Last week I read Lucky, Alice Sebold’s searing memoir of rape and its aftermath. As a self defense instructor, three sentences of the explosive first page captured my attention. Sebold began her memoir at the moment her assailant grabbed her and threatened to kill her. As she fell to the ground and began to struggle, Sebold observed,
“I was wearing soft-soled moccasins with which I tried to land wild kicks. Everything missed or merely grazed him. I had never fought before, was chosen last in gym.”
When I showed up in self defense class in 1986, I had never fought before. I was chosen last in gym. At some point during my first few weeks of learning and practicing the skills of mind, voice and body I had an epiphany that sings to me twenty-two years later. It is one of those phrases that came into my mind fully formed, like a skywriter’s banner.
We were talking about the possibility of an attacker having a weapon and I understood with a start, “If I have a body and he has a body, we are even. I could fight back.”
That insight belies a naiveté—as does Sebold’s drastic awareness that she “had never fought before.” Physical capacity, strength and training do not exempt women from risk of rape; far too many women who were not picked last for gym are assaulted and victimized. As Sebold’s agonizingly detailed account demonstrates, rapists bring an arsenal of weapons: fists and feet and threats and shame and sometimes knives and guns. The responsibility for ending physical and sexual assault lies with the rapist; our preparation or lack-there-of does not have any bearing on it.
Alice Sebold, like far too many others, was not raped because she didn’t know how to fight back. She was raped because her attacker overpowered her.
When I think back to the moment of my own insight, I remember carrying it with me out of the dojo like a precious treasure. At the age of 18 I had finally discovered that I had a body, that my body was mine, and that it might be possible for me to be strong and powerful. It might be possible not just for an attacker to use his body as a weapon, but for me to use my body as a weapon.
My body might be a weapon.
How is it possible that I lived until I was 18 years old without recognizing the fact that my body is my own? How is it possible that I—like Alice Sebold, like countless young women— stood on the precipice of adulthood without knowing that my body could be a weapon? That I could use it to defend myself? Why had I never practiced the fighting skills I might someday need?
The Justice Department estimates that one in four college women will experience sexual violence during her time in school. Safety experts Gavin de Becker and Ellen Snortland consider self-defense a basic “physical literacy” all kids should have. In a 2009 Huffington Post essay, Snortland and de Becker wrote,
“Parents inadvertently ignore a vital safety consideration if they focus on campus security without taking into account their child's personal physical literacy. If Jane doesn't know how to physically defend herself, she's illiterate.”
Alice Sebold and I headed off to college in the 1980s. In the intervening 30-plus years women have enjoyed expanded opportunities in business and sports. Our society has accepted greater roles for women in the military—even in combat—and we’ve engaged in a conversation about “mean girls” and girl-initiated violence (which may or may not be on the rise, depending upon which researchers you believe.)
But we have not accepted a basic fact: in a society where one out of six women will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault in her lifetime, self defense is a basic life skill. It should be considered as fundamental as balancing a checkbook, using a washing machine, or reading a map. In a world where one out of four college women will experience sexual violence, parents must begin to find it inconceivable to send our daughters to campus having “never fought before.”
In the Happy Valley? My next teen self defense class begins May 15. Email trainer "at" mindbodymama.com for details.