Monday, March 18, 2013

Consent Part Two: Self Defense

I wasn't planning on doing any kind of follow-up on that other consent post, but recent news coverage just leaves me no choice. I have no interest in talking about that news coverage. That's not what I do. I tell stories.

This is going to be a story about taking self-defense classes.

My public high school offered self defense as a P.E. elective for girls. This was probably really cutting-edge at the time. Every girl I knew wanted to take this class--possibly because every girl I knew well described herself as a feminist, but maybe also because the teacher was a bad-ass woman coach who was very nice but also kind of tough and you could imagine actually learning some useful things from her. Or maybe because it was P.E. without the physical exertion. Who knows.

We watched a lot of videos about date rape, drinking, inappropriate behavior from adults, how to protect yourself on the street. We had a lot of good, open, honest conversations. We practiced some physical fighting techniques. This stuff got us thinking, and we girls talked about the class a decent amount, as I recall. Having already dealt with a lot of unwanted attention by the time I was 14 or however old I was when I first took the class, there was one thing that really bothered me about it. A few things, actually. One was that it seemed to give some of the girls the idea that as long as they knew how to fight, they were invulnerable. We would joke and tease with each other and pretend to fight, but I never liked that. I was little. I knew that the point wasn't to fight and be a badass, but to create an element of surprise with the hope of escaping. A good right hook wasn't the point, and you weren't to blame if you were being assaulted and you froze, or couldn't fight, or fought and lost. I often felt like I couldn't articulate those thoughts, because if I did, I would be accused of having "victim mentality" or thinking that girls aren't as strong as boys.

Which, you know--a lot of times, they aren't.

When I was 16, I dated a guy for a while who was fairly small, maybe 5'4", 110 pounds or something. All I know is he was still bigger than me, since I was maybe 5'3" and 95 pounds on a fat day. (Is it normal for girls to grow taller 7 years after getting their first period? Oh well, I'll chalk that up to another way that Katy is like a boy--growing in college). And one day we were wrestling, and I tried one of those self-defense moves on him. And he just flipped me and pinned me, using his upper-body strength to win the wrestle, until I said let go, and he did. That kind of worried me, and got me thinking about how the first serious boyfriend I ever had was 6'3" and weighed 200 pounds or so--thankfully I never had to try to fight that guy.

So here's the thing that really bothered me about learning "self defense." One day, probably when I was a junior, I pulled the coach aside and said I wanted to ask her something:

"Why aren't there any boys in this class?"

She said that the administration didn't think we could have honest discussions in a co-ed setting, and that kids would be too embarrassed to talk, or that girls would feel threatened. OK, that sounded reasonable, I guess, so I followed up with this:

"So, is there a class for them? So they can watch these videos and see what is appropriate and learn how to interpret "signals" and identify bad behavior and understand that no means no and all of that?"

No, she said, there was no class for boys.

I walked away in anger--not at her, because I know she agreed with what I was saying. Inside, I was thinking, but I already know all of these things. I am 16 and already about 60 in my self-policing behavior, already clear on how to fight because I've already done it. I get it. I left feeling like maybe I wasn't the one who needed educating. Or, that it wasn't about education at all, but decency, respect, civility, common sense, and in general not being a piece of human garbage.

Now I'm not saying I didn't learn anything. I did--I suppose I learned a lot. In high school self defense class, I learned:

not to accept drinks from people I don't know, or from people who seem really hell-bent on offering me drinks (didn't need the video for that one--understood why from experience);

not to wear my hair in a ponytail in public because that would make me an easier target, as someone could try to grab me. I also learned not to go out at night or in the early morning by myself, not to use parking garages, to look under my car before getting in it, to look strangers in the eye on the street so they would know that I would remember how to describe them to the police, to wear pants instead of skirts when walking outside, and all kinds of other crap that make living your life seem like some kind of regimented impossibility;

how to use my elbows as weapons, how to stick my fingers in someone's eyes for maximum pain, how to break fingers, and the best ball-injuring techniques. (full disclosure: I have used all of these in my life. many of them in high school, some of them before I had taken the class or knew what it was called. I never actually broke fingers but came close enough to hear the yelp of pain and run the fuck away);


how to essentially get a PhD in adolescent male mind-reading so that I could be sure to know what unspeakable things they were thinking at any moment of any day (and that wasn't even, like HARD to learn);

that I could indeed agree to a date, even an expensive one, and not have to put out (yup, check, knew that);

that I could put out and that was ok, as long as I wanted to put out (double check);

that boys' (and men's) excuses for why they behave in bad and criminal ways were just that--excuses.

And that last one was the one lesson that really mattered.

Do you know what I did NOT learn in self defense class? I did NOT learn:

how to keep my body parts to myself and not use them as weapons against people smaller or less powerful than me;

how to walk down the street, or attend a party, or drive somewhere, without wild uncontrollable urges taking over and forcing me to commit acts of aggression against random people or my best friends or the person I claim to love;

how to actually listen to the words coming out of someone's mouth, and believe that they too know what those words mean;

how to avoid sticking objects inside other people unless they asked me to;

how to make out and make my way through all the "bases" and be damn happy with what I was getting;

how to talk about and tease my guy friends and boyfriends without resorting to insulting and degrading language;

that I wasn't entitled to any parts of anyone's body other than my own;

that the world didn't owe me sexual pleasure;

how not to: corner people, lure people away from the crowd, pin them with my arms or legs, pull their hair, cover their mouths, say things like "you aren't getting away from me," "there's nothing you can do about it," or any of that kind of stuff that must be, like INEVITABLE if you're a guy, right?

I didn't learn any of those things, because I was a human female living in the world and the understanding was that I already knew them. But in my mind, that was the class I wish they had offered to the boys. I am not saying that I wish that now, looking back with the wisdom of age. I wished that then. When I was 16.

Now I would say that I think everyone really does know all of these things, because boys and men do understand what consent is and what rape and assault are, and most of them care about the difference, but some do not. I knew at 16 that boys knew damn well how to behave, even when they were horny, even when they were drunk, even when no one else was around, even if no one would find out, even if I would never tell. They knew, and they didn't need a class to tell them. Still, it wouldn't be a bad idea to stop focusing on girls and women changing every freaking aspect of their real or potential behavior, as opposed to boys and men just not doing violent and degrading shit.

I failed to mention something else that I learned in self-defense class in high school. I learned that it wasn't my fault, and that I could tell people, and I wouldn't be blamed, and someone in authority, like the police, would help me.

I didn't believe that then, for a lot of reasons, including some damn good ones involving figures of authority being part of the problem, not the solution. I read the news, and I'm not sure I believe it now. So how about if we all collectively take the class called:

How not to be a piece of shit human being.

If you fail, you can enroll in the

Lose access to the basic privileges of society because you don't deserve them class.

And I will just keep waking up early for spinning class, and maybe take piano lessons.

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