The place smelled of feet, probably my own, sticky with sweat on the red karate dojo mats. My best friend, Laura, and I were at a two-hour women’s self-defense session. We stood with four or five other young women, all eager to learn the best way to ward off a human being—if that’s what you call someone who would evoke the tactics that the white-robed sensei was about to demonstrate in front of us.
The sensei, a short, middle-aged woman with intense, measured movements, started the session by saying, “Don’t let anyone touch you without your consent. Only you should decide when someone may or may not touch you.” She spoke slowly, compassionately as a parent might warn a child on the first day of school, and like a child, I somehow felt comforted by the reminder.
Self-defense is not instinctive, she told us, and doesn’t have to be. She explained that fighting and self-defense are actually opposites. Fighting uses maximum force to defeat; self-defense uses minimum force to escape. Without a blink of shame, she said, “Karate teaches you to run away with honor.”
She paced the length of the mat and mirrors. “Because no matter what he's got planned, at the end of the day, I'm going home."
He. We could feel him in the room, this nameless figure we were training to encounter. Statistics put him at 5’7’’ to 5’11’’ and 150 to 175 pounds—not the hulking brute we expect. The creepiest stat, however, is that he’s most likely someone already in our life. Three-fourths of women’s rapes are committed by a man the woman knows.
"Your attacker is on the job 24/7, planning how to best take advantage of you at an opportune moment,” the sensei warned. “And you'll be surprised at how strong he'll be."
But she was wrong. I had already been surprised and have never forgotten it.
I was young, something like seventeen. My boyfriend and I flirted on my parents’ living room couch, a green water pistol between us and a dare that he couldn't take it from me.
We wrestled for a few minutes, my fingers clinging to the gun, water slicking my hand.
To end the silly skirmish, perhaps to make a statement, he rested an arm across my chest, barely leaning on me, and pinned one arm beneath me. Breathing got harder, not because of his force—he wouldn't have hurt me—but because I realized, suddenly, that had he wanted to hurt me, I would have been defenseless.
I was no longer on my parents’ floral couch innocently tussling with a boy whom I was learning to love. Beneath the weight of a man who had overtaken me, I was made aware of my weakness and limitations, of my place in the depraved world of prey and predator.
I dropped the water pistol. “OK, OK.” Anything to be free from his hold and my fear.
He released me and smiled, brandishing the plastic pistol and his easy victory.
The sensei taught us elbow jabs and hammer and palm punches—basic defense moves—the least we can do. Then she said, “The first line of defense is your voice. Disobey him when he tells you to be quiet. When he grabs you, start yelling. In fact, let’s practice.”
She called us to line up and take turns palm punching a black punching bag the equivalent weight of a 300-pound man. Then she added one last direction. “When you hit the bag, yell ‘No!’”
As I joined the back of the line, my stomach clenched at the thought of screaming in front of others, of leaving behind my propriety and entering the moment. Maybe we don’t need to be theatrical, I thought. Won’t the carrying on come naturally when the time comes?
Some of the women held nothing back, their screams reverberating off the concrete walls and down my spine.
At my turn, I stepped up and breathed deeply. My voice seemed small as I slammed my hand into the bag and yelped, "No!"
“Good job,” the sensei warmly praised my effort.
I learned later that this is called Kiai—a shout of power. It expels the air in the abdomen, allowing full use of core muscle strength and disorienting the enemy.
The sensei showed us a move to use “at a family reunion picnic if that crazy cousin comes too close for comfort.” She illustrated how to use our elbow to knock the wind out of someone.
I couldn’t fathom having to explain to my family my lapse in dignity by making such a scene.
And then I recalled all the scenes I didn’t make. When the too-familiar coworker scratched my shoulders. When the estranged uncle gave me an unsolicited massage. When the flirt squeezed my thigh under the restaurant table. When the creepy mall Santa held me on his lap too long. When gazes lingered past comfort.
Or when, several years ago, I drove a sailor back to the naval base after eating dinner at Cracker Barrel, and when I pulled the car to a stop in front of his barracks, he reached over and took my hand from the steering wheel in a well-practiced tenderness. He massaged my fingers. He pressed his lips up my arms. And inexplicably, in my own car, against the will of my trembling body and shortened breath, I said nothing, simply pulled my hand away and told him goodnight. He smirked all the way back to the barracks.
I did not handle these men before—or after—they handled me. I said nothing to them, didn’t cast disapproving glares. I didn't want to make a scene, didn't want to look paranoid or prudish, didn't want to get them in trouble, didn’t know if it was worth it—didn’t know if I was worth it.
People who have never been violated have difficulty understanding the silence, the concealment of the abuse. Hungrier for justice than perhaps the victims themselves, they forget that justice comes at a price. Breaking the silence means drawing attention to the victim’s damage, to their guilt for doing nothing.
I've been touched, not raped, groped at worst, and maybe not even that. The violation has never been violent, never extreme—hardly worth mentioning.
Yet here I am making excuses for bad behavior.
