A fighting chance: Women find strength in defending themselves

I saw him in my rear-view mirror. It was dark but not late. He approached my parked car wearing a thick coat, hood up. One arm was crossed over his body, obstructing a hand from view inside the coat. Did he have a gun? A knife? I shifted gears into reverse without thinking twice, sweeping out of the parking spot just before he got close enough to block me. I looked back as I left the parking lot, and he was watching my car. Then he walked the other direction, away from my former parking spot, turning his head from side to side.

Nothing happened to me. And maybe nothing would have happened to me. Maybe, because I've been taught to watch my surroundings and be skeptical of men when I'm alone, I just misinterpreted his movements. The temperatures had dropped, requiring any sane person to bundle up. Maybe he was walking to his car, too.

But the lot was nearly empty. It was closing time at the Fort Smith Public Library on a Saturday night. Not many people go to the library at 5 p.m. on a Saturday. I was there alone, passing the time before I had to be elsewhere. I walked to my car relaxed, not expecting someone might be watching me. I never saw where he came from, and he appeared in a way that made me shiver as I drove away.

I'm a 5-foot-2-inch, 115-pound woman, and for years I made excuses for how I could overcome these facts and defend myself. I'll just poke my keys through my fingers, giving my tiny fist a more effective punch. When I'm walking alone, I'll discourage any nearby attackers by holding my phone to my ear and pretending to tell my imaginary friend on the other end that I'm coming to meet them -- just give me five minutes and I'll be there. I'll scream. I'll kick them in the "privates." I'll jab their eyes out. And I'm in good shape! I mean, you won't see any CrossFit biceps through my Forever 21 sweaters, but I can run a mile. I can't really outrun anyone with longer legs than me; neither can I overpower most able-bodied men, but I had convinced myself I could improvise with what I knew.

After a month of Krav Maga self-defense training, all those tactics sound pathetic. The jolt I felt from the instructor's practice grab was enough to shake me into realizing I'm not ready to face a real attacker. There are too many ways for someone to attack and cause life-threatening harm to me in seconds. If that hooded figure had emerged from the shadows a minute earlier with malicious intentions, I doubt a minor cut from my house key would've saved my life.

Fighting back

Being alone, especially in a secluded place, makes anyone vulnerable to an attack, said Sgt. Anthony Murphy, a Fayetteville Police Department officer. Being in public doesn't guarantee safety, though. Attacks often happen in parking lots and other routinely visited areas.

The 2017 violent crime victim rate in the United States was about 21 per 1,000 people ages 12 and older, up from 18.6 in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics' most recent report. Violent crime includes robbery, assault, domestic violence and rape. The rate of male victims increased by about 28 percent to 20.4 per 1,000 people, closing the gap between the male and female victim rates.

People often sign up for self-defense training with fear as their core motivator, said Cole Saugey, a Fayetteville Krav Maga instructor. Sometimes it's a traumatic experience that pushes someone to prepare for future threats, but other times, it's simply the realization that the world is a dangerous place.

"The worse the world gets, the more people come to us," Saugey said.

I remembered seeing news about a Krav Maga self-defense class at the University of Arkansas, so I emailed Ed Mink, who organizes the program within the UA Pat Walker Health Center, for more information. When he replied, I signed up immediately.

No more procrastinating.

Krav Maga is a form of self-defense training developed by the Israeli Defense Forces that emphasizes survival strategies -- meaning you train as if preparing for a life-or-death matchup. You neglect technique and rules that exist in organized fighting. If someone attacks you in a parking lot or on the street, they won't play by any rules. Therefore, you can't fight back hesitantly. You fight aggressively to survive.

"We're a lot more vulnerable than we realize," Saugey said. "You always have to assume the worst."

That's what I learned on day one, standing in a circle with strangers like me -- people willing to learn how to protect themselves. The majority were female students, but throughout the next month, more men would join the class and make that demographic more even.

The way Saugey described his class on that first day put me at ease. The violent nature of Krav Maga made me nervous, and I worried I could never overcome my physical traits that make me an easy target. But Saugey said that sometimes violence is necessary to make up for physical shortcomings; violence is an equalizer. And the point of Krav Maga training isn't necessarily to win a fight -- not if you define winning as fighting until someone falls incapacitated.

"The biggest thing I have to convince people of is that they don't need to focus on how to fight," Saugey later told me. "They need to focus on how to escape. That's the biggest misconception. People think they want to be in that fight, and people don't realize that they really don't."

Even a person with training could find herself facing an attacker with a dangerous, unfair advantage like a weapon or a partner. Saugey said that his goal for us was to learn ways to quickly and effectively react to the most common situations and develop muscle memory.

Hardly anyone spoke to each other during that first class. We listened to Saugey's instruction and watched him demonstrate basic palm-heel strikes, then we struck the air for practice, hands held in front of our faces. Next, we added a kick to the groin -- a signature Krav Maga move -- into our sequence. Saugey explained that palms sometimes work better than fists because palms can absorb more impact without damaging the hand or wrist. He demonstrated how a fight like this might play out by asking Mink, who helped organize the class and assists in teaching, to act as his attacker. We practiced hitting and kicking Saugey while he held a thick pad.

Later, we formed two lines facing each other from across the room. Saugey dropped a rectangular black pad in front of each person at the beginning of the lines and instructed them to put it between their knees on the ground.

"This is where most fights end up," he said. "And it's where most sexual assaults happen."

I realized the shape and size of the pad slightly resembled a man's chest and torso. I bit the inside of my cheek -- a nervous habit of mine. I didn't want to imagine this scenario.