Katie Byrne: 'Defending self-defence: It isn't victim-blaming – it's common sense'

Kate Upton recently demonstrated her Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) skills on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and I must say, I found it pretty inspiring.

The model is a relative newcomer to the martial art and she was keen to demonstrate a move known as the ‘rear naked choke hold’ on the host.

“Just make sure to tap if you feel, like, panicked,” she told him. “Cause I don’t know my limits.” Fallon tapped a few seconds later before remarking that he “was really passing out a little bit”.

Upton says she’s “obsessed” with BJJ and I can relate to her beginner’s enthusiasm. I took up the martial art a few years back and while I didn’t stay the distance (I’m a serial hobbyist), I experienced some of its profound benefits.

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Like Upton, I was keen to practise my manoeuvres on whoever was unfortunate enough to be around when I arrived home from a class.

“Do you want to see my triangle choke?” I’d ask my increasingly exasperated friends. Not particularly, they’d answer.

Truth be told, I never really mastered these moves, but it didn’t really matter. Over time, I realised that the real benefits were more psychological than physiological.

I grappled with men and women of varying ages and abilities, and while I was usually squashed into submission by people who were vastly more experienced, I still left every class feeling 10ft tall.

BJJ is a close combat sport and that, in and of itself, is empowering. It calls on all your strength and yet it isn’t necessarily a battle of strength. Well-honed technique can overpower a bigger opponent and the physically stronger sex don’t always have a natural advantage.

After just a few months of practising, my mother noticed I was much more comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. I wasn’t shying away from confrontation and I was altogether more confident and assertive.

The self-defence aspects of the classes were an added bonus. I felt like I had power over my personal safety. The problem, of course, is that not everyone agrees with what seems to me like common-sense advice. Some believe that a focus on self-defence amounts to victim-blaming – it shifts responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim, they argue, and it fails to hold men accountable for their actions.

They believe that women shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility for their personal safety, when it is in fact the responsibility of society at large. Don’t teach women how not to get raped. Teach men not to do it.

It’s hard to argue with this viewpoint when you consider the systemic nature of rape culture. The vast majority of reported rapes are committed by someone known to the victim – not by the stereotypical stranger who jumps out of the bushes.

And this of course suggests that some men still believe they’re operating within a grey area when it’s in fact black and white: no means no and sober consent is key. It’s a conversation that we need to keep having with young men, but it’s far from a neat solution to a widespread problem.

Yes, young men need to be taught about consent, respect and boundaries, but there will always be those who are beyond educating. And while we need to keep telling women that the stereotypical image of the deranged stranger rapist is far from the norm, we also have to accept that violent, predatory rapists exist.

They live among us now, they will always live among us and they are not going to be enlightened by a class on consent or a talk about locker-room mentality, lad culture and toxic masculinity.

There are countless reports of women who used self-defence and martial arts to fend off violent attackers. Some of them had only done a few classes.

There are also plenty of women with a background in self-defence who experienced the freeze response during a sexual assault.

Nobody can predict their body’s response to fear. What we can predict, however, is the sense of empowerment that comes from learning self-defence. It is proven to help women feel stronger and therefore safer, and that can only be a positive thing.

It’s time we stopped denouncing self-defence as anti-feminist when the truth is it’s anything but. The safety of women is a collective responsibility, but women, don’t forget, are part of that collective too.

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