Fight, Flight, Freeze & Sparring

We live in a society that asks why one of Cosby’s accusers didn’t bite his penis to stop her rape, that somehow, inexplicably, thinks that if a woman doesn’t want to be raped her body shuts down to prevent it from happening. Never mind science. Never mind that women – girls – learn to deescalate situations with grown men who leer at us and grab at us before we finish middle school. We modulate our voices to show fewer emotions and we back down in arguments. We open books we’re not reading on public transit so no one will talk to us. We learn to ignore comments, to cast our eyes aside, to wear headphones with no music playing, so that we can pretend we didn’t hear what was just said to us. So we can put up one more barrier between ourselves and those who might do us harm.

In cases of rape, we want perfect victims, forgetting that there is no perfect victim. But the narrative – according to the media – goes: Perfect victims fight back against rapists. Perfect victims are female. Pretty. White. Middle-class or upper class. Have had some acceptable number of (male) partners – mostly not too many, preferably, none. Perfect victims show the right amount of emotion, though the right amount is a moving target and unknown. Perfect victims dress just the right amount of sexy or not. Perfect victims are attacked by perfect strangers.

To some extent, I believed the myth of the perfect victim, even though I knew better. I believed I wasn’t a perfect victim. I believed no one would believe me.

After I was raped, I started krav maga, and later took up boxing because I wanted my punches to come faster and stronger. I took up krav maga almost by accident. A good friend, who was trying to help me help myself feel safer found a krav school that was hosting a women’s self-defense seminar. I went, and appreciated the fact that the instructor was a woman, and that we weren’t focused primarily on stranger-danger, but on the idea that the person attacking us would likely be someone we know.

Because most women are attacked by someone they know. The statistics trotted out again and again are that 82% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman knows. The man who raped me was someone I’d known for about 6 months at the time of the assault. Someone I wanted to call a friend.

At my krav school, we sparred a few times a week, because our instructor didn’t want us to fold under stress. We went light, starting at about 20–30% of our maximum speed and strength, though it usually ended at 50–60%. We were geared up. We agreed with our training partners on where we’d hit, and how hard, to account for injuries. We wanted to keep each other safe. We wanted to scaffold each other to become better fighters. It was at that school I started boxing. It was after I moved that it became a regular part of my life.

But there’s more than just knowing the mechanics of fighting to be a fighter. There’s being able to turn on aggression. There’s being able to turn off the part of you that feels empathy. There’s focusing on the fight and knowing that you’ll take blows and conditioning your body to getting hit so that when it happens it doesn’t completely throw you off your game.

For me, this is hard. I struggle to hit or kick my training partners. Because empathy. Because I’m not naturally violent and violence, even on TV, is something I turn away from. When I started sparring, I went home bruised. I went home struggling against a freeze response and against tears. I went home and would be back the next day.

Because the night I was raped, I froze. This is a natural response, though one we don’t usually talk about. Because we don’t talk about it, and because so much of the rhetoric around sexual assault asks if the person experiencing the assault “fought back,” I blamed myself for freezing. I blamed myself for a long time. And, I believed other people did too — based in no small part on messages from media.

But, that’s the thing. Freezing is outside our control. It begins in the amygdala, and includes a surge of hormones that overrides our prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that doesn’t develop fully until our mid-twenties, the part of our brain responsible for rational thought.

However, our responses can be trained through effective habit learning – which is incredibly rigorous and repetitive. My krav instructors describe this process by talking about the necessity of training repeatedly so we can overcome our lizard brains. We drill the same techniques again and again. We drill under stress and with different partners and in different situations. The instructors talk about other scenarios we might face. They encourage us to increase our situational awareness by taking our earbuds out and looking up from our phones and making a game out of noticing who is in a room or on the sidewalk with us – what they’re wearing, where they are relative to us, what everyday objects might aid us in defending ourselves or someone else.

They encourage us to recognize when we should fight and when we should flee and when we should acquiesce. “If a guy with a gun wants your wallet or your phone, what do you do?” one instructor likes to ask. Give it to him, we reply.

Of course, very few of these scenarios go, So your partner has just slammed you against a wall with a choke from the front. What do you do? or So, the person you’re in bed with is choking you and it’s no longer a turn-on. It’s scary. What do you do? Because we know those defenses. But inflicting brutality on someone you know – maybe someone you love can be much different than if someone did the same thing at the bar or downtown on a Friday night. This conflict is highlighted by the line our instructors use to remind us of safety in training: “Because we like our training partners, we’re going to go slow…punch over their shoulders…not going to break their arm…their finger….”

Sparring is still hard for me. I still don’t want to hit or kick someone (in general, but especially someone I know). I don’t want to hurt them. At a weekend-long training seminar, I was supposed to attack someone in a padded suit. The suit, of course, was to protect the instructor wearing it. I reacted until I recognized the instructor as the tall, lanky, goofy man whose classes I enjoyed. Then, I struggled to respond in the ways I knew I was supposed to, despite him swiping at my skin with a shock knife, despite other instructors yelling encouragement.

Recently, one of my training partners said, “Always love yourself more and you’ll always be able to defend yourself.” He meant this to encourage me to return to boxing, which I’d taken nearly a year-long break from because I got too overwhelmed by sparring – by going against guys who were much bigger than me, in weight and height, by guys who even if they weren’t much bigger were generally much stronger. I took blows until it felt like I stopped learning. I took blows until I started to fear the men I trained with. And then I stopped going. And I stopped training with men I didn’t trust in krav, as well, though it took me longer to recognize that. I stopped training with those men because I didn’t trust that their capacity for violence was something they controlled as well as they thought they did.

I stopped training with those men as a means of defending myself.

It’s hard to say that, because I genuinely like most of my training partners. I’m friends with a handful of them.

When my training partner said I should just love myself more, I chaffed against it. I felt the familiar victim-blaming uncertainty well up inside me. I felt the weight of all the messages that empathy is a weakness. I forgot, in those moments, that empathy is a fucking superpower.

Later, I talked with another woman who’d stopped regularly going to boxing, and she said, “I’m there to learn and improve technique. If I actually have to defend myself, there’s a lot I’m going to do instead of boxing.”

I agreed.

When I brought my fear of sparring with those men up with the lead instructor, he listened. He said knew there were some men he needed to talk to about easing back, that he needed to coach them on recognizing the abilities of, and differences in, various training partners. He encouraged me to come back. He assured me that I didn’t have to spar with someone if I didn’t feel comfortable.

I thought about my instructor’s comments. My training partner’s comments. About what it means to learn violent self-defense. What it means to learn violent self-defense in the absence of sparring, and what it means to learn to spar. I thought about what it means to forgive myself for something that was never my fault. The difficulty of that process.




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