Vol. 9, Self-Defense
New York, NY
Eight years ago, while studying in the Dominican Republic, I was assaulted at gunpoint. This came at the tail end of a trip that was marred by serious sexual harassment, most of it physical. I had my body and hair touched by strangers more times than I care to remember. Not only my arms and legs, but the private parts of me were violated too. Here is a description of the assault.
"My last clash with a Dominican man happened at 3:00 in the morning. My friend and I made the questionable choice to walk down a side street on our way home from a club. We heard footsteps behind us and immediately stepped to the side. A man walked by, dragging his hand along my friend's arm as he passed. We had become so accustomed to Dominican men taking liberties with our bodies that we were not alarmed by this. Anger flared, we talked about how fucked up the men were, but we didn't think for one moment we were in any danger. We were wrong.
After the man reached the corner, I assume checking to see if there would be any witnesses, he made an about face and confronted us with a gun. "Don't scream," he demanded. Everything else he said was a blur. My Spanish comprehension evaporated as my mind scrambled to make sense of the assault.
He continued mumbling as my friend and I backed away. "Leave us alone," I repeated in a flat voice over and over again. We backed into a corrugated metal fence. The man reached up and pulled the shoulder of my top down to my elbow, exposing my breast. My gaze fell to his pelvis. I noticed his fly was open and his penis was dangling.
Despite the fact that I had not confronted any of the men who molested me during my nine months in the Dominican Republic, I fought this man. I kicked, I pushed, I did what I could to let him know he wouldn't rape me while I was alive. We struggled until the man stopped fighting. He stared into my eyes, then turned and walked in the other direction. My friend pulled me towards home and we ran."
After that confrontation, I promised myself I would take self-defense before I left the country again. [Ironically, I've never been assaulted in the U.S. (there has been an attempt or two), and I've lived in two of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., New Orleans and New York.] I saw that I had the heart to fight, I knew exactly where I should be hitting, but I didn't know how to deliver a blow. I didn't know how to force him to leave me alone. That was eight years and six countries ago.
The description of the assault is excerpted from an essay I recently wrote about sexual harassment on the street. When one of my friends read the article, she said, "you need to take this Impact course that I took years ago. It's full impact. It teaches you to defend yourself." "Yeah, yeah," I said, "I promised myself I'd do that and I want to but, I'm scared." At this point, I'm very comfortable on the street and, honestly, I was afraid to confront violence against women. I mean I think about gender violence all the time. I live under this incredible pressure of knowing that women are being raped and assaulted continuously and constantly all day every day and I'm constantly dodging veiled threats and aggression from men on the street, but I don't really want to see assaults, not even in the classroom. And I don't want to be verbally abused, not even to learn how to handle it. Then another friend chimed in: his wife had done the course and really loved it. At this point it's called what?: taking my medicine. I had promised myself and two friends were encouraging me. O.k., I said, I got on the phone and registered myself for the next class.
We fought during the first class! I thought we'd just learn things, but the teaching method is: you see an instructor fight, they break down the fight into steps, you drill the steps in groups with the male instructors. They show you posture, they show you exactly where you should hit, they show you which part of your body you should hit with. *** sound bite of a black woman right outside my window: "If I say I don't like whites or blacks, that mean I don't like nobody.*** The men are fully paddedshoulders, groin, head. So when we hit them in the groin, they'd say, "That wasn't hard enough." Or if we elbowed them in the head, they'd say, "That blow glanced off my forehead, you really need to aim between the eyes." Look at the target, was a big instruction on the first day. They were teaching us to BE in the fight. To hit hard and take our time. Then we fought. We went through choreographed moves to defend ourselves against an attacker who grabbed us from behind and threw us to the ground.
I was teared up for the entire first class. Not because I was breaking down or because I was frightened, but because there was so much courage in the room. Because we were being taught to protect ourselves, and after so many years of skillfully avoiding confrontation, it felt good to be finally dealing with it. There's a woman's class and a men's class: both classes deal with physical self defense, verbal strategies to avoid violence, boundary setting both in your personal life and with strangers.
The male instructors talked about their experiences in the course and they noted similar benefits to the ones the female instructors talked about: more self-confidence and an enhanced ability to set boundaries, in addition to larger self and environmental awareness and the confidence that they could defend themselves when necessary.
The women's course deals specifically with the way women are attacked and the way women fight. While men are usually attacked face-to-face, women are often attacked from behind, snuck up on in a predatory way. While men have upper body strength, women's strength is in their hips, so we power our moves with that part of our body. A major component of the course is developing the will to fight. The official stance of law enforcement towards women and rape has been, "Don't fight, it isn't worth it to lose your life over this type of assault, you can't win anyway." I was in tears in class because the assumption that women shouldn't fight for our bodies is what we were all battling in that class. The official party line that we should give in is something we were overturning and it was very emotional for me. Apparently, law enforcement has recently changed its tune, their research has shown that rapists want easy targets and many women have been successful in fighting off rape. That isn't shown in film and on television, but often women who fight, win. And those who lose were in danger of being raped anyway. Fighting does not heighten the possibility that you will die. In my case, I don't care if there is the possibility of death, if you want to take this from me, you'll have to knock me unconscious or kill me.
