he viral hashtag #metoo has dominated social media feeds around the world. As I followed this story, I found myself feeling especially hopeless. The prevalence of sexual harassment and assault that women endure as a matter of course in patriarchy is no surprise to me.
I Can’t Stop It
I have received a triggering amount of sexual harassment myself in the last few weeks. It has come from passers-by on the street. It has come from co-workers. It has come from people who claim to be my friends.
My martial arts practice brings me some peace amid this common yet consuming struggle. The relationship I am developing with my own physicality gives me agency over my body. As a violence survivor with PTSD and as a woman in the USA, I need that.
Because I find my martial arts practice so empowering, I found myself especially upset after seeing #metoo posts from women who were sexually harassed or assaulted where they train martial arts. After a couple weeks of the hopeless feeling, I decided on a personal course of action.
What I Can Do
I’m compiling a comprehensive resource on where women can train in safety. I don’t want to give the airtime to the gyms and dojos that fail us as women. Rather, I want to give reliable information to all the women out there who deserve to find a better gym. The places that claim to teach self-defense yet allow or even encourage sexual harassment or sexual assault don’t deserve to have us there. They don’t deserve our money and they don’t deserve our representation for their teams.
Please use this Google Form to contribute information to the directory of inclusive training spaces. Please share the form with other women, so we can have as comprehensive of a list as possible.
Speaking out will not be all it takes to change the systems that normalize everyday abuse of women. Making this list available to everyone who needs it is just what I can do to help us in the right direction.
I had no idea what I was missing.
I never expected to see a lot of other women when I enrolled in my gym. From my start there, I was often the only woman during most jiu-jitsu classes. On what felt like special occasions, all three of us jiu-jitsu women at the gym went to the same class.
I participated in my first competition last month, and meeting the other five women in my bracket as a fellow competitor led to closer connections than when I had attended as a spectator. A few weeks later, I carpooled with a friend from a neighboring gym to a women’s only open mat (do what you want – not structured class) two hours away. We talked, drilled, and grappled together. I left with a lot of new friends. Seminars and competitions gave me a chance to meet more women in sport jiu-jitsu. Those events still left us ladies far outnumbered by the men.
This month, I had another opportunity. I attended a women’s only jiu-jitsu class. It’s offered for free about once a month in my area. Unlike the open mat, this was a structured class. We had an instructor, a woman instructor.
I didn’t know how alone I had been as a woman in jiu-jitsu until women surrounded me. The realization cut into my heart and ripped open decades of scar tissue. In my childhood, little girls could not grow up to be or do what they wanted. Obedient wife and all-giving mother was my given goal. If I had to work “outside the home”, I could be a school teacher (not a college professor, but a school teacher) or a nurse (not a doctor). Until that class, my aspiration to be more sat firmly on an underlying assumption: women in male-dominated arenas would be isolated from other women.Women like me were anomalies. We could do what we wished, but we would be on our own.
More Than Friends
I left the all-women’s class with more than friends. I left with a solid network of support. Now I interact daily with other women in grappling through online groups, direct correspondence, and gym meetups.
From my first class, jiu-jitsu felt like real life (click here for blog post on this). The community of women in jiu-jitsu, gave me a whole new world to live in.
If I’d had a choice, I never would have written And Be Happy. I could not, however, ignore the calling forever.
The first requests came from fellow members of a support group for survivors of domestic violence support group. They loved the way I related my experiences. I somehow articulated thoughts and feelings they had struggled to develop. They wanted to hear more and to be able to share the message with friends who needed it.
“No way. I can’t.”
I could not look at my life without feeling the quarter-century of pent-up self that screamed for comfort. I had been away from my ex-husband for over a year, but my battle with PTSD had only begun.
The request came every so often as new members joined. My answer remained the same. I needed to move on, not relive my abuse. Something else echoed the call. The closer I got to achieving my goals for my post-abuse life, the stronger a certain voice inside came to the surface. Whenever I meditated, and asked what next, the unwelcome answer rang loud: that book, write that book.
I wanted none of that. For years, I refused. Just before the five-year anniversary of the final attack from my ex-husband, I had had enough.
I screamed inside at the voice that persisted with the terrible answer. If I have to write this fucking book to get another fucking answer, I’m just going to do it. Get this shit out of the way and get on with my life.
It was not a good feeling that came. No sense of relief or strength was involved. It made me think of the showdown scene I ended up describing in chapter 24, Support. It was not good, but it was solid.
I had a new mission. I would write that book as fast as I could, send it to everyone from the group I still had contact with, and then never think about all that torture ever again.
Talk about naïve.
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I had one goal last Friday: don’t cry in front of the strangers.
