Sex Issue: Kicking it: Students learn self-defense tactics

This story is part of The GW Hatchet’s 2006 Life Section Sex Issue.

A man approaches an unsuspecting young woman from behind at a brisk pace. He wraps his arm forcefully around her neck and demands her wallet. As she instinctively kicks her legs back at him, he hollers, “Stop kicking me or I’ll break your neck! Where’s your wallet?” Suddenly, he loosens his grip and politely asks, “Am I choking you badly?”

The man is Matthew McGovern, the instructor of a one-credit self-defense class offered at GW. McGovern, who has taught this class since 2000, is also a martial arts teacher at the D.C. Self Defense Karate Association.

He and a student were acting out a situation where a woman walking alone would need to use physical force to fend off an attacker. Although open to any student, this semester’s 15-person class solely consists of females.

Students in the class practice self-defense exercises with partners and shout out the body parts that they attack or methods of attack such as “windmill” – a way to escape a choke hold, or the axe kick, a method of knocking an attacker out cold.

“We shout out body parts (that we are attacking) during the maneuvers in part to memorize the order of attack, but mostly to

exercise the power of our voices,” sophomore Alex Timbas said.

One of the pillars of the course is that even without physical force, raising one’s voice is definitely a key element of self-defense. Timbas said she took the course because “something happened” to her friend last spring; she is taking the course with her this semester.

The students pair up during class, one playing the role of attacker and the other the victim. In one of many scenarios, the first approaches from behind, prompting the second to swing around, grab the attacker and pretend to knee her in the groin, then push her head down and knee her in the face – a maneuver designed to give the victim time to escape. Students leave the class knowing how to get out of chokeholds, pins and forced sex scenarios.

According to GW’s Rape Crisis Center, sponsored by the Office of Community Service, 683,000 adult American women are raped each year. McGovern said women are much more likely to be assaulted by someone they know.

Many GW students who did not register for the course mistakenly label it a “women’s self-defense course” or a “rape defense course.” The class has always mostly consisted of women, McGovern said, but for the first time in three years, this semester’s class is all-female.

“Guys either don’t understand that they could benefit from learning specific defense strategies, or they don’t think they can learn effective techniques in a class,” McGovern said.

Students also talk about methods of removing tension from potentially hostile situations. The final weeks of the course are devoted to diffusing everyday conflicts and not just what McGovern refers to as “dramatic situations” such as robberies or attacks. Students learn how to maintain “a safe distance” from roommates or friends that are being hostile or just too “touchy-feely,” and how to be clear about not wanting to have their personal boundaries violated. They practice this by telling partners everything from “I don’t want to be touched” to “f–k off.”

Timbas said, “Any words will do.”

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