The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Martial Arts and the Delusion of Self Defense

Martial arts training gives many benefits. You tend to be more fit and stronger. Your reflexes and eye hand coordination is improved, as is your balance. You may learn that you will not disappear in a puff of smoke when struck, or that your opponent will either.

Still, for self defense, most of us would be better off putting our energies into other activities, like improving our financial situation so we could live in a better neighborhood in a safer city.

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kitsutoshi which addresses martial arts training and self defense for women in particular. The full post may be read here.

“I want to be able to protect myself.”  From the hundreds of fellow martial artists I’ve talked with about why they train, this phrase sticks out at the top of the list. Over the years, I’ve become less and less convinced that martial arts actually does relate to “self protection” goals.  There are ways in which almost everyone who does martial arts may be “safer.”  (Exercise is healthy, improving balance and learning to fall safely will protect against common accidents…).   Some people, like law-enforcement officers or people who live or work in really bad neighborhoods, may have specific risks that martial arts can help them address. For the rest of us…it’s a great hobby.  It’s nice to feel like a badass.  It’s good for bonding with people.  Discipline, strength, confidence…it’s a hobby (or lifestyle, or obsession) worth pursuing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Many martial artists train for those reasons, for sport, or just because it’s fun.  Wonderful reasons.

But the “self-protection” delusion is a problem.  I would like to see that delusion sliced open and its guts strewn in the dirt: in martial artists, in school marketing, and in the general population.  I would like to see women’s self-defense training that addresses the real risks taught more widely, and see things that are not women’s self-defense marketed accurately “women-only martial arts class” rather than “women’s self-defense” for instance.

It’s a big problem. Specifically, it’s a huge problem for women, whose risk profile is entirely different from men’s.  Women are led to believe and trust that by studying martial arts they will be safer from the risks they face, and that is at best a very small partial truth and at worst outright wrong.

When men come to martial arts to learn how to fight off an attacker, it’s an active shooter, a violent mugger, a carjacker, or a drunk in a bar.  Risks that (other than the aforementioned LE officers and people in sketchy neighborhoods) they are beyond unlikely to face. For most people those are some of the least likely actual risks in their lives.  Giving up fried food, taking a defensive-driving class, and updating an eyeglass prescription would eliminate more risk from most people’s lives than decades of martial arts training.

So the harm to men from martial arts training is that they get a great hobby with a lot of benefits, for reasons that are mistaken.  That’s even sometimes acknowledged among us, that we have to be crazy to do this stuff when it’s almost certain never to be needed.

When women, however, come with the purpose of learning self-protection, it’s sexual assault and abuse that they’re worried about.  “I want to learn to protect myself” means “I want to feel safe from rape.”   That’s where the delusion becomes a problem.  A big problem.

Martial arts training is a hammer, which makes every “protection” problem a nail.   Everyone has heard “the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman is acquainted with.”   But when women sign up for a martial arts program, what they’re getting is stranger-attack skills.  In the real world, women’s acquaintances are not hiding in the bushes or in deserted parking lots to leap out and subdue their friends.   Spending just a little time thinking about the on-the-mat skills taught in almost every martial arts school anywhere, and comparing with the scenarios encountered routinely by 1:4 women in their teens and twenties shows the obvious.  That isn’t training for the risks those women will encounter.

Assault by friends, boyfriends, husbands, co-workers, teachers, bosses, and relatives, the monumental majority of assaults inflicted on women, start with emotional manipulation.  Controlling behavior.  Envelope-pushing behavior. Boundary erosion.  Manipulation.  Creation of ambiguity.  Drugging of drinks. Encouraging of more alcohol or drug use than a woman intends.  Undermining confidence and self-worth.  A vast array of behaviors that can make an assault into a loathsome morass, a situation where punching and kicking are worthless. Different skills are needed.

Kayla Harrison is an example of exactly that.  She was already a gifted Judoka when she was assaulted.  If anyone could defend herself with martial arts, probably even as a small child, it would have been Kayla Harrison.  If martial arts skills are supposed to apply to acquaintance rape, and she couldn’t apply them, then people with no athletic skill walking in to a random school a couple of days a week surely can’t.  But that wasn’t the problem.  Kayla’s skills were not the problem.  Many women martial artists are raped every year in spite of their belts, training, and ability to put a foot directly through a man’s abdomen.   Martial arts skills are the wrong tool for that situation.  Totally and completely wrong.

Knowing what skills are needed starts with risk analysis.  Risk analysis is something woefully deficient in most martial arts training. Most martial arts instructors enjoy various combinations of: punching, kicking, grappling, throws, chokes, locks…they enjoy sparring, rolling, using various weapons, they enjoy winning.  This is what those folks are great at, they love it, and they teach it. Looking beyond that takes a lot of effort.  The easier thing for people who have a subject they love is to believe that it can solve all problems.  The hammer.

