Kickboxing, Rape, and the Myth of Self-Defense

When I was raped at age 16, I did not fight back. I knew how, yet all of me forgot.

Credit: skynesher/Getty Images

II started kickboxing at age 14, long before I was raped. It was the culmination of years of desperate wanting, of needing to make my body into something good. When I was a child, I had strange idols. Bruce Lee. Chuck Norris. Jean-Claude Van Damme. Which is to say, I had strange idols for a little girl. Or at least, that’s what I often heard. I didn’t have crushes on these men, though that might have been easier for people to understand. I wanted to be them. These men-made-weapons owed their bodies to no one but themselves. They knew precisely how to make them do and be what they wanted. And what they could do was amazing.

The cologne in my first gym was tangy sweat and bleach. The decor, Muhammad Ali. The floor was concrete; we had no mats. I was neither fit nor coordinated when I joined. I didn’t have the stamina for a full kickboxing class. Or the muscles for a single push-up. Or the flexibility for a kick high enough to reach anything but a garden gnome. I was terrible. And I was in love.

I loved everything about it. I loved the swish sound of my silk pants when I kicked, the quick repetition of dun-dun-duh-dun-duh-duh as my fists hit the speed bag, the hiss of my exhales. I loved that we bowed before we entered or exited the floor. I loved that our instructor, who had once been in B-rated action movies, called me “killer” — as a joke at first and then with respect. I loved the way my sash thwacked my leg as I whipped around for a spinning side kick. And, yes, I loved it when men came in cocky and left less so when they realized a teenage girl could do things they could not. I loved it when they humbly asked me how.

For years, I went to class six days a week and trained for many hours more. Inevitably, I got better. My body did what I wanted it to, moved in the precise ways that I’d always imagined. Through repetition and practice, I created knowledge within my body, I fathomed skill where there was none. I used to have fantasies of saving strangers from the nonexistent criminals in my sleepy suburb. I used to have fantasies of saving myself.

KKnowing how to hurt someone did not stop my assault. There is a movement that resurfaces every few years that advocates for women to learn self-defense to avoid being raped. It’s a divisive issue. Some women argue that every tool is worth having if it can stop a rape or sexual assault. Others say we should focus our energies on teaching men not to rape rather than teaching women how to not get raped. When we have these conversations, we account for differences in size and strength, point out techniques that can help a woman get away. We decide it’s a simple equation with predictable outcomes.

What we don’t account for is the way your mind can freeze your body. The way you forget that you ever knew how to do anything. The way such a violation can disconnect your core self from your body, then smash them back together again, out of sync. We don’t account for what happens when it’s not a stranger but someone you like or think you could love. How your body can be trained to fight back, but this is not the fight you trained for — you can know how to punch somebody in a boxing ring, or even on the street, yet it might not matter, because this instant is incomprehensible. You can never prepare for these layers of violation.

Continuing to learn how to fight helped me find my way back to myself.

When I was raped at age 16, I did not fight back. I knew how, yet all of me forgot. For a long time, the guilt rose like bile every time I heard someone respond to stories of rape, both high profile and not, with something like, “If it were me, I would have fought back.” In those moments, I would think of how I knew how to fight him off that night under the pool table, but despite all my training, my body went sluggish.

I came back to fighting later on. This is important: Continuing to learn how to fight helped me find my way back to myself. I was not kind to my body after I was raped. I hated it for betraying me. For not fighting then, for being something who could be acted upon. I started to punish it, even though I’d just learned that nothing would stop a person who wanted to rape. I started to have the darkest hopes: that I would spontaneously combust; that I would become disfigured; that if I saw him again he would kill me so that I wouldn’t have to figure out how to live like this. But I never stopped going to kickboxing. There, I never doubted my body. There, it didn’t matter how it looked, or what could be done to it, but only what I could do with it. Kickboxing took a thing that no longer felt like mine — my body, a thing — and helped me give it back to myself.

HHealing is not linear. When I moved up north to Yellowknife for work after university, I stopped kickboxing. There weren’t any clubs to join, and even though I bought a heavy bag for my apartment, it wasn’t the same.

In the near decade since my first rape, I’d been assaulted twice more. One of them recently. Without an outward release, I turned inward, collapsing in on myself. Again. I forgot how to put my fists up. Or, more than that, I forgot that I could.