When we begin defining what is too far, has it already gone too far? What part of disrespect, no matter how light the touch, is acceptable?
“A victim is preoccupied, walking alone and looking down,” the sensei said. “She’s meek in confidence, voice, and body.”
I took inventory of my own stance and habits. The other women standing on the mat with crossed arms smiled as well, recognizing themselves in her description.
“Make eye contact, and I’ll guarantee he’ll say, ‘Nope. Not her,’” the sensei assured us. “You’re not the victim he’s looking for—because you’re looking for him.”
She didn’t ask which of us he has touched, has violated. It didn’t matter. We wouldn’t be the same once we left the dojo—we were already different.
On the mat there was no self-pity or misplaced shame. There was no discussion of how we shouldn’t need to know these defense moves. There was only preparation against the appalling possibilities. On the mat there were no victims, only fighters alert to reality and refusing to fall as prey. Knowing that we might all be targets was not shame: it was power.
“The best self-defense,” the sensei said, “is not being chosen as a victim.”
The time to act is before we’re violated—before we’re violated again. We victimize ourselves by resigning to abuse then caving to the usual response of silence and shame. The truth is, it’s ours to speak up, act out, make a scene. No one else will care for us. No one else will see us home.
We’re worth it.
The sensei showed us how to drive our palm into the nose, knee the groin, hammer the kneecap, bash the head into our knee. I imagined the satisfying sensation of bone snapping and cartilage sinking beneath my force.
And then she turned us loose to practice on each other. We awkwardly grabbed and twisted, punched and jabbed, shoved each other against walls, woman against woman, careful not to hurt one another.
"Go for the eyes, the ears, the groin—soft tissue. Do what you have to,” the sensei called through cupped hands, surveying the room as we practiced. “You're in charge. Remember—you're going home.”
But not once did she say rape. Never did she talk about torn clothes and vaginas, bloodied faces and swollen scratches. Yet we all understood the plunder at stake.
"You only have one chance at the element of surprise. Once he realizes what he’s fighting, he’ll know how to counteract,” she warned. "Make your moves count. And sometimes that means not running away. We have a saying here: Find safety at the heart of danger.”
She motioned to her red-belted assistant, a woman who told of once being dragged to a van but escaping by her self-defense moves. This woman ran toward the sensei, grabbing her arm and dragging her away.
“Instead of fighting, use the force of him pulling you to body slam him and run away." The sensei ran toward the red belt, shoulder slammed her, and made an escape. “Now, you try on each other.”
This move reminded me of a Chinese finger trap. The harder you struggle and tug, the tighter the bamboo tube constricts. To escape, you must push your fingers farther in the trap.
I grabbed Laura by the arm and dragged her away. We laughed, giddy with newfound skills, covering for our fear and our hope that this will never happen to us—that we will never have to feel the chilly shadow close to the heart of danger.
I wrote the moves down in a notebook when we got home. To solidify them in our memories and reflexes, we practiced in the living room.
Laura grabbed my wrist, held it as I paused two beats before giving a counter twist. I wanted to get it just right.
She sighed, frustrated at my inability to master the move. “If you ever get snatched, you’re a goner. Let’s try it again.”
The next day, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, as I pulled a brush through my hair, I spotted a splotch of purple and red like raw meat on the back of my wrist. A bruise from Laura’s clutch—and she wasn’t even grasping tightly. How much worse will the marks be if someone intends harm?
Women who fight back are reportedly 50% less likely to be raped, but 10% more likely to be injured. Even if we make our moves and escape his clutch, we will most likely not escape his marks.
It will be worth it.
Weeks later Laura and I drove to downtown Cincinnati, looking for a shop. One turn and we knew we’d entered a bad section of town. Derelict buildings, bars on windows, graffitied walls. Against our judgment, we parked outside the store and stepped out. We had just deposited coins in the meter when a man approached us wearing a dirty, worn shirt and baggy jeans.
He spoke so quickly I could hardly follow his story. Bus money. Alimony. Losing his job.
I glanced at the wallet still in Laura’s hand, then back at the man who inched closer with every turn of his tale.
Palm punch to the nose or sternum, I thought. Kick his knee at an angle, disable him. Run!
The moves came to me before I realized it. The wallet, my safety—he was taking none of it had he tried. My moves might not have been perfect, but he would have felt them—he would have known, I was not his victim.
Laura pulled two dollars from her wallet and handed it to him—the price of escaping an uncomfortable situation. The man ambled off, leaving behind a trail of body odor.
Laura and I exchanged relieved glances.
“Come on.” I turned back to the car. “Let’s go home.”
about the writer
Sarah Eshleman lives with her best friend, Laura, and her rotten dachshund, Dudley, in Northern Kentucky where she works as a content editor. Read more of her writing at The View from Goose Hill blog (theviewfromgoosehill.wordpress.com). She believes that between the lines, life is poetry, tragic and beautiful, and at the places where life gets knotted up, you’ll find the most beauty and grace.