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Practicing Self-Defense From A Radical Feminist Perspective

buttons on an arcade game labeled "defense," "punch" and "Kick"

I can’t wait for men to get better. I need to fight back now.

The dominant feminist discourse in the struggle against gendered violence against women (trans and cis) and genderqueer afabs (assigned female at birth) rightly proclaims that men must unlearn, and teach other men to unlearn, societal conditioning and misogynistic behaviors. This discourse comes as a response to the common accusations that are thrown at us when we are assaulted by men (But what were you wearing? Why were you at that bar? Why didn’t you leave him sooner? Why were you walking home alone? Etc, etc, and onward for eternity).

It powerfully asserts that we are not the ones who should be the subject of scrutiny after these attacks, but rather abusive men must be the ones under fire for their actions, and must be the ones to change their behaviors.

But, what happens when they don’t?

I applaud the work that men have done to fight misogyny, and am heartened by this powerful shift in the cultural expectations of who must shoulder the burden of misogyny and transmisogyny. Cultural shifts take decades of work to see changes in dominant society. Consent has been a critical discussion in radical feminist scenes since the 1990s and yet, I find myself getting excited to see a consent poster up in a mainstream sports bar like it hasn’t taken almost 30 years for that poster to finally, and painstakingly, get posted. I’m glad the poster is there. I truly am. But presently, we are still in the midst of astronomical rates of violence against trans women, cis women, and queer people.

The reality is that there are still far too many men who hold misogynistic mindsets and who are more than willing to cause physical harm because of them. It hurts to consider how many times I have been cat-called, harassed, stalked, assaulted on the bus, assaulted at the store, assaulted on the walk home. It hurts even more to consider how many times misogynistic violence has resulted in intimate partner violence against me. I am absolutely sure that far too many folks reading this are recounting their own stories of surviving violence too.

For myself, after I was almost kidnapped by a random dude at a rest stop in the middle of the night, I finally decided that I could no longer wait for enlightened men to teach jerks like him to not commit violence against me. I could no longer be satisfied with theatrical street marches or hashtag movements. I decided that the next time a man pulled this kind of violence on me, I would be ready to defend myself, and in this defense, perhaps he would finally learn a lesson. Perhaps he would decide that it’s too dangerous for him to pull that stunt again. Perhaps this cultural shift could be expedited if the feminist norm is such that when men try to attack us, they are met with fierce resistance.

The reality is that there are still far too many men who hold misogynistic mindsets and who are more than willing to cause physical harm because of them. Click To Tweet

I began training. I joined a Krav Maga gym, and channeled my hurt, rage, and determination into self-liberation. Krav Maga, which literally means “close combat” in Hebrew, was developed in the 1930s by Jewish fighter, Imi Lichtenfeld, in (then) Czechoslovakia. Lichtenfeld developed a brutally effective form of self-defense that he could teach to his fellow Jewish neighbors who were facing violent anti-semitic attacks in the years leading up to World War II. The fighting form had to be one that could be easily taught, work for a variety of body types and ages, and was applicable to street fighting scenarios. As such, Krav Maga is a fighting form that is used to immediately incapacitate an attacker. A groin kick, followed by an elbow strike to the face, followed by a strike to the eyes, for example, is completely acceptable, and encouraged, because it works. This differs from sport fighting techniques that bar the use of these particularly brutal strikes and kicks.

Unfortunately, Lichtenfeld went on to train soldiers in the use of Krav Maga in the creation of the Israeli state, which has committed an ongoing genocide against Palestinian people since its violent formation in 1948. I choose to train in this fighting form, not because I support the Israeli Defense Force, or the numerous military and police forces that use it, but because it is an incredibly effective and teachable self-defense form. In fact, as a police and prison abolitionist (I strive to co-create a world in which police and prisons don’t exist), I see my training in self-defense as even more necessary. Learning self-defense has created a way in which I can further my safety and power in a world that seeks to disempower me, without having to rely on institutions that I don’t believe in.

For the past two years I have been intensively training and building fighting skills, not only for myself, but to share with my friends who also must navigate the world in bodies that are targeted by state and interpersonal violence. I am certainly not an expert in Krav Maga, but I share the skills that I am confident in my ability to explain, demonstrate, and teach step-by-step. I have spent the last year traveling in my region of Southeastern Appalachia teaching free and sliding scale self-defense workshops.

Learning self-defense has created a way in which I can further my safety and power in a world that seeks to disempower me, without having to rely on institutions that I don’t believe in. Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, the idea that those who experience misogyny should learn to fight back has been used against them. Many have argued that “boys will be boys,” and that self-defense should be the only tool used against violent men, whose actions are treated as inevitable. My desire to share my skills does not come from a victim-blaming narrative that would fault someone for not successfully fighting back. Nor am I arguing that learning and practicing self-defense is some kind of imperative. If someone can run or otherwise leave a situation without having to fight, that’s great, and men still need to take responsibility for their actions. But I am interested in the radical liberation that comes from protecting ourselves, and from protecting each other.

Some might respond that it is dangerous to fight back against an attack, that we are putting ourselves in more harm by attempting to resist. But, the world we live in is already dangerous. Simply walking to our cars (or in my queer, redneck, Appalachian case- walking to my truck) at night can be dangerous. For trans women, cis women and queer afabs who hold additional marginalized identities, such as trans women of color, this world is already immensely dangerous. My argument, therefore, is that we become dangerous. We can be a dangerous force that causes abusive men to seriously reconsider their confidence in assuming power over us.