Bitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting
Self-defense instructor, black belt, and generally cranky person Susan Schorn trains at Sun Dragon Martial Arts in Austin, Texas, where she learned karate from a second-wave feminist who could snap people’s bones like breadsticks. Here she chronicles instances of everyday combat, from the dojo to the shoe section of Macy’s. Groin protection is advised.
BY Susan Schorn
I’ve been adjudicating a surprising number of disputes between the guinea pigs lately— surprising because these aren’t exactly animals that were bred for blood sport. The common guinea pig, or cavy, was domesticated centuries ago as a human food source, and is now the most mild-mannered of livestock. The pair we own are meek, dumpling-shaped creatures, with poor eyesight, legs verging on the vestigial, and next to no instinct for self-preservation. Faced with external dangers, they shriek and run in circles. Left undisturbed, they chew on anything edible and much that is inedible, or stare blankly into space. They are basically sentient McNuggets. All they seem to desire from life is the opportunity to eat a pound of vegetable matter daily and poop it back out in pellet form.
A peaceable breed, and yet they fight. The cavy’s teeth, which grind like tiny buzzsaws through everything from carrots to tree bark to timothy hay, can inflict vicious wounds in the tender flesh of its brethren, should tempers flare. Inadequate living space, strangers, and mating disputes are the most common causes of guinea pig bloodshed, just as they are for humans.
None of these factors appears to be a problem in our household though. And in my efforts to discover what on earth these inoffensive little blobs could have to fight about, I recently came across the term “rumblestrutting,” used by cavy fanciers to describe the guttural chortling noise guinea pigs make deep in their eensy-weensy chests to communicate aggression and imminent violence. It’s an evocative phrase, conjuring images of Jets and Sharks, switchblades, and leather jackets. To the human ear, the sound of guinea pigs rumblestrutting is—take my word for it—_adorable_. But it signals the onset of mortal combat.
Which is a roundabout way of bringing up the response to my previous column, “Fuck the Dude Up,” wherein I argued that women should consider the benefits of causing serious physical damage to an attacker.
I felt there were compelling reasons (including personal safety, the common good, and a perhaps atypical but not illogical form of justice) for women to understand themselves as potentially vicious fighters rather than meek, inoffensive creatures. As I mentioned in the column, there’s solid statistical evidence that a woman’s survival chances during an attack improve if she fights back forcefully. And I also thought it was important to debunk the stereotype that women, by reason of their gender, have a special obligation to be non-violent.
I was not surprised to learn that some people objected to this position. I didn’t get any death threats, which was nice, and no one offered to pray for me, which is unusual, but I was struck by the vast distance between the reactions of men and women. Women tended to respond in one of two ways: “HELL YES!” or “That’s an interesting way to look at it. I mean, what have we got to lose?”
Men’s responses also came in two varieties. From them I heard either, “What you are proposing would put women in danger,” or “You don’t seem to understand that women and men have an equal obligation to obey the law.” The first group was uneasy because they thought I was imperiling women. Which is gallant of them, but overlooks the statistical evidence to the contrary (not to mention the fact that women are always already in danger by virtue of our gender). The second group seemed upset that I was assigning women special privileges for the use of force that men don’t get. I’ve looked back over the column and I can’t find anyplace where I explicitly argued that men shouldn’t be legally allowed to fight back against attempted rape or murder, but maybe I left that impression. If so, I apologize.
I had some fascinating discussions, some more acrimonious than others, but overall they made me doubt more than ever whether it’s realistic to even seek a single, universal standard of conduct for responding to violence, one that works equally well for men and women. Maybe women’s experiences of violence, and the ways society makes us vulnerable to it, are just too different from what men experience. Leaving aside violence associated with property crimes—muggings, carjackings, bank robberies—the causes and the outcomes of violence against women bear little resemblance to those experienced by men. Yet our legal system and many of our ethical precepts about violence are built around a strongly male-oriented perception of conflict.
Most of us, when we think in mental shorthand about the term “fight,” probably visualize two people “squaring off,” with their fists up in a guard position, circling, looking for an opening. That isn’t a fight at all from a self-defense perspective. It’s a contest, not an attack; a struggle over status and rank.
This kind of fight is often highly ritualized, preceded by specific posturing, gestures, and words. Imagine a brawl between hockey enforcers, or a schoolyard showdown. In these situations, a carefully-scripted exchange of taunts and dares and threats normally precedes the actual violence, providing built-in opportunities for one or the other of the participants to opt out: “What did you call me?” “You and what army?” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah.”
