Monday, December 27, 2004

Self Defense is a Feminist Issue 

Self Defense is a Feminist Issue

originally published on expositorymagazine.net

I lived alone in DC for several years.

I watched the police chase down and arrest people outside my apartment window. I nervously walked by the muggers, trying to be casual – luckily for me, I lived near several gay bars, and the muggers set their sights on the drunk gay men, not on a young female. I lived 50 yards from the park where intern Chandra Levy was found dead. My neighbors were robbed. I embraced luck as my tool to keep myself safe and alive. What else could I do? I despaired over how I could defend myself, even in my apartment.

I studied karate for five years, long enough to earn a black belt. I began studying aikido in college, and my instructor there began to show me more authentic forms of self-defense. He taught me moves from Silat and from some straight-up self-defense programs. I learned a Silat spin kick that won me a friendly spar with an Italian former military officer in a pool hall.

The only time I used my martial arts skills I won without throwing a punch. I was in a bar, sitting with three male friends. Someone had grabbed me from behind. I knew my friends were brawlers, so I needed to do something fast before there was a fight. I could get hurt in a fight. The stranger ignored my attempts to shrug him off of me, and he started to reach under my shirt. I spun around, blocking the hand around my shoulders and raising my other hand in preparation for a palm-heel strike to the bastard’s nose. In a split second I decided to hit only hard enough to hurt and draw a little blood; if he didn’t back off then, I would slam a flat fist into his throat. In another split second, I stared into his eyes. He saw my determination, he backed down, and I decided I didn’t need to strike. I kept my hands up as he let go of me and backed away, apologizing profusely. “That’s okay,” I mumbled, and I noted that he didn’t turn his back on me until he was well out of range.

Aikido and karate are certainly potential tools for self-defense, but they take years and years to master. Even then, the training conditions are often so different than the conditions of a mugging that the student may not be able to apply the training or may use inappropriate technique. For years I drilled in point-sparring, where the fighting stopped the moment someone was hit, all punches were simply to touch without follow-through, and the fighting ended if someone hit the ground. But a rapist won’t stop if I fall down. A mugger is not looking for a partner for point-sparring. A mugger wants a victim, period.

And I just wanted to feel safe, period, at least in my apartment

I’ll probably be smaller and weaker than anyone who attacks me. I’ve trained for years in different martial arts, and I know that I am not proficient enough to rely only on my training to protect myself. So what could I do?

I owned a few aikido practice weapons. I had a wooden sword and a staff, the length and diameter of a broom handle. I had a vague sense of how to use them – worse comes to worse, I could just keep the weapon between me and my attacker. But what of multiple attackers? My martial arts training was not enough.

A man in DC was beaten to death at a gas station in full view. Newspaper columnists lamented that no one did anything to save him. I wonder what they expected people to do. I can’t imagine being brave enough to challenge a berserk stranger to hand-to-hand combat, not knowing what weapons the man had hidden or what drugs the man was on or what training he had. Not if all I had were my hands and maybe a three-inch knife. Not if I wanted to survive. And I would wager that most citizens feel the same.

I owned pepper spray. I owned a claw-shaped knife with a curved blade that fit into the palm of my hand and was all but unnoticeable. I carried both. But pepper spray is unreliable. It’s ineffective against multiple attackers, because you can get caught yourself in the resulting cloud. Many bad guys have trained themselves not to be put off by something as mild as pepper spray. My knife was effective only up close, and I did not want the fighting to get that close.

Firearms are illegal in DC, even though the bad guys seem to have them anyway. DC is the murder capitol of the country. But other legal weapons seemed insufficient because they require such proximity to danger. When I think back to the dead man at the gas station and I wonder what I could have done to save him, had I been there, all I could think was that my close-contact weapons and training were not enough.

I gave up on the idea of saving faceless strangers. Now I only wanted to feel safe in my apartment.

What could I do?

I read everything about guns and fighting that I could get my hands on. I read websites and blogs long enough to recognize the names that were constantly referenced as experts. I bought and read books by experts like Massad Ayoob and Jeff Cooper and Paxton Quigley. I learned enough about guns to have real conversations with my military uncles about the differences in the various weapons they own. The aura of mystery that surrounded guns dissolved. Instead of being magical talismans with a power and will of their own, they became a means of empowering myself. I came to understand the greater responsibility that a citizen who chooses to be armed faces. She has the power to defend herself and others, and this power must be used appropriately. Empowered, she must face the responsibility of empowerment. I felt ready to take on that burden. But DC refused to trust me with the responsibility.

What could I do?

I moved to Maryland.

I asked my boyfriend to give me a crash course in shooting. I learned to load, chamber a round, and fire a shotgun, then pump the action to chamber a second round. I learned to fire a revolver. I learned to clean and care for guns. My boyfriend taught me everything he could with fake ammunition (rounds that don’t have any gun powder or bullets – they simply have a spring that reduces the wear on the firearm that repeated firing sans ammunition can cause). Eventually I began practicing with live ammunition, at a shooting range near my home.

That was an experience. Theoretically, I was comfortable with guns. Seeing them in action, or more aptly, hearing them in action, was something different. The men there (and, sadly, there were many more men than women) were respectful of me. After adjusting to the noise of the firearms and the smell of gunpowder, I grew to love the place. I loved the attitude of people. I loved the comfortable, relaxed mood that blended with the focused intensity that training with lethal weapons demands. The attitude reminded me of best martial arts dojo that I’ve trained at. I loved how the shooters took responsibility for the safety of their training. I loved the politeness and respect that everyone displayed. These men embraced the responsibility and empowerment of self-defense. I would, too.

I moved in with my boyfriend. He’s also a martial artist, with fifteen years of aikido and a few years of other arts like karate, fencing, and t’ai ch’i. He also hunts, does target shooting, and sometimes goes skeet shooting. I have guns in my apartment now. Firearms are legal in Maryland, so long as you keep them in your home. I feel comfortable using them. I hope I won’t ever need to, but I will not die in my own apartment without a fight.

Initiative saves lives; just being willing to strike can end the confrontation. I learned that when I was grabbed in a bar. I have been lucky enough never to need to hit anyone.

Knowledge of self-defense is empowering. A feminist should not be afraid to leave her apartment. A feminist should not depend on men, whether police, boyfriends, or helpful bystanders, for protection.

It’s my life. It’s my choice whether and how to defend it.

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