Why Every Girl Should Learn Self-Defense

Changing a culture can take generations, and while teaching our girls that revolutions are born from brave words and fierce actions, omitting the importance of reaction is a dangerous mistake.

Trigger Warning: rape

“I am certain—my body is pure physical strength.”—Tina Turner

Last spring my childhood friend, Marlene, was attacked while walking two blocks from the San Francisco club where she hosts a stand-up comedy hour to her apartment. On a well-lit street just steps away from her building, a man ran up behind her and shoved her into a wall. He punched her in the back, then the side of her head. He yanked at her purse with such force her shoulder popped from its socket.

In her Facebook post, which she used to keep public track of times and details of the incident, she described the man as white, big, and methed out of his fucking mind. Marlene, who stands five feet three inches tall and weighs less than my 14-year-old son, screamed for help for what she said, “Felt like an eternity.” But this happened on an inner city street after midnight. The closest she got to an offer of assistance was a drunk women shouting from her window for Marlene to, “Shut the fuck up!”

“Everything felt like a dream,” Marlene wrote. “I have never been so scared in my life.” But there were other things she shared about her awful experience. Things that came as no surprise to me—partly because we grew up together—though mostly because we came of age during a female liberal movement very different than anything today. One that carried a message no one even talks about anymore: A woman’s body comes equipped with everything she needs to save her life. If someone shows her how.

Everyone who read Marlene’s post chimed in with sincere concern and support. But when she wrote about what she had done to her attacker—“I kicked and swung at him with everything I had. There’s blood all over the sidewalk, and it isn’t mine.”—the comments that followed were as confusing as they were infuriating:

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“You’re lucky he didn’t pull a gun.”

“That probably made him more aggressive.”

During a long night of texting while Marlene waited at the local police station to talk to an officer—filing a no-rape assault report in a big city is pretty much a waste of time—we voiced our disbeliefs about what people had to say, mostly women, concerning the actions of my brave friend. “I guess they’d feel better if I’d let him rape me,” she wrote. “Isn’t that who were are now, the women who shouldn’t have to do anything but wait for men to change?”

For days afterward I thought about those remarks, tried to make sense of them from a generation of girls who were taught and lived by a rule that’s all but forbidden in this age of liability versus responsibility: If anyone tries to hurt you, hurt them back.

Twenty years before Marlene’s attack, I had my own terrifying ordeal with hurting someone back. I was in my early 20s and had just left my husband to accept my first real job near a naval base in Virginia. I celebrated my new independence in a military town of men who wanted the same thing from me as I did from them—just a lot of sex.

There are a million sorry-not-sorry reasons for a 21-year-old woman to stop herself from climbing into the car of a man she just met in a bar. Maybe someday, in a fixed-up world, women will be able to climb in/on whatever or whomever they choose without the fear of being assaulted. In 1992 that world didn’t exist. Like now. And I wasn’t about to spend my evenings with my knees tied together waiting for it to arrive.

One night I met a man I’ll call Gary. Sweet, Nirvana, foreign film-loving Gary. We talked for over three hours about everything. We passed maraschino cherries to each other with our tongues. Even better was a badge in Gary’s wallet confirming his deputy-sheriff-in-the-next-county story. Safety was the last thing on my mind as I twirled my hair around my finger and asked if he had ever taken a girl to his police car for something more than a pat down.

I wasn’t drunk or high. I wasn’t experiencing a loss of self-esteem. I was a woman who had chosen a man to fulfill an immediate need. A woman who owned every part of her body and had every say about how she would use it.

I don’t know why I remember so clearly the clock in his car, but I can tell you it was 1:05 am when sweet, Nirvana loving Gary drove to a wooded area, pressed his hands against my mouth so hard my tooth cut into my lip. He said he could do whatever he wanted to me. “And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”


Marlene and I both grew up in the ’80s in the San Francisco Bay Area, the place where women’s rights were born from street corner petitions, boisterous parades, and bra-less rallies.

Our youth was a time when the physical strength of women seemed to be at the forefront of feminism. Girl’s Roller Derby had finally taken its mainstream place with the men’s National Derby Team on Saturday morning television. The sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Pumping Iron was released internationally sporting the merited subtitle: The Women, and multi-gendered audiences cheered like fuck when Linda Hamilton used only the power of her wrist and prison-cut biceps to cock a giant 12 gauge as she fought to save the world in Terminator II. But a young girl didn’t have to follow or even care about ripped chicks to witness this manly celebration of girl power. Sitcoms like The Golden Girls, Cheers, and The Facts of Life ran special episodes of women and young girls throwing heavily-padded male instructors onto wrestling mats during self-defense classes. In our community there wasn’t a YMCA or adult learning center that didn’t offer courses to teach women how to defend themselves against a physical attack.

Marlene and I—and every girl we knew—took these classes.

When I started dating, my brother asked what I would do if a boy forced himself on me. At that moment I couldn’t think of anything to say, mostly because I never believed something like that would happen to me. So my big brother did what big brothers were allowed—and expected— to do: He stuck a roll of dishtowels in his shorts and showed me how to knock a guy’s dick into his stomach. “If you get the chance to turn around,” he said “you press your fingers into his eyes. You keep pressing until you hear a pop. Then you press harder.”

