicking, grappling, throws, chokes, locks…they enjoy sparring, rolling, using various weapons, they enjoy winning. This is what those folks are great at, they love it, and they teach it. Looking beyond that takes a lot of effort. The easier thing for people who have a subject they love is to believe that it can solve all problems. The hammer.
When it comes to studying, martial arts instructors might enjoy looking at old scrolls, or watching video of other martial artists, reading books about martial arts. When they research “modern attacks” they watch video of inmate interviews describing stranger attacks and how victims are chosen. They watch security video of knifings and shootings. Unless they’re the guy who wrote “The Gift of Fear,” (Gavin DeBecker…good stuff…read that) they rarely study the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” or study women’s risk profiles from other sources.
Studying martial arts the usual ways means reinforcing teaching martial arts the usual ways, and the delusion that martial arts can protect from “attacks.” Regardless of the reality. Delusion is like that.
But some martial artists are women. And women are a great target demographic. And sometimes, the need for “something else” breaks through the comfortable idea that if you are just good enough at punching and kicking, then all situations can be handled.
Enter “Ladies’ Self-Defense.” Almost every martial arts school sometimes offers a women’s self-defense class. Sometimes it’s even taught by women students or instructors. And that’s where things get complicated. Those classes are almost always intended just to bring in new students. They serve a good purpose: an easy on-ramp to martial arts training. We know that women often find it hard to walk in the door to martial arts, and such a ramp is a big help.
But it also reinforces the delusion.
Advertised as “women’s self-defense,” the classes generally just teach a women-only version of whatever the school usually teaches. Maybe a pink-washed version. Maybe with “make this a slap instead of a punch,” or a hair-pull tossed in. But really, it’s just the same stuff. No different in addressing real risk for women than for men. Nothing “women’s” about the self-defense except that no men are in the class.
Sometimes there are classes in real women’s self-defense though. That does exist. Almost exclusively taught by women, and mostly not teaching any physical techniques at all. Once in a while it even comes from a martial arts school. Women who train sometimes go out of their way to learn women’s risks, to learn and develop curricula to address those risks. Books and classes are out there. But from the perspective of a woman with no background, there’s no distinction between a pink-washed regular martial arts class and a serious women’s self-defense program.
Women coming in off the streets with no expertise, and just a vague idea “I want to be safer” encounter confident martial artists who think that their hammer can address any nail (pun fully intended). Those women can spend years and thousands of dollars learning skills that don’t address their real risks. They may love their art, they may become Kayla Harrison, they may never regret walking in the door of their school…but they’re not learning what they came to learn.
The troublesome part of this is that many women who train in a martial art know all of this. We have been saying this for a long time. We care about women’s risks and the very alarming occurrences of those risks. (Comparing men who are unlikely to ever be attacked in any way with women who have a 25% chance of violent attack in their lifetime is stark). We study, we read, we learn in other contexts. In my case, I learned about women’s self-defense through a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum when I was 13, and again in my twenties when I became certified to teach that curriculum. I learned more in training to become a Crisis Response Advocate for sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors. I learned by reading real research and talking with real survivors (many of whom are fellow martial artists). I know many other women martial artists and instructors who have sought out that information and those skills. We learn that specialty, and we sound like broken records talking about the need to teach real women’s self-defense.
But schools still mostly don’t teach those skills. The delusion of “martial arts makes you safer” persists. One reason is that it is vaguely true that martial arts makes you safer. The “learning-to-fall-safely,” the “longer-life-through-exercise.” The reduction of already-infinitesimal risk of stranger attacks that apply to men and women. Those things are real. Not that important, not that useful, but real.
Also, it’s easy for the (mostly male) senior people who run schools and styles to pass off their female students’ concerns with an occasional seminar. That feels like enough for a concern that doesn’t seem real to them. They have no personal stake. They’ve never guarded their drink like Fort Knox. They’ve never known a dozen friends who have been pressured into sex by people they trusted and thought “that could have been me.” Never faced losing a job or a home if they didn’t sleep with someone. Risks for other people are easy to pass off.
Martial arts Instructors feel like warrior protectors, who think that if they are with a woman she is safe. Which is the diametric opposite of the real risk analysis which says that a woman is safer walking alone than with a male acquaintance (don’t take that as advice). Those men can believe in their punching-and-kicking hammer, wholeheartedly, as a panacea, point at the “women’s self-defense” class (that isn’t women’s self-defense) and be annoyed by the insistent nattering of the women students or junior Instructors who say otherwise. Badgered to think uncomfortable thoughts when they could stay on solid comfortable ground instead.
There are other reasons. Economic reasons. It doesn’t pay for most martial arts schools to let students think too hard about real risk analysis. Some places teach an art that is beautiful and has nothing to do with self-defense, and the school doesn’t pretend it does. I’m guessing that a Zen Archery teacher presented with a prospective student who said “I want to learn to protect myself” would point the prospect in another direction. But in schools purporting to teach modern defense…either the instructors don’t know what the real risks are, or they just don’t want to think too hard about it. They want to cling to the idea that “martial arts makes you safer” and take the money. They probably even believe it and are just bad at math.
I prefer the Macy’s approach. Sending a prospective student elsewhere if what they need isn’t in the house. Honesty and integrity and cutting through delusion. If a woman comes looking for risk-reduction, and a martial arts school doesn’t offer real women’s self-defense, then sending the prospect to a class at a Crisis Response organization, or even another martial arts school (if there is one teaching those actual skills nearby) is a way to get more students, a better reputation, and loyalty from their own women students. Doing otherwise is a breakdown in integrity, a crack in the facade that can run deep.
