On kickboxing, women’s aggression and self-defence

Once a week for more than an hour I release tension, build fitness and luxuriate in my body’s physicality by running around kicking people in the head. I’m not a menace to society; I attend a kickboxing class. And I love it.

Both my mother and society have repeatedly told me (and all women) that it is unsafe to be a woman, the environment around us is to be feared and if you’re out alone at night, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be attacked. “There’s a pervert behind every bush,” as my granny was wont to proclaim. If you do get attacked at night, you are considered partly to blame, especially if you’re dressed for a night out.

The recent Reclaim the Night marches have highlighted this blame culture and the wrongheaded advice given to us to prevent attacks. Those most likely to suffer an attack from a stranger – young men – are not told to live in fear, stay at home, modify the way they dress or keep in pairs when the sun goes down. If they are attacked, no one ever asks them: “Well, what were you doing in a dark alley by yourself in the first place?”

One doesn’t have to delve very far into the history of hysteria and the way that PMS is used to undermine women, to realise that expressions of violence, aggression or even anger on the part of women is still a strong taboo

Reclaim the Night organisers and other women’s groups rightly claim that women’s freedoms are restricted in ways men’s freedoms are not. Their stance is that the focus should be on making the streets at night safer for all. To do this, they call for better rape crisis provision, relationships and respect education in schools, and better conviction rates for rape and other forms of violence toward women.

Obviously, these are massively important issues. I agree with these aims and took part in the Reclaim The Night march in Bristol. However, it got me thinking about what other advice we could give women while we’re waiting for the streets to become safer. My mother always used to imply that you had to be wary of everyone on the streets because if a potential attacker managed to be within about five feet of you, you were essentially done for. It has taken me a long time to realise how wrong-headed and unhelpful this assumption is. It implies that every male has an unshakable will to do harm. The underlying assumption is that women are weak, literally powerless to prevent an attack because men are automatically stronger, no matter how old, unfit, drunk or nervous they are.

In reality, I don’t think being a woman makes it impossible to successfully fight back and good self-defence training could be of huge benefit to women caught in this situation. So surely we should be advising self-defence as a tool to combat violence against women?

Self-defence is sensible for a number of reasons, not least because a confident-seeming person is less likely to get attacked than someone who appears fearful. Then, if the worst does happen, a rehearsed response can prevent injury, enable escape or even reverse the intentions of the attacker who sees there is little likelihood of success. Physical knowledge, as well as mental knowledge, is power.

At this point I would like to say that self-defence is not a miracle cure for violence against women. This post reminds us that self-defence can only be one of a spectrum of measures to combat violence against women.

Self-defence is all well and good until, for example, you are unconscious or being attacked by someone you know and trust. Promoting self-defence as the major option for combating violence can also lead to the onus being placed on the victim to prevent the crime rather than on the perpetrator. While keeping in mind these issues, this article will focus more on the availability (or not) of self-defence as an option for women and the personal benefits that can be gained from it.

Since taking up a kickboxing class, I have come to examine the attitudes that I held and looking at the way I was raised. I now find it surprising that I was never taught, or even given the option, to take self-defence classes at school. There also seems to be an invisible, subtle, yet pervasive taboo on women attending martial arts, boxing, self-defense or other fighting lessons. What are the barriers to getting a “self-defence for women” message out there? One barrier is the connotations of violence.

Not only did I like being able to lift more shopping and open all my stiff jar lids, I realised I was allowed to enjoy my body, nurture it and its new demands

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian religion that was (surprise!) very patriarchal. However, I think my experience is only a slightly more extreme version of the norm. Violence and aggression were perceived as being terrifying forces that must be repressed at all costs. (Of course, what they really meant was physical violence, because other types of violence, such as verbal or social, were officially prohibited but rife within the community.)

An expression of anger through a physical act (punching the wall), was derided as vulgar and evidence of a deplorable lack of self-control. Engaging in ‘violent’ sports such as boxing was believed to only create more violence in one’s personality. While this seems like a sensible argument on the surface, I believe it is actually a huge generalisation of the issue, with no regard for the subtler elements of the argument.

On top of a general violence taboo is of course the issue of female violence. Women in my childhood religion were supposed to be fully subservient to the men. While that is hopefully no longer true in general society, women are still cast as the mediators, the caregivers, the loving ones. One doesn’t have to delve very far into the history of hysteria and the way that PMS is used to undermine women, to realise that expressions of violence, aggression or even anger on the part of women is still a strong taboo.

I started kickboxing in part to relieve symptoms of anxiety, something I suffered with for 10 months in my final year of university. A hard work out (something cardiovascular lasting 30 minutes or more) helps to mop up your excess adrenaline, and provides you with an endorphin and serotonin boost. I effectively got relief from my symptoms for a few hours.

The anxiety had come on after two nasty bouts of food poisoning and I had become obsessed with having problems with my digestive system. I reasoned that if something were truly wrong with me, I would never be able to complete something so challenging as an hour-long kickboxing class. Of course, my aches and pains were forgotten five minutes into the class and didn’t resurface afterwards either. I came to relish the afterglow I experienced after kickboxing and the class became an anchor for me throughout the months of dealing with my anxious feelings.

