Self-defense classes re-enact past traumas and teach women to fight back against future threats
The graduates file into the gymnasium. They walk single file, silently. Ranging in age from 18 to 55, the women are clothed in basic gym wear: loose T-shirts, tights, knee pads, tennis shoes, hair pulled back with barrettes or into ponytails.
They turn and face an audience of about 30 people—family, friends, colleagues. Beads of perspiration dot upper lips and foreheads. Hands are clammy, clenching and unclenching at their sides.
This isn’t a typical graduation. These women aren’t typical graduates. Rather than fondly remembering their school days or looking ahead to bright future prospects, they are mentally reliving past traumas from their lives, and preparing to battle them.
For one woman, it was when she was raped at the age of 14. For another, it’s the abusive ex-boyfriend, the guy who beat the crap out of her, threatened to kill her and who still stalks her today. Some relive scary moments with threatening strangers, while one woman battles the fear and desperation she felt when her husband left her.
They are graduating from an intensive self-defense program called Capital City Model Mugging. After 23 hours of training, they are ready to show supporters their skills and say a forceful “No!” to assault during a final test: playing out a past trauma against the padded attacker.
Sitting in portable chairs, the audience seems eager to witness the transformation. Victoria Julian has arrived with four family members. She relaxes, listening to the lead female instructor, Suzanne, explain the history of Model Mugging and the skills the course emphasizes. Julian waits to see her sister fight off the mugger from her past.
“It’s really emotional for me and empowering to see my sister take care of herself,” Julian said.
After watching her sister defend herself in a “walk-away” assault situation (attacked from behind while walking down the street), Julian moves to the back of the room. Her other family members, initially scattered in the audience, have gathered there, clutching each other’s hands tightly. Julian looks down at the floor the next time her sister is “mugged,” peering up intermittently, wanting to see her fight her way out of a pinned position but uneasy at witnessing what an attack on her might look like.
“It’s a bit overwhelming. I think of myself as a really strong woman, but I have my histories, too,” Julian said. “It made me think if I was really ready for this (course). I’m not sure yet.”
Julian’s eyes aren’t the only ones filled with tears. Graduates of the Model Mugging course say perhaps the most difficult aspect of the self-defense training is watching classmates fight off an assault.
“It’s really cool to do this in front of people,” said graduate Cindy Sanford. “But it’s really hard to watch my classmates fight. It’s very disturbing.”
The nonprofit Capital City Model Mugging teaches impact self-defense. The Basics Course, which held its graduation March 31, teaches women a defense against a single, unarmed assailant. Women learn to recognize danger signals, set boundaries and de-escalate physical threats as well as how to develop physical techniques from the ground and standing positions.
The “impact” part of “impact self-defense” means students can practice their hits and kicks—including eye gouges, groin kicks and other debilitating techniques these women learn—full force on an instructor wearing a padded suit.
Sanford says she enrolled in the course at the urging of her sister, who graduated from Bay Area Model Mugging. With her travel schedule—both work and pleasure—Sanford says she wanted to feel safe, whether she was attending a professional conference or playing tourist in Italy.
“You never know when you’re going to be in a train station or airport and be in a vulnerable situation,” Sanford says, adding that the best weapon she learned was the power of a strongly voiced, “No!”
Although Sanford says the course material is about what she expected it to be, the drills and the fights and the emotionality of facing one’s personal demons with strangers proved extremely intense.
“It’s amazing to me—you see someone who appears so together and you think they couldn’t have issues, but they do,” Sanford said. “Everyone does.”
Of course, some people’s issues are more dangerous than others. One member of this graduating class was learning the skills she might need to fend off an attack from an ex-boyfriend who used to beat her, and who she said is still stalking her.
“I was a victim of domestic violence. He had his hands around my throat. My neighbors watched through their picture window and didn’t do a thing. I couldn’t even walk down the street without being terrified,” she said, noting how she feels transformed by the class. “I didn’t know I had this power in me. This class makes me empowered so that I can choose my future. If I find a partner, it’s because we’re partners, not because I’m his slave.”
The first two weeks of the class start slowly, with every fight choreographed so students develop skills and recognize which technique to use and when. The female instructor demonstrates techniques and students practice them on a male instructor wearing a suit built to withstand full-force blows.
