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This is cross-posted from 5 Cities 6 Women, with permission from Katie.
Monday, I read a piece on Jezebel called Why I Punched a Stranger. I read Jezebel a lot, but I don’t always read the Street Harassment pieces because they make me so angry, with the sort of anger that causes you to sit and mutter darkly to yourself about it without being able to change anything. The reason I initially clicked on this one was because I saw from the first few sentences that it happened in Boston, Allston to be specific. My first reaction to this story (which is worth reading) about a woman named Allison and her girlfriend being verbally attacked as they walked on Harvard Ave, and her subsequent punching of one of the attackers, was to applaud her for standing up for herself. My second reaction was a sort of naive surprise that this had happened in a city I’ve always considered to be pretty quiet and safe, as cities go. But apparently I’ve either spent 10 years being oblivious (a definite possibility) or ignored, and I’m one of the lucky ones because street harassment is alive and well in Boston. Just check out Hollaback Boston for stories of what it can be like to be a female who jogs in lovely Beantown, for example, not to mention the many comments on the Jezebel article in which people talked about how unsafe they feel in the Harvard Ave area of Allston. It seems that it’s full of assholes who feel that a fun Friday night consists of getting drunk and sexually harassing women. (Now I’m really glad I never got that apartment that I was once-upon-a-time looking at in this area of the city!)
I immediately talked to L. about this. We used to do some stupid things in our time of bar hopping and partying together, like deciding we were too poor to call a cab and walking home from a party in Central Square to our place in the North End at 1 or 2 a.m. (about a 45-minute walk, and not a completely pleasant one). She agreed though that she’s always felt safe. We’ve both experienced harassment, of course (how sad is it that I have to say “of course”?), but it’s been more of this variety, which is annoying but certainly not threatening. Really, it has tempted me to tell the guy, “I don’t feel like it,” or if I’m having a particularly bad day, “You know, I just found out I have cancer, so fuck off with your instruction to smile.” But I’m just guessing that any guy who would tell a perfect stranger she needed to smile wouldn’t get it.
What’s funny though is that despite never having been seriously harassed or attacked, I’ve been preparing myself for that possibility ever since moving to Boston. In the beginning, I guess it was a bit more of a test of will and stamina than a true study of self-defense. I was obsessed with the movies of Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow, and Michelle Yeoh. I wanted to see if I could learn their grace and speed and the ability to fight off multiple members of the Axe Gang with a handful of moves. Long story short, no, I couldn’t. I learned the moves, sure, but let’s just say I’m not going to be giving anyone the Buddhist Palm in this lifetime. Here are two cool things I took away from the class, though: I can say I studied kung fu with the sifu who now teaches Gisele, and I used to be known around my office as Sword Girl. This was due to the fact that I had a performance sword for one of the forms I learned, and I used to take it to work with me because I’d go train on my lunch hour sometimes. Oddly, despite walking by my office’s security guards with this long, skinny, suspicious-looking black bag, I was never stopped so they could look at it. I guess, as a small unassuming white girl, I just don’ t look capable of doing you any harm.
But that’s where you’d be wrong. Thanks to the fact that I moved on from kung fu to boxing (briefly) and then Krav Maga, I know lots of ways to hit you. And Krav is all about doing as much damage as you can as fast as possible so you can get the hell out of there. It turns out I’m much better at this than I am at kung fu because it doesn’t require any special flexibility or a lot of well-coordinated moves. So I’ll never be able to say, “Why, yes, I am a master of drunken boxing,” but I can kick you in the groin and elbow you in the face fractions of a second apart as you try to drag me to your van. You tell me which skill you’d rather have in the real world. Plus, the experience of learning all of these techniques and practicing them through extensive sparring with guys who are much bigger than me has been a revelation. It’s hilarious when I have to “attack” the guy who’s got a solid foot and 100 pounds on me, but when he attacks me, it shows me the holes in my technique so that next time, I can take him down. I’m definitely more aggressive now, in a good way. And this makes me both more aware of situations that may become violent and less likely to react physically myself until there is absolutely no choice. I have the confidence of knowing I could do something to protect myself, and oddly, that makes me less concerned with anything that isn’t an overt threat.
This is partly why I read and re-read the story on Jezebel. I kept trying to figure out what I thought the “right” reaction was, and what my reaction would have been. In the end, what it came down to for me was the fact that this woman, Allison, felt physically threatened enough to take action. And I respect that, especially when so many women just let it go again and again and never end up standing up for themselves. When you never stand up for yourself, you just internalize what’s happening to you.
It made me think of one of my favorite episodes of Biography’s “I Survived . . .” in which a 16-year-old girl named Kerri, abducted at knife point, saw her attacker put down the knife, grabbed it herself, and stabbed him with it. I love that story because she rescued herself, and she did that because she believed she was worth rescuing. (And come on, she stabbed the guy with his own knife. That’s pretty badass.) That’s what made me cheer when I read about Allison punching the guy on Harvard Ave. Whether it was the safest thing to do, the morally right thing to do, whatever, she fought back. Sometimes, that’s all you can do, and you owe it to yourself to do it.
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