A couple months ago, as I was biking home around midnight from a friend's house, a man stepped out from between two cars about 50 feet ahead of me. Approaching with arms outstretched, he shouted sexually violent plans for our presumed night together. This is it , I thought to myself, you've been too lucky in life so far. I tried to recall any self-defense lessons I learned in high school or tips from chain emails forwarded by my mom during my freshman year of college. I swerved to avoid him, and pedaled away, adrenaline pumping. He chased me for two blocks, maybe more. I didn't look back to check.
The next day, I explained what happened to some coworkers. It felt pathetic because nothing really happened at all. But it was the first time in my life I felt my safety had truly been compromised, the first time I had been threatened with actual violence. It frightened me—not that guys like that existed, I had known that for a long time, but that I had felt totally incapable of protecting myself.
One coworker had recently attended a Krav Maga training class where she learned how to get out of a chokehold; she'd proven its effectiveness via multiple demonstrations in the staff break room.
"You need to come. It made me feel so empowered, and that's exactly what you need right now," she told me while simulating gouging my eyes out in yet another Krav Maga demo. I signed up for a free three-day trial, starting with an introductory co-ed class the following week.
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The session was led by a smiling middle-aged guy I'll call Sammy. He had an average build and a faux-nurturing attitude that came off like a man trying to imitate something he had seen on TV. He blasted 50 Cent's "In Da Club" as we practiced our fighting stance and threw warmup punches at invisible assailants. "Regulate that breathing! Exhale loudly! I wanna hear you scream!" Sammy yelled like a giddy high school choir director. "Aim for soft tissue! Shove his nose into his skull!"
Krav Maga isn't practiced exclusively by men, and I'm sure there are many fine classes out there for women, but in my group of 13 men and four women, it was hard to escape the impression that I didn't belong. When Sammy practiced with me and my female coworker, he'd be playful—soft, even. When he showed the class how to get out of a chokehold with another man, however, they were equals. He didn't go easy on him. I was paired with women the majority of the time due to "our similar height and weight," according to Sammy. When I was eventually partnered with a 60-something man towards the end of the lesson, he repeatedly asked if he was exerting too much strength on me. I was learning, but it felt watered-down and unrealistic.
I left my first session feeling a sense of empowerment that was like a placebo effect: The most exciting thing about self-defense class was that I was taking a self-defense class. It was hard to even pretend this stuff was useful when it was clear I was being treated as inferior in this controlled environment. I'm sure Sammy knew a lot about the mechanics and physics of violent encounters, but I didn't know if he knew what it felt like to be confronted by someone bigger and stronger than him.
"There's a concept called benevolent sexism... It's not as blatant as, 'Women are inferior.' Instead, it's more like, 'Let me help you, little lady.'"
Experts I've spoken with since then say I'm not the only woman who has had these thoughts during a male-dominated self-defense course. According to Leanne Brecklin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois, while self-defense training can help women who have been attacked, it's far more helpful for them to enroll in classes designed just for women.
Martha Thompson, the director of the women's self-defense organization IMPACT Chicago, told me that self-defense courses aren't just about learning how to break holds and incapacitate attackers, but about the theoretical underpinnings behind the class. "What is the instructor's understanding of violence in the world?" she asked rhetorically. "Is there a deep understanding of gender-based violence and how it intersects with other societal issues?
"Without this underlying understanding about the real violence that women experience—and that it's not just about the worst things that could happen, but a whole continuum of things—then the class won't provide what women need," Thompson added.
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The following class wasn't much better—there were just three women, me included, and our warmup stretching sessions was dominated by a discussion of sports scores during which the women were ignored. It felt like gender gentrification as the guys physically and socially forced me to relocate from where I was sitting on the Krav mat. When Sammy put me in a group with two men, he bowed flamboyantly, and mockingly asked, "Would you kindly ask the young lady for this dance?" Maybe he was trying to be charming, but it came off as patronizing—as did my partners' labored explanation of technique. The guys practiced five reps of straight punch blocks each, while limiting me to three. ("It's an endurance thing," one told me.) They barely punched the mat when I held it, but yelled at me that I needed to hit harder when it was my turn.
"There's a concept called benevolent sexism," explained Martha McCaughey, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University and the author of Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense. "It's not as blatant as, 'Women are inferior.' Instead, it's more like, 'Let me help you, little lady. Let me give you extra attention in this self-defense class.' It's protective and condescending where people keep positioning women as being unable to do anything. It's not obvious to a lot of guys and it's this thing that nobody seems to notice, but it's there. It's probably the most common form of sexism in 2015."
For my last free Krav Maga class, I went to a women-only course. There was only one other student in the class, an extremely curt woman named Susan. ("Looks like you'll be working together," the instructor joked. "Do I have a choice?" Sue replied.) But at least Sue was serious, and put all of her strength into each move as we practiced hammer punches and knee kicks to the groin. It felt more real, and I reciprocated in kind. The instructor taught us to how gouge our attacker's eyes out, and how to scratch and collect DNA samples to identify them after escaping. While this class was definitely better, it was frustrating that there weren't more women there.
So I took the experts' advice and attended an introductory class with Impact Bay Area, a nonprofit that provides empowerment self-defense through a feminist lens. All classes are led by female-identified trauma-informed instructors and assisted by a guy in a padded suit who plays the assailant. "We use that model for a reason," Executive Director Lisa Scheff told me. "It's important to show that dynamic, that women can be in charge, too."
I showed up to class in the same spandex I'd worn to Krav, prepared for another up-close-and-personal workout. Instead, I joined Scheff on one of the many comfy couches that filled the community gathering space."It looks like you're it tonight," she remarked, "and I just want to acknowledge that it can be really intimidating to sign up for a self-defense class. Thanks for taking that big step; I'm glad you're here."
Most of our hour was spent in conversation. Scheff taught me how to identify potential threats, and stressed the importance of trusting my intuition. "The biggest tool you have is your voice," she emphasized. "The voice helps your body cope with the adrenaline you experience during a confrontation so that you don't freeze." We practiced yelling at maximum volume, and did a few groin kicks and heel punches to follow.
"You can deescalate most situations through verbal tools, but it's good to have the physical skills to back it up," she said while gripping the mat. "And remember: with justification, you can hit first. If someone punches you in the face, you probably won't do a great job defending yourself after that, right?"
I left the Impact class feeling supported and empowered, the exact outcome I'd hoped to experience when I signed up for self-defense courses. I didn't need to become an expert in unarmed combat; I wasn't in search of 20 ways to break an assailant's arm. I simply wanted to be prepared—physically, but also mentally—for an encounter that could become violent. More than that, I understand now, I was in search of someone who would acknowledge my needs, to tell me that they understood what was in my head when that man jumped out at me. There will always be another man, but next time, I think, I will be ready.
Correction 10/20: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Lisa Scheff, the Executive Director of Impact Bay Area.