How often do you see posters and flyers stapled onto poster boards that advertise a so-called ‘self defense class,’ in which they presumably teach you to defend yourself against any and all attackers, no matter how they try and attack you? They’re usually accompanied by some confident looking young woman with a black belt. At face value, these classes seem like a good idea. It’s always better to know what you should do when you’re inevitably attacked by a hooded man in a dark alleyway. The problem is that these classes are often taught by people who have never once used the ‘techniques’ they teach, and they instill a false sense of confidence into people who think those techniques actually work.
In order to write this article, I sat down with professional grappler and MMA cage fighter Steve Peters in order to see what he thinks about self defense classes. Peters has been involved with a plethora of different traditional martial arts and now teaches Jiu Jitsu and grappling at Trials Martial Arts in Fort Collins.
The first thing to keep in mind when discussing these self defense programs is to think about what scenario you will potentially use it in. The first and most prominent example is the scenario where you’re walking home, or something of the like, and a large man approaches you and either tries to sexually assault or rob you. This scenario is the one they most prominently cover in your self defense class as well. The second scenario is much different. In this scenario, you are drinking at your friends house. Before you know it, you’re drunk, cant find your purse, and there’s someone on top of you. Which do you think is more likely to happen?
Let’s focus on scenario one. While walking home from a party, someone walks up to you with a hood on and demands you hand over your purse. Whats worse, you don’t even get the opportunity to run, and the man instantly tackles you to the ground and starts tearing off clothes. I can tell you from personal experience that when you are caught in a fight, your brain enters fight or flight mode. Your brain stops thinking rationally and your body instantly acts on instinct. For most humans, your first instinct is to run (which, in this case, is absolutely the right thing to do). However, if you can’t run, you’ll most likely be reduced to a flailing mass of arms and legs, unable to coordinate yourself coherently.
First off, let us address traditional martial arts like Tae Kwon Do and Aikido. These are the ones you see taught in strip malls and YMCA’s, also known as ‘McDojos’. As Peters says, tradition is key here. “They are longstanding form centuries ago and were maybe applicable at that time, but things have changed and other martial arts have evolved to make those unacceptable now.” Peters went on to add that he does have the utmost respect for these traditions and that in certain situations they can be useful.
However, I’d argue that these styles are more of cultural art forms that actual fighting techniques. In this first scenario, having knowledge in one, traditional martial arts will not in any way save you against a larger, heavier opponent (or any opponent) tackling you on your lonely walk home. While many of you might say that you are using these martial arts against untrained opponents, I would counter by saying most traditional, Asian martial arts focus on standing and striking techniques. However, around 90% of street fights end on the ground, or at least don’t follow the general protocol of many of these martial arts. Therefore, these martial arts are almost entirely useless.
Moving on to generic self defense classes, most classes teach you that, in the event you are attacked walking in the dark, you should utilize eye pokes, groin kicks, and other fast, powerful, debilitating strikes. This is completely useless and borderline dangerous. First off, when your body is acting on instinct, you absolutely will not remember what strike you’re supposed to utilize in what scenario. Peters says that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. It takes years and years of repetition to confidently be able to keep your cool in a physical altercation. Assuming that you can take one seminar over the weekend and leave thinking that you can handle yourself in a physical altercation with an opponent is absolutely asinine. In fact, 99% of scenarios won’t even resemble what you learn in class. Even if you somehow do manage you strike your assailant in the eye or kick him right in the balls, there is absolutely no reason they would let you go.
In fact, things like that are more likely to make your assailant strike you harder, as it will just piss them off. This is because, despite all the experience your instructor has, there is a difference between causing someone to not want to fight anymore and causing someone to not be able to fight anymore.
This is absolutely crucial in a fight for your life: you will not be able to cause your opponent to give up despite the pain. If you are in a fight for your life, the only way to get someone to stop is to physically make them unable to hurt you. Which do you think is more likely to stop a rape: a poke in the eye, or an arm that has been snapped in half? A groin kick, or an assailant that has been choked unconscious? They can fight through pain. They can’t fight through a broken arm.
As Peters says, “If you poke an assailant or kick them in the balls, they now have even more of an incentive to make sure you can’t escape. This is because you’ve seen their face or can describe them in some other way. Even if they’re hurt, they’re going to do everything they can to make sure you don’t get away. When you try and use techniques that you have not mastered, you bring more chaos to the situation that will ultimately backfire for you.”
“But Taylor, isn’t learning something better than learning nothing?” No. Since people leave these self defense classes feeling confident, they are more likely to try and physically engage an opponent when in reality, they should run and scream.
Let’s move on to the second scenario, the one that takes place at your buddy’s house drinking alcohol. Which scenario do you think is more likely? According to the U.S. department of Justice, only 25% of sexual assaults happen by a stranger, which means if you’re scared of being sexually assaulted, its way more likely going to be while you’re drunk at your friend’s house. Given the information above about reflexes and instinct, the odds of you successfully fending off an attacker while intoxicated are even less likely. Most self defense classes teach you to prepare for scenario one, when you will most likely actually only need it for scenario two.
According to Peters, the man in a hood is a scare tactic used to make women feel empowered. Since self defense classes are almost entirely geared towards women, its women who leave the class feeling stronger and safer.
He also says the best way to stay safe in a scenario like that is to avoid it altogether. Keep your head about you and make good decisions. Women, on average, are at a size and strength disadvantage. While we should, as a society, tell people not to rape women, there will always be sick, disgusting humans who do not follow this line of reasoning. Avoidance is the best solution.
If you genuinely care about your safety, learn to fight. There is a difference between defending yourself and fighting. Self defense is labeled as some sort of passive, high-road alternative to fighting, but it is also the most useless. If you are in a fight, then you are fighting for your life and nothing less. You aren’t just defending yourself. The most effective martial arts at taking care of this are Jiu Jitsu, wrestling, and kickboxing. And they take years to perfect, not weekends.