(First appeared in Black Belt Magazine)
Okay, okay…one joke up front, then we’ll get on with it. At a time when serious consideration is being given to the need for a designated third bathroom, do we really need to differentiate between self-defense for men or women? We don’t think so.
First, let’s take the exceptions out of the mix. Yes, there are women who can fight like men and there are men who fight, well, like women but neither is the norm. Average men and women typically have attributes specific to each gender. We’re not being sexist here or denigrating either gender but an honest assessment of each reveals actual differences exist only in strength and mass. Generally, all other differences exist between people of both genders (i.e., balance, speed, agility and coordination, flexibility, intensity, etc.).
Good self-defense technique shouldn’t rely on strength alone although strength and power generation certainly helps effective application. Think of self-defense in terms of jiu-jitsu; much of traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu relies on strength but Brazilian jiu-jitsu was specifically developed by Helio Gracie to be effective relying on technique—himself, at the time, a sickly youth who created many techniques to defend himself based on his physical shortcomings.
Remember that combatives was taught universally to both men and women in the British SOE and the American OSS during WWII. Imagine Julia Childs, famous chef, author and television personality in later life, learning eye gouging, groin kicks and throat attacks during her OSS training in order to deploy with some semblance of reliable self-defense skills! One common goal shared by both genders should be determination; the determination to survive a violent encounter, to prevail regardless of any disparity in size, power or any other attribute.
We teach and preach avoidance over all techniques. When avoidance isn’t a possibility, unfortunately, the event has two potential outcomes—either the attacker gets to do what he wants to do or you get to prevent him from doing it. Any disparity in attributes is moot at this point and dwelling on them doesn’t change this fact.
Ask yourself this, if an offhand finger jab to the eyes is effective because it disrupts an attacker’s vision and diminishes his ability to fight, is it any less practical or effective for a man, who may be able to develop more punching power than a woman? Should he disregard the technique as “for women only” and choose to punch instead? Of course not.
One issue we are always confronted with is that “women are more comfortable being taught by other women” or that they prefer to partner with other women. This is largely because they don’t believe men “get it” or, let’s be honest says Michelle, they do want to be treated differently. Do you think you’re going to be treated differently by your male attacker? Confronting the realities of being punched is important to both genders but perhaps even more important to women who may never have been honestly punched by a man.
Even if what surfaces through intense training is that a particular woman should always be armed and focus her training on weapons in order to even up the playing field, it’s a valid observation. Our opinion is that women should always partner with men in training because the learning curve is greater and more realistic—instances of men attacking women are far more frequent than those involving a woman attacking another woman.
These are difficult questions that may be uncomfortable for some and will make both genders consider their own attributes carefully. A 125 lb. man has to consider what his actual power generation capabilities are just like a 5’ 2” 115 lb. woman does. Faced with a much larger attacker, both will have their hands full and must seek to focus their defense on exploiting natural vulnerabilities that exist in an attacker of any size. The challenge of disparity is not gender related, it’s a cruel reality that can only be answered by determination and technique.
Men should treat their women training partners no differently. Will it be frustrating for a woman? Of course. Is it hard for commercial training schools to maintain membership when women are continually frustrated? Yes. But over time a woman will confront these issues and learn to continually rely on techniques which actually do work for her. Guided by her instructor, she will eventually be encouraged to rely on specific techniques which work against select targets that are available and difficult to protect.
It’s equally important for men to challenge themselves by partnering with men who are stronger, faster, meaner and more coordinated in order to prevent training sessions from being a feel good event that leaves everyone inaccurately assessing their true competence in handling violence.
Our bottom line is this, self-defense is a genderless skill. It’s only through confronting disparities that we all improve. Billing training as “Women’s Self-Defense” should be viewed as a diminishment, not as a benefit. While there are specifics necessary to teach on the ground because of the threat of rape, they don’t differ from credible ground techniques taught to men. Approaching self-defense from a gender-free perspective will crystalize focus on techniques that are effective regardless of any condition or disparity of physical attributes which you can count on being present in an attack (perhaps even the cause of the attack).