The thing about being assaulted more than once is that you start to think, This is it. Not that it’s over, but that this is your life. If the first assault did not define me, then surely this one does. I began to think that I rose to the surface only to suffocate in the fresh air. No, that’s not quite right. I began to think that there was something about me that made the air suffocating, fetid. I was horrible to myself during this time. We use the word “relapse” to talk about addiction, and it’s not the right word here — yet it is: I felt addicted to self-harm. I’d tell myself that I would be better to myself. I’d tell myself that if I could just go through one day without cutting, I could make it through two, then three. I’d tell myself that I could heal everything, inside and out.

And sometimes I would. But whenever the dangerous men I allowed myself to date turned abusive, I wouldn’t tell them they were wrong about me. I wouldn’t say no. No, I am not worthless, I am not a bitch, I am not awful and wrong and stuck-up. I would agree, and then I would cut my arm, wear long sleeves, hide the way I was now dealing with this pain. Once, a man I was with — the last man who assaulted me — used an angry fist on me, even as my own, more skilled ones, felt impotent. The next day, the bruise on my arm was so tender it hurt to reach diagonally across my desk to answer the phone at work. Later, that night, I examined it, turned my arm to get a better look at the navy welt, arching out like wings. I gingerly ran my fingers over it, reminding myself it was my fault. Then, I made swift red lines march down my skin, this time on my inner left thigh, closer to the site of my trespass.

Eventually, I moved back to Toronto, into a house across the street from a kickboxing studio. I’d walk by it on my way home and notice the billboard-sized photo of the class and feel a pull of embarrassment every time I kept walking. It took me a year to walk inside, cautiously, as if I’d see the ghost of my more whole self. Seeing the club swirled my emotions, making them muddy. I wanted to go in. I wanted to believe that I could do it again. I wanted to believe that I could get better. Yet an anxiety had nestled into my limbs, filling my muscles, slicking my joints. It took weeks more before I went to my first class. Nothing came back to me. I felt out of sync with these yelling men, these strutting, aggressive bodies. They would make us women practice getting attacked at a club, getting grabbed by a stranger. But it wasn’t make-believe. Not to me. Not to how many other women there?

After a couple of months, the instructor paired me with a man who was new to class. His closed expression made it clear he didn’t want to be paired with a woman. We practiced punching and kicking combinations back and forth, holding strike shields — the pads a coach or partner will hold so that you can practice hitting a human, not a heavy bag. I knew that he was hitting too hard, trying to hurt me, trying to tell me that he could, that I didn’t belong there. When I got home, my breasts and torso were already blooming black.

I went back a few times after that, then stopped. I kept paying, though, for nearly a year. I didn’t want anyone to know I failed, least of all myself.

II had to try and try again for my healing. I also had to put in the work. After I’d been in therapy — finally — for more than a year, my therapist asked me to think of any positive coping mechanisms I had; I could only think of one. Fighting. This time, I did my research. I joined the Toronto Newsgirls, a boxing club founded for women and transgender people. The moment I walked in, I fell in love again.

There is nothing that says, “You will heal here,” but everything says that you will.

When you walk into the club, during any given class, you’ll see women of all sizes and ages, women of color, Indigenous women, gay women, and trans women. Posters and photos of fighting women (and, of course, Muhammad Ali) hang everywhere. So do clippings of all the kick-ass stuff the club has done over the years. There is also a small food bank, a library, and a piano. There are posters for theater, parties, rallies. There is nothing that says, “You will heal here,” but everything says that you will.

After several months of coming to class, of finding my path back to myself, our instructor started letting me work out with the women training to compete. I wasn’t as good or as strong or as fast as them, but she must have known I craved a chance to be in the ring again. During one recent class, I was paired with one of the top competitors.

After only a few jabs, she called a time-out. “You’ve done this before,” she said. “I can tell.”

I nodded and told her that I thought I’d forgotten how. “But now,” I said, “now I’m remembering.”

Adapted with permission of the publisher from the essay collection Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault, edited by Stacey May Fowles and Jen Sookfong Lee and published in April 2019 by Greystone Books.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor at The Walrus and author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism.

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