In the second class, the fights started diverging from the choreography. Sometimes when it was time to throw an elbow to the head, the attacker would be somewhere else, and we had to improvise and react to his movements. Sometimes when we were on the floor kicking him, he would grab our foot and we had to switch feet. During this class the major lesson was using our options. We have two weapons: our hands and our feet. There are two targets: head and groin. When one of our weapons is taken out of the game, use the other one. When one of the targets is being protected, attack the other one.
Also, they began to teach us the rhythm of the fight. Instead of going ballistic on the attacker and depleting our energy, we were taught to settle ourselves between each blow. If we hit hard and our blow lands, then we have time to set up the next blow. It's hard not to go crazy and just struggle against the attacker wildly, but the training is in how to keep a cool head and keep going. And oh yeah, I was in tears that whole class too. It was the type of tears I get when I watch people beat odds, like people racing in the Special Olympics or children being their amazing fierce selves. (We also got into verbal self defense in the second class. Clear direct language and setting clear boundaries. I learned that although I'm good at communicating when I'm uncomfortable or angry or threatened, I never set a clear boundary because I don't want to "tell people what to do.")
The third class was about openings. This is when we started learning methods of fighting back in rape scenarios. They're called reversals. The scenario is we're sleeping and a man jumps on us. The whole key to those fights is total relaxation at the beginning. We learned to feign cooperation (that is much harder than clear direct language and boundary setting), then when we had an opening, we attacked. There were many what-if's floating around at this point of the class, what if he doesn't do this or that or the other. With a rape, we learned, there has to be an opening for him to rape you (unless he ties you up with a rope), he has to use his hands to take off his clothes or yours. He has to allow your legs to be free to enter you. There is a multitude of opportunities to protect yourself. This was difficult to deal with for some of the women, for me, these were the most emotional fights because we were so up-close and personal. We learned moves that would get the attacker off our bodies, but he was still right there, so we had to be ready to follow up.
During the third class there was no more choreography, we were grappling. The men were doing everything but hitting us. Some women found themselves with both legs and one arm pinned, and they would get frustrated and say, "What do I do now?" in the middle of the fight. We hadn't learned any of this. The instructor would yell, "Find an opening, find an opening." And you could see the woman's gears turning, thinking and there was always an eye or a groin free. And she attacked that and continued with the fight. (Another major component of the course was don't struggle against being held, if the man is holding your arms, don't fight to get your arms free, attack the groin. If the man is holding your legs, don't struggle to get your legs free, attack the eyes. It was a whole new take on fighting for me, another level of controlling the interaction.) It was totally bugged out and R-E-A-L. The pretty choreography was gone, we were just fighting for our lives. (We also did boundary setting exercises with pretend bosses, coworkers, friends, and family. This was the hardest part of that day's class for many people. Learning how to stand up for what you want with loved ones and people who have power over you isn't the easiest task. It calls on you to protect yourself against people it would be inappropriate to fight and who are not threatening you with physical violence.)
Last week was, as they say here in NYC, bananas! I thought, how much further could they go? They pulled out "extended reversals" on us. I've already said that a reversal is when you go from zero (total compliance) to 100 (total fighting). An extended reversal is after you've already dealt the attacker a knock-out blow, he keeps fighting. In other words, he fights past when the fight should be over. Up until now, when the female instructors fought an attacker, they'd come off the mat looking unruffled and in control. They fought the extended reversals first, and they came off the mat looking like they'd been through some shit. Their hair was out of place, they were breathing heavy, and the whole class was silent in shock. The men were taking the level of the fight to the next notch. My period started that day and I had NO energy, but when I got on the mat to fight, I fought like I had all the energy in the world. I had to. And because I was so exhausted, I couldn't plan an attack. I didn't think about the end of the fight, and I could feel myself waiting for him to come to me. All I did was look for a target and hit it until the fight was over. You have true tunnel vision when you're on the mat, it's you and the attacker and the voices of the women screaming.
So Saturday is the graduation. It's our last class and during one hour of the class we're going to invite our friends and family to watch us fight [If anyone in New York City is interested in self defense (male or female), feel free to come down. Prepare Training Center 147 West 25th Street, 8th Floor (between 6th & 7th), 3:45 (promptly) to 4:45 p.m.] It is an amazing experience. It's shocking to watch and it's liberating to do. And I'm looking forward to the ripple effect of setting stronger boundaries and taking less mess in every area of my life. Yeah, this is basic information everyone (male or female) should have. It's like knowing how to cook for yourself and wash your clothing. It's self maintenance, self development, self care and self love.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI'S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O'METER==
: : : August 2001 - present : : :
==KIINI'S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O'METER==
Well, I got another rejection, ya'll. It was for an erotic anthology. I made it to the last tier (as I have in grant applications), but then I got cut. I happened to meet the editor this summer while I was at the Clarion West writing workshop. At one of our weekly parties she said, "Will you be available to make changes when you get back to New York City?" I thought, "Uh-oh, this doesn't look good." I haven't heard from her since then, she recently sent me an email saying I was not included in the anthology. She said she thought the story was really interesting, but the other editors didn't share her opinion. She invited me to submit stories to her anytime (she has an online magazine and other projects). So, again I get validation in the midst of rejection. Balance is good.
Also, on Monday I put another grant application in the mail and two weeks ago I submitted another essay for (possible) publication.