I recently read a 15-year-old girl’s confession that she and her friends usually pretend to be on their phones while walking past groups of men in the city, and for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I wished that I could offer a better strategy, but I had nothing. Only one so-called “catcall” in the history of my womanhood has ever made me smile, and it was definitely not the “Smile!” line commonly delivered by American men of a certain Trump-esque ilk. On a street in Santiago, Chile, a man called after me “se cayó un pétalo!”—I had dropped something. The word “petal” registered only after I’d stopped and turned around. He was calling me a flower? OK, cute. But still flustering, because he’d gotten my attention without me having a choice in the matter.
But what about the whistles, sucking noises, propositions that begin with “Hey baby,” and that strange clucking noise produced somehow in the back of the throat? And what about the 15-year-old on the sidewalk who is suddenly jarred into that strange, diminishing space of feeling like a filet mignon?
“Thanks for sharing!” says Clara E. Minor, in a loud, firm voice. The master martial arts and self defense instructor throws up her hand in a “stop, don’t even” gesture, and continues walking briskly and straight-backed across the room. It’s early on in Minor’s free, two-hour Self-Defense and Skills intro class when she demonstrates her best tried-and-true response to the catcall. We all want to know, because simply ignoring—which is what most of us admit we do—means absorbing a certain amount of ick-factor. “So put it back on them,” says Minor.
A petite and fit woman dressed in all black, with her hair pulled into a no-nonsense bun, Minor commands the class with a spunk and energy that renders a contagious sense of empowerment. Following an intense 12 years of nearly constant training alongside primarily male black-belt-level students in Limalama—a Polynesian self-defense modality with an emphasis on full-contact fighting—Minor began teaching martial arts in ’82, and opened Minorsan Self-Defense and Fitness in 1985. She’s also trained in boxing, shito-ryu karate, American kenpo, sil-lum kung fu, and many other forms.
The problem, she says, is a mindset of dominance, which is the same mindset inherent in physical and sexual assault. “[Catcallers] feel powerful and in control of females when the targeted woman responds with shyness, embarrassment, anger, or ignores them,” says Minor. “Even better is to look down at the groin area of the catcalling person (usually a man), look back up into their eyes, and respond with ‘seriously?’ It will be worse for the offender if the other men around him laugh. This allows a woman to keep her power, respond with a shut down, and walk away proud and strong.”
A few of us look at each other incredulously, doubting that we’d ever be so bold—at least not without black belts of our own. But she’s made her point: you don’t owe a catcaller anything, let alone manners.
Men, of course, would have been welcome in this class, but on this particular night, there are none, and a certain ease of solidarity arises in their absence. Of the 20 or so women present, several are in high school. One is here because her mother sent her. Others because they’re about to go to college in new cities and want to feel safe and confident in the streets, campuses and parties of their futures. Many more women are here because they work downtown.
I’m here because, that, and an image of tents and tarps—and their unknown dwellers—strewn along the Fern trail deep in Pogonip keeps me from hiking that trail alone. What would I do, alone in the woods, if I encountered a human being that meant harm? Make myself big and tall and loud?
The class is strewn with epiphanies. The first comes when we’re taken on a walk around the Tannery Arts complex, where this class is hosted, and then quizzed on the details of the surroundings we had just passed through. Awareness is key to self-protection, and we realize we could all be noticing a bit more. Using “No, thank you” and especially the word “please” to deflect unwanted behaviors of any kind is counterproductive, and enforces a notion of subordination. Minds are blown.
We learn what to do when we’re being followed, the power of eye contact to convey that don’t-mess-with-me forcefield of power, how to throw an elbow and run toward an attacker who has grabbed one of our arms, and finally, a few kick and punch strikes, whose vocal commands are made fierce by help from the entire room. But even in two hours, the class only scratches the surface, which is why Minor offers these intro classes several times a year, followed by eight hours of instruction for those who want a deeper skill set.
In a society where women embrace independence and are taught to see themselves as equals, has the importance of self defense fluency faded? The City of Santa Cruz website includes a schedule of free self defense classes from 2012, and as of print time, the city manager’s office had not returned GT’s calls to find out if they were still offering any.
It’s not that women are “weak,” though many are smaller in stature than men, says Minor.
“Society puts pressure on us to fit in and be likable. We become people pleasers. We are easier to control,” says Minor. “We are also conditioned to be ‘nice’ at all times.” And it’s true. Count how many times women tell you “sorry” in your day. On a train to New York City recently, I watched as a man’s briefcase fell off the rack and into a young woman’s lap—and she apologized to him.
“Our conditioned responses are to not create a scene, not to embarrass the perp, not to speak up,” says Minor. “These work against us in confrontational situations, or when we are feeling uncomfortable with someone—especially if we know them.”
She adds that even in today’s world, we are conditioned to think that a man will keep us safe. “Society’s interpretation is that we, as females, are not capable of taking care of ourselves,” she says. “This includes learning to fight, which is what you need to know to physically defend yourself.”
I leave the class, hands still tingling from the punching bag and eyes wide open to my surroundings, and when something moves in the shadows, I stare directly into its eyes and whisper: “Bring it.”
Clara E. Minor’s next free Self-Defense Strategies & Skills workshop is Sept. 25, followed by eight hours of instruction Friday, Oct. 19 and Saturday, Oct. 20 for $149. For more information and to sign up for the intro, visit minorsan.com.