What Women Need to Learn About Violence: Prevention, Avoidance, and De-escalation
Note: Dr. McCracken is the instructor of a one-day women’s self-defense course in Ashburn, Virginia on Sept. 21. You can find more information about the course here.
I’ve worked as a therapist for nearly 30 years.
As a therapist, I have worked with hundreds of people across a nearly 30-year career. Many of these people had been/are survivors of violence. Here’s an example:
Kelly (not her real name), was a 30-something mother of two. Lived in an upper-class suburb with a husband who made a good living. With both kids in school, Kelly took a job at a major department store working part-time during daylight hours.
The store is a major national chain and anchored one of the “better” malls in the area. As her shift ended in the middle of the afternoon on a bright sunny day during non-holiday peak season (think – safe, low-threat environment), Kelly walked confidently toward her car…which was parked fairly close to the building.
She was abducted at gunpoint in the parking lot of the store.
Two men drove her around for 12 hours. They alternated between threatening to kill her and debating each other on their options regarding how they could ‘use’ her (everything from sexual assault to ransom). Well into the night, they pulled over to the side of the road so one of them could get out and pee.
She asked one of her kidnappers if she could do the same. A nonverbal interchange gave Kelly the feeling he might let her go. She ran. He fired shots at her as she took off through the trees. Maybe to cover his ass with his friend, maybe to frighten her, maybe he wanted to hit her…we don’t know, the case was never solved.
Fifteen years later, Kelly still struggled with a pervasive experience of anxiety and hyper-vigilance. Can you blame her? Statistically, very few people survive this type of abduction.
What would have made the difference for her?
Learning to disarm a man half-again her size, stripping the gun from his hands? Not that those skills are bad to learn but think about what that really takes. How many hours of practice? And even if Kelly had those sweet skills, do we want to tell her facing down an armed man in a parking lot – grabbing his gun and stripping it from his hands – is her only option? Do you want it as your only option?
Yes, I am trying to make a point. The answer here is no.
What else can we offer Kelly and everyone else who doesn’t ever want to be in Kelly’s shoes?
We’re not teaching prevention in women’s self-defense.
If we teach Kelly her best bet for avoiding the therapy couch and battling devastating anxiety is to avoid the encounter, we give her a superpower.
But are we also victim-blaming? No. It may sound that way, but no.
If the only options we give people, particularly women, are options for the worst possible situation, then we are reinforcing a centuries-old belief: women are frail damsels and they will be targets.
Right now, women are targeted for violence more often than men, statistically speaking.
In part, this is because when we teach women’s self-defense most programs teach the last line of defense. We teach how to hit, kick, defend a grab, poke an eye out. We teach the fight, the physical encounter.
To use these skills effectively, you need to pay the financial and physical costs of training. The “bad guys” know the majority of women aren’t training. If we disconnect the social/criminal expectation that women are generally unprepared, we get to look at another problem in women’s self-defense programs: when the fight is the focus.
A physically violent encounter is never without consequence. I don’t wish this on anyone; male or female. So why is that what we always teach?
I say we because I was guilty of this too. I was taught this way; I was trained to teach women’s self-defense by teaching responses to getting choked or grabbed or dragged by your hair.
This approach is generated by a profession created by men, originally, for men.
The male warrior culture is permeated with a powerful message. Stand. Draw your sword and fight in the face of insurmountable odds. Retreat is defeat. Flight is cowardice and cowards are punished.
If we gather the cavalry and top the hill to find a fighting force outnumbering our ranks 10 to 1, leaving cuts deep. It tells tales of unprepared, unworthy warriors and failed leadership.
If we avoid or leave a fight, we are bad, and we are wrong, and we are unworthy of respect.
Intellectually, we know the smart thing is to avoid the trouble. But human intellect is not often a committee member when these decisions are made.
The majority of men I meet who teach self-defense to women are good guys with an intense passion for helping people to become stronger and safer. They bring with them centuries of socially constructed rules governing their behavior, just as women do.
Generations of stories rewarding valor as bravery in battle inform how self-defense instructors see the world. We don’t pin medals on people because they turned the corner when they observed a potentially dicey situation up ahead. This mindset, for good or bad, has been the foundation of the self-defense industry.
So of course women’s self-defense will focus on the fight.
