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Monday, January 26, 2015

A Token Female, Violence, and Self-Defense

I recently reviewed the evaluations for the Defense Against An Armed Rapist course (DAAR) held in November—overall they were very positive, but one comment stood out for me personally: “I felt very much as if Martha were there for a token female presence.” Ouch!

One of the reasons IMPACT keeps getting better is that we review course evaluations for observations and recommendations of women and girls who participate in our programs. The above was a unique observation not only in the last DAAR course but in all the others offered over the last 25 years. Although I could dismiss it as a singular comment, I don't want to do so because it suggests that a key principle of IMPACT--female leadership--was not obvious to at least one participant. I want to take that seriously and reflect upon what I can do differently for the future while also assessing what it suggests about the challenges women face in teaching self-defense with men as co-teachers and role-playing aggressors with weapons.

I looked to the singular evaluation for some clues about what I can do differently. Her explanation for her comment was that I had significantly less weapons experience than the two suited instructors. Her perception of my lesser experience doesn't reflect reality, but even if it did, inexperience with weapons does not equal an inability to teach self-defense against an armed attacker. There is no requirement that instructors have any experience with using weapons since our focus is on self-defense.

Even though experience with weapons is not a requirement for teaching self-defense against an armed attacker,  I have made sure I train with weapons to deepen my own understanding of the risks and opportunities a defender has when attacked by someone with a weapon. As a martial artist, using knives and sticks is an integral part of my practice. I've taken extra steps (and expense) to learn how to use a gun. I have taken two firearms courses and have practiced shooting with revolvers, rifles, and shotguns on both outdoor and indoor ranges. In this past DAAR course, I made reference to the fact I wasn't a very good shot (as did one of the suited instructors), but neglected to say that the lesson for a self-defender is learning how difficult it is to shoot well and that without adrenaline-based practice, facility with a gun can disappear quickly when faced with using a gun a real-life situation.

So, the message to me is that in future courses, I need to focus on my experience with the weapons we teach to defend against and highlight how this experience informs how I teach. In addition, I need to take leadership for introducing one of the weapons and demystifying its risks and opportunities for a defender..

Although the comment was about me personally, I believe at a deeper level it was also about perceptions of women and men in terms of violence and self-defense. Being seen as a "token presence" means that there was no value placed on the significant role I played in the course:  (1) course design, including the content of each scenario and techniques participants' learned; (2) the intricate scaffolding for a cohesive and timely experience of circles, demonstrations, deconstruction, drills, and scenarios; and (3) my demonstrations and teaching of everything they learned, my individualized coaching through each scenario, facilitating every circle, and creating space for each participant as well as the other members of the team.

Sometimes the public and media focus on the suited instructors and ignore the contributions of the lead instructors. Previously when that has happened, I've thought it was unexamined sexism—where what men do is more valued than what woman do-- but such a comment from a woman who has experienced the class makes me think that it is more than simple sexism and that the higher value placed on the suited instructors may also reflect a complex relationship between gender, violence, and self-defense: that the "skills" of an aggressor (whether real or simulated) are more valued than the skills of a defender and that unarmed self-defense is less valued than armed aggression.This suggests another reason why our mission of female-led self-defense instructor teams is so important.

Martha Thompson, IMPACT Chicago Instructor and Director Emeritus

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