Guest blog. I borrowed this from Kaja Sadowski of Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly.

I’ve never been able to vocalise this before, and I doubt I could do it any better. Enjoy.



I’ve seen this image going around again, often accompanied by comments on how expecting women to learn self-defense is unreasonable and ineffective anyway, because men are bigger and stronger than us.

I get the original post’s sentiment. We can’t put the entire onus of preventing sexual assault on the victims (or potential victims), and things will not get better without widespread social change that addresses perpetrators (and potential perpetrators), and the cultural attitudes that make this shit so much more widespread and easy to get away with.

But as we build a better world that is safer for all of us, we need to live in this one. We need to survive day-to-day, and deal with the threats that exist now, and not the reduced ones that may exist decades down the road. And right now, knowing how to defend yourself won’t prevent all rape, but it might prevent yours.

It’s not a zero-sum game. Keeping yourself safe doesn’t put another in danger, and learning self-defense isn’t some betrayal of the sisterhood because another woman may not have access to the same training. If we really want to keep all women safer, then we lobby for cultural, legislative, and legal change on the one hand, and we make sure as many women as possible have access to good self-defense training on the other. There’s no earthly reason to choose between the two.

It’s hard enough for many women to step into a self-defense class. There’s already stigma attached to women fighting, fear of being hurt or – worse – of hurting someone else, and uncertainty about how safe you’ll be in a given school or with a given instructor. I’ve had women show up to my classes that spent a year working up to coming in, because it was that fucking daunting. Let’s not make it even worse by suggesting that wanting to protect yourself undermines the social progress of your entire gender.



Additional points raised from the resulting discussion:

  1. I don’t believe there are any statistics as to how many assaults are prevented by capable, willing women stepping in to other women’s aid. From anecdotal evidence, it happens. I’ve done it. I’ve seen other women do it. Learning self-defence skills is like learning first-aid in one respect: maybe you’ll need it for yourself or your loved ones, but maybe you’ll end up using it to save a perfect stranger.
  2. A self defense scenario doesn’t always end with a predator sneaking off to assault someone else. It can end with an arrest or investigation which can actively prevent another assault.
  3. It is considered not only acceptable but desirable for parents to educate their young children about “stranger danger”. No suggestion is made that this causes someone else’s kid to be molested or kidnapped. So at which age does this change? Is it for a 12 yr old girl to learn self-defense, but not for a 15 yr old? 16? Where is that line drawn, by whom, and based on what theory?
  4. While any individual learning to defend themselves doesn’t solve any social problems, a critical mass of women and others with the skills and willingness to defend against predators could shift the social balance as well.
  5. Do women’s  responsibility to others always overrides personal concerns, and if so, why?


I’m hurtling headlong towards the fifth anniversary of my best friend’s death, which was premature and totally avoidable. Some people would class it as self-inflicted, I’m sure, though they’d be advised not to do so in my presence. He’s dead, though, and I’m alive, and that’s not a situation I’m happy with.

It could have very easily gone the other way. When things went to shit for him, I knew he was having issues, because he’d told me. He’d neglected to tell me the extent of the issues, though. Under normal circumstances I would have taken that as a given, because that’s how we roll, and acted accordingly. Unfortunately, those weren’t normal circumstances. At the time, I happened to be rather busy trying not to kill myself due to life happening at me in excessive amounts, so I wasn’t at peak performance. As a result, I completely failed to do anything remotely useful. From one point of  view, I put my oxygen mask on first, which is The Right Thing To Do. Had I not taken care of myself first, we could both be dead, and that wouldn’t have been much of a result. From another point of view, though, I sat there and let my best friend die. That will never be ok with me.

I don’t want that to be ok. I don’t want to get over it. I don’t want to get to a point in my life when I can normalise, justify, rationalise, or in any way accept what I did. I don’t want to be forgiven, and I don’t want to forgive myself. It’s not that I’m a masochist; I just don’t want to live in a world where it’s remotely ok for me to do that kind of thing. So I turned his death into a caltrop, and jammed it in my heart, and every time it doesn’t hurt enough I give it a wiggle and jam it in a little bit harder.

(Ironically, I know exactly what he would say on the subject. I can hear it in his words and in his voice if I shut up long enough to pay attention. And no, he would not be impressed. But I’ve been able to take many a wrong turn despite his good advice before, so at least I’m being consistent. I don’t think he’d expect otherwise, and I know he’d put up with it.)

I’m ok with all of the above; for the now, anyway. It does make me wonder, though, about some of the advice people give people who’re hurting.

One of the most common statements that are thrown around is that in order to get over whatever it is that’s hurting you, you have to accept it. Only then you’ll be able to move the hell on with your life. Whoopty doo. It’s as easy as that. Occasionally someone will insert some bits of Wisdom® to support their assertion. The specific brands of Wisdom® vary, but it matters not a jot, because it’s always used in the same way. Remember that god works everything for good; work through the stages of grief; meditate on form and emptiness; whatever it takes, get your lazy ass over that hurdle, and accept the Thing. Just fucking accept it, and get on with your life.

