Women face down fear

Women feel alternately empowered and vulnerable. Despite a national decline in violent crime, the perception of danger persists.

Hallie Lee still hasn't told her mother the story of how she came to the aid of another woman being mugged on a street near her apartment.

"My mother was concerned about me living in a city. She was always wanting me to live in a nice, safe neighborhood like she does," said the 20-something self-employed landscaper.

Ms. Lee has never taken a self-defense class, nor does she feel inclined to sign up for one now. She insists she feels comfortable living in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood that just 10 years ago was perceived as a place where it wasn't wise for a woman to walk alone after dark.

Since the self-defense movement became firmly established in the early 1970s, the reasons that urban women want to learn how to prevent an attack have changed. It's no longer largely fear of harm that's prompting women to sign up for classes, but a desire to discover, enhance, and test their physical strength.

"The average woman is now taking self-defense, where 30 years ago that wasn't true," said Lynn Auerbach, director of the Boston chapter of Impact Model Mugging.

"Many of the women who were taking self-defense 30 years ago ... already had abuse or trauma in their history."

This fundamental attitude shift, from one based on victimization to one of self-empowerment, would seem to indicate that urban women, like Ms. Lee, are embracing a more healthy perspective about living in the city. And graduates of Impact Model Mugging who later encounter confrontations on the street are finding that the situations can be resolved verbally most of the time.

However, experts maintain that this growing confidence runs against a tide of media messages depicting images of women as victims.

"[Media coverage] of one crime can create a lot of fear. The truth is that in many ways, fear of crime is an instrument to control women's lives," said Esther Madriz, a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco and author of "Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls."

"People may say women can do whatever they want, but in the next breath they say, 'But of course, women are vulnerable. You have to be careful,' " says Ms. Madriz. "We cannot say all women are fragile. We can train women to feel more self-sufficient, to feel more powerful."

Recent reports indicate that in the past year the violent crime rate has dropped 15 percent. But Martha McCaughey, a professor of women's studies at Virginia Tech, thinks that women are being fed more statistics and more stories of victimization than they were 20 years ago.

Ms. McCaughey, author of "Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Self-Defense," says that taking self-defense classes is one way women attempt to address issues of safety in their lives.

One such program is Impact Model Mugging. The international self-defense program with 17 chapters worldwide was established in 1971 in response to the rape of a Boston woman who held a black belt in martial arts. The assault prompted some martial artists to distinguish the sport as an art form, and not necessarily as the best way to practice self-defense.

In Impact, participants learn how to defend themselves in the emotional state - panic mode - a real attack would trigger.

At a recent class graduation, 14 women of different ages and sizes lined up at the edge of a blue mat in the basement room of the YWCA in Cambridge, Mass. A male instructor lumbered out, dressed in 30 pounds of protective padding. Raising his voice above the whir of a fan, he assured the guests seated in folding chairs that he would feel nothing - anywhere - when the women used their full force against him. Then he donned a football helmet wrapped in 3-1/2 inches of silver duct tape with alien-shaped mesh eye holes.

After circling up in a team hug, the women one by one demonstrated how they would first try to use their voices to resolve an aggressive confrontation. If that failed, and a physical conflict ensued, the women along the edge of the mat began to yell encouraging directions: "Knee him in the groin!" or "Jab him in the eye!"

And the woman, who oftentimes moments before had a trembling voice and quaky hands, would deliver one or two swift moves. A cheer would rise up from along the blue mat and simultaneously her classmates would pump their fists in the air and shout "911!"

While this display left even the guests feeling weak and exhausted, the participants experienced a tremendous surge of self-empowerment.

This feeling of control, says chapter director Ms. Auerbach, translates into other areas of their lives: more confidence walking down the street, at their jobs, or at home.

Jen Perry felt the course had a transforming effect on her artwork. "I had been doing tight detailed work. It mirrored how I was holding myself physically," said Ms. Perry afterward, cradling a bouquet of lilies from her friends. "Since taking the class, I've started to paint huge paintings with more color and energy. My relationship with my boyfriend is better, I exercise more, and I have more confidence at work. The class released all that energy."

Niki Pugach found that the class helped her to stand up for herself in situations such as when people accidentally cut in front of her in line. But Ms. Pugach, who has just completed the course with her teenage daughter, was originally impelled to learn self-defense to handle anxiety and depression.

"It was more about mental empowerment for me.... [Our instructor] told us, 'Don't let anyone take the power away from you.' So many times I have let anxiety or depression take away power in my life and leave me feeling like I couldn't do things. Now I feel that the skills I've learned are integrated into my life, and I can call on them," said Pugach.

Women graduates are beginning to sign up their children - even boys - for self-defense classes. A positive sign, says Auerbach, since safety at school continues to be a national concern. And attendance in the men's self-defense class is growing.

Self-defense classes for men are geared to learning how to handle an emotional, adrenaline-filled confrontation - and how to avoid a physical fight. That's the major difference between the men's and women's classes. While women are taught how to use their physical strength, men are taught to be cool-headed.

When Impact hears from its graduates who have used the skills they learned in class, 90 percent of the time, the situation was resolved verbally.

But even if they aren't signing up for self-defense classes, young women like Hallie Lee in Jamaica Plain find that lessons learned on the athletic field or on their own at the gym bring a greater sense of freedom.

Lee wasn't the only woman to respond to the mugging on her street. A third woman and then a male accomplice joined the scuffle on the sidewalk before the situation dissipated. But the three women came away without serious injuries. And they all felt less like victims because they had taken a stand.

Safety-first principles

Awareness: It is vital to pay attention at all times to what is going on around you. Increased awareness means you are more prepared to keep yourself safe.

Trust your instincts: They give you valuable information.

Confidence: Your body language and tone of voice communicate how you feel about yourself. Show that you value yourself and believe your safety is worth defending.

Commitment to act: When a situation is uncomfortable, take control to change it. Act sooner rather than later.

Communicate: Be clear and specific about what you want. Remember to keep your body language, tone, and verbal messages consistent.

Common-sense safety tips

Be confident and purposeful in your walk, using a firm steady, pace.

Stay alert and aware, even in familiar places.

Keep a distance of two arms' lengths between you and a stranger.

If you think you are being followed, change the situation. Cross the street or enter a populated area.

If you feel you are in an unsafe situation, do not hesitate to call attention to what is happening.

If anyone demands a personal possession, give it to them.

When dating a person for the first time, meet in a neutral place and be responsible for your transportation to and from home.

When walking or running:

Face oncoming traffic.

Don't walk close to bushes, doorways, or other obstacles.

Don't wear a Walkman, so that you can hear what's going on around you.

Source: Impact Model Mugging of Boston

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