The graduating senior girls are required to take a 4-week self-defense class. All the boys have to do is go to a lecture the girls describe as “how not to rape people.” Plus they gave the boys pizza. Before class I listen to a litany of complaints—it’s not fair that the girls are stuck with dining hall sandwiches and tiny yogurt cups. It’s not fair they have to spend the first sunny day of spring in a windowless gym with us.
The gym floor is blonde wood, freshly waxed. The fluorescent lights don’t buzz and flicker like they do in city public school gyms. Like most private high schools, this one has a sprawling campus and a large two-story building dedicated to athletics. There’s a weight room, a pool, and probably a hundred rowing machines that look brand new.
I start class by telling the girls that what they’re about to learn is more valuable than the best pizza in the world. And maybe they dismiss me like they dismiss most adults. I tell them about a girl their age who resented taking this class as much as some of them do. She went to college, like they all will. She went to a party. She wound up in someone’s room alone with a guy she knew from class. He held her arms down. He tried to rape her. Instinctively, she kicked him until he could no longer restrain her. As she was defending herself she heard her teacher’s voice, coaching her to kick. She heard her classmates cheering. She emailed her teacher at two in the morning to say she was sorry she didn’t take the self-defense class more seriously.
The girls are eerily quiet. Some are holding hands, but none are playing with each other’s hair like they usually do during my introduction speech at the beginning of each class.
The first self-defense scenario of the night is a stranger who grabs them from behind. I tell them to pretend they’re walking down the street as they walk the length of a wrestling mat. I coach them to keep their heads up and their shoulders back. To yell, “no!” when my co-instructor, who plays the role of an assailant, grabs them. I coach them to strike the groin. When they get they get their arms free I coach them to elbow the assailant in the head, to launch their whole bodies into the strike. “A hundred pounds of my body weight against someone’s face will give me a good chance of ending the threat against me,” I have explained in previous classes. We always teach them to use a strong part of their bodies against a vulnerable part of the attacker’s.
The girls at this school play field hockey and lacrosse. They spend cold New England mornings on crew boats rowing until their strokes are in sync. Self-defense is another athletic challenge. Something else to be good at.
Then we introduce date rape.
My co-instructor portrays a guy I am dating. Though I haven’t dated a man in more than twenty years, I pass for straight. In the first demonstration he tries to get me to have sex. I tell him, “no.” My face is serious, my body language strong. I move a few feet away and turn to face him. He listens. He’s not thrilled. He whines a little but ultimately respects me. The girls nod. Maybe they date boys who listen when they say they don’t want to have sex.
I never got this close to sex when I was their age. I had only one boyfriend in high school and our relationship lasted three weeks. He called every night and asked me questions about myself. I agreed to be his girlfriend because the kids in the group of friends I was not quite part of said we made a cute couple.
At a cast party after the school play, in someone’s parents’ basement, he tongue kissed me. I opened and closed my mouth, trying to follow the awkward rhythm of his lips. I felt like I had no choice but to kiss though nobody forced me. And maybe he could tell that everything but the shell of my body was gone. And maybe that’s why he didn’t try to touch me anywhere else.
The next week my parents grounded me for a bad report card. I lied about the length of the punishment so I wouldn’t have to go on a date with him.
When he broke up with me a week later I was relieved.
In the second scenario my co-instructor plays a guy who is not respectful. He doesn’t let go of me when I tell him I don’t want to have sex. He holds my arms down when I try to move away.
“If you do this, it’s rape!” I yell.
I stand up. I put my hands in front of my body. I yell at him to leave. After the demonstration I turn to the girls and make the point that, for me, is the most important part of the class. The one that makes me not care that I have to sit in traffic for more than an hour to get this school.
“This is a self-defense situation,” I tell them. Even though this is someone I know, maybe someone I like or love, if I’m saying ‘no’ and he’s not stopping, he’s trying to rape me.”
The girls are stunned silent. I try to meet their eyes but they’re looking at the floor, picking their cuticles, playing with their shoelaces. I ask what they’re thinking. Nobody responds. Though I’ve been teaching self-defense for more than ten years I’m never completely prepared for how quiet teenagers get when we show them the precise moment a sexual encounter becomes an attempted rape.