I have not the least intention to disagree with any of that; I can’t, so I won’t. I think it’s absolutely true that acceptance is an essential part of moving on from things. I think that an important aspect if this issue is too often ignored, though: what exactly it is that we’re asking some people to accept.

Some people go through events that completely change their world, and not for the better. The extent of these changes can vary hugely. Those who’ve only experienced minor versions of these changes may have no idea at all about what it actually means to go through a major one. There’s quite a bit of difference between accepting that “sometimes you may piss off the wrong person, lose a fight you started, and that hurts” and “some parents think it’s ok to rape their children, and the other parent won’t do anything to protect them, and neither will the rest of the family, and if the kids kick up too much of a fuss chances are they’ll get it in the neck for it, and even if they go to the police they may not be allowed to take their rapist to court if the prosecutors believe that they’re too broken to withstand trial.” Yes, they’re both paradigm shifts, but I think it’d be fairly ridiculous to treat them as equivalent. Yet people who’ve only experienced the former often think they’re qualified to push and cajole someone through the latter, sometimes not that gently.

Sometimes people take a long time to get over stuff; sometimes that delay is self-inflicted (as in my case, yeah, I’m aware, thank you), and sometimes it’s just that it takes longer to swallow an elephant than a bug. It’s very easy to talk about acceptance of events that don’t affect us, the import of which has no impact on our lives, and the magnitude of which we can’t even comprehend. But it’s also facile, and privileged, and kinda shitty.

The art of thinking clearly.

There’s a book I think should be in every bathroom:

The book lists 99 common cognitive errors:

systematic deviations from logic – from optimal, rational, reasonable thought and behaviour. By ‘systematic’ I mean that these are not just occasional errors in judgement, but rather routine mistakes, barriers to logic we stumble over time and again, repeating patterns through generations and through the centuries.

As well as being informative, it’s written in short chapters that can be read independently and randomly. It’s perfect for most toileting needs. You can attend to business while sharpening your brain up a bit. Oh, and it’s cheap.

The thing I find most fascinating about cognitive errors is that you can’t just get over them once; as soon as you think you’re done with them and stop hunting them down, the little blighters crop back up. Thinking that you’ve beaten them forever is a surefire way of harbouring them; not only you won’t be on the lookout, but your ego will fight any attempt at identifying them.

Cognitive errors become even harder to vanquish when they are normalised in a community. With enough community support, these brain bugs can turn into The Right Way to look at certain subjects. Everyone thinks like that, so that must be the right way of thinking; right? Vanquishing them can become a fight against the identity of the community, with any attempt at shining the light on these errors treated as an attack on the community itself.


There are a few cognitive errors that are particularly prominent in the self-defence community. My personal bugbears are:

Survivorship bias. Some people go through difficult events and thrive. They may emerge much stronger, in fact; not only stronger than they were before, but also stronger, in some respects at least, than the average person. That’s just grand. However, if we look around enough, we will likely find an equal or greater number of people who went through similar events and got seriously mangled in the process, physically or psychologically. Alas, those people don’t often go on to become “experts” on the issue, because they’re kept too busy dealing with their shit. The successful survivors are more publicly prominent;. Some go on to lecture others on the transformative beauty of hardship. People buy into that, not realising that the successful survivors may be outliers, and that, statistically, most people who go through the same kind of trials just get horribly fucked up and occasionally die.

(There are a couple of addenda to this. Successful survivors cannot possibly begin to know how things would have been for them had those events not taken place. They may be able to compare them to their past selves, but they cannot compare themselves to an alternative, present self that went through different experiences. They may also be unaware of how narrow a squeak they went through; how much luck and coincidence went into their success, how easily it may have gone the other way.)


Effort Justification. When we put a lot of energy into a task, we tend to overevaluate the results. Some self-defence training can be pretty hardcore; it sucks time and money, and can result in pain or even injuries. That doesn’t, in and of itself, mean that it’s any good. It could well be that we’re pissing away our resources towards achieving something that is inherently worthless, or simply does not suit us. The only measure of our results should be our results, independently of our costs.

This cognitive error is particularly difficult to deal with when people have acquired skills or experience through horrible hardships. They may believe that what they have is worth inherently more than what anyone else has simply because it cost them so much. That’s not necessarily true. People may be able to pick up the salient lessons from second-hand experience, particularly when those lessons largely amounts to “don’ts”. As Will Rogers said, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” The lesson – do not pee on the electric fence – is the same, and it’s worth the same regardless of how it’s acquired. Admittedly, self-defence situations are hardly ever that simple, but similar considerations often apply and are generally disregarded.


