Tonight, I attended the first of a three-part, once-a-week self defense class for women. We learned the hammer fist, the alligator roll, and how to center our weight when kicking at someone’s knees. We learned the grab-smash-twist, a defensive action involving genitals. A man’s genitals, obviously. We learned how to shout No! and Stay back! and how to ask someone to stop touching us assertively.
“There’s no obligation to say please or thank you,” the instructor reminded us. “I know as women, we’re trained to be polite. But you don’t have to.”
It makes sense that a class like this would be for women alone. The implied perpetrator is men, and having men in class would likely be unnerving to some of the attendees, all of whom need all their nerve to square their shoulders, look another person in the eye, and say, “I don’t like your hand on me. Remove your hand. Don’t touch me.” The bashful, cherub-faced teenage girl I was paired with certainly did.
It makes sense that the imaginary perpetrator would be male, too. 90% of adult rape victims are female; females ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault; women ages 18-24 who are college students arethree times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. ¹ Women are much more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence with 85 percent of domestic abuse victims being women and 15 percent men.² The statistics are staggering and easily Google-able. And in most of the circumstances, the perpetrator of these crimes is a man.
But still, as I was mule-kicking an imaginary attacker and screaming No! Stop! at him, I suddenly remembered:
Cut to a mom and her adult-sized son walking along a neighborhood street lined with local businesses on an overcast but dry January day. Picture the boy – a long, lean fifteen-year-old white boy in a baggy sweater and a newsboy hat he just got for Christmas. He towers over his 5′ 5″ mom, who is admiring him quietly, marveling at her baby son all grown up, but like a great Dane puppy who doesn’t quite realize he’s big now.
As the boy and his mom cross a busy intersection, an attractive young woman, maybe in her 20s, drives by and honks at the boy, waving. The mom notices the interaction and notices, too, as the young woman suddenly realizes that the boy isn’t who she thought he was. Mistaken identity. The mom laughs.
“That woman thought you were one of her friends,” she says to the boy.
The boy blushes and laughs a little.
“She thought you were a grown up man!”
“I don’t really want people to think I’m a grown up man,” the boy says to his mom, casually.
“Why not?” she asks.
“Because then someone’s going to make me fight them,” he tells her, emotionless. Just a fact that he means earnestly. A foregone conclusion.
The mom loses her breath for a second. Is this what becoming a man means?
Is this imaginary man who is going to make this boy-who-looks-like-a-man fight him the same imaginary man who I’m learning to shout down or smash the nose of?
He is not my son. But maybe he looks like him. He’s a man in the shadows, just out of view, who looks like any man.