I got ‘mugged’ 35 times in a self-defence class — and it changed the way I see the world

  • The full-force fighting self-defenceclass I took was life-changing.
  • I walk through the world differently because of what I learned in Model Mugging.

When I was in my 20s, I signed up with a friend to take a self-defence class.

In the class, I got to experience full-force fighting, so I have a body memory that (I hope) will return if I am ever attacked.

I have never been mugged, but my training has allowed me to verbally repel harassers and given me courage to stand up for myself.

I got knocked down, but I got up again

The class I took had two instructors, one male and one female. The male instructor wore a padded suit and a large padded helmet. When he had the helmet off, he was our teacher. When he put on the helmet, he became an aggressive, threatening “mugger.”

The padded suit and helmet allowed us to fight back against the assailant with full force, without injuring our teacher or ourselves.

Each time a woman did a fight in class, the rest of us cheered her on from the sidelines, shouting, “Eyes! Throat! Groin!” to help her remember the moves we had been taught. If I am ever attacked, those voices will be in my head, cheering me on.

After winning the fight (and the women always won), we assessed the situation, then shouted, “911!” and fled to safety.

The fights took place on gym mats, but they weren’t gentle. A friend who took the class before I did broke her leg during a fight. (When her leg healed, she went right back and finished the course.) By the time my five-week class was over, I had been mugged 35 times. I was exhausted.

I was also elated. I had learned to disable a larger, stronger attacker. I’m sad that I live in a world where I need to know how to do this, but I’m glad I do.

Putting my training to use

On the first day of class, we learned verbal self-defence. It’s OK to lie to someone to get away from being attacked (yes, I had to be taught this). I practiced loudly saying, “I don’t know this man,” so bystanders would know it wasn’t a lovers’ quarrel.

A couple of years after my self-defence class experience, I got a chance to use that verbal self-defence training, while I was selling jewellery I made as a street vendor in downtown San Francisco. A man approached me, seeming normal at first, but quickly flipped into a crazy, angry tirade.

I couldn’t walk away from my table. I tried to politely get rid of him. I tried to ignore him. Finally, I stood up to him.

I didn’t want to fight, but I finally decided I would rather risk a physical altercation than take any more verbal abuse. For the first time in my life, I got to draw the line.

I walked in front of my little table and told the man this was harassment and that he needed to leave. I raised my voice and held my hand up near my neck, the way I had been taught, ready to poke his eye if he tried to hurt me.

He didn’t leave, but he backed up. I confronted him three more times, until he stood in the middle of the footpath ranting at no one in particular. I had stood my ground and won.

I wouldn’t have had the words or the courage to stand up for myself without the skills I learned during my class. What could have been a traumatic incident became a success story.

A different way to move in the world

The last day of each course is a graduation, when friends and family can come and cheer on those who have completed the course. Women who have taken the class before are invited into the circle during the graduation, and they can do a “mugging” if they want to. Ten years later, when I attended a graduation, I decided to take part – I needed to see if I still remembered what I had learned a decade before.

One of the people in the audience that day was the friend who had taken the class with me. She observed that I was better at the self-defence moves than I had been during our class.

I realised that, in the decade since I first took the self-defence course, I began to truly inhabit my body for the first time. I was more centered, grounded, and confident, because I was no longer scared.

I still don’t want to be mugged or attacked – I know exactly how much it hurts. But, if it ever happens, I will be able to defend myself.

As they said in my class, it’s not the size of the woman in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the woman. I know the size of the fight in me and that has given me the courage to be more fully myself.