Speak out.

There’s a conversational set piece that happens so routinely in the self-defence world that it’s become a trope. It goes as follows:

  • Someone posts a self-defence video showing a woman defending against a man. The techniques shown are appalling and likely to get women injured or killed.
  • People jeer at the video, pointing out its uselessness.
  • One or more men decide to make sexually explicit comments about the woman in the video.
  • One or more women speak out against that kind of behaviour, objecting to it in general but particularly in that setting.
  • One or more men speak up to defend the guys who made those comments. They’re good guys, they’re just joking, etc. The rest ignore the conversation or contribute only mocking remarks.
  • The conflict becomes polarised. On one side, a small number of guys staunchly defending the honour and intentions of the guys who made the remarks. On the other side, a greater number of women trying to explain how that’s not the issue at hand; the problem is that this kind of behaviour is interwoven with the attitude underlying the bulk of violence against women.
  • Eventually everyone becomes exhausted and leaves, or the thread degenerates so badly that it gets pulled down.
  • Nobody wins, nobody changes their mind, and nothing gets better.
  • We do it all over again.


I’ve been involved in this kind of conversation so often that by now I can run both sides of it. I’ve exhausted myself with it. I’ve watched other women exhaust themselves with it. I’m now starting to think that we, the women speaking out, are dead wrong. We’ve been trying to convince those guys to try and act as if they believed women to be deserving of respect and consideration. We shouldn’t. We should encourage them to express their views about women precisely as they are.

I want all the men who look at a small woman failing to defend herself from a large guy and think of her as a hole to fuck to say so. I want all the instructors who believe that this behaviour is ok to stand up publicly and defend those men. I don’t want those guys to learn to pretend to be decent human beings: I want them to unleash their inner asshole for everyone to see. I want it all out there: loud, clear, blatant, as graphic as they can make it, because it’s such a red flag that it will hopefully keep women away from those guys, those clubs, those instructors.

Avoidance, when it’s an option, is the best self-defence option there is. If an environment is toxic or dangerous we should do our best to stay out of it – that’s the lesson and all of the lesson. There’s no small print stating “unless it’s a self-defence seminar, in which case you should ignore your instincts and observations and put up with alllllll the crap”. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise does not have your best interest in mind and should be avoided, too.

If women turned away from every self-defence club or forum that fosters their objectification, that would undoubtedly make them miss out on training under some very capable instructors. Capable, however, doesn’t necessarily correlate with “clued up”. I’m not sure if an instructor who fails to understand the nature of the most common problems women face has any business teaching them self-defence. How can they provide valid solutions if they don’t grasp the questions?

And there’s more. How would these instructors react if the problems escalated? If I can’t trust someone to back me up when someone is making unwarranted sexual remarks right in front of them, can I trust them to believe me and support me if that same person purposefully slips a hand in my no-no area while we’re training? Would they back me up if I didn’t want to train with someone because of a thousand small-but-not-insignificant misbehaviors I’ve noticed? If their theory teaches me to trust my intuition and set boundaries, and their practice teaches me that doing so is either futile or carries heavy social costs, what lesson would I be learning?


7 thoughts on “Speak out.

  1. Really appreciated this piece, thank you. Far better to have their true colours show as neon lights are easier to avoid than subtle ones that can dupe us. It made me realise that I ignore such men and sub-consciously classify them as less of a threat (to me personally, at large I’m not so sure because at the very least degrading remarks are emotionally hurtful). Teaching people to think for themselves is perhaps the hardest part I’ve found of teaching self-defense. It requires a basic foundation of intelligence and self-awareness and the latter takes time to build. It’s much easier to teach the physical as a theory or in a safely contained setting. Would love to say more but will leave it here. Thanks very much for sharing your experience.


  2. Well said. The self-defense community has a serious problem with “isms” of various types…I’ve seen the exact conversation you just described play out numerous times, and every time I do palm meets face with extreme prejudice. My personal “joke” (and I put that in quotes because really, its not funny at all) about the situation is how its ironic that those who most often get involved in the SD community are those who need its teachings the least, and thanks to their attitudes those who need said teachings the most are often chased out of the community.

    There is a huge need for reality-based, socially aware self-defense training designed with the needs (and sensibilities) of women, people of color, genderqueer individuals, etc. These are the people under threat of attack by assailants whose motivation is solely “I don’t like you because you exist”. Straight white men can stay very safe by

    A: Not acting like assholes
    B: Not breaking the law
    C: Not associating with people who do A and/or B

    …And yet, the SD community is dominated by straight white men who think they need to learn how to kill people effectively to stay safe. In what universe does this make sense? Also, in what universe is a person who wants to learn to protect themselves from bigotry going to feel safe enough to trust the teachings of an instructor who allows displays of bigotry to happen?


    • I know a fair few straight white men who ended up in SD situations without being assholes or breaking the law, but yeah, they are definitely not the majority in my world. They are also not the “type” who go in for SD classes, and when they do they find the culture as unpalatable as I do, so that further disproves whatever point I was half-trying to make 🙂


      • Actually I think that proves your point.

        The men who find SD culture unpalatable are usually men who don’t conform to what SD culture’s idea of a “real man” should be, and therefore they quit it for the same reasons you did…it’s narrow-minded, the culture is sorta toxic, its got problems with isms, etc.

        On balance I find the culture not to my liking, although I will confess that I keep tabs on parts of it for research purposes. I’m a writer and I’d like to get the info they have, but I’d like to not be infected with their brand of machismo if I can avoid it (I know it doesn’t work out in the long run). Some people in the community are outliers (God bless Rory) but by and large I’m increasingly suspicious of them.

        I’m a man with the experience you just described, and I entered the community probably for the same reasons you did – looking for answers to questions most people have never had to ask. But while I’ve found a lot of answers (and a lot more pointed questions), I haven’t found the BIG answers. So, I’m starting to look elsewhere.

        Not sure where yet, though. I’ll get back to you on that one. 😀


  3. Do you have any links to where this has happened or sites\etc where it’s common?

    I’m not at all doubting you that it exists! I’d just like to see it, or see if I have seen it and ignored it or missed it. I don’t read a LOT of vid comments but I do like to think I’ve done a small to modest amount of SD readin’ and I’m…surprised(?) to have not seen this happen.

    Again, since tone in text on the internet is always suspect: I fully believe you that this happens and I’d like to see examples.
    Like cat-calling women it’s not a thing I see because I’m not a woman, but I’m certain that it happens because my friends tell me about it, and I fully believe them…but I’d like to see examples of it happening.
    Similarly in an SD sense seeing the things occurring is good for building awareness.
    Like street violence hasn’t happened to me, but I sure know it does happen, and watching videos of it, helps to build awareness of it.
    Same here.

    Can you point me a place to go looking?


    • Afraid not. I don’t have any links handy and even if I did I don’t really want to start a feud by naming and shaming specific individuals. It tends to happen in the more RAH-RAH forums, unsurprisingly, but also on instructors’ personal pages. If you don’t see it, it’s most likely because you don’t hang out with giant dickheads or get called in to deal with their antics. It’s a good thing.


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