When we talk about the importance of women learning self-defense, it’s often illustrated in situations that are objectively violent and physically dangerous: a man in a parking garage trying to pull a woman out of her car, a female jogger being tackled by a man hiding in the bushes, a Tinder date forcing his way past the word “no.” In these situations (which can and absolutely do happen), the alarm bells are obviously ringing, but there’s no need to question if it’s because of bad wiring — the victims are already in the midst of the fire.
These types of black-and-white self-defense situations are what many women have in mind when they start training in an art like krav maga or jiu-jitsu. When you spend months or years training to choke an opponent unconscious or defend yourself from your back, you might assume that you’re ready for anything — that the same reflexes that make you sink in a guillotine choke when your opponent puts their head on the outside when they shoot for a takedown will also kick in the second you get a feeling that someone might have bad intentions.
I thought this about myself for a long time. I started my own jiu-jitsu journey after narrowly avoiding sexual assault, and after using it to defend myself in a separate situation, I thought I was at the point where I’d be able to snap into action the second some creepy dude got too handsy with me again.
But when it actually happened, I froze.
I was catching the bus on my way to, of all things, a jiu-jitsu camp a few hours away from where I lived. The man behind me in line at the ticket counter was assigned the seat next to me, and right away, I got a strange feeling about him. There was literally no reason for it — he wasn’t displaying any obviously predatory body language, he wasn’t even looking at me, and everything about him seemed normal. But that feeling stayed with me even as we got on the bus and he sat next to me. We exchanged a polite greeting, then started playing around on our phones. At one point, he called his wife or girlfriend.
I fell asleep after a couple hours. I woke up to his elbow pushing into the side of my boob. The weird feeling in my stomach got worse, but I convinced myself that I was overreacting. After all, we were in a tight space, and these things just happened sometimes. Right?
I folded my arms across my chest and tried to go back to sleep, but two minutes later, I felt his fingers on the side of my thigh. I waited, still giving him the benefit of the doubt, as his hand slowly crept up my leg. All the while, I kept telling myself that I would be overreacting by causing a scene or assuming that he was being a creep. He was probably asleep, right? The rickety bus had probably been what made his hand keep inching up, right? He hadn’t been weird or creepy to me before, so why would he do something so bold now?
It wasn’t until his hand was completely on my inner thigh and his fingers started to try to slide under my shorts that I finally grabbed his hand and threw it back into his lap. Even then, the fear of being perceived as “dramatic” was greater than the fear of being groped by a complete stranger. So I didn’t yell, I didn’t wristlock him, I didn’t tell the bus driver, I didn’t do anything else that I’d always sworn I’d do if this kind of situation happened to me again. I just huddled closer to the window of the bus in silence.
I spent a long time afterward thinking about why I hadn’t done anything. It wasn’t because I was afraid of being loud — I was always That Crazy B*tch who yelled back at catcallers on the street. It wasn’t because I thought I couldn’t handle myself if he got violent — I’d been training in MMA and jiu-jitsu for three years, and this dude was built like a detailed stick figure.
No, it was because I trusted this guy’s intentions more than I trusted my own instincts. I spent over ten hours a week rolling around on the ground with men, and I never even noticed when their hands ended up on my chest or my butt to execute a technique. But when a stranger tried to ease his way into touching those same body parts and the alarm bells did go off, I worked harder to project innocence onto him than to protect myself.
I think back to this “yellow flag” incident far more often than I think of the “red flag” incident that made me start jiu-jitsu in the first place because it made me realize that although I could trust myself to react to danger, I couldn’t trust myself to recognize it. It resurfaced in my mind again today when I saw the now-viral clip of the bishop at Aretha Franklin’s funeral repeatedly inching his fingers along Ariana Grande’s breast. If you want to believe his claim that he was just giving the singer a friendly hug, I’m not going to waste my energy trying to change your mind. I’ve hugged enough people in my lifetime to see it for what it was.
Although Grande hasn’t yet expressed how she felt about the situation, that clip, I believe, resonated with so many people because so many people have been in her shoes. Or my shoes. Whatever shoes you wear when a person pushes your boundaries in a way that is just subtle enough to make you question if they’re really doing that? Here? It’s the combination of the subtle and the absurd that makes us question our own reality, and in turn, our assessment of that reality and our reaction to it.
A lot of people respond to footage of these situations by saying what they “would” do: “I’d smack his hand away,” “I’d call him out right there in front of everyone,” “I’d punch him right in the face.” Would you, though? Or would you be in such disbelief over what was happening that you’d question the right way to react, too?
Since that day on the bus two years ago, I thankfully haven’t run into any bad situations that have gone that far. I’ve had a few weird experiences with a few weird people, but I’ve gotten better at speaking up enough to let them know that I’m wise to their BS.
If you train to build your self-defense instincts, please don’t neglect the importance of your emotional instincts as well. Just as you learn to differentiate between a technique that makes it harder to breathe and a technique that makes it impossible to breathe, remind yourself that you spend a lot of time in this sport having your body touched platonically by other people. It’s truly an underrated gift that we as jiu-jitsu practitioners are so accustomed to being touched and grabbed. In the same way that we can feel a cold coming on when we’re used to being healthy, we can trust ourselves when something tells us that another person’s touch is predatory because we so regularly experience touch that isn’t predatory.
Prioritize your safety over another person’s potentially hurt feelings. Have more concern over the consequences of a person feeling entitled to your body than the consequences of appearing “rude” or “b*tchy.” Trust yourself enough to listen to the alarms before you have to escape the fire.