My jiu-jitsu origin story is that I was almost raped by a taxi driver, managed to escape before anything truly bad happened, and signed up to start learning kickboxing (which evolved into jiu-jitsu and MMA) the very next day. It’s what a lot of women are told we should do: learn self-defense. Along with “buy a gun.” “Carry pepper spray.” “Don’t run with earbuds in.” “Cover up.” “Stay sober.”
The phrase “learn self-defense” is tossed around like it’s a one-and-done decision. The reality is that actually learning self-defense takes years. I firmly believe that one-off self-defense seminars are a load of BS — it can and does take years of practice to react instinctively when you’re grabbed a certain way or tackled to the ground. For me, that investment was worth it, especially given that jiu-jitsu is now my passion. But even after six years of training, even after knowing that I can manhandle most newbie meatheads that come into the gym and try to throw me around, I’m still scared.
I’m scared because the guy who followed me around in a convenience store incessantly trying to talk to me was 6’2″ to my 5’2″ and 230 lbs to my 125 lbs. If he had followed me back out to my car, would it have mattered that I knew how to choke him if he could kill me with a single well-placed punch?
I’m scared because my brain automatically knows to triangle someone who has one arm in and one arm out of my closed guard and to lock in a guillotine on a person who tries to take me down with their head on the outside, but it froze when the man next to me on a bus tried to feel me up in my sleep. Would a wristlock be justified? Was he even aware that his hand was about to slide under my shorts? How much of a reaction would be an overreaction?
I’m scared because when I walked past a group of men in broad daylight, I knew I had to stay silent when they yelled sexual remarks about my body and what they wanted to do to me. I knew that if I’d made them angry, I could probably handle one of them, but I couldn’t defend myself against five.
I’m scared because I know the dumb mistakes an untrained person makes, but as a purple belt, I still struggle to submit blue belts who are larger and stronger than me. What happens if the person who attacks me was a college wrestler or a teammate that I shouldn’t have trusted? Worse, I’m scared because I’ve seen enough of the “bro culture” in martial arts to know that credible accusations of predatory behavior against boxers, fighters, and grapplers are frequently waved off.
I’m scared because I know how to cripple, choke, punch, kick, and control people who are larger than me, but I know it’s not nearly enough. I know that statistically, the person most likely to try to rape me is a friend or acquaintance, and most of my friends and acquaintances are martial artists. I know from experience that no matter how many times I’m groped in a crowd or on public transit, no matter how many times an “overly friendly” or “persistent” man plows through normal social constructs to force an interaction with me, no matter how many times I’m harassed while trying to get from point A to point B, many people will consider me “dramatic” for getting upset since I wasn’t forced to fight for my life.
“Learn self-defense” is one of the many things that women are advised to do in order to protect themselves, and while I absolutely believe in the power of never truly being unarmed, I’m tired of seeing it treated as another band-aid every time the topic of domestic violence or sexual assault gets brought up. I’m not a fearless action hero with a tragic backstory — I’m another average woman who feels like no safety measure I take is enough to protect me. Even as I write this, I know there will be people who preach to me that jiu-jitsu isn’t enough without Krav Maga, or that I should carry a gun or pepper spray. I am not an action hero, but I feel being armed and trained like an action hero is the only way people will finally say that, yes, I’ve done enough to protect myself.
I don’t expect the people around me to risk jail time or their own safety to protect me if some creep tries to hurt me. Sometimes, when I talk about these experiences that are so familiar to countless other women, I just want to be taken seriously. I don’t want there to be a checklist that women have to complete in order for them to stop getting told that their harassment or assault was their own fault. I don’t want to be given lazy advice on how to protect myself when I, like so many other women, have been going above and beyond to take my safety into my own hands since I first became aware that other people saw me as a sexual being.
No, I want these people to be held accountable. I want coaches to create an environment within their gyms that proves that harassment won’t be tolerated. I want people who have experienced this garbage to feel that if they report it, they will have some semblance of a chance at justice. I want “harassment” to stop being synonymous with the word “compliment,” and I want people to be believed when they say they’ve had enough human contact in their lifetime to know the difference between a friendly touch and groping. I want society to take the protection it offers predators and instead offer it to their victims, and I want every single person who is cracking their knuckles ready to keyboard-Khabib their way into a “What about ____?” battle to just shut up and listen.
I have learned to defend myself. I own a gun. I walk with my keys like they’re Wolverine’s blades between my knuckles. I choose my company wisely. I rarely drink, and when I do, I don’t leave my cup unattended.
It is not enough.
Featured Image by Jiu-Jitsu Times partner photographer Giulliana Fonseca Photography