Nicola Griffith on self-defense for women

“Could you kill someone to save yourself?” Therese said.


“You sound very sure.”

“If you decide to hurt someone to save yourself, you need to commit to it completely.”

“Do or don’t do, there is no try,” Nina said in a Yoda voice.

“Something like that,” I said over the nervous laughter. “But about whether or not learning this is necessary, think of all the other things you learn that you’ll probably never need. Like fire drills. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever need to scramble from your workplace at three in the afternoon because of a massive fire, but you learn the procedure just in case.”

But fires weren’t directed personally at their target, they didn’t sneer and call you bitch, and if you got burnt, your friends didn’t think it was your fault. Women weren’t reared from infancy to fear fire.

“So,” I said, “the knee, the eye, the throat. The knee is a good target, difficult to protect against one of those kicks we just learnt. The eye is extremely vulnerable.” Tonya made a pecking motion. “The throat is more complicated. There are two targets. The larynx, or voice box, which you can feel if you tilt your head up and run your finger down your windpipe until you feel a bump, your Adam’s apple…It’s easier to find on a man. If you hit that bump hard it will fracture and swell. The windpipe closes.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Pauletta said.

“It is.”

Easy did not mean fast or clean. Suffocation takes minutes, and when the victim clutches at his swelling throat it grates, like a knife point dragging along a brick wall.

“It sounds easy, but how many of you think you could do it?”

They looked at one another.

“You need to know you can do it. You need to know it will work. We ended last week with Christie saying that feminine means vulnerable. And that’s what we’re told, yes, but here’s a question. If an average man attacks a woman, intending to rape her, what do you think will happen if she struggles?”

“It’ll just make things worse,” Jennifer said. “He’ll get mad and hurt you worse.”

“No, not according to Justice Department statistics. Their latest available figures say that women fight off unarmed rapists successfully seventy-two percent of the time.”

They were quiet.

“But what if he has a knife?” Jennifer again.

“Then she’ll fight him off fifty-eight percent of the time.”

“A gun?”

“Fifty-one percent.”

“More than fifty percent, even with a gun?”

“Even with a gun. Government statistics.”

The media wouldn’t say that, though, because fear is what sells papers and commercial spots.

“And we’re talking about untrained, unarmed women. Even before you set foot in this class the odds were in your favor; if you fight back, you’ll probably win. Most stranger attackers, even serious ones who have planned their attack extensively, rely on the attack being fast and quiet. An attacker will watch you: read your body language. Depending on the situation they will test you, to see how easy you’ll be: they’ll spin some story about needing your help. They’ll flatter you, flirt with you. They imply that you’re being unreasonable or not nice or impolite or illogical. You have been brought up—programmed, if you like—to respond to these suggestions.”

“Those fuckers,” said Suze.

“You have been trained to seek approval, to please, to not draw attention to yourselves. It’s powerful training. Don’t underestimate it. I can teach you to snap spines with your bare feet, to break free of a stranglehold, to fracture a larynx with the side of your hand, but if you’re too worried about a stranger’s disapproval to even tell him you want to sit by yourself on a park bench, you won’t be able to use any of it…”

“People who lie expertly with their words give themselves away with their bodies. And your body knows that. It’s a language clearer than English. If words and actions conflict, believe the body…So next time you’re in a situation like that, ask yourself what you’d do if it was your daughter sitting there, or your frail, elderly mother. If you’d be willing to risk embarrassment for their sake, why not your own? And then ask yourself this: what’s the worst-case scenario if I act on my belief?”

“You’re totally wrong and end up feeling like a dork,” Christie said.

“Right. But then ask yourself: what’s the worst-case scenario if I don’t act on my belief?”

Silence, then “Huh,” said Pauletta.

I nodded. “Right. I end up dead.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Katherine said, “like it was a…a…”

“Cost-benefit analysis,” Tonya said. “That’s what it is. When you go home tonight, get out your list and add another column: Feeling like a dork. Compare that to how it would feel to be dead, or be raped, or having both arms broken, or your cat tortured or your car stolen, and make some decisions.”

From Always by Nicola Griffith (2007, Penguin Group)

Originally published on FR 7/5/2008


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