Now let’s take this deeper. It was the rare woman who grabbed a sword and rode into battle. Rarer still for her to do it openly as a woman. It wasn’t allowed, and many of the women in many of the warrior cultures became successful warriors only because they were disguised as men.
In 1991 the U.S. made its first move toward allowing military women to be combatants. In the grand timeline of human culture, 1991 was yesterday.
Prior to 1991, the U.S. culture refused to allow a woman the right to defend her people. This message is powerful. The purpose of a soldier on patrol is to detect and prevent the battle from escalating. To hold a line and a host of other missions. All of the military mission objectives focus on one primary goal: protect the home front. If a woman isn’t capable of this militarily, how can she do it as a civilian.
She can’t. Her only option is to wait until the battle comes to her. She is only capable of responding as a victim. If you are female, you will be targeted and you will be attacked. This is the hidden, unspoken message of women’s self-defense programs when the curriculum targets only physical defense against assault.
It is also categorically incorrect. Here’s the equation
Women (until recently) are not permitted in battle.
+The only noble action in battle is to cross swords.
Divided by the belief that women are natural targets
=The current state of women’s self-defense programming.
I firmly believe women are both capable and should be given the opportunity to learn the physical aspect of the “fight” in the timeline of self-defense. It is a good day when the embers lurking behind her eyes burst into a bright flame when she realizes what, in fact, she is capable of doing.
As an industry, using the term loosely…
Teaching women’s self-defense without teaching avoidance and prevention is like teaching your teenager to drive cross-country without teaching her how to put the car in gear.
There were situational cues to Kelly’s abduction. Signs and tells given off by the two men who were waiting for a victim to present. If Kelly had known what to look for and had the training to override her social programming to be nice, helpful, and obliging, she might have avoided those horrible 12 hours.
I have to say might because you and I were not there. We don’t know how this knowledge would have actually shifted the events, only that it holds the potential to do so. This is the kind of thing I’ll be teaching on September 21 if you are able to attend my course. Learning how to shift events in your favor.
Be careful how you analyze this. This is where the risk of victim-blaming begins to lurk in the shadows. There is a distinct demarcation between blame and learning how to prevent a physically violent encounter. Please don’t confuse the two. It is remarkably disempowering.
You have to learn about violence to avoid it.
If you want to prevent violence, you have to learn more about it. If we want to learn about it, we have to keep our visceral emotional reactions in check and recognize it for what it is – our nature. This is something that I want to speak more about in person with you during my course.
Women’s self-defense is typically taught as a set of physical skills designed to help women survive a physical attack. It neglects an authentic and extensive dialogue on prevention and avoidance. It lacks this conversation because the industry evolved through men.
The industry evolved this way because culturally, men were allowed to learn the skills of battle and women were not. Men have been indoctrinated to believe avoidance and just leaving a potentially violent situation is cowardice.
And as a result, we focus on the battle. The fight.
If we are ready to dive into the deep end on prevention, we must also be ready to have an open and honest conversation about humans, violence and our capacity to be predatory. We need to have this dialogue without shock and awe effects, and we need to shake off the historical warrior mythos in which valor is won only in the bloody battle.
We need to get over our cultural sensitivities forcing prevention into the category of victim-blaming and we need to understand one critical fact: Women are wired to put random pieces of information together into intelligent packages of meaningful data.
This means women are instinctively talented intelligence analysts. We can hone instinctive talent into functional skill. If and when life explodes, we are unleashed into who we are capable of becoming, unrestrained by the social mores catalyzing the paralyzing paradox of battle earned valor and the forever damsel in distress.
You are a force to be reckoned with. If you will own it.
Dr. McCracken is teaching a one-day course for women in Ashburn, Virginia on September 21, 2019. Go here to learn more.
Dr. Tammy McCracken is the owner & Global Solutions Director of Personal Defense Industries (PDI). As PDI’s owner, she serves as program director for Kore Self-Defense & Krav Maga, the company’s Northern Virginia training center. She is a certified Conflict Communication Instructor and is one of four directors with Rory Miller’s Chiron Training.
Her academic background includes a Bachelor’s of Science in Education from Illinois State University, a Master’s of Science in Professional Counseling from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Doctorate of Psychology from Eisner Institute of Professional Studies with a research dissertation on using mindfulness training to improve the situational awareness for front-line operatives.
This article first appeared at The Organic Prepper.