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A woman’s place is on the mat

September 13, 2011

Over the weekend, I had my latest in a series of bizarre and puzzling encounters with the male of the species. I was on my way out to dinner with the Husband Elect, also known as Dr. Funkenstein. We hopped on the bus to save a little time, and after a few minutes, I registered that another guy was talking to me. I made what is usually a tactical error, and acknowledged that he existed by asking him to repeat himself.

“What I said was, ‘nice eyes,’ to her,” he nodded at a girl a few seats away, “and ‘nice Pilates!’ to you!”

“Nice Pilates?” I repeated. It’s certainly one of the more esoteric compliments I’ve gotten.

“Yeah, you know– everything looks good! You work out?”

Finally understanding, I laughed, and before I could stop myself, I said, “That’s not Pilates! It’s Krav Maga.”

The effect was immediate and dramatic. “No shit, Krav Maga? Damn, I’m backing off. I bet you fight like a cat in a bathtub. No disrespect, miss.”

I would like to point out that during this exchange, I was not only standing with my fiancé, but holding his hand. Nothing in my demeanor indicated that I would welcome the comments or attention of a strange man. And yet, this guy felt that I would want to hear his assessment of my body. It may have been flattering (although I prefer respecting my fighting skills to complimenting my figure, as far as praise goes), but that doesn’t mean I wanted to hear it. Nor did I necessarily want to put the time and effort into coming back with the right response– one that was discouraging without being confrontational enough to possibly provoke a total stranger.

I also feel obliged to mention, just in case anyone might think that I tempted my new friend with a scandalous outfit, that I was wearing a blazer, top, and jeans. Not exactly a 10 on the “C’mere and hit on me, stud!” scale. And even if I was wearing something shorter, tighter, and/or lower-cut? Who says that’s an invitation to comment on my body?

Some men– definitely not all, but some– see women as bodies, as notches on the bedpost, as interchangeable dolls with nice eyes and nice figures. All of the women I’ve talked to about this– not some, but all– have had a guy try to pick her up, approach her, follow her with his eyes, or pursue her when it’s clear she has no interest in the encounter. It’s a phenomenon that all women are aware of, and we all take steps to a certain degree. Not walking down a street after a certain hour. Bringing a jacket to wear on the subway. Avoiding that ATM where you saw a guy loitering.

And for every woman who has a story about being groped in the subway or hit on in the workplace, there is someone who will say she is overreacting.

I’m lucky in that I haven’t come across this attitude in any of my training partners. If anything, the prevailing opinion is that more women—in fact, every woman—should learn how to defend herself and learn the mix of assertiveness and attitude our instructors cultivate. I have been fortunate to train with a mix of strong, capable women and tolerant, open-minded men who don’t care if I wear a dress and heels when I’m off the mat. In my gi and wrestling shoes, I’m just one more student of our discipline (which my dad refers to as the shul of hard knocks).

Rarely, I come across someone who thinks that I, as a woman, have no place in a fighting art.

To those who understand, I smile and trade stories—the time I bit a training partner so she wouldn’t inadvertently break my arm. Their first real sparring session. My first bloody nose. To those who wince away from the perceived violence, I talk about building trust with your fellow students and learning control. I emphasize the importance of teaching your body to cope with stressful situations without shutting down, and handling the worst-case scenario and surviving. What it means to do everything in your power to stop the fight before it starts, or to end it quickly once it begins. After six years of training, I have a lot of answers, responses, and examples of teachable moments. It’s that last group, the people who think I’ve grossly misused those last six years, who I have trouble addressing.

Maybe I’m shorter and lighter than many of my partners, but they don’t think (or ask) less of me. In fact, they demand more: more aggression, more strikes to vulnerable targets, more snarls, more attitude. More balls than all the guys combined. In fact, the heels I like to wear do matter—they’ve been judged and approved as a good weapon for a street situation. “I wouldn’t want to be the one you kick with these,” my head instructor grins.