There are worse reasons. Some schools are run by men who have no business running anything. Men who see the women in their school as their personal dating pool, or worse. Men like Kayla Harrison’s early teacher. A far-too-common thing in an industry full of alpha-males and narcissists. Those men have zero interest in teaching women to protect themselves from the emotional manipulation they use. The mindsets of those men could be a book all its own. We don’t like to talk about that, but Kayla Harrison’s situation isn’t as uncommon as it should be.
The most innocuous reason for this delusion is that schools teach certain skills, the people running them may not get into heavy discussions about the whys and wherefores with their students. Many schools are fun, happy places where deep discussion isn’t a thing. It’s just “caveat emptor.” People need to do some research before they sign up to spend a lot of time and money on a hobby, to make sure it’s a hobby that will serve their actual needs.
But what is the harm? People train in a martial art, maybe get a black-belt even. Enjoy themselves. Make friends. Feel like a badass. Look cool. They exercise. They get discipline, and self-control, and endurance. Martial arts is an outstanding, awesome hobby that I personally think everyone on earth should try. It’s been a major life-changing thing for me. If an acquaintance says “I’m thinking about martial arts” they get from me “YES, you should do it! You’ll love it!” So where is the harm? This article is about the harm.
If you try to buy a car, and you get a giant cake shaped like a car, you might love the heck out of that cake…but it’s not what you paid for. If you then try to drive somewhere in an emergency, you’re screwed. (Please substitute a better analogy in your head).
If a woman, (or the parents of a girl) walk into a school and say “I’d like to learn to protect myself” or “I’d like to make sure that my daughter can defend herself,” and everyone involved knows that they mean “I want (for her) to be safe from rape” and the school takes thousands of their dollars over the years without teaching them easily-acquired skills that will make them appreciably safer from that risk…that’s a harm.
Even if the women become badass black-belts. Even if they love training. Even if they wouldn’t trade that time in for anything else. They still didn’t get what they paid for, and in the 1:4 chance that they encounter a situation they’re not prepared for, they are screwed. That is the harm. That’s a failure of unconscionable proportions.
But there are more insidious harms as well. Some of those women and girls are exposed to those narcissist teachers who exploit them. Many of them will go about their lives and suffer acquaintance-rape. When that happens, my experience has been that it’s been worse for women martial artists than for other women in some ways. The difference between “I couldn’t protect myself” and “I should have been able to protect myself and I failed” is crushing.
One benefit of martial arts can be a feeling of almost super-hero-like ability to handle whatever is thrown at you. It’s a positive, and a negative. It reinforces the idea that martial arts is a hammer and every kind of problem is a nail. Because we train, we can do anything. Confidence helps us solve problems, but not all problems can be solved that way.
People who train to punch and kick on mats in an air-conditioned and well-lit school don’t suddenly have skills that make them safe walking blindly down a mountain in the middle of the night, or the ability to whip a perfect merengue, or to perform an appendectomy, or to spot the red flags that often signal a controlling relationship that can lead to sexual assault and abuse. Specialized skills require specialized training.
Martial artists like us really want to believe, as our instructors do, that the skills we’ve acquired through years of blood, sweat, and tears will serve us in many ways. They do. But they don’t substitute for other training. And when women (or girls) who have learned to beat the tar out of an opponent on a mat feel that they are safe from rape, and then it happens, that is crushing. It immediately undermines belief in themselves painstakingly built on a foundation of martial arts training. They suddenly go from walking through the world as a black-belt to feeling like a victim and a failure. This is not the fault of the woman, it is the delusion perpetuated by martial arts school culture and an abject failure to teach them the tools they need to protect themselves from easily-predictable and common attacks they are likely to encounter.
Putting aside the men and women law enforcement officers and the people who live or work in dangerous neighborhoods; men who train in martial arts are studying because it’s a hobby, not because it’s a sensible use of resources to make them safer. Men mostly don’t need martial arts. Women have a high risk profile. We can expect that 1:4 will be raped, and mostly that will happen when they are in their late teens or early twenties. Women need appropriate training and the knowledge and skills to be taught are readily available. Martial arts schools routinely fail to serve the demographic that needs them most and schools lead women to believe that they are getting what they need to protect themselves.
All of this for a delusion. The path with integrity is this: First and foremost, Instructors need to recognize that women’s self-defense is a specialized skill set, and not one that comes from being a black-belt in any normal martial art. It’s not shameful for men who teach martial arts to acknowledge that they need to learn new skills or outsource some training for the good of their school.
Those skills can benefit all students. Emotional manipulation happens in many contexts, to men and to women. Male students would benefit from learning women’s self-defense tools. It would make them better partners, instructors, and human beings.
Regular training needs translation. Don’t assume that just because regular techniques can be interpreted to apply in different situations that students will be able to do that on the fly in an emergency. Training needs to be interpreted on the mat, in safe environment, before it’s needed in the real world.
Marketing needs to have integrity. Women’s classes are not “women’s self-defense” unless they actually are teaching skills specific to women’s risks. Classes can still be easy ways to get women into training without misrepresentation.
The cost of integrity is getting out of the comfort zone, stepping into uncomfortable territory, and cutting through ego-driven delusion. In theory, that’s what martial arts is about. Fixing this longstanding culture delusion would be a huge change, and a huge opportunity to cut through delusion, do the right thing and demonstrate the value martial arts actually brings to our lives.