I know how to fold my fingers into the shape of a bird beak and properly jab someone’s eyeballs. This is a thing that I can do, a thing I will do, if attacked. I was in eighth grade when I was taught this as part of the self-defense program at my all-girls school in Manhattan.
The classes were taught by a pair of neurotic sisters and their literal sidekicks, a few men heavily padded in facemasks, groin protectors, and chest guards. We learned skills—the eye strike, the knee-to-groin, and later, the notorious slingshot—and then practiced them on these men, who offered themselves up to us girls like sacrificial hippopotami. Everyone loved it.
These men were indestructible. We rammed our elbows into their foreheads; slapped, grabbed, and pulled their padded genitals; pecked their eyeballs with our beak-hands; kneed them in the head; screamed at them; and kicked them in the throat as the sisters coached us from the sidelines: “Get him, Sarah!” “Knee to groin, Amari!” “Nice eye strike, Yuriko!” Each time, the men collapsed to the floor in faux agony, clutching their padding as the sisters clapped loudly. It was good, old-fashioned fun.
The men had creepy alter egos in the scenes they created, becoming slimy street characters and jealous ex-boyfriends with every passing girl they pretended to try to assault. One by one, we’d take a turn, first experiencing the “uh-oh” feeling that one is supposed to get when exposed to a potentially dangerous situation and then actually fighting. We applauded for everyone, even the weaklings who could hardly muster up the guttural “NO” that we were told to bellow with each beak-hand or knee.
The self-defense teachers came back every few years, and each time they reappeared armed with a new skill to teach. In 10th grade, we learned that if someone snuck through your window and was lying on top of you in your own bed, telling him that your parents kept all their precious jewelry in a box in the closet across the apartment and then, as he got up to stupidly look for it, sling-shotting his groin with your foot (followed by a kick to the head for good measure) was the way to go.
By 12th grade, though, I had lived among the hippies of northern California and authored my own oath of nonviolence, so when the self-defense sisters came around for their final time in the spring of my senior year, I announced I would not be participating. While the rest of the class fought in college-inspired situations (in the “library stacks,” which were really two gym mats propped up vertically, and in “dorm rooms,” which were really a blocked-off portion of the gymnastics room), I watched scornfully.
The whole thing seemed terribly barbaric and counter-productive to me, new convert to the philosophy of nonviolent social movements that I was. In the event of an actual attack, I knew I would probably fight back, but I suppressed that impulse, telling everyone instead that I would, like Gandhi, offer myself to the perpetrator, who through my submission to his violence would realize the cruelty of his ways.
It was easy for me to say I’d be nonviolent, of course. I’d never been attacked—I still haven’t—and hadn’t met anyone who had. (I’ve still never met anyone who seriously used the self-defense techniques that the sisters taught us.) It was markedly easy for me to opt out of self-defense, because the threat wasn’t looming. It didn’t seem realistic at all. I was naïve. If I could go back, I would have fought and kicked those padded men with all my might instead of sitting judgmentally on the sidelines.
Having access to self-defense techniques is a privilege and a boon. When the norm is to not fight back—and though there aren’t conclusive data, the sisters emphasized that most who are raped do not fight back—then not fighting back is not ennobling; it’s foolish. This is not victim-blaming. Rape is never the survivor’s fault. But those who have access to self-defense training, as I did, should take every advantage of it. And those who have not been trained would do well to seek out classes, or at least watch a YouTube video. According to PBS, fighting back cuts chances of rape in half.
It would be lovely to integrate self-defense more strongly into the University’s array of sexual assault resources. Instead of merely talking ad nauseam about rape culture, a worthy topic of discussion but largely impractical in terms of curbing actual rape, the University should provide a range of self-defense classes. Perhaps a WesBAM offering, taught by a qualified student or guest instructor, would also increase participation. (The Office of Public Safety apparently offers a Rape Aggression Defense class; one registers by calling the Public Safety Department.)
I was at dinner with a few female-identifying friends when the topic of being attacked on the street by unfamiliar men came up.
“If I see someone walking behind me at night, I pretty much assume that I’m going to die,” one of my friends proclaimed.
If attacked, I’m sure my friends would all fight hand-beak, tooth, and nail, fighting for their lives, and justifiably. It’s violent, unfortunately, but it’s necessary.
And I know now exactly what I would do: Eye strike. Knee to the groin. Slap, grab, and pull.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.