After months of focus on administrative deadlines, I was filled with last-minute stress over my first public reading of And Be Happy, A Memoir of Domestic Violence Beginning. I wanted to just stay excited and enjoy a sense of accomplishment about bringing my book to an audience. I did not write And Be Happy to have written a book. I never desired time dedicated each day to thinking about my life with my ex-husband. In fact, I wanted to find a way to never think about it again. I wrote And Be Happy to answer the call for a sense of community among survivors. I had completed the book, and the reading was its maiden voyage.
I had not anticipated feeling nervous, but grew increasingly emotional in the week leading up to the event. My reading was part of a larger event, an art walk, and there would be a few other local writers speaking as well. I had submitted my writing for critique and edits for years. I had already sold copies of the book. I had even recorded myself reading some chapters as a part of my editing process, but this would be the first time I read it out loud to people.
First, I worried about what scene to choose. I didn’t want to read any scenes of physical violence, though many of those who had read the book recommended various such scenes. I wanted to read one of the sweet stories of quiet time with Thoits, my dog, but those did not seem appropriately representative of the book. I didn’t want to read a scene of verbal abuse because I did not feel emotionally equipped to read the dialogue from my ex-husband’s side of that.
I went with a selection from chapter 14, And Run. In practice, I struggled to get through it without my voice breaking.
Once the art walk started, my nerves steadied a bit. Friends from almost every aspect of my life came through to show their support. Friends from community volunteer organizations I work with, people I initially met as customers of my since-closed food cart, a trivia teammate, and fellow writers came to show their support. Even my critique group-mate from Washington state drove all afternoon to be there for my first event.
I made it through my reading without the interruption of crying. Art walk visitors approached me afterward and thanked me, often sharing some of their stories as well. Some people signed up for my mailing list; some purchased copies of the book. Everyone gave heartfelt congratulations and encouragement.
I don’t know how my feelings about readings will evolve as I get more under my belt, but even if the lead-up doesn’t get any better, the execution is worth it. My first reading proved not only a chance for me to strengthen the community of survivors but also a chance for me to be supported.
I generally hate touching. I don’t want my friends to hug me; I don’t like crowded seating, and don’t even get me started on people touching my hair. Still, I chose to practice jiu-jitsu, which requires I can best describe to the uninitiated as “hug fighting.” My training partner / opponent and I are all up on each other. We roll around on the mat like a blur of colors and limbs from a Tom & Jerry cartoon cat fight. It’s fast, up-close, and personal. It’s also dangerous if we aren’t both paying attention.
A fighter “taps” or “taps out” to signal they give in to their opponent’s attack. Since every body moves with different parameters, training partners (and competitors) rely on the tap to know when safe limits have been met. This is communicated either by clearly saying “tap”, double-tapping a foot on the mat, or using a hand to double-tap one’s partner. If I don’t tap, I can get hurt. Still, I took a long time to adopt this critical skill.
I am not at all used to my words listened to. I am not accustomed to being able to stop someone from hurting me by telling them it was time to stop. My father had a very “I’ll give you something to cry about” attitude. My ex-husband would intensify his assault when I asked or begged him to stop. When I hurt was when he started to have a good time. Why would these strangers stop when I asked them to? Because they should? Well, people say fathers should love their daughters, and that husbands should be safe company for their spouses. Yet all those “shoulds” mean nothing to those of us whose lives have been dominated by abuse.
But I couldn’t practice jiu-jitsu, the sudden and total love of my life, without learning to tap.
I finally realized it was a two-way street. My training partners trusted me. They trusted me to respect to their taps and to tap for myself. They couldn’t practice the finer points of their submissions (finishing moves) if they couldn’t count on me to cut them off in time. I had never been trusted in that way before. Accusing me of being untrustworthy was a tool of manipulation used by abusers in my past, but this is my new life.
I made myself try it, and it worked. It worked at my gym. It worked at gyms I visited while traveling. It worked at competition. Someone stopping when I told them it was time became. . . normal
One year later, tapping is second nature to me. The ability to remain safe while doing what I love hasn’t stopped at the gym doors. I noticed how often I had been keeping quiet out of fear instead of advocating for myself when appropriate. Now, I speak up despite that remaining fear.
In big ways: I ran for and hold a board position on my local community council. I voice my opposition to elements of the status quo that keep my neighborhood from being a place safe from domestic violence and from stigma against survivors. In the midst of any negative response, I am at least visible enough for allies to find me.
In small ways: I asked a smoker to move to the smoking area at the bus stop last week. He didn’t laugh a drag-full of smoke in my face; he thanked me for telling him about the designated area and moved.
Tapping serves as a constant reminder to me that relationships can go the way they “should.” My reasons for holding back on trust are valid, but they don’t necessarily reflect the facts in my new life. One tap at a time, I build on my new normal.
Rebecca encourages survivors of domestic to speak about their experiences and to lean on each other for support.