A while ago I wrote a post commenting on an article on the reasons why women smile at men who harass them. I explained how, from a martial arts point of view, that’s a winning strategy. To de-escalate a situation and leave without a fight. But that’s not always possible, so I think a follow-up post may be useful, in particular for those without any martial arts or self defence training.
(And if you’re free this coming Saturday, 2nd April 2016 and within striking range of Bristol, do come along the Fight Like a Girl anthology launch, where I’ll be demonstrating some of the self-defence principles I discuss in this article. As well as what to do if you’ve brought bare hands to a knife fight.)
If unwanted attention turns into being grabbed, that’s very definitely the time to fight like a girl. Which is to say, not by meeting force with force but by identifying and exploiting the ways in which your attacker cannot use superior strength or in ways that make such strength irrelevant. Because the aim of the game is not to stand crowing over your defeated, bloodied enemy like some cut-price Conan, but to get free of a hold and to get clean away as quickly and effectively as possible.
This post is also prompted by recent thoughts and discussions I’ve been having with fellow aikido practitioners about gendered responses to attacks. Though these observations aren’t exclusively for women’s benefit. My thoughts apply equally well to men who find themselves shorter and less physically imposing than an attacker. As well as to men who are tall, well-muscled, physically fit and more than able to leave an aggressor bleeding on the floor – but who know full well that will see them charged with assault. So, this should make useful reading for everyone.
However, this post runs long. I’m also aware that there will be those with no interest, for whatever reason, in reading even a theoretical discussion of the practical application of violence. So I’ll put the rest of this behind a cut.
So what can you do, if a situation escalates to physical confrontation and you don’t have any martial arts training? Well, if you’re grabbed, whether that’s by the hand, the arm, the shoulder, the coat, or whatever, the most important thing to remember is that’s all the attacker has got hold of. You’re still free to do what you want with the whole of the rest of your body.
What should you do first? Try not to pull away, because that will only prompt that grip to tighten. And as that grip tightens, so do the arm and shoulder muscles behind it, so that attacker will be pulling you closer towards him. At the same time as you are not actually pulling away but pulling this assailant towards yourself. All in all, doing half an attacker’s work for him is a really bad idea.
Change your perspective and you can change the whole dynamic of this encounter. Push your hand, or arm, or shoulder hard towards the attacker. I know this sounds counter-intuitive but think about it. Now you’re taking the initiative. There’s a fair chance that this response will be so unexpected, the attacker’s grip will loosen. If that happens, even fractionally, even momentarily, that can be enough to get yourself free. You can improve on this by twisting that attacker’s hand, ideally to rotate their palm in relation to their forearm by applying force to the side of their hand, either little finger or thumb. If their grip is on your shoulder or clothing, use your own hand to clamp that gripping hand down hard as you move. Then put your entire body weight behind twisting that grip sideways.
If you’re being held by the forearm or wrist you can significantly improve your chances of breaking free by twisting your own hand or arm so that it’s sideways on, and thus narrower, in relation to the gap between your attacker’s smallest finger and their thumb. Even if their hand is big enough to overlap around your wrist, this is still the weakest point of their grip. Drop your elbow and use your whole arm as a lever against their thumb or smallest finger, once again pushing away from yourself, not pulling. As previously mentioned, you can improve still further on this by rotating their hand in relation to their forearm. All of these moves exploit inherent weak points in even the most muscular anatomy.
Though the biggest problem here is that such moves are vastly easier for me to demonstrate in person than they are to describe in any usefully meaningful way. Feel free to ask me for a few minutes’ show-and-tell as and when our paths cross somewhere.
Getting free is the first step. How do you stop an attacker pursuing you once you’ve broken that hold? ‘Oh, just knee him in the nuts,’ is perhaps the most common advice and that’s a problem because I firmly believe it’s the single most useless piece of self-defence lore out there. Actually, it’s worse than useless. I think it’s actively dangerous – and that’s before we get on to its all-too-frequent victim-blaming subtext. Any sentence that starts ‘Oh, just…’ implies that doing something is easy. Which leads on to implying that if downing a man with a pod-shot is so easy, and some girl is just too squeamish to do it, well, more fool her…?
The reality is that an effective strike to the groin is not nearly as easy as it seems. Ever since early hominids started walking upright, evolution has been hardwiring instincts into the male brain to protect those dangling baubles. Forget YouTube compilations of MMA/cage-fighters being downed by an accidental thump to the family jewels. These only serve to illustrate the Knee to the Nuts Paradox, as far as martial arts are concerned. The more experienced a practitioner is, the slower he can react to the possibility of a nut-crunch. For values of slower that can be measured in fractions of a second, but against someone of equal speed and power, that’s still slow enough for the worst to happen. This happens because those men are in an environment where their meat and two veg are off limits, whatever else ‘no holds barred’ may permit. They’re sub-consciously alert for a whole array of other attacks before that one.