Déformation professionnelle. “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails,” said Mark Twain. People who carry self-defence at the forefront of their mind may be more likely to spot self-defence issues when they come up; however, they can also spot them where they don’t exist. Everyone is a potential predator, every conflict is a potential self-defence issue, every interpersonal problem is a red flag, every attempt at negotiation is a boundary violation. This attitude can keep people safe, but can also make them incredibly difficult to get along with.


Authority bias. It is so because the Grandmaster Sensei Sifu Guru says it is so. I must do what the Leaders say, because they ‘re always right. I personally loathe this kind of attitude in general. As well as completely shutting down people’s critical processes, it can lead them to do all sorts of stuff they wouldn’t even consider if they were, yannow, actually thinking; following orders can be very liberating, and with disastrous consequences. I dislike it even more under four specific circumstances:

  • The authorities in question are quite obviously not universally embraced, yet they are treated as if they were so. This becomes particularly obvious to me when people wave their holy books under my nose; it seems to escape them that, as they’re not my holy books, they might as well be waving copies of “Winnie-the-Pooh” for all the good it’s doing to their assertions. The same kind of attitude is very prominent in self-defence. If the people subscribing to it aren’t willing to accept that the authorities they refer to are only authorities for them, this can create a spectacularly annoying communication barrier. Sometimes when someone says “Such-and-such says X,” “So what?” is the obvious answer; but it never seems to help conversations move on.
  • The authority is not an authority in the field at hand. People are generally not experts at everything. Someone may be the world’s leading expert in one subject, and not know a damn thing about anything else. Ok, so you embrace Rory or Geoff or Marc or whoever else as your lord and saviour; but please, please at least bear in mind that they may not be expert on brain surgery, particle physics, hydroponics, embroidery, and so on. They are actual people with actual human limitations, not spouts plumbed directly into the Fount Of All Knowledge.
  • I’m the fucking authority. Seriously people, just don’t. I’m a blogger. The only qualifications required for this post are an ability to type and a willingness to post. Nothing is so because I say it’s so. Do not take anything I say as gospel. I don’t.
  • I’m the fucking authority, and get (mis)quoted at myself to disprove a statement I’m making. I love it when that happens.


There’s a whole other lot of biases that crawl all over self-defence, in the same way that they crawl all over all other fields. Buy the book. Put it in your loo. You won’t regret it.

Impostor syndrome.

There are a few concepts I really, really wish had never been popularised, and Impostor Syndrome is high on that list.


In the olden days, it used to be possible to not be an expert, or not be enough of an expert. When asked for advice, one used to be able to say “sorry, I don’t know enough about that” or some suchlike thing, and people would go “oh, ok” and ask someone else. Not now. Now, if you try and tell someone that you really don’t think you’re qualified to give an answer, they just tell you that you have “impostor syndrome.” You DO know the thing, you just THINK you don’t know the thing. No amount of evidence you produce can ever convince them otherwise. Your entire life is not enough of a proof for them. It doesn’t matter if you’re friendless, childless, penniless, miserable, injured, ill, or anything else; you’re still obviously qualified to give them advice on social skills, parenting, financial management, life skills, training, and healthcare, because potato.

These days, if you tell someone “no, I don’t know about X, just look at my life ffs”, they will not clear off and ask someone with a clue. Instead, they will spend hours explaining to you how your own assessment of your own situation is incorrect, and then still demand your advice. You’re an authority on X because you’re an authority on X, because they say so; you just fail to realise it.


Now, I understand that Impostor Syndrome is genuinely a thing, and I understand that it disproportionately affects certain demographics. I don’t seek to minimise the struggles of those affected. I merely wish that our collective subconscious had retained the ability to consider other possibilities. That people may actually have a better understanding of their own abilities or lack thereof and a greater awareness of how those are manifested in their everyday existence than some random third party. That it is possible for someone to actually not know shit about a subject. That it is possible for them to know just enough to know that they really don’t know enough. That maybe, just maybe, if someone was really an expert in that subject, that expertise would be manifested in their lives.

This is the point in my rant on the subject where people normally bring up the four stages of competence. I’m not sure why they do, because the model does not support their claims. “Unconscious competence” does not mean that you know so much that you suddenly believe that you know nothing; but hey, it sounds like it might, so let’s stick it into the conversation just in case, right? There’s a graph attached to the model, so it’s officially Science, and we can’t argue with that. Perhaps some folk believe that it’s possible to be so far up the learning pyramid that one falls right off. I don’t know. In all honesty, I don’t care.


I wonder how much of this is a reflection on the fact that actually successful people are kinda intimidating. They’re ‘better’ than us; probably too good to waste their time talking to us. Worse than that, if they do consent to give us advice, they may end up burdening us with pertinent, useful advice. Advice that, if we were to follow it, may solve our problems; that not only puts us at risk of having to deal with change, but could require time and effort on our part. Advice that, if we ignore it or fumblefuck it, would force us to consider whether we’re partly to blame for our situation. Feckless people make much safer gurus, really.