Repetition encourages the growth of skill into instinct. The chance to actually use these skills in an adrenaline-induced state against a model mugger ensures that the muscles retain memory of these actions, says instructor Scott Safly. Muscle memory occurs during everyday life when, for example, a person hops on a bicycle and rides away after not having cycled for many years.
The therapy component of the course becomes visible during the third week of the class, when students create a “custom scenario” to replay past trauma or enact deep fears. The session is videotaped for students to view later. Observers say most students are surprised to see themselves fight. And viewing this scenario with a different ending can enhance the healing process.
“The personal scenario was really powerful for me,” said Karen Hirsch, who graduated from a Model Mugging course in spring 2000 and is now a volunteer at CCMM. “I had a chance to recreate a situation and change the ending.”
A survivor of sexual abuse, Hirsch says the course also showed her how powerful a weapon her body could be. Viewing the videotape, she sobbed.
“A part of it felt real. I got to say things I’d wanted to say,” she explained. “I know it wasn’t real, but at some point, I said those things.”
As each individual student fights, classmates cheer her on, yelling out targets: “eyes!”; “groin!” Graduates of the course who have used their Model Mugging skills during an actual assault say they could hear imaginary classmates shouting direction and encouragement.
Late in the course, fights become less scripted and the lineup is less respected. Instructors can call students out of order and even grab an instructor instead of a student for a drill. The key is for women to gain courage and confidence in applying the fight techniques.
“You start to realize as you start to do these unchoreographed fights how many weapons you really have,” said Sanford.
Reality or illusion?
Critics of such classes say the therapy aspect can be overdone. Writing in Salon.com, Carol Lloyd says she signed up for a self-defense course, but found “the therapeutic safe zone of my all-female class would turn out to be the least safe place of all.”
When she questioned the emphasis on therapy during one of the classes, Lloyd says she ended up being isolated for the rest of the course. During the “radiance circles” exercise, in which each classmate stands in the center of the circle on graduation day and the others speak nice things about her, the comments seemed forthright and honest.
“In a moment of despair, it dawns on me. Cultivating an almost vampiric relationship to women’s weaknesses, this self-defense class feeds off the same docility it claims to exorcise,” Lloyd writes. “Financially, it depends upon us being ‘non-judgmental’ enough to accept ‘trust yourself’ as an acceptable answer to ‘what if they have a gun?’ Ideologically, it depends upon women believing that this spectacle of humiliation is the only path to strength.”
But Christine Cleveland, who graduated March 31, says it was the support and honesty that helped her work through her fears. In the midst of a painful divorce, Cleveland says the realization that she would be caring for two young daughters alone led to a feeling of unacceptable vulnerability. She also says she felt like she was losing her power.
“This group helped me when I hit rock bottom,” Cleveland said. “Now I know I’m powerful and I’ll be fine.”
The key is for women to use their best weapons against men’s weakest areas, says Safly. Surprisingly, women have advantages fighting from a ground position because a woman’s legs are longer than a man’s arms.
Also, if pinned, a woman’s hips can help throw a man to the side or over the top of her; a quick spin can position her perfectly for a side thrust kick to the attacker’s head.
“Giving up too soon, to not do anything, would be your worst mistake,” Safly said.
Statistics show that women have good reason to be afraid, and to address that fear by fighting back. Nearly one in five women will suffer some sort of assault in their lifetime. The majority of those will be acquaintances, says Sheriff’s Sgt. Micki Links.
“There’s less of stranger-type muggings and rapes and a lot of acquaintance rapes,” says Links, who works in the sexual assault unit.
Between 1990 and 2000, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department says there were 3,100 reported rapes or attempted rapes. Of those, 90 percent were acquaintance rapes. There were 900 rape or attempted rape cases last year, and already 419 cases this year: “Looks like we’re going to surpass 2000,” Links said.
As much as the techniques to fight back, Safly said the course empowers women not to be victims but to lash out, scream, fight back—anything it takes to back an attacker off and let him know he has not chosen a passive victim.
“He’s not expecting you to fight, otherwise he wouldn’t be picking on a woman,” Safly told the class. “So choose your weapon, target it and use it full force.”