My self-defense teacher taught us to be freaks today. The best techniques for self-defense, I’ve learned, are utilized before the attacker is even close enough to touch you. We learn to kick and knee and slap the crap out of whoever is trying to hurt us, but we do so with the understanding that a woman is unlikely to out-strike an attacker, and much less likely to survive an attack once the confrontation gets physical. Surprisingly, the best self-defense is verbal.
The key is to be assertive, even when you’re polite. Imagine you’re in a parking garage alone. You see a man walking towards you and he creeps you out. First, trust that instinct, it’s usually right. You put physical distance between you and him by crossing to the other side of the lane, and immediately he crosses too. This sends up flashing red flags in your alert defensive brain, so you might say something like “Hey! Stop! What are you doing?” You back up and say it assertively, loud enough and strong enough to let him know you’re freaked out, but you’re still acting like a normal human being at this point. It’s possible that he just realized his car was on the other side, and if that’s the case he will try to make you understand that he’s not a creep, maybe he’ll slow down and say something like, “Oh, I was just going to my car.” Then you can say, “Sorry, these places freak me out a bit.” You cross to the other side again and keep moving to your car.
If he doesn’t act normally, maybe he keeps walking towards you, get more assertive. Clarify: don’t repeat. If you just keep repeating what you’ve said before you’re not sending the right message. You want to make it clear that you’re really freaked out now. Get louder, shout – get attention. “STOP! STOP! STOP!” Make him afraid that people will hear. If he’s an attacker, he will be less likely to attack if he thinks people notice. If he’s just a strange person who doesn’t understand social cues, he will understand now.
If he keeps moving forward you’re in trouble. Stand your ground. This doesn’t mean you should stand in the same place, however. That’s dumb. But don’t keep backing away, either. That makes you look vulnerable. Instead, move around. Keep distance between you and him. Try to move enough to where you can make a break for it and run as fast as your little TOMS will carry you.
Now if you can’t get away, move to level three. First you were polite but assertive, then you were assertive and loud, now you are loud and strange. A freak. Do something he isn’t expecting. Attract even more attention by acting like a weirdo. Scream, yell, flail your arms wildly. Make strange noises—anything that will freak him out for a split second, giving you a chance to run. We practiced this in class, so I’m kinda a pro at being weird. But I trust you to embrace your inner freak and let loose when it matters most.
I’m completely serious here. If someone puts a gun to your side on a crowded bus, trying to make you get off with him, fall on the floor and pretend you’re having a seizure. What would you do if you were the attacker? It’s completely unexpected, completely brilliant. It attracts attention, freaks out your attacker and makes for a really good story you can tell at cocktail parties for the rest of your life.
I think this concept applies well to life, especially to a life lived as women in a still frustratingly patriarchal society. Despite the leaps and bounds achieved by our feminist foremothers, we still live in a society where women are expected to be hot 24/7, where being called a “girl” is derogatory, where our daughters are complimented on their cuteness and curls instead of their bravery and brains, where princesses and fairy tales tell them that they should want to be the “fairest of them all”, and later magazines and billboards tell them how to achieve it through clothing, hair and surgically mutilating their own bodies. Female Olympic athletes, women who have worked and sacrificed to achieve the highest level of athletic excellence in their field, pose nude in Playboy. Breast procedures increased from 32,607 to 264,041 per year from 1992 to 2004. Pole dancing exercise classes have become all the rage in America’s major cities.
As Susan Faludi writes in her Harper’s essay, American Electra: Feminism’s ritual matricide: “The women’s movement cycled through a long first ‘wave’, and, in increasingly shorter oscillations, a second and third wave, and some say we are now witnessing a fourth. With each go-round, women make gains, but the movement never seems able to establish an enduring birthright, a secure line of descent—to reproduceitself as a strong and sturdy force. At the core of America’s most fruitful political movement resides a perpetual barrenness.” Sure, our foremothers of the 1960s and 70s didn’t agree on every issue, but for a long time there was a general feeling of unity among women’s rights activists. And that unity was powerful. The FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960. In 1963 Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal to give different pay to a man and a woman for the same job. That same year, Betty Freidan published The Feminine Mystique. The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966 and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws in 1969. In 1972, the Supreme Court extended birth control rights to married couples and both houses of Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1973, Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to abortion, and in 1976 Nebraska became the first state to criminalize marital rape.
What happened? What does feminism mean anymore? Hugh Hefner calls himself a feminist. Hugh Hefner! Faludi reported women’s rights activists of my generation using the term “Lady Gaga feminism.” It seems we’ve forgotten that the feminist movement was once revolutionary, “something … momentous and unwieldy: nothing less than the overthrow of patriarchy, which had to start in the minds and bedrooms of Americans as well as the workplace—change from the inside out” (Levy, p.50). Instead, many women of my generation, perhaps in response to the bureaucracy, stubbornness and red tape associated with activism and legislative change, have decided that if we can’t beat them, join them. We’ve accepted porn stars and strippers as models of sexual liberation, praised pornography as free expression of a woman’s sexuality. We’ve given in, backed down, rolled over and let patriarchy continue to define not only our work relationships, but our most intimate personal relationships as well. It’s time for us to fight again. I think it’s time for women to get freaky, to be loud and crazy, radical and assertive. To call attention to a society that has attacked, continues to attack women, to objectify and subjugate them. In a society where you can’t be feminine and powerful, we need to redefine power, to take back our identities as women—professionally, politically, sexually. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable tactic, but I trust you. I trust you to embrace your inner freak and let loose when it matters most.
Faludi, Susan. October 2010. American Electra: Feminism’s ritual matricide. Harper’s Magazine. http://harpers.org/archive/2010/10/0083140. (accessed September 2011)
Imbornoni, Ann-Marie. Timeline of Key Events in the American Women’s Rights Movement: 1921-1979.Infoplease. http://www.infoplease.com/spot/womenstimeline2.html. (accessed September 2011)
Levy, Ariel. 2005. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and The Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press.