As one of the Safety Godmothers, I have been thinking, writing and speaking about female self-defense for decades. I didn’t give self-defense much more of a, “Hmm. I should probably take a class,” on a long list of “good ideas” that didn’t seem practical; like learning Norwegian, nice but probably not going to happen. That all changed when I encountered a ski-masked man in my home! At midnight, face-to-face, I did what any damsel would have done. I screamed so loudly; the man dropped his knife, grabbed his ears and ran away.
Thus my journey began: Why are women and girls so sorely unprepared to deal with violence in a violent world? And the knife-wielding man? He was simply a dramatic wake-up call to get me out of denial that “violence happens to other people.” Thank you Toni Morrison who most famously said, "If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” And that is what I did.
I started with looking at other mammals because indeed, mammals we are. No one looks at a dog they encounter snarling and snapping and barking and decides to disrespect their boundary by saying, “Oh THAT’S a female dog! I am not afraid.” Puppies, female and male, all learn to play fight, the foundation for defense.
I asked everyone I knew, “Do you know how to defend yourself?” in line at the grocery store, at work, at play. Here’s where I saw I was hitting a really important and unexplored dynamic in the culture; 100% of the women I asked said, “OH NO!!!” and 100% of the men I asked I got a “Yes,” although the “yeses” ranged from “I could do SOMETHING, “ to bragging level, “Yeah, I’m a BAD ASS!”
Back to the mammals’ analogy: Were there other species that automatically deferred to having the male of the species 1) protect all the creatures in his particular “family?” (Not that I can find.) 2) Did females have an expectation that all other creatures would behave non-violently? (Not really.)
Mothers of ALL other species allow their litters or offspring to join in games that also mimic hunting and defending. There’s no segregation of gender at the level of “self-defense.”
This has been completely contrary to how we relate to human daughters and sons… except with Title IX we’ve begun to see the collateral benefits of athletics for our daughters: bonding on the field, and yes, in all female locker rooms, confidence, self-esteem and astonishing recording-breaking athleticism undreamed of even 25 years ago. We now need to translate these same skills into setting boundaries with people we know, especially predatory males.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Predatory males (and yes, there are female predators, although more rare…) do NOT have “Predator” tattooed on their foreheads. We ask the children in our kids’ self-defense classes, “If someone planned on being mean to you, would they act nice, or act mean?” The light bulbs go off. “Nice!!” How I wish we could all go back and have that class.
Statistically, a burglar with a knife scenario is far less apt to happen than being inappropriately touched and/or assaulted by someone we know, or so-called casual incidents in public places that are far less dramatic than a foiled knife attack.
Which returns me to the question I opened with: “Why are women and girls so sorely unprepared to deal with violence in a violent world?”
In my work, I’ve discarded the reasoning that we are smaller biologically. Some of us are; not all. While size may be ONE factor, it is not the only factor. Small women are notorious for turning fierce if and when a loved one is attacked but shrinking away if targeted themselves.
The closest thing I can come to, employing a non-animal metaphor concerns swimming. Swimming! In many cultures through history, even seafaring people didn’t necessarily learn how to swim; not because they were inherently unable to swim, it just wasn’t on the “menu” of human attributes. That is despite swimming being a form of self-defense with potentially deadly water. The customs simply dictated that people don’t swim. Period.
In modern America you query people, both women and men, “Can you swim?” you’ll get a high percentage of “yes” largely due to the efforts of the Red Cross and other philanthropic organizations creating water safety initiatives and movements. Enough people said “Enough preventable water injuries and drowning deaths!” And while yes, they trained lifeguards; the more cost effective and life-saving efforts were focused on teaching people to swim.
My parents both grew up as “non-swimmers” due to the lack of swimming opportunities on the prairies of rural North Dakota. It was a regret they shared and vowed their children would learn to swim. As a result, I learned to swim when I was 4 and earned a Life Guard certification through the Red Cross in my teens. Little did my parents know that their vow and investment would eventually save their lives.
I was with my parents when a deadly flood hit our home in Rapid City, South Dakota, and I was able to pull them out of dangerous water because of my water safety skills. Out of 27 people in my neighborhood, 7 people survived, 3 of which were my parents and I. My parents putting a premium on swimming lessons eventually saved them. Now, we MUST as parents and just plain citizens demand no less for “people safety.”
We’re now faced with a large opportunity: millions of women and girls are coming forward with anecdotes of having been sexually harassed, assaulted and/or abused. The virtual women’s “Locker room” is more like, “You too? I always thought I was the only one!” “I was twelve when a man exposed himself to me on the subway,” “My first date ended in a rape.”
By understanding and exposing that so many of us have blamed ourselves for the bad behavior of others, we can begin to unravel the tragic mess of gender-based assault. The World Health Organization says that 1 in 3 of us are sexually assaulted in our lifetimes. Most of us in the violence prevention field know that the statistic is actually higher due to rampant non-or under-reporting.
The silver lining to this horrific storm of anecdotal evidence of assault is that by creating a movement to prepare women and girls for “rough waters” with predatory men and boys, we can eliminate and prevent otherwise traumatizing and scarring incidents with emotional, verbal and physical preparation. And if we can’t prevent it while it’s happening, to always remember that another’s criminal behavior is the criminal’s responsibility, not where we were, what we wore or whom we believed instead of our own instincts.
Simple, easy to learn self-defense, preferably taught by women or at least with a knowledgeable woman as part of the instructor team, will make a difference. The most well-meaning men often do not fathom how intimidated many women and girls are by behavior they have not been prepared for.
Why are women and girls so sorely unprepared to deal with violence in a violent world? We need to make it a priority to prepare for violence, not because it’s inevitable but because of how widespread it is.
Finally, a sometimes-surprising result of women and girls learning self-defense is that they can like, trust and be more comfortable around more of the male portion of the population. We all know that a large portion of men in our personal lives are safe. Other gender identities and self-protection deserves an entirely separate post and that is for another time. Meanwhile, it is a human right to be safe, and it’s time we start a movement for personal safety for women and girls as a priority. Like our predecessors with preventable drowning: Enough!
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“Safety Godmother” Ellen Snortland is writer, director and producer of the new documentary “Beauty Bites Beast – Revealing the Missing Conversations about Ending Violence.” An author, actor, attorney, radio and TV personality, she’s worked for decades empowering women and girls to fight back [...]