So if the people I train with accept me and all the women of our school, why is it so hard for someone who has not the foggiest idea what it actually means– either to be a woman and train, or to train with women? “You’ll get hurt,” I hear. Or “why do you want to fight guys?”

I think the problem is lack of awareness, not malice or even misogyny. The people who question the motives of a female fighter are simply, blessedly oblivious.

First and foremost, it remains an unfortunate fact that women are not afforded equal respect. Some of it is nonviolent, along the lines of unbalanced salaries. Then there are those who see women and/or their bodies as public property. A scale of benignity exists, from the guy who tells you you’d be so pretty if you’d just smile, to the man who stands slightly too close for comfort on a non-crowded subway car, up to the same guy who gets off the train at your stop and tries to follow you home. As long as women are commodified, objectified, and victimized, I will see a reason to fight, to teach others how to fight, and to strengthen my body, my backbone, and my attitude. As long as girls are socialized to be compliant and polite, and those ladies who stick up for themselves are criticized for being frigid or bitches, I will sharpen my skills and my awareness of my surroundings.

It is at this point that I feel I should mention that I read this post to the wonderful Dr. Funkenstein, who is both an enlightened dude (I should hope) and an ally. I asked for his thoughts. He said I sounded angry. Being angry, or coming across that way, was not exactly my primary intention. When I think about the many ways in which society is imbalanced toward women, I do get upset. When I think of the guy who harassed a close friend, I get mad. But my goal in writing this piece was simply to set down the facts of the matter, as I see them.

Not to state the obvious, but I think being a woman (albeit a straight, white, middle-class, fairly privileged woman) simply lends me a different perspective than that of my male counterpart. I have to be aware of the many strangers around me. I usually give at least a little consideration to how an outfit’s hemline or neckline will attract attention, and decide if the potential attention is something I’m prepared to deal with on that day. Men who prey on women, make inappropriate comments, or merely content themselves with creepy stares are by no means the majority. But they are out there, and it would be foolish to disregard them as a potential threat. Any woman reading this has probably had at least one unpleasant encounter, or knows someone who has. For many guys, this type of attention is usually not in their realm of experience, and they have trouble understanding the daily mindset of a woman who has been harassed in the past.

The main issue they lose sight of is that women have no way of knowing which guy is going to hold the door to the bank for her and then go on his way, and which guy is going to hold the door and then try to follow her home. Each stranger who comes too close to my personal space is a potential threat, and many men, living without that necessary watchfulness, have the luxury of not caring.

At my first job out of college, the very first week, I walked into the elevator behind a small group of guys. As the doors closed, one of them nudged the others and said to me, “A girl and a few guys alone in an elevator… they make movies like that.” Alone and suddenly aware of my helplessness—I thought I was safe at work—I fell back on my only weapon at the time: my brain.

“They’re making a movie of us right now, you know,” I shot back, jerking my thumb at the security camera. Then the doors opened, and I shot out, swiping my ID hurriedly through the office card reader and slamming the door behind me. Even if those guys had only wanted to mess with me and rattle my composure (mission accomplished), I had never had my vulnerability rubbed in my face so blatantly before.

That’s the first reason I started Krav Maga. The reasons I’ve stayed with it are more layered. I like feeling in control of my own safety, yes. I like feeling that I might just have a better idea of what to do if those guys had decided to do more than just intimidate me. But I also take pride in learning defenses and releases. I have fun sparring, which is like both competing and cooperating with the friends I’ve made. Other than a fall break, I haven’t had occasion to use what I’ve learned outside of school, and I hope I never have to.

But I know that if push comes to shove, I won’t be able to avoid a fight just because the aggressor is above my weight class. I won’t be able to choose the time or place, or ensure that I’m well-rested, in peak condition, and know what to expect. And that’s why, more than anything, I believe a woman’s place is on the mat.

I hope I’ll see you there.

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From → Self-defense

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