Rumblestrutting: It’s an instinctive behavior, for guinea pigs and for humans. It serves as a warning. It signals a formal challenge that may be declined—though perhaps at some social cost—by the other belligerent. And at the risk of offending some people (or rather, with the certain knowledge that I will definitely offend a lot of people), I’m going to go out on a limb here and make the claim that this kind of fight more commonly involves men than women. It’s behavior we traditionally associate with masculinity, not femininity. And it’s a kind of violence that can be circumvented pretty well by conservative, cautious responses.
The bar fight, the pissing match, the settling of scores—these are scenarios that call for self-control and de-escalation. But while women, like men, do get involved in these kinds of conflicts, bar fights simply don’t pose the same threat to women’s safety that male-on-female violence does. Women are far from perfect, but it’s not our inability to control our egos that leaves two or three thousand of us dead every year in this country.
Biology is one factor: Women tend to be smaller and less muscular than men, and most women have received far less encouragement throughout their lives to employ their bodies in any forceful way. If challenge fights were the rule for women, this wouldn’t matter. Women would be fighting each other. But one curious thing that men and women do have in common is that both tend to have male attackers. So women’s social and interpersonal relationships with their potential attackers are vastly different as well. Yet for some unfathomable reason, women are expected to internalize and valorize a male-oriented code of conduct that assumes 1) roughly equal destructive capability between combatants, and 2) a contest from which both parties have the real choice to walk away before violence begins. Those conditions simply don’t exist in some of the most dangerous scenarios where women are killed or injured by men.
Allow me to state the obvious: Men seldom challenge women to fights. They rarely attack women in an effort to test their own prowess as fighters. If men want to validate their combat skills, they’re probably going to attack other men (or start a war). So male-on-female violence is much less likely to be disrupted by the typical strategies recommended for male-on-male violence prevention.
My background in martial arts and women’s self defense means I see the problem through two lenses. The martial arts lens is indisputably male-focused. As you’d expect from a discipline that turns its practitioners into efficient fighters, the martial arts invest a lot of energy in teaching restraint, self discipline, and obedience to higher authority. Students are expected to control their impulse to use force as they hone their ability to use it. “Never attack first in karate,” warned Gichin Funakoshi, the creator of Shotokan. Most schools adhere to a training oath that includes some kind of commitment to responsible use of the power students are developing.
These rules align with the military background the martial arts have drawn on for centuries. And in the context of men fighting men, such admonitions make sense. As a personal code of ethics, for governing one’s behavior in everyday conflicts, they are reasonably practical, regardless of your gender. But in the context of male-on-female violence, they are largely useless.
The martial arts are, in fact, an almost perfect crystallization of the male-focused, “control your own violence above all” philosophy. Martial arts fighting is stylized in the extreme; we have uniforms, bowing, legal and illegal techniques, supervision, and many other parameters to contain the violence, not least of which is a student’s concern for his or her own reputation.
I’m a big fan of this approach, in most contexts (if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have two black belts). One reason I love karate so much is that it affords a place for women, as well as men, to experience the challenge of combat and reap its rewards—legally and ethically, in a way that fosters individual growth.
But because I also see the problem of violence through a female-focused, defense-oriented lens, I’m acutely aware that the ideals held by martial artists, and presumably shared by those who advise women to respond conservatively during an attack, are potentially dangerous in the context of male-on-female violence. Self-control and caution are, in that arena, good solutions to the wrong problem.
Women are much less likely than men to be issued an invitation to violence. Certainly it does happen; women get into fights they could have avoided, just like men do. But when we’re talking about life-or-death self-defense, about rape and sexual assault, about women like Esme Barerra being murdered in their homes by strangers, the rules that govern the culture of male fighting simply don’t work.
Guinea pigs only rumblestrut when confronting other guinea pigs; it’s a behavior directed at a potential equal or rival. If they’re attacked by a predator, guinea pigs don’t bother with the social niceties. Unfortunately, the poor creatures have been domesticated so thoroughly that they no longer have any other viable behaviors to employ in their own defense. They have been bred and sheltered into complete helplessness.
I don’t want to see that happen to women.
Women are seldom attacked by men because we’re perceived as rivals. We’re often attacked by men because we’re perceived as prey. I believe women need to think strategically about how to change this perception of our gender—one which is pervasive throughout our culture’s advertising, entertainment, language, and legal system. We need to make it clear to ourselves, and to the larger society that tells us how we ought to behave, that we aren’t passive, large-eyed, timid creatures bred for consumption. I think we need to remember that we can bare our teeth. And I think we should recognize that there are times when it is completely appropriate, justified, and wise to do so.
SUGGESTED READSBitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting: Column 1: The Rules
by Susan Schorn (9/16/2009)
Bitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting: Column 2: Dressing Up, Looking Down
by Susan Schorn (10/1/2009)
Bitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting: Column 3: Madness
by Susan Schorn (10/20/2009)
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