A martial arts perspective on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Harass Us’.

Various people have been linking to a (very good) article* on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Harass Us”* with their own further valid observations and commentary, notably Catie Murphy

Essentially, women are aiming to de-escalate these situations to keep themselves safe. Not least because as just about any woman can tell you, ignoring a man who’s demanding your attention in an increasingly persistent fashion (whether drunk/horny/showing off to his mates) will NOT make him ‘just go away’.

Nor will responding in aggressive fashion. That will pretty much definitely make things worse. Read the magistrates’ court reports in your local paper for plenty of evidence there.

Now, one assumption underpinning this is that women de-escalate these situations because they wouldn’t be able to win in a physical fight. Up to a point, yes – and it’s a wholly valid point.

But some of us assuredly could. I speak as an aikido third dan with over 30 years training under my blackbelt.

And when I’m accosted/’complimented’/intruded upon by importunate men when I’m out and about on my own? Yes, I do exactly the same as every other woman. I smile and say meaningless nothings to keep everything calm and undramatic until I can extricate myself from the situation.

Because I’m not confident in my skills? Oh, far from it.

Because I don’t particularly want to end up in court charged with assault after Mr Harrasser ends up seeing a maxillo-facial surgeon to repair his broken jaw after unexpectedly meeting the pavement face first? That’s a consideration, yes.

Overwhelmingly though, it’s because of one of the very first things I learned practising aikido, over 30 years ago.

Our instructor, Kanetsuka Sensei came into the dojo where all the students were waiting. His pupil/assistant Tanaka Sensei was on the mat, ready. Kanesuka is not a tall man. Tanaka is huge.

They squared up, toe to toe. And then Kanetsuka Sensei ran out of the dojo at top speed. Tanaka stayed where he was, impassive. Everyone else looked at each other, baffled.

Kanetsuka returned, calm and relaxed. He gestured at the door, ‘Best defence.’

Then he raised a finger. ‘If you cannot.’ And proceeded to demonstrate the many and varied ways he could throw and pin Tanaka, rendering him utterly helpless.

Helpless, please note. Not bleeding or physically incapacitated. Aikido does not set out to break an attacker. The aim, first and foremost, is to break an attacker’s will to attack, while staying safe oneself.

(That said, yes, these are techniques which used in the street, on an attacker with no knowledge of breakfalls or rolling out of a throw, would leave them bruised at best and quite possibly with broken bones. Unless the aikidoka is sufficiently experienced to be able to choose otherwise. And let’s remember the key word here is ‘attacker’. Aikido is the martial art which waits for the other guy to start things – but I digress)

So here’s the thing. By far the best way to win in a fight (or any confrontation) is not to have it happen. Top level martial arts masters in far more disciplines than only aikido agree on that.

So a woman responding to that pushy, oboxious dude on a late night train or at a bus stop with a small, tight smile and some meaningless platitudes?

She’s de-escalating the situation while keeping herself safe.

She’s not a coward. She’s not losing in that encounter. She’s winning it.

* here’s a link to that article, though it’s displaying oddly in my browser today – I don’t know why.


Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

4 thoughts on “A martial arts perspective on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Harass Us’.

  1. That’s the first demonstration I ever saw in ju jitsu; they were setting up a new club in Greenock and a whole lot of people had showed up to the open day hoping to learn how to make a mess of people. The instructor really built up this technique, the best we would ever see, and had the biggest six guys in the room stand around him in a circle. He told them to jump him all at once when he counted to three and we were all expecting mayhem. He counted one, two, ran for the door and shouted ‘three’ from there.

  2. Interesting article. I would add a comment about appearance. In my experience in years living in London – short blonds have far more trouble than taller brunettes – that is at least what I have seen in admittedly a small sample. Whether they are seen as more attractive, or less scary, I have no idea but they are more often on the receiving end. I remember a short blond cute student (about 5 feet tall, max) who in one place she lived only went out with female friends as escort – as in she would not go out alone, even in broad daylight. This was because there were a few men who’d stop walking and stare at her, openly looking her up and down, while ignoring the escort – who as it happened was generally one of several girls who were all taller (5ft 6/5ft 8) and brunette. The taller brunettes were absolutely horrified, having never themselves been on the receiving end of such overt lechery. They’d suffered the odd incident, but nothing like that.

    1. Now that you flag this up, yes, thinking about it, I’d say my blonde/petite pals routinely got more harassment than me in my younger, (formerly) brunette days. An interesting point, thanks.

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