Sheryl Doran was a brown belt in judo, one step below a black belt, when she was raped by an unarmed assailant in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park six years ago. Doran had studied judo for self-defense two hours a day, five days a week, for 2 1/2 years. But she found herself dangerously unprepared for what happened during the actual attack when she was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground.
Doran says she had plenty of opportunities to strike back; in fact, she did not even scream. Instead, she froze. "What failed me," she says in retrospect, "was that none of my training was specific to a self-defense situation. I didn't know how to fight from the ground, I wasn't taught any verbal defenses like yelling. I had never actually been struck in class, and I never struck the very areas that would be effective during an attack -- the groin, throat or knees. I could only do what I'd been trained to, and it wasn't street-practical."
According to Justice Department statistics, one in 12 women faces the likelihood of being the victim of an attempted or actual rape, while six in 10 women are at risk of some sort of physical assault during their lifetime.
A growing number of self-defense and rape-prevention specialists feel that self-defense, and particularly martial-arts classes, do not prepare women for what happens physically and psychologically during a real assault; therefore, they do not adequately help women protect themselves. Instead, these specialists say, they unintentionally often set them up by instructing women in the techniques of fighting while failing to teach them how to overcome the social conditioning that prevents them from doing so.
While most experts agree that any self-defense class is better than none and that most awaken in women a sense of physical empowerment and awareness that may help prevent attacks, they say the classes tend to fall short in a number of areas.
One is authenticity -- the simulation of realistic and common assault situations that allow women experience in fighting.
Another is a failure to address the psychological aspects of self defense, helping women overcome social conditioning against fighting, even to protect themselves. Still another is the lack of classes for children, the elderly and the disabled in which instructors adapt techniques to various physical abilities.
"Most instructors don't put any research into designing their classes," says Ann Fetter, a black belt in karate. "They don't study crime reports, don't know what really happens in assaults and don't adapt their instruction accordingly."
Two who did are Denise Caignon and Gail Groves. After collecting and studying hundreds of assault reports, they wrote a book and designed a self-defense course emphasizing areas most often overlooked, such as date or acquaintance rape.
Most self-defense classes, they contend, focus almost entirely on assaults by strangers. But the majority of attacks are by acquaintances, 75 percent according to the rape-crisis hot line in Santa Cruz, Calif., where the authors live; 55 percent nationwide, according to Justice Department figures.
In Caignon and Groves' classes, held in the Bay area, women re-enact situations they've actually encountered, heightening their awareness of what constitutes dangerous behavior, of when an attack is imminent, and of how to diminish their reaction time.
The classes also focus on giving and taking verbal abuse. Assailants use verbal abuse as a weapon, Groves says, and women generally are intimidated by it. But in role-playing verbal attacks and doing a lot of yelling themselves, they learn to protect themselves against that sort of intimidation.
What Caignon and others consider the most effective women's self-defense course in the country was also designed after extensive analysis of assaults. It's called Model Mugging and was started after a black-belt karate student was raped by an unarmed attacker in Los Angeles. She felt she had disgraced the martial arts, and her instructor agreed. Matt Thomas, a fellow black-belt student, was convinced it was the other way around.
Thomas turned to police files, and after studying nearly 3,000 sexual and physical assault reports, concluded that the martial arts, and most self-defense classes, don't prepare women for what really happens in an attack, namely that:
Forty percent of the time, a woman is knocked to the ground during an attack, while 90 percent of martial-arts training is from a standing position.
The key to survival during an attack may be full-power, full-contact fighting. Most self-defense and martial-arts classes require students to pull their punches. Assaults are messier, with far more grappling than the highly choreographed movements of martial arts.
During an attack, the victim is not going to be given time to warm up with stretching exercises, change into loose-fitting clothes, or be calm and reflective. Effective training must simulate real situations and create enough stress and adrenalin to encourage what Thomas calls "state-dependent learning." If you can experience the fear in class, you are more likely to control it in a real assault.
The scene of an attack is not always well-lit and two thirds of rapes and attempted rapes occur at night.
Model Mugging, which offers courses in the the Washington area, was designed to be authentic to real life situations and is predicated on the heretical notion that one way to deprogram women is to let them fight. As such, it gives women the opportunity to actually hit, kick, jab and claw at a fully padded assailant -- a Model Mugger. The course claims it has 6,000 students nationwide.
Participants practice on a variety of surfaces and from a variety of positions from standing to supine; they sometimes rehearse defending themselves while a little drunk.
"We need to teach women that they can take pain and still fight back," says Massad Ayoob, director of the Lethal Force Institute, a school for self defense and firearms training in Concord, N.H. "Pain is transitory, but the feeling of total helplessness and loss of control sticks forever."
Classes that use punching bags and arm pads to give women a hands-on experience of fighting are a big step in the right direction, says Trisha Brinkman, a San Francisco self-defense instructor. "But punching bags don't have pressure points, they don't move, and they don't punch back."
Thomas says his course is designed to complement ongoing martial-arts classes and involves more time, expense and risk than most instructors are willing to take. "My husband is a police officer," says Doran of San Francisco, who became the first female instructor for Model Mugging. "He says there's a big difference between the ability to shoot someone and the will to do it. Self defense is no different."
Model Mugging offers five-hour review classes every six months. It also provides an intermediate class on multiple assailants and an advanced class on weapons, a practice many instructors, including Susan Ribner, are leery of.
"Even though weapons use seems to be increasing, I don't want the responsibility," says Ribner, director of the Women's Center Karate Club in New York City. "You'd really have to know what you're doing."
Gregg Levoy is a writer in San Anselmo, Calif.