I hear three different arguments against women studying self defense or martial arts. The first is the typical misogynist attitude that women aren’t really capable of defending themselves against men.
That one is based on the average man being taller and stronger than the average woman, which is true, but doesn’t matter. Fighting is about skill, not size. Women can learn effective techniques that will work even on large men. I’ve discussed this elsewhere — here’s a piece I did on writing fight scenes that gets at it — so I’m not going to deal with it here except to say that of course women can defend themselves.
The other two arguments are more nuanced. One is that women shouldn’t be forced to learn to defend themselves just because men attack them. Men need to be taught not to assault and rape, according to that argument.
The second is that women are much more at risk from assaults and abuse from men they know — intimate partners, co-workers, social acquaintances — than from strangers. This is true and important, but the argument goes on to allege that fighting skills are only useful in fighting off the stranger and therefore self defense is not the answer.
While I certainly think men, and society as a whole, need to address toxic male behavior, I don’t want to wait until all men “get it” for women to be safe. Nor do I want women to find it necessary to rely on male allies or police or anyone else for their protection, since not only are those people not necessarily there when you need them, but some of the time they’re either the problem or unsympathetic to the situation. Good laws and rules can only go so far and changing culture takes a long time.
The second point illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about the value of physical fighting skills. It assumes that the only thing someone learns in a self defense class is how to fight and completely misses two more important skills that are developed: when to fight and how to avoid a fight.
Now it’s true that some self defense classes focus solely on physical fighting techniques. While it’s good to develop a few of those skills, teaching them in a vacuum that doesn’t address the whole situation of women is not particularly useful. In the end, these are not the self defense classes most people should take.
In traditional martial arts training, people learn a lot of techniques and in the process of training develop an awareness of when to fight and how to avoid trouble. Most good martial artists never need to fight, except in training. Their presence, awareness, and intuition keep them out of trouble.
One thing traditional martial arts training doesn’t address is boundary setting, an important component of feminism and empowerment self defense. A good self defense class also works to develop all the other non-physical skills that keep people safe. I wrote about some of those things last week.
But here’s the key point: empowerment self defense and good martial arts training give women the confidence and tools to handle all kinds of situations, not just the rapist jumping out of the bushes.
Women learn early on — in toddlerhood, where they are given very clear physical messages about what girls are allowed to do — that they can’t protect themselves and that they’re supposed to be “nice” to people even when those people are abusive to them. Physical training and learning how to say “no” upends that conditioning.
(If you want to argue about whether girls still get these messages in toddlerhood, I suggest you look at kids’ clothing or toy aisles or watch cartoons aimed at kids. We may tell our daughters that they can be anything they want, but the overall message of society is still feeding them the “girls can’t do that” line. Intellectual messages do not fix the ones we learn with our bodies.)
When women know they can take care of themselves, they feel free to follow their ambitions and dreams. And that, along with safety, what empowerment self defense is all about.