I used to walk the streets back to my apartment late at night in complete and utter fear, skittishly checking behind my shoulders every half a second for unwarranted visitors as I paced home from the library. Not until I heard the door click shut behind me would I finally breathe. You’re okay. Home is safe.
I knew the rules of walking alone late at night – I can recite the emails filled with safety tips from the Boston University Police Department without hesitation, and I’ve heard the lecture a million times from my mother. Eyes ahead, headphones out. Be aware of your surroundings. Stay within earshot of other pedestrians. Walk in well-lit areas. Shut the door behind you. Fast.
And so far it had worked. But every night was a new gamble where the threat of being overpowered and attacked lurked around every corner. As a young, skinny (and admittedly weak) white woman living in a city, I was nearly defenseless. Or at least that’s what society told me. And I had believed them.
So when I walked into my first self defense class at the Fitness and Recreation Center at BU, and Sergeant Jeffery Burke told me I’d spend the semester training for three simulations in which I’d defend myself against two officers both weighing in at 200-something pounds, my stomach dropped. I felt defeated already. There was no way I’d be able to get these men off of me. I was way in over my head.
During our first class, Sergeant Burke asked our group of 15 girls what we thought self defense looked like. Instantly we all quoted Miss Congeniality: “Remember, S.I.N.G. – solarplex, instep, nose, groin.” Our only idea of self defense came from a fictional movie that came out nearly 15 years ago and seemed so effortless on-screen. Regular media fails to address self defense for women nowadays – instead we are constantly painted as weak victims who are simply helpless.
Sergeant Burke was the first person who told me that this wasn’t the case.
Throughout the course of the semester we learned the various techniques of defense – punches, kicks, blocks and how to escape wrist grabs, bear hugs and choke holds. We learned how to make each strike more powerful just by manipulating our stance and throwing our whole body into it, proving that muscle mass isn’t the be-all end-all of these confrontations. We were taught how to use our voice – not only as a cry for help – but as a boost of confidence and adrenaline and to keep our breathing intact.
The first few weeks our voices were nimble and quiet, our “no’s” barely heard over the basketball games on the next court, but by my simulation date I was screaming like a crazy lady – and I loved it.
But more than that Sergeant Burke helped us explore the psyche behind sexual assault. Behind every punch and kick and escape mechanism was reasoning as to why these techniques worked. We explored the weaknesses of our attackers and learned how to use them to our advantage. We were in charge.
And we were told, every single class, that there was no excuse for sexual assault.
Whether it was a drunk friend, a family member or a complete stranger, once the boundaries were crossed there was no going back. We had every right to defend ourselves, and this wasn’t our fault.
We hear that all the time – it wasn’t your fault – yet that phrase is often a sorry excuse for faux-comfort usually followed by accusatory blanket statements engrained in us by a patriarchal society. Most times we don’t even notice. It wasn’t your fault, but just out of curiosity, why didn’t you fight back? It wasn’t your fault, but I mean you did have a lot to drink and you were kind of leading him on. It wasn’t your fault, but you know, sometimes boys can’t help themselves.
I was told, finally, that these excuses are invalid. That it is never the victim’s fault. That nobody has the right to touch our bodies unless we give them permission to, and that fighting back isn’t always an option. This was big for me – to hear an officer tell me that, although I now have the skills to fight back, I should never feel guilty if I choose not to use them. Each circumstance is unique, he said. Whether or not you’re in the right mindset to fight back does not change the situation. This is still not your fault.
Furthermore, we were taught to be allies and to never judge another woman for her choices. This is hurting all of us. We were told never to assume a woman is lying, especially when she is making the brave choice to come forward and report her assault.
I am skeptical of police intervention and the justice within the court system when it comes to sexual assault cases. Through numerous failed lawsuits, the media has told me to be. So when Sergeant Burke gave us the schpeal on reporting sexual assault and that the police and courts are trained to do whatever they can to help, I almost instinctively rolled my eyes in response.
But for the first time in my 21 years of living, I felt hopeful. I knew at the very least, if I were to be assaulted I now had four or five officers who I could turn to confidently. For this I am privileged and utterly grateful.
On the day of my simulation I arrived at the gym 20 minutes early, both to stretch and to calm my accelerating nerves. When the first officer arrived I asked him the question that had been looming at the pit of my stomach all week – one of the simulations involves ground defense where you find yourself trapped under the 200-something pound officer and need to find a way to escape. What if I can’t get you guys off? I said.
I had asked the same question a few weeks before when we had first learned ground defense in class. He said the same thing to me this time around. You will.
The first simulation includes breaking free from a simple wrist grab as you walk across the gym. An easy exercise meant to get you used to all of the padding equipment they slap on you to protect both you, and the officers, and to get you in the mindset of a staged attack. I knew what to do, and I did it.
But what I didn’t expect was my emotional response after the fact.
Shaking, I walked back to the middle of the room after fleeing the ‘scene’ with tears in my eyes. Wow, I said, finally exhaling for the first time. I didn’t expect that.
The officers don’t hold back. They grab you furiously and taunt you with sexual slurs much like a real predator would. As soon as the attack begins, the rationale that this is just a simulation disappears. I felt threatened and violated and knew I had to get out of there. And I’m thankful for that – having never been in one of these situations in real life, I had no idea what was coming. Now I do.
The second and third simulation were a bit more intense. One officer would attack you from behind, grabbing you and pushing you to the floor, telling you that you were worthless and weak and that you enjoyed his presence on top of you. Once you threw him off, the game wasn’t over. A second officer was waiting and blocking your exit.
Each simulation seemed to fly by in seconds, and I was a bit flustered that I wasn’t able to get into the proper stance or think out my attack like we had done in class. Instead, the officer was just there, charging at me like a real bad guy would, and I had to make the best of it.
However, having an idea of what punches and kicks would be the most appropriate was extremely helpful, even if I wasn’t able to plan out my defense. Instead of standing there shell-shocked and instantly overpowered, I found the holes in his approach and applied each technique I learned appropriately.
I knew that with his head down, it was a perfect opportunity to strike with a hammerfist. And when he came in close to intimidate me, I knew how to use it against him and pull him in even closer for a knee-strike to the groin. I kicked and punched and punched and kicked until I felt he was weak enough to push off of me. And then I fled.
It was exhilarating and empowering and scary all at once.
Afterwards I got to watch myself fight off the two officers on video, and it was crazy how much I hadn’t realized in the moment. I watched myself employ a couple powerful kicks to the groin that might have been devastating if the padding weren’t in the way. That would’ve been game over, right there, one of the officers reassured me. Immediately following the simulations, I wasn’t sure how well I had done – I didn’t exactly use all of the techniques we learned in class, and I’m sure there’s ways I could’ve improved. But watching back on the tape I realized that whatever I did, I had succeeded. I managed to escape. I fought back. And I was not a victim.
I still don’t remember which officer was on top of me and which one I fought off standing up in the last simulation, which is a tiny bit scary. I studied their faces before we began, and I knew them both from a semester’s worth of classes. Yet, in the moment, everything was clouded. I finally realized why so many women are incapable of identifying their attackers. When survival becomes your main priority, everything else disappears.
I still find value in the late-night safety tips from my mother and the BUPD, but I no longer find myself feeling like a weak victim as I walk home from the library late at night. I still check behind my shoulders for unwarranted visitors, and walk home with a purpose in my step, but I do so with a new confidence that reminds me that young, skinny and weak, I am not defenseless. I am okay. I can fight back.