The learning is painful. We’re putting these girls inside attempted rapes as through they were in the military and this is a combat simulation. But I believe the learning has to be this stark. If we don’t retrain their physical, visceral reactions to this kind of rape it will be too possible for their bodies to freeze when someone they like or love tries to overpower them.
I don’t want them to wake up after a drunken night, feeling vomit at the back of their throats. I don’t want them to tell themselves it was a “bad hookup” when they know somebody imposed sex on them– I was stiff and limp the whole time, but it’s not like I screamed. It’s not like he raped me. I don’t want them to feel ashamed because they flirted with the blonde boy with the curly eyelashes. Or obligated because he bought drinks or cut the line at the keg.
In the third scenario my co-instructor plays a character who pins my arms and doesn’t let go when I yell, “If you do this, it’s rape.” I throw his weight off me with a hip-toss, and am ready to kick his groin or head if the threat persists. He calls me a ‘bitch’ and a ‘tease’ as he storms away. On the way out he threatens me—“Don’t tell anyone. Nobody will believe you.”
I don’t agree to keep silent.
The girls are completely still now. Most have tears forming in the corners of their eyes. I can’t tell if I’m preparing them for college or shining an uncomfortable light on the arguments their boyfriends (or girlfriends) make.
I’ve taught the date rape unit more than a hundred times and I still can’t imagine what it would have been like to be seventeen and learning I could protect myself from a person I love. I know I wouldn’t have picked up the physical skills as quickly as they do. I might not have been strong enough to hit or kick as hard as we’re asking them to hit and kick. I probably couldn’t have projected confidence by standing with my head up and my shoulders back.
Or maybe I could have. And maybe if I’d been taught I could interrupt this kind of rape I wouldn’t have spent my teenage years in a state of numbness. Walking into walls and rows of lockers. Tripping over my feet even when my shoes were tied.
I couldn’t concentrate in school. I drew flowers on my math homework and looked at the ceiling instead of the teacher. So they sent me to reading specialists and speech pathologists but never asked if anything was wrong at home.
And what would I have said if someone did ask? Is touching your daughter in a way that is too intimate, too mature, really that bad? There was no overt violence, no bruises to photograph for an evidence file.
In college I made myself feel real and useful and a lot less numb by volunteering at the local domestic violence crisis center. I sat for hours in courthouse waiting rooms helping women get orders of protection against their abusers. Women who were born the same year I was but looked twice my age and women whose daughters were older than me. Women who hid their bruises with sunglasses and turtlenecks and women whose faces were covered in red marks.
There were dots I was trying to connect. Some reason I didn’t feel I could stop my high school boyfriend from kissing me.
When I was 26 my father pushed my mother down a flight of stairs. Or he bumped into her while he was yelling and she fell. (That’s how people who didn’t spend their 20s answering domestic violence crisis calls described the incident.) The actions of men who wear suits to work and know their way around the stock market are so often down-graded. The word “abusive” may be used to describe them but it often doesn’t stick. When my mother got an order of protection nobody spoke of it. Except me. I told anyone who would listen.
I spent years going to therapists and support groups trying to make sense of why my father’s affection made me feel so broken. Then I took a self-defense class. And when I saw that my body was strong enough to stop an attempted rape I stopped feeling broken.
Still, I made myself feel real by rejecting everything I came from. I cut my hair and grew out my armpits and defended abortion clinics and lived in the most liberal, downwardly mobile communities I could find. Now, almost twenty years later, I’m back in high school with the daughters of the one percent. And despite how hard I tried to escape my roots I can’t deny how at home I feel in this school. One year I let myself into the weight room and did a few rounds of tricep curls before class, never considering the possibility that I didn’t belong.
The connection I feel to these girls is stronger than I would have expected. Like they’re my family because we grew up with the same advantages. I admire their poise and athletic ability. I’m sympathetic to the ways their sheltered lives shape them — the biggest injustice they notice is a school administrator’s decision to give pizza only to the boys.
So I’m on a mission to make sure every girl in this class understands that the person most likely to harm her is not the homeless guy on Newbury Street. I get to go back to the life I left, not as a poetry-writing teenager in mismatched socks, but as the expert on rape and how to stop it. I get to puncture the silences too many adults in these girls’ lives maintain. I get to tell the truth about rape that nobody told me.