Off the mat and in the street, men react very differently. A man with no martial arts experience will still move or turn as quickly as possible to protect his groin. I’ve seen this for myself, time and again. Practising traditional aikido, we don’t apply techniques at full speed, or with full power, because that would make for very short practises and everyone ending up in Accident & Emergency. We do still emphasise the need for defensive blocks and the use of counter strikes to make our techniques more effective. When training with a beginner, this means I will gesture towards their groin. You should see those chaps move… Instinct sends them leaping backwards even though I haven’t come within touching distance. Even though we’ve already established they can trust me not to smack them in the face if they’re slow with a high block. Even the possibility of squashed plums sees their body react before their brain catches up.
On the other hand, when I was preparing for my third dan aikido grading last year, I was asked to show my breadth of understanding and variations on technique. One element I specifically included was groin strikes to demonstrate some different ways into technique from responses we don’t usually prompt. After a few very-near-misses I had to warn my experienced practise partners to be ready with an effective low block. Unprompted, they were slower to react than a complete beginner – precisely because so many years of training subconsciously told them their knackers were safe on the mat.
There are other reasons why trying for a knee – or a punch – to the nuts is a bad idea. Physically, it’s risky for anyone without advanced, relevant training as well as the space to use those skills effectively. Raise a knee groin high against a taller attacker and you will compromise your own balance badly. It really is a stupid idea to be wobbling on one foot while an attacker has both boots planted firmly on the ground. At close quarters, you’re also unlikely to get enough momentum into your knee to get maximum impact with what is a blunt and broad weapon compared to a comparatively small target. A punch could deliver more force but the act of punching downwards will bring your torso and head forward and thus closer to your attacker’s hands/fists. Remember, you want to be getting away, not increasing your risk of being grappled to the ground.
Then there are the psychological aspects. Try for a groin strike and miss, and a man’s sense of vulnerability will almost always provoke a disproportionately violent response. That really won’t help a situation that’s already turned aggressive. Even if you succeed, there’s the aftermath to consider – and the reactions of whoever will be dealing with you, most particularly the men. They will feel an instinctive instant of sympathy for any man in that situation, however fleeting and unconscious that response might be. Think about audience reactions in the cinema, even in a comedy when some bloke getting his maracas rattled is being played for laughs. Women find it funny. Men wince first and foremost and many won’t laugh at all. Attacking the groin is also an act of sexual aggression. In any situation that may end up in ‘he said, she said’, putting yourself on any kind of equal footing, however subliminal, with someone who’s attempted a sexual assault is best avoided.
Of course, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t take the opportunity of a groin strike if it’s readily apparent. Use a closed-fingers, open-handed thrust – it’ll hurt more and won’t signal your intent like a fist – and go straight for middle wicket. But you won’t have time to waste on focusing your efforts on that particular attack. Unless that opportunity is really too obvious to miss, you’ll have safer options and better targets.
Such as knees. Read the sports pages or watch the news and you’ll soon see how vulnerable those can be. Training or match accidents regularly wreck promising football careers. Look how much strapping tennis players end up wearing. The list goes on.
Which is why I would go for an attacker’s knees. Your intention will be much less immediately obvious. Doing so only means lifting your own foot a short distance from the ground. However firmly your hands/shoulders might be held, you can get some useful momentum into a foot by raising it behind your own leg and then swinging it up and forward. A kick from the front which strikes anywhere under the attacker’s knee cap will be excruciating. Miss and you’ll still get some benefit from hacking at their shin – soccer players wear shin guards for good reason. Get a solid kick into the side of the knee joint and you could not only make that attacker stumble or fall, but there’s a good chance of doing enough damage that he won’t be physically able to run after you, however malevolent his intent.
I could go on, but I know full well that the more I write, the less clear this piece will become, and of more limited use. If the worst happens, no one’s going to have time to get out their phone, find an Internet connection and refer back here.
In summary then, to improve your chances of escaping an aggressive confrontation that’s been forced upon you –
Don’t pull against a grip; push back and twist to break it.
Kick for the knees not the nuts.
And one last aside. If anyone ever tells you that women can’t fight effectively in long skirts, I’ll happily introduce them to any number of aikido blackbelts who say different.