When I was 13, my mother taught me that if I was ever attacked on the street while walking home I should yell, at the top of my lungs: “I have rabies, and I’ll bite!” Thankfully, I’ve never had cause to put her suggestion to the test. But her warnings about the perils of New York City streets, especially at night, didn’t leave me. Sadly, the fear of being assaulted is grounded in fact. According to a survey by Stop Street Harassment, a non-profit organisation, 81% of American women have experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment. This year I decided to add to my protective arsenal, by signing up for a workshop called “Feminist Self-Defense”.
When I walked into the fluorescent-lit studio in downtown Manhattan on a recent Saturday afternoon, I joined a group of nine other women, our ages spanning from middle school to mid-50s. Rachel Piazza, who also runs sessions in workplaces, said that many of her students are young women influenced by media coverage of violence against women and the #MeToo movement; others are survivors of abuse who turn to self-defence to heal. She began training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu ten years ago, after ending a toxic relationship with a boyfriend who’d discouraged her interest in mixed martial arts. Demand for her services has grown substantially since she founded her workshop in 2014.
Among my fellow students were three pre-teen girls. One of them, an 11-year-old, told me she’d registered for the class so that she could “feel safe walking home from the subway at night.” The two young would-be fighters flanking her nodded vigorously. I introduced myself to Cynthia, a 24-year-old Japanese woman who is studying at Parsons School of Design. She told me that in recent years she has noticed a rise in street harassment in her part of Tokyo. When she moves home, after graduation, she plans to teach her female friends and neighbours how to defend themselves. Just an hour later I’d find myself with my legs wrapped around Cynthia’s waist, locking her arm to the ground so I could flip her over onto her back. “Good!” said Piazza. To Cynthia, she added: “You’ve still got power here. You can kick her in the crotch!”
To Piazza, self-defence draws on an intuitive skill-set. She opened the class by informing us that we were already experts. This was news to me: the last physical contest I’d been in was between me and some new furniture I’d tried to wrangle into my apartment, and I’d decidedly lost. But Piazza explained that each of us had experience protecting ourselves, whether smiling to calm someone aggressive or laughing to diffuse a tense situation. By training in self-defence, we could learn new body language for a different kind of self-protection – hands raised to block our faces, shoulders back to signal power. As we mimicked Piazza’s techniques, she informed us that with practice we could learn more advanced moves, like how to choke someone unconscious. I saw my fellow trainees’ eyes widening; we were hooked.
“Does anyone want to demonstrate their moves for the whole class?” Piazza asked. Buoyed by the adrenaline in the room, my hand shot into the air. Piazza pushed me to the mat and climbed over me. She threw a fist toward my face, and I practised yanking her torso forward with my legs so that she’d fall into the momentum of her own punch. I pictured, for a moment, trying this in real-time, at a bar or in a street-fight; it was hard to imagine it unfolding so smoothly. After I completed my manoeuvre, the women around me burst into applause. Having pulled off very few fitness feats in my life, I have to admit the praise felt good.
Even for the non-athletically inclined woman, a workshop in self-defence can do wonders for self-confidence. It gives you that surge of assurance you might otherwise get from a compliment, pep talk or a shot of tequila. Piazza showed me that even when you feel powerless, there’s always a way to fight back. Towards the end of the class, she pushed me to the ground and I fell onto my back. “For a woman, this is usually a vulnerable position,” Piazza said. But then she reminded me I can still use my legs. “Kick me in the shins,” she urged. “Kick me in the face! See? Now you’ve found your power.”