I sat on the floor of the high school gym, motionless and in tears as I watched a man grab my daughter and throw her to the ground. Despite all appearances, this was not an attack, thank goodness. It was the dramatic conclusion of our mother-daughter self-defense course called “Escape Alive.”
A local nonprofit sexual assault awareness and prevention organization had come to the middle school and high school in my area to present their program. To be honest, I signed us both up without checking with her first. I worried that if I asked her in advance, she would have made a face letting me know that she didn’t think the program was cool. But the prospect of sexual assault in any form is frightening. And the thought that we didn’t have to be victims was not only welcome, it was thought-provoking and empowering.
Recently, the news has been filled with stories of sexual assault and harassment, enough that it seems as if these crimes are on the rise. But the truth is that many women are just now finding the strength to speak out about these horrors and indignities that have been going on for ages.
My goal has always been to help my daughter develop into a strong woman, but despite my best intentions, I’m not sure I’m always the best role model. I can think of plenty of times I err on being polite versus assertive, or even defer to someone else when I’m perfectly capable of making a choice myself. The class offered an opportunity to acknowledge and employ our strength — to take action and not just talk about it. My daughter is 14 and I’m well aware that issues regarding intimacy and safety are on the horizon. She’s likely to find herself in situations of discomfort, and possibly even danger.
The presentation began with a compelling talk by survivors of assault and frightening statistics aimed at girls heading off to college. I could tell that my daughter heard the survivors in a way she doesn’t hear me when I talk about risks and dangers. Before the class, serious conversations with my daughter were about the birds and the bees, but now they are much deeper. We now talk about consent, comfort level, and how to be strong, despite our urges to be polite or even acquiescent. We discuss the threat of sexual assault in its many forms — whether it is with someone she knows, a stranger posing a physical threat, or a person in a position of power trying to take advantage. Together, we need to practice effective strategies for handling and diffusing difficult situations.
We learned valuable tips that day that I hope will help others:
- Anyone can be a victim: Be aware!
- Fight back — you’re worth it
- Take self-defense classes often (not just once) to keep your reflexes in shape
- Avoid being taken to a secondary location, if possible
- Use anything you have as a weapon
- If an attacker wants something material (purse, phone) from you, give it up and run
- You can be attacked in a variety of ways, even by people you know
- Keep a close eye on your friends and listen to your gut
More than ever, I want to be strong and teach my daughter how to advocate for herself. I needed this avenue to start deeper conversations with my daughter about why sexual assault is a real concern and how we can handle ourselves. I also know that I can talk as much as I want, but if I want her to hear me, I need to show her. This class helped me do just that and frame the conversation.
Because we were there together, I could refer back and ask her direct questions. We could talk about the survivor’s story when my daughter saw my own fears and shock. So while the class definitely helped us to defend ourselves physically, it also provided the much-needed opportunity to talk openly and arm ourselves with more information.
Most time in the class was spent learning about statistics and practicing different attack methods. There were punching and kicking drills, akin to a very slow kickboxing aerobics class. The instructors were patient and stressed the importance of form and angles. Then came simulation.
The instructor got into his padded suit and one at a time, he grabbed us. I knew I was in the high school gym and I knew this was just a drill, but being grabbed and restrained was terrifying. My physical reaction was to fight, but in the moment my mind went blank, wiping out all they had just taught us. I had trouble slowing down and leaning into the moment, fixing my form, and using my angles. Finally, he released me, exhausted and disoriented. Before I could warn my daughter, it was her turn.
My reaction to having been “attacked” and then watching her go through it was something I couldn’t anticipate. I shook. I was exhausted. And the tears just flowed. I am sure there was physical adrenaline fiercely at work, but as I watched our instructor “attack” my daughter, I couldn’t deny that at some point in her life, she might actually be fighting for her life.
I was left aware that I am sorely unprepared for a truly dangerous situation. One class did not equip me with the skills I would need for what could be. But I’m more aware now than I was about the dangers, and more secure in my understanding that there is something I can do about it.
Most of all, I’ve given my daughter the gift of knowledge and will continue to work with her to grow strong, and I am hoping we will develop a practice to keep us both safe. When I asked her if the class scared her, she said it was just the opposite: it made her stronger.