When it comes to studying, martial arts instructors might enjoy looking at old scrolls, or watching video of other martial artists, reading books about martial arts. When they research “modern attacks” they watch video of inmate interviews describing stranger attacks and how victims are chosen.  They watch security video of knifings and shootings.  Unless they’re the guy who wrote “The Gift of Fear,” (Gavin DeBecker…good stuff…read that) they rarely study the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” or study women’s risk profiles from other sources.

Studying martial arts the usual ways means reinforcing teaching martial arts the usual ways, and the delusion that martial arts can protect from “attacks.”  Regardless of the reality.   Delusion is like that.

But some martial artists are women.  And women are a great target demographic.  And sometimes, the need for “something else” breaks through the comfortable idea that if you are just good enough at punching and kicking, then all situations can be handled.

Enter “Ladies’ Self-Defense.”  Almost every martial arts school sometimes offers a women’s self-defense class.   Sometimes it’s even taught by women students or instructors.  And that’s where things get complicated.  Those classes are almost always intended just to bring in new students.  They serve a good purpose: an easy on-ramp to martial arts training.   We know that women often find it hard to walk in the door to martial arts, and such a ramp is a big help.

But it also reinforces the delusion.

Advertised as “women’s self-defense,” the classes generally just teach a women-only version of whatever the school usually teaches.  Maybe a pink-washed version.  Maybe with “make this a slap instead of a punch,” or a hair-pull tossed in.  But really, it’s just the same stuff.  No different in addressing real risk for women than for men.  Nothing “women’s” about the self-defense except that no men are in the class.

Sometimes there are classes in real women’s self-defense though.  That does exist.  Almost exclusively taught by women, and mostly not teaching any physical techniques at all.  Once in a while it even comes from a martial arts school.  Women who train sometimes go out of their way to learn women’s risks, to learn and develop curricula to address those risks.  Books and classes are out there.  But from the perspective of a woman with no background, there’s no distinction between a pink-washed regular martial arts class and a serious women’s self-defense program.

Women coming in off the streets with no expertise, and just a vague idea  “I want to be safer” encounter confident martial artists who think that their hammer can address any nail (pun fully intended).  Those women can spend years and thousands of dollars learning skills that don’t address their real risks. They may love their art, they may become Kayla Harrison, they may never regret walking in the door of their school…but they’re not learning what they came to learn.

The troublesome part of this is that many women who train in a martial art know all of this.  We have been saying this for a long time.   We care about women’s risks and the very alarming occurrences of those risks. (Comparing men who are unlikely to ever be attacked in any way with women who have a 25% chance of violent attack in their lifetime is stark).  We study, we read, we learn in other contexts.  In my case, I learned about women’s self-defense through a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum when I was 13, and again in my twenties when I became certified to teach that curriculum.  I learned more in training to become a Crisis Response Advocate for sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors.  I learned by reading real research and talking with real survivors (many of whom are fellow martial artists).  I know many other women martial artists and instructors who have sought out that information and those skills.  We learn that specialty, and we sound like broken records talking about the need to teach real women’s self-defense.

But schools still mostly don’t teach those skills.  The delusion of “martial arts makes you safer” persists.  One reason is that it is vaguely true that martial arts makes you safer.  The “learning-to-fall-safely,” the “longer-life-through-exercise.”  The reduction of already-infinitesimal risk of stranger attacks that apply to men and women.  Those things are real.  Not that important, not that useful, but real.

Also, it’s easy for the (mostly male) senior people who run schools and styles to pass off their female students’ concerns with an occasional seminar.  That feels like enough for a concern that doesn’t seem real to them.  They have no personal stake.  They’ve never guarded their drink like Fort Knox.  They’ve never known a dozen friends who have been pressured into sex by people they trusted and thought “that could have been me.” Never faced losing a job or a home if they didn’t sleep with someone.  Risks for other people are easy to pass off.

Martial arts Instructors feel like warrior protectors, who think that if they are with a woman she is safe.  Which is the diametric opposite of the real risk analysis which says that a woman is safer walking alone than with a male acquaintance (don’t take that as advice).  Those men can believe in their punching-and-kicking hammer, wholeheartedly, as a panacea, point at the “women’s self-defense” class (that isn’t women’s self-defense) and be annoyed by the insistent nattering of the women students or junior Instructors who say otherwise.  Badgered to think uncomfortable thoughts when they could stay on solid comfortable ground instead.

There are other reasons. Economic reasons.  It doesn’t pay for most martial arts schools to let students think too hard about real risk analysis.  Some places teach an art that is beautiful and has nothing to do with self-defense, and the school doesn’t pretend it does.  I’m guessing that a Zen Archery teacher presented with a prospective student who said “I want to learn to protect myself” would point the prospect in another direction.  But in schools purporting to teach modern defense…either the instructors don’t know what the real risks are, or they just don’t want to think too hard about it.  They want to cling to the idea that “martial arts makes you safer” and take the money. They probably even believe it and are just bad at math.


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