Then I get to leave. Forty miles in the car and I’m back in the city surrounded by red brick sidewalks and fair trade coffee. I don’t have to care who got into Yale early decision and who Penn would never have accepted if not for her parents’ money. I don’t know which one of them is captain of the lacrosse team and which one got slighted and is now afraid her extracurriculars won’t measure up.
Maybe it would have been braver to stay. To become a teacher or counselor whose presence in these girls’ lives is more consistent. Maybe I’d be making more change if I lived my upbringing instead of my values. But the life I chose is dinner parties with friends who talk about art and theater and climate change and voting rights and racism. And rape. My friends treat sexual violence like any other current event and nobody believes abuse survivors deserve what they got.
At work we talk about rape the way engineers talk about bridges. We take it apart like an old fashioned clock and examine what each cog does. In this process of dissection, we rob rape of its terrifying power.
Teaching self-defense gives me an experience of mastery over the insidious violations of my childhood. In school gyms and corporate conference rooms and basements of churches that shelter homeless families I interrupt hundreds of rapes a year. Rapes that are simulated and choreographed enough to be safe but also real enough that the lower parts of my brain experience a true threat.
Every day I inhabit this newly constituted body. Fierce, physical resistance has become as instinctive as breathing. I can’t remember what it felt like when I didn’t think I was powerful. Then, every spring, I dip my toe into the life I was supposed to live. I give girls who remind me of my high school’s popular kids a taste of that resistance.
After we teach the date rape unit each girl practices the self-defense skills. They start lying on the mat. “Like you normally sleep,” I tell them. I kneel close to their heads. I ask them to tell me when they feel their legs on the mat (I want to make sure they’re not as numb as I was). I ask them to tell me when they’re ready. My co-instructor plays an ex-boyfriend who forced his way into her dorm or a guy from a party downstairs who is looking for sex and doesn’t care if she consents. They practice yelling, “If you do this, it’s rape!” They practice hitting and kicking a person they know.
A too-thin girl in Lulu Lemon pants strolls onto the mat. Since the first class she has been rolling her eyes and crossing her arms and talking to her friends during other girls’ turns. She had a ready challenge to every self-defense strategy we presented. “Nobody really attacks people like that,” she declared based on I don’t know what evidence.
She lies on the mat. Through the tangle of her wiry arms, I can see she’s crying. Tears rush down her face but her body doesn’t shake. I assume she is practiced at making sure nobody notices when she cries. I ask her if she feels her legs on the mat.
“Sure, whatever,” she replies.
The scenario starts. My co-instructor pins her arms. The character he plays gives her a line about how sex with her is the only thing that can make him whole. When it’s time to begin fighting back she doesn’t yell. But she says “no” in a louder, more decisive tone than I’ve heard before. Her kicks are more forceful than usual. When the scenario ends she strolls of the mat.
“That was lame,” I hear her say to one of her friends. Or maybe I just imagine that that’s what she says.
After class I sit alone in the gym waiting for my co-instructors to change out of their protective gear. I’m anxious to tell them I saw her cry. There is no reason to debrief, her crying won’t change anything we say or do in subsequent classes. But I don’t want to be alone knowing it. It’s as if telling them gives me the power to undo the silences that engulfed me when I was her age.
When I tell my co-instructors, big-hearted men who impersonate rapists, their eyes will soften. We will sit together in silence for a minute honoring our student and whatever experiences made her so angry. Then we will walk outside together, talking as we do about our workout routines and protein shakes and action movies they love and I can’t stand. Joking as we do about how the less charming aspects of their personalities can be explained by too many kicks to the head. (Jokes that are only funny among people who simulate violence together.)
The night air smells like flowering trees and the parking lot is pitch black. I notice small things about my body. My feet are sore but my quads and lower back are not. I get into my car and follow the driveway to the gate that separates this school from its remote suburban surroundings. There’s no traffic this time of night. In half an hour I will be back in the city, with streetlights so ubiquitous that I no longer feel alone in the dark. When I get home I will search for a place to park on our street, climb a flight of stairs to my apartment, and get in bed with my already sleeping partner. I will try to quiet the images in my mind—kicks, strikes, crying teenage girls, winding roads illuminated only by my headlights. Eventually I will fall asleep and dream about something other than rape.