I was also amazed at my body’s ability to respond to the demands the sport made on it. After three weeks, I no longer felt like I was about to die from exhaustion during class and after a year I had very well developed muscles all over my body. I was strong, fit and confident.

And this is one thing that I hadn’t anticipated: kickboxing made me enjoy my body as a sensuous and capable thing. Not only did I like being able to lift more shopping and open all my stiff jar lids, I realised I was allowed to enjoy my body, nurture it and its new demands (“Must have food! Now!”) and be proud of what I could physically achieve. I discovered my religion and my society had denied me an expression of, and delight in, an aspect of my physicality as a human being.

Women are told to cover their bodies to avoid rape, abstain from sex to avoid pregnancy, hide their menstruation at all costs, modify every surface of their bodies to look “acceptable” to others, not eat foods they enjoy to lose weight. We also have to tolerate wolf-whistles, leers, name-calling and jokes about our bodies. Also, if you have short hair – as I do – there’s the homophobes yelling “dyke” at you in the street.

It took something physically demanding, something I was raised specifically not to do that made me realise I had been denying my body, denying aspects of myself

To defend against this, we do cover ourselves with clothes, hats and dark glasses on vulnerable days when we just can’t hack it. Other defense strategies we use change the way we feel about our bodies. We shrivel our personalities inside ourselves to prevent hurtful things reaching us and think of our bodies as tough, inert husks that deflect these horrible experiences. We disassociate ourselves from our physical bodies to show we are more than the sum of our (fleshy) parts.

In so doing, our physical desires are shut down and repressed and these feelings can manifest as disgust with our own bodies.

We are also told that women’s greatest triumph is their ability to express their emotions non-physically. When we express our positive emotions through physical acts to anyone but our monogamous lover, we are often limited to a quick embrace or perhaps an air kiss, a touch on the hand or peck on the cheek, even with our closest friends and family.

Expressing anger – even feeling anger – is completely taboo. Running endlessly in the gym like some kind of spandex-clad hamster on a wheel, for the benefit of others to look at, is fine. Doing something that makes you strong, to please only yourself, something that empowers you, is not.

I consider myself a feminist. I haven’t shaved in years (except my head) and I don’t wear underwear. But it took something physically demanding, something I was raised specifically not to do that made me realise I had been denying my body, denying aspects of myself. Before kickboxing I was unfit and suffered from steadily worsening asthma. I had previously been overweight and I believed my mum’s advice when she said things like electric screwdrivers were a woman’s best friend. My anxiety attacks were turning me into a hypochondriac. We are told that we are weak and we believe it, and we believe that there is nothing we can do about it.

Since I started kickboxing I’ve had all sorts of surprises. One minor revelation was that men feel pain. Men do not feel less pain than women; it is a huge myth. Men are just socialised to hide it. They are raised to see it as a badge of honour – boys, after all, don’t cry. We are encouraged to react, to emphasise our perceived weaknesses.

One thing I learned is that pain – and I don’t want to sound too “martial arts meathead” here – is not necessarily that bad. You learn to deal with it. If the body can withstand it, you can withstand it. Not live in fear of it. And renouncing this fear – of pain, of fear itself – changes your entire worldview. The last time I walked home alone after dark, two large bald drunks passed me and one of them waited until I’d just walked past then screamed at the top of his voice right in my ear. He strolled off laughing with his mate. I refused to be frightened. But it did make me angry. Screaming a rude word back over my shoulder in my most ladylike manner, I walked off.

One of my best surprises about punching and kicking pads as hard and as fast as you can while the pad holder yells encouragement and the sweat is flying off you, and you have to grit your teeth against the exhaustion, is that it feels absolutely amazing. It also makes you fit, really quickly and, once you’re not feeling like you’re dying, you start to gradually improve your technique. With this comes the revelation that it is possible for anyone, no matter how small or weak, to strike back with power. It is also immensely satisfying and, no surprises here, it relieves stress.

It is vital to remember that violence and aggression are not the same. Neither deserves the blanket term of “always bad”. Aggression and anger are also not permanently fused, though one can be expressed through the other. Anger is a healthy, valid and useful emotion and expressing it through physical acts that do not harm others is just fine, even for women. Learning techniques that could be described as ‘violent’ is completely acceptable in order to stand up and defend ourselves, let alone lead fuller lives as human beings.

In respect of safety on the streets: lobbying councils, schools and the police are important actions to be taken over girls’ and women’s safety. As I mentioned at the beginning, an array of strategies need to be used to tackle these problems. However, it is a sad fact that women are still under-represented in the upper ranks of many of these institutions. Working with men to change things is of course what should be happening, but in the past women have done well to take control of a situation themselves. It’s time for some “physical education” and it’ll be a hard slog, but self-defence can reap many unexpected benefits.

We need to change the message that society sends us and sends our children. We are NOT weak, we are NOT defenceless, we are NOT afraid.

Jessica Burton is a 25-year-old feminist who is often called “sir” in shops, has no telly and believes in giving up sanitary towels