By Abi Smith
I felt his breath on my neck, warm and rapid. And, as his chest pressed progressively harder against my chest, I felt everything inside of me tighten simultaneously. I could feel the tips of his fingers gripping me behind my shoulders as if each phalange was piercing the surface of my flesh. It was inescapable. As the impossibility of breaking free and the realization of the total loss of control over my own being swept over me, my heart raced, my eyes burned from the inside out, my limbs stiffened, and my mind disappeared into a haze of confusion and dread.
Helpless. Terrified. Then I heard his voice. “You got this,” he said quietly. “It’s ok, you got this.” I exhaled. Eyes still burning, heart still racing, I pushed out every last ounce of my breath and refocused. I straightened my right arm, shot it quickly up in the air, rotated, and slammed him against the wall. I pushed off and stepped back, hands still raised in front of my face. “Yes!” he said, and smiled. I smiled back at Victor, my trainer, knowing that everything was changing. The fear that had kept me awake, exhausted, anxious, and crippled by self-loathing for over 20 years was finally getting smaller.
A few months earlier, when I walked into the small, unassuming, newly opened gym, I had no idea how much my life would be changed, made better, by learning to fight. Little did I know, that months after my epiphany in the gym, the gravity of all of this would come sweeping over me again, as I watched the results of our presidential election and realized that we, as a country, had affirmed the very impulses that had destroyed my life, and the lives of so many women, as “locker room talk” acceptable at the highest level of leadership.
“What does this mean for my daughters?” I thought. How would I explain this? When my girls have been raised talking and thinking about the way that assault permeates every crevice of our culture, and knowing that it is not acceptable. I wept that day, for my girls and for all of the women who know all too well the physical, mental, and emotional anguish that assault leaves in its wake.
We live in a world of pussy-grabbing, slut-shaming, and victim blaming. We live in a country that has gone a step beyond normalizing rape culture through jokes, songs, and derogatory language aimed at women. We now live in a country that elevates the embodiment and dismissal of this “locker room” mentality to our most esteemed office. At the highest level, we have now affirmed the inferiority of women and the acceptance of violence. As a woman, as a mother, as an educator, as a human being, I am terrified of this reality.
But, I choose to fight back. From the perspective of a survivor, I find this to be an incredibly important historical moment, one in which we have the option to sit idly by and let ourselves be framed by a disempowering cultural narrative or to fight back. I’ve chosen to fight, quite literally.
Self-defense is, admittedly, a loaded term. It harkens images of men in large padded gear getting kicked by nervous women. It has been the setting for several memorable sit-com laughs, such as the ‘Friends’ scene when Ross unexpectedly attacks a woman. So, it is not surprising that self-defense programs have increasingly undervalued as gimmicky and/or ineffective. It was videos like this one below which speak important truths about our societal myths about the impetus for rape and other forms of violence, but devalue or misunderstand the practical utility of self-defense, which prompted me to write this piece.
On a typical day after work, I grab my precious girls, 7 and 9, from school, and head to Tapout Fitness Woodland Hills, our second home. My girls take the daily 5:30 class, Marital Arts or Strike (boxing), and sit down to eat dinner on Tapout’s couch while I take the regular 6:30 class (Strike or Kickboxing). On the weekends, the girls come in their pajamas, tablets in hand, while I take Strike, Self-Defense, Women’s Ju Jitsu, or work with a personal trainer.
The people who populate this place defy all of my previously held stereotypes of LA fitness fanatics. Members come from all walks of life, from fitness newbie to 10th degree black belt, and every imaginable inclination in between. In this place, this atypical fitness center, we have found the tools and the community that have healed us as a trio. We are stronger, wiser, and more aware of the world around us, because we make the choice, daily, train for the reality of violence that surrounds us.
Tapout Fitness Woodland Hills was opened this past summer by a woman named Elissa who, by all accounts, is a real-life superwoman. She had a dream of creating a space that encouraged health and felt like family. It is a place where we, my girls and I, go to be reminded of our own strength, to talk about health in all areas of life, and to marry our intimate knowledge of real life danger with that strength and healthy perspective.
“Feeling safe and knowing how to protect yourself is just as important, if not more, than reaching your goal weight,” Elissa told me when I asked her why she chose to incorporate self-defense classes into her gym’s training schedule.
Elissa’s sentiment that this unique combination “provides people with a life changing experience,” is supported by research on the role of self-defense programs in both effectively resisting attacks and recovering from attacks.
I strongly caution women against painting the self-defense industry with a broad brush based upon internet videos, sit-coms, or anecdotal evidence. I encourage women to find a place like Tapout, one which values overall health and remains faithful to the purpose of self-defense: protection from violence. The truth is that no good self-defense program would engage in the displacement of blame that the video identities.
Self-defense is about fighting back, not because you are responsible for your own suffering, but because you are capable of so much more than society, including attackers, gives you credit for. At this pivotal cultural moment, it is essential that we fight back, in every way that we can. We do not leave our cars unlocked or homes un-alarmed because the onus is on robbers not to rob.
We have the mentality that being prepared to defend our physical belongings from the ill-intentioned is important, and does not serve to shift the blame from the robber to the home or car owner. So, we must learn to value our bodies, souls, and psyches more than these replaceable, repairable, inanimate THINGS.
I sat down with Victor that day after class. My eyes were teary and my spirit was shaken, but my spirit was renewed. He talked with me about the power of visualization and the importance of being focused on defense of my own body. It is a lesson that I remind myself of every morning as I awaken, before I head into my daughters’ room. Because I can fight, I will never again will I worry about offending someone who is making me uncomfortable.
I will never again will I be trapped in the deafening silence of my own inability to scream. For my daughters. For my students. For all the women who know that being grabbed is so much more than fodder for manly banter. I vow to fight as often as possible. I vow to fight the language and larger cultural assumptions about sexual assault. I vow to fight the devaluing of women. I vow to fight in the specific moments, in defense of others and in defense of myself. I can vow that now, because I am stronger in every sense of the word.
I have taken back something that was ripped from me a long time ago. I do not have a word for that thing, that intangible notion made up of a smattering of peace, safety, confidence, and ability. But it is mine. I fight for it every day, every time I step into the gym and think through my reaction to moments of violence. I know that self-defense is not a panacea for sexual assault or violent masculinity, but it is an opportunity to take back something that is often stolen from women, by specific instances of violence and a culture that preys on and sustains our fear. In this culture, the most powerful thing we can be is unafraid.
Abi Smith is the Assistant Director of Forensics and a Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University. She facilitates a group focusing on young women’s empowerment called Being a Confident Woman: Embracing Uniqueness and a self-defense seminar called My Body, My Temple.She is the mother of two daughters.