BY RACHEL CHEESEMAN, FOUNDER OF STREET SMART SELF DEFENSE
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Due to the recent press reports surrounding the prevalence of sexual assault in our culture, especially among our most elite, we can easily see there has been a major problem at all levels of society for a very long time. When scores of college women began staging public protests to expose the lack of support and inaccurate reporting of sexual abuse on campus a few years ago, they created a level of urgency among our legislative branches that forced universities to take an active role in their own responsibility of reporting the truth. The drive-by “nothing-to-see-here” ideology was further exposed by select women of Hollywood, which sparked the #MeToo movement through social media. Suddenly, survivors of assault didn’t have to feel ashamed or guilty about “damaging” a university and/or business of its “reputation” with potential donors or customers. They didn’t have to hide behind closed doors in the confidentiality of their counseling sessions or cry themselves to sleep every night in the darkness of their bedrooms.
Finally, women had broken through the barrier and earned the credentials to speak publicly about the injustice that had been done to them without the risk of losing their job! I just wish this ideology was in place 20 years ago when my sister was raped by a fellow college student. Unfortunately, this was during a time when reporting a sexual assault (especially at a college campus) had a very negative stigma attached. It was the equivalent to the woman having to wear a scarlet letter. Many women of the pre- #MeToo movement would rather endure the emotional and physical pain and suffering of sexual assault in silence, than having to deal with intense stress and scrutiny from the social “fallout” of going public and wearing the letter.
So how can the rest of us prevent unwanted advances or sexual assault? Over the past 20 years of my teaching self-defense to survivors of abuse, I’ve found this to be a very “loaded question”. The issue of sexual abuse is extremely complex, largely due to the fact that most abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the survivor. The most frequent question I am asked from survivors of abuse is “How do I defend against someone I know and care about at the same time?” Well, this is ugly any way you look at it. This person could be a close family member, a father, boyfriend, trusted acquaintance, supervisor, government official, CEO, celebrity, etc. No matter who it is, women always feel the same way … powerless. This feeling in turn transforms the issue of sexual assault from a physical problem into a psychological problem. So, let’s break down what the word “Rape” actually means. By definition, Rape is a Latin word that means “to seize or steal”. With that said, the act of taking something from someone else feeds into a powerplay that benefits the side of the perpetrator. They assert their dominance in a given situation by taking away another’s ability to make a definitive choice.
Prior students of mine have often said that the hardest lesson to learn in preventing sexual abuse or intimidation was how to say “NO”! Before I do anything else, this is the very first lesson I teach to women. I can’t stress enough the importance of setting clear boundaries—no exceptions! This applies to both your personal and professional relationships. The word “NO” is not a word for negotiation. But it isn’t enough to just say the word, you have to mean it by using positive body posture, good eye contact and a firm tone of voice. As to the best defense against an aggressive perpetrator (especially someone you know), my advice is to focus on the center of mass. That means when you decide to strike, focus your visual attention on the chest area so you don’t have to make eye contact while having to deliver physical strikes to the eyes, groin or throat. Although it doesn’t make the decision any easier, by doing so, will help you “disconnect” from the emotional investment, maintain a good peripheral field of vision and help you to psychologically focus on getting yourself out of the situation and escape to safety.
Bottom line, YOUR survival is most important. There is still much work to be done within the culture of sexual abuse, but it’s refreshing to see that the social stigma of reporting it is changing for the better and women are becoming more confident by converting their fear into power.
*The Me Too movement (or "#MeToo", with local alternatives in other languages) spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the public revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, an American film producer. - Wikipedia
Rachel Cheeseman is a 2nd degree black belt and has studied the martial arts for the past 28 years. She founded Street Smart Self Defense Academy in Erie, PA 17 years ago to empower women, due to the rape of her sister in her off-campus college apartment. She is a certified instructor for the national full-contact self-defense program called “Model Mugging” and a certified instructor for the MUNIO Self Defense Workshops. Rachel is also a member of and former seminar instructor for the American Women’s Self Defense Association, and she has been inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame, Action Martial Arts Magazine Hall of Honors and the World Karate Union Hall of Fame.