If you’re a woman in New York City, it’s not a matter of if someone has grabbed your ass on the subway before, it’s what you’ve done after it’s happened.
This was the question posed by Ebba Boye, an Economics Ph.D candidate at the New School who has spent the last decade moonlighting as a self-defense instructor. On Wednesday — International Women’s Day, which coincided with the women’s strike — Boye set aside her thesis to offer a group of around ten women a crash course on protecting ourselves from unwanted intrusions. By the time we walked back into the unseasonably lovely afternoon two hours later, we were versed in how to position our knuckles for the most effective throat jab, where to grab at attacker’s hips in order to knee them in the groin, and that gathering your fingers to resemble a duck’s beak is optimal for truly destructive eye-gouging.
But first, we had to think about the subway.
As the late-morning light filtered through the huge windows of the Theresa Lang Community Center, Boye instructed us to arrange ourselves in three groups, according to our response to a handsy train cretin. One group for those who’d done nothing, another if we’d moved away from the groper, but said nothing. And a third for those who had spoken up. All but two of us — myself included — clustered in the “move away” group, looking with a mixture of curiosity and envy at the two who challenged their attackers.
“I guess I’m just confrontational,” one woman, dressed in a red t-shirt, explained with a shrug. The other nodded.
The gulf between our two groups seemed cavernous, and I was surprised at how easy it was to categorize myself as someone who would (and has) crept silently away. More disturbing were my internal rationalizations, which sounded foreign and pathetic as they coalesced in my head: What if everyone thought it was my fault? What would they think if I made a scene? Who was this spineless nincompoop? I wondered in horror. Is that…my voice?
It is my voice, and by all accounts, it’s also a product of my upbringing. Gentleness and sensitivity are the cornerstones of femininity, and women are taught from an early age that it’s unladylike to cause a scene or draw undue attention to ourselves. Physically, we’re trained to shrink. While boys are encouraged to play sports and roughhouse, girls are taught that they’re prone to shattering if bumped. These lines are drawn early: studies show that parents consistently encourage gender-stereotyped activities among young children, and are more likely to provide toys like action figures and sports equipment for their sons, while their daughters get dolls and dress-up clothes. It’s no wonder that girls sometimes grow into women reluctant to stand their ground — so few of us were given the tools to do it.
“We all have the strength in our bodies,” Boye explained, adding that the goal of the class isn’t so much to morph into savage, man-shredding cage fighters as it is to become acquainted with our own power. “Too many women have been told throughout their lives that they aren’t strong enough, that they can’t defend themselves, that their role is to cry, to scream out for help.”
After all, sexual harassment isn’t usually about sex, but dominance. “Sexual harassment is a subtle rape, and rape is more about fear than sex,” Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, told the New York Times in 1991, in the midst of Anita Hill’s accusations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “Harassment is a way for a man to make a woman vulnerable.” Only around 25 percent of sexual harassment cases are inept attempts at seduction— the rest are assertions of power.
That it’s incumbent on women to sacrifice time and money in the interest of simply functioning comfortably is obviously bullshit. But that anger can be useful when harnessed and redirected at the source of our discomfort, be it someone on the subway, at a bar or, more commonly, at a friend or colleague.
As Ann J. Cahill, the author of Rethinking Rape, wrote in a 2015 blog post, sexual violence is often framed as a problem of women’s bodies — we shouldn’t have been walking alone, or been somewhere at a certain time. “It’s as if when those bodies are in the wrong places, or do the wrong things, suddenly this threat materializes out of thin air. And really, that feminine body should have known better than to cause that threat to show up,” she said.
Feminist self-defense, then, teaches women how to move; what Cahill calls “muscular pedagogy.”
“And these new habits – the ability to kick, or to yell, or to become familiar with the sensation of feeling one’s fist meet someone else’s body with force — contradict what women are usually told about what their body can do and be,” she writes.
Boye, who is Norwegian, quickly dispelled the idea that it’s necessary to be nice at the expense of ourselves. She spoke frankly and unflinchingly about the points of weakness on a man’s body: How easy it is to blow out a kneecap, to thrust a knee into a groin, to find the soft, vulnerable part of a throat. Though we practiced throwing punches and lightly jabbing each other’s necks (it hurts!), Boye pointed out that in most cases, physical reprisal isn’t required, though a strong “No!” or “Stop!” frequently is.
To that end, we partnered up. When I pictured a self-defense class, I’d envisioned some sort of Rocky-esque training montage, with sweatbands and maybe a speedbag. So when Boye announced that we’d be shoulder-checking our partners before whipping around and glaring at them over our shoulders, I tittered nervously. Surely she wasn’t serious?
She was. My partner was a college student, her black hair bound in a ponytail with a ring of smoky eyeliner framing her eyes. On our first attempt at smashing into each other, I felt myself jerk away, afraid of…what? Hurting her? Being rude? I swallowed my instinct to apologize. “You can do it harder,” she said pleasantly.
And so I did. I found that committing more to the shoulder check made it hurt less than when I winced away, and I was reminded of the years I spent playing soccer, where you are far more likely to get injured if you hesitate than if you confront your opponent at full speed.
These exercises — and there were others, including a full body slam (!) and practicing shouting “NO” — were not intended for practical use, per se, as much as creating awareness of our own fortitude. That we could make noise. That we could hit. I watched my partner brutally attack a kicking bag, encouraged by Boye’s enthusiasm. “NICE!” she shouted in what sounded like genuine delight as my partner’s foot landed an especially powerful blow.
Ideally, Boye said, such training would be taught in public schools, vanquishing the idea of female weakness before it really gets the chance to take hold. Imagine a world where “no” was never construed as coquetry, no matter its inflection. Imagine the trouble it would save everyone — men and women alike — if the word itself held its own power, without the now requisite firmness of tone, the sustained eye contact, the hand extended in warning.
If nothing else, Boye said, remember that it’s okay to freeze up, to do nothing. “Don’t spend all your energy being mad at yourself for what you didn’t do,” she said. “It’s the asshole attacker who has done something unforgivable, and you should be pissed at that person, not at yourself.”