Let me take you on a journey to answer that question.
I have been spending a lot of time recently writing about the ‘before’ aspects of combat. In this piece, I discuss the importance of reading and understanding intent as a key to successful self-defence. In this piece, I discuss some of the important mental factors to consider before you start sparring.
I would like to continue that theme today and discuss something else that is strongly connected to intent. Before I go on I’d like to establish some context using a friend’s training experience.
She is an expreinced martial artist and self defence practitioner. She attended a women’s self defence seminar, where one of the scenarios involved the typical sexual assault/rape scenario. This involved her being on her back and an attacker kneeling between her legs, similar to a BJJ Guard position. The instructor asked her what she would do, and she proceeded to emphatically trounce the attacker’s butt… at which point she was told that’s the incorrect response for two reasons. Firstly, the attacker hasn’t actually tried to hit her yet. Secondly, and even more ridiculous in my opinion, is the fact that even though he was, literally, between her legs and on top of her and trying to pin her arms down, he hasn’t yet indicated that he intends to rape or sexually assault her!
Take a minute to consider the sheer stupidity of that statement.
A man is on top of a woman, in a compromising and dangerous position, in a rape prevention class, and she is told not to hit him because his intent is not yet clear.
Take another minute to think about this.
If that’s not perpetuating rape culture, then I don’t know what is. The scary irony is that this was perpetuating rape culture in a rape prevention class. What the?!
The person who teaches that should be, in my mind, fired and never allowed to teach again. It is dangerous, reckless and diametrically opposed to what the seminar was supposed to be about, which is to empower and educate.
As a side note, she was later told that once he made his intentions clear (not sure exactly how), she should slap on a triangle choke from the bottom. This means the solution was to wait for an attack to commence, and then apply a highly technical move from a difficult position against a resisting attacker, after only having trained that move a handful times with a compliant training partner.
Does that sound effective?
This story is extreme, no doubt, but it illustrates a point. Rape culture aside, it highlights something that is common in self-defence training.
I am a strong believer that if one learns self-defence, one must learn more than just the physical movements of dealing with an attack (which techniques to learn is the never-ending debate and I will not get into that here). Physical retaliation is, obviously, a last resort. Other elements that must be taught include:
- Awareness of legal environment - Understanding of one’s legal rights and responsibilities in the event of real world violence. Be wary of any instructor who spits out the old chestnut ‘better to be tried by twelve than carried by six’ (more on this here). That’s a simplistic and dangerous answer to a complex problem, one that can land you in a hot legal mess. It doesn’t mean you have to be a lawyer, but you must understand the basics of your local laws concerning self-defence.
- Verbal Judo – the term coined by the late, great Dr George Thompson which refers to the resolution of conflict through the effective use of language. Much like Krav Maga instructor Dave Congerton often says, you need to practice your ‘verbal combinations’ just like you practice you striking combinations. This is a crucial ‘before’ skill that is often neglected or glossed over quickly so we can get to the ‘fun stuff’ of hitting each other in training, but rarely is it practiced. This is another way of redirecting or changing intent. Side note – if you’ve never read Dr Thompson’s book, Verbal Judo, or listened to him speak, do yourself a favor and check it out.
- Post-incident – it’s important to understand what happens after an incident. This can include performing first aid, assisting authorities, writing reports, seeking help and counselling to cope with the aftermath , etc. All of these things must be addressed in training to some degree.
But even with all of these being included, we are still looking at a reactive mindset. If our self-defence training is to be comprehensive and effective, we must adopt a pre-emptive and proactive approach. Prevention, as the old saying goes, is better than cure. Often this is interpreted as throwing the first strike. While that may be a valid solution in certain situations, we should look at what happens even before this.
Let’s analyse 3 things that every attacker must have in order to be successful:
- Capability/means – this refers to the person’s ability to commit the crime. For example, if their plan is to shoot you, they must have a gun. If the intent is to physically dominate or assault you, they must be able to do so (or at least believe they are able to do so).
- Intent/motive – this refers to someone’s intent to do you harm. If the person has a gun, they have to be willing to shoot you.
- Opportunity – this refers to the totality of circumstances that puts them in position to do you harm. If they have a gun (capability) and they want to shoot you for whatever reason (intent) they still need to have the right set of circumstances to do so – know where you are, have access to your location, be able to get that location, etc.
Most self-defence training focuses on the ‘immediately before’ and, primarily, on the ‘during’, i.e. right before the physical attack happens, and during the physical altercation itself.
Effective self-defence starts at the ‘before’ stage, but rarely are we taught this. Often the concept of ‘awareness’ is mentioned but is rarely discussed in depth or with any specificity. It’s usually summed up to ‘you need to be aware’, with a couple of tips like ‘don’t run with your headphones in’ or ‘don’t take shortcuts through dark, scary alleyways’. You can read more about this here. Alternatively, you may even get some more cryptic and nonsensical answers like ‘in order to avoid conflict you must sense the attacker’s intent and move around it like water flows around a rock in a stream’. I'm all for the metaphysical, but that's not answering an important question.
How does this relate to capability, intent and opportunity?
- Capability - From a self-defence perspective, it’s hard to control this as at the ‘before’ stage. This is a ‘during’ issue. In other words, if attack is inevitable and imminent, or it has already begun, and no other options (run, hide, etc.) are available, the best way to stop it is to diminish your attacker’s capability of doing damage by using physical techniques.
- Intent - I think this is still a ‘during’ issue. You can’t control someone waking up in the morning and deciding they are going to rape someone that day. The only times you might be able to change intent are:
a. Immediately before. In other words, using Verbal Judo to dissuade a potential attacker is something we do right before an attack happens, but generally speaking only in the event of spontaneous violence. For example, you spill someone’s beer in the pub and they become aggressive. You may be able to change their harmful intent by apologising and offering to buy them a round or two. In the event of premeditated violence that uses a victim selection process, such as a mugging or a sexual assault, it’s highly unlikely that intent can be changed.
b. During. If attack is inevitable and imminent or is already happening, you might be able to affect their harmful intent by using physical retaliation. In other words, an attack is taking place and you have done enough damage to the attacker that they decide to give up, run away, etc.
These first two elements are summarised simply by paraphrasing Sensei Gershon Ben Keren. When an attack happens, we defend ourselves until our attacker is unable (capability) or unwilling (intent) to continue attacking us.
- Opportunity – here lies the true ‘before’. While intent and capability are very hard to control, there are things we can do to minimise the opportunities that we present to potential attackers. Unfortunately, this is also the area where time is least spent preparing. This is a huge topic, and I highly recommend reading Dr Gavriel Schneider’s excellent book Can I see Your Hands to learn more on this vitally important, often misunderstood and tragically understated component of true self-defence.
So let’s summarise quickly:
- As some old, wise Jewish grandmothers would tell you, 'if the eyes didn’t see, the hands wouldn’t take'. In other words, if we effectively control opportunity through making better choices every day, we can significantly reduce our chances of being a target. Simply put, if there is no opportunity for them to see, their hands wouldn't try to take.
- Yiddish is awesome and is a language worth exploring
- Lastly, but perhaps more importantly, is to listen to your grandmother’s advice. She’s been around a while, and knows how things work in this world. Listen to her and you’ll be all the better for it.
Stay safe, stay tuned.