There were other things city girls learned as well. We knew about the safety of walking in the middle of the street where the lights were brightest instead of near parked cars where someone could easily open a door and pull you into their kidnapping van. In our self-defenses classes we learned how to kick someone in the shins, in the groin, how to bite hands that grabbed us and throw our book bags at an attacker’s face to buy a little running time. If a boy put his hands on you in school, you put your hands right back on him. Then you told your teacher.

Just knowing it was perfectly acceptable for my girl body to react in a boy way if someone tried to hurt me gave me a sense of peace as well as empowerment—that no matter how tall, petite, chubby, or skinny you were, the female mind is designed to keep a girl alert and safe, and if her body is taught to respond it never forgets how to survive a dangerous situation. Or at least try.

I still walk to my car with my keys or a nail file in my hand. “Hold it straight out, girls. Let everyone know you are not a target.” Yet, on the night I was attacked everything I thought I knew about my strength, physical and emotional, was attacked too. Time had not been allotted for car keys or nail files. Throwing my brother down on the grass in the backyard hadn’t prepared me for the almost inhuman strength of this man who was trying his hardest to rape me, and clearing my head to implement techniques I’d learned so many years ago was almost impossible. But that’s the awesome thing about survival instincts, once someone tells you those reflexes are normal, needed, and that you have every right to use them, your body will remember how to keep you alive.

Today it seems the art of developing physical strength is fine as long as it’s done to achieve outer beauty, inner peace, a healthy heart, a sharp mind, etc. but throw some street cred on how to use your muscles for fighting rather than just sweating, and the whole subject becomes taboo. In an age when both men and women are making so many important strides to change the way a male dominated society treats women, why is it that showing a girl how to save her life is not as important as teaching her how to change it?

My self-defense instructors talked a lot about what fear does to your mind, and how a complete shut down of both brain and body is also survival strategy, a sort of play-dead-when-the-bear-sniffs-you reflex. My fear in the sheriff’s car that night was immobilizing. I couldn’t even scream, and this was no bear. My attacker was physically stronger than me in every way imaginable, but there was one trick I knew could give me the chance at an escape. All I needed was my fingers, but only my right hand was free, which I had been using to pull his hair and scratch at his neck, none of which had any affect. As he began to tear open my blouse and bite at my breasts I tried to focus on this: There is one small part of my body I do have control over. I can move my right hand. I waited for that open second when he lifted his head from my chest, and when that moment came I pressed my thumb into his eyeball as hard as I could.

It’s not easy to intentionally injure another human being, and at that moment I don’t know which part scared me the most, me not knowing if tonight was the night I would be raped or killed, or the force I had to use to turn myself into him. The shock of my thumb digging into his eye socket startled him enough that I could feel some of his body weight lift from me and was able to free my left arm. Immediately I pushed in his other eye so hard it dripped a hot white fluid over my hand. He tried to peel my fingers away from the side of his face where I had to grip to keep my thumbs inside his eyes, but the pain I was causing this man was too intense. His hands had now become weaker than my fear. He let go, but I didn’t. “You keep pressing” is what my brother had told me.

And that pop! my brother said I would hear? He was right. I felt it through my whole body, and have never forgotten the sound of what it’s like to destroy the sight of another human being.

It was the first time I heard a man scream.

Three weeks later, after my police report was mysteriously misfiled, I would find out the man who almost raped me, who could have killed me, was filing for permanent disability. He had 12% vision in his left eye and was completely blind in his right. I would also find out through a female police officer who didn’t seem very interested in helping me find the missing report, the man I blinded had two young boys and a wife who had just passed away from cancer. I am happy to never forget I completely capsized the lives of three people that night? Of course not. He’s the animal. Not me. Am I proud of the way I saved myself and possibly the next girl? Hell. Yes.


Since her attack Marlene and I spend a lot of time talking about all the ways she is recovering. We also talk about the things we think should be a part of the work it takes to get a woman to stop a man from hurting her. Changing a culture can take generations, and while teaching our girls that revolutions are born from brave words and fierce actions, omitting the importance of reaction is a dangerous mistake. Yes, that honorable ideal of the soft walk and big stick has proven the most efficient method for establishing real transformation in how we respond to the needs of society, but as long as there are predators—and there will always be predators—shouldn’t we be teaching our girls how to use that stick when words are simply not enough?

Last week I shared an article of the women’s boxing club, The Toronto Newsgirls, who stopped the assembly of a pro-rape Meet Up in their city by tweeting pictures of their hard-bodies selves with caption: “We’ll be there, too.” As well as a statement released by the club’s founder Savoy Howe: “The photos of us will show women that being powerful is an option. I think that’s what needs to happen to stop this …”

When Marlene read the story she PMd to say, “Sure wish they had been there when I was attacked.”

“Yeah, but you were there,” I answered. “And somewhere there’s a piece of shit who will remember how he bled all over a San Francisco sidewalk the last time he hurt a woman.”

“I hope the next one gouges his eyes out,” she answered.

“Oh, me too!” I wrote. “I just hope she knows how.”

Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD(Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. Her second memoir Love and Xanax will be released by Summertime Publications (Summer 2016) Find her on Facebook or her websiteShe is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.

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