My Unlikely Life Mission: Self-defense as Physical Literacy

by Ellen Snortland
- USA -

Midnight. Intensely urban downtown neighborhood in Los Angeles where the alleys reek of urine and garbage. Dark Craftsman house in the Carpenter-Gothic style. My home. I cross the threshold and meet an interrupted burglar who raises his knife, ready to plunge it into my throat or heart. My scream is so intense he drops his knife, grabs his ears and runs like hell. “Thank you, mister,” I neglect to yell, because I was yet to know the impact this event would have on the balance of my life.

I’m truly grateful to this man, wherever he may be now. He inadvertently led me to my life’s mission, passion and purpose: to empower women and girls worldwide to know and act on the idea that they have a birthright to be safe from violence and to be able to defend themselves physically, if need be. I assert that if and when the females of our species learn how to stop violence while it’s happening to them, we’d see a transformation in women’s potential and in their participation in problem-solving on the planet within a remarkably short time.

The adage “Think Globally, Act Locally” applies perfectly. Nothing is more local than one’s body, and if a critical mass of women could protect their own bodies, the globe would benefit greatly.

From my experience with the man and his knife, I write a book about my investigation into female self-defense entitled “Beauty Bites Beast: Awakening the Warrior within Women and Girls.” Very few people want to discuss the possibility of violence, and so are in varying degrees of denial. In the U.S., we have no problem fully confronting the possibility of fire or car accidents by having drills, we learn how to drive “defensively”; we insure ourselves to the hilt and wear seatbelts. But intentional violence directed toward people, especially “defenseless” people (women, girls and boys)? Most people don’t want to think about it, let alone prepare for it.

Does it make any sense that I — a well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, well-off person — would not automatically make self-protection a part of wellness, in general? Why was I, an independent woman of the modern era, completely and utterly ignorant about defending myself from a possibly violent occurrence even though I live in a culture that swims in violence both in the news and in the entertainment media? Why had I never made it important to take a self-defense class? And why did I only make self-defense a part of my education after something scared me enough to take action? I set about to answer those questions from a personal and social point of view in my book. I found there’s a dearth of studies on women defending themselves. As it turns out, I was opening up a new field.

On the professional front, “Beauty Bites Beast,” my publisher discovers, is not an easy sell to reviewers. Even though it’s not a “how-to” book, reviewers reject it and place it in the female book “ghetto,” which makes it not reviewable. In our system, if a book is not reviewed, for all intents and purposes it does not exist. Nonetheless “Beauty Bites Beast” does exist, and fortunately I’ve had enough word of mouth endorsements that it continues to sell to this day. Gavin De Becker, best-selling author of “The Gift of Fear” and world renowned violence prevention expert, dubs “Beauty Bites Beast” a “classic,” and a “must read.”

So what is it going to take to place personal violence into the public discourse without reviews? Why isn’t my topic taken seriously? Promoting my book turns out to be a bit like peddling cod liver oil: yes, it must be “good for you,” but who wants it, since it tastes awful?

My challenge: how do I make an unpalatable subject — gender-directed violence — so palatable that responsible people feel they must include it in their sphere of learning? My other challenge: how do I break through the entrenched apathy toward women’s and girls’ status in the world, which is in large part kept in place because of and through violence, whether real or merely threatened? Force, or the threat of force, keeps women down very effectively -- in their own estimation and in families, communities, countries throughout the world. No wonder our voices are missing in the public sphere. I conclude that the threat of gender-directed force is the dark underbelly and the mainly unarticulated tapestry of patriarchy; its threads are so emotional, hidden, tangled and complex that I must find a more neutral way to spread my mission of self-protection as a human right.

Consequently I decide to frame the conversation about violence within a less provocative context of literacy, instead of staying solely within the realm of gender politics. Everyone aspires to literacy, right? But physical literacy… what is that? A physically literate person knows how to cross a street safely. She or he also knows that kitchen safety includes washing hands before food preparation. A physically literate person knows that using a seat belt in a car is not only legally mandated in most developed countries, but has also been shown to reduce injury and death in car accidents.

Similarly, a physically literate person should know how to block a hit, use an eye-strike or any number of easy-to-teach, easy-to-learn, self-protection skills and tools not dependent on sheer strength or weight to stop an assault effectively. If you have no clue what you might do if someone were to attack you, I assert you are physically illiterate. This is a radical idea. Therefore I usually talk with people about violence prevention in the context of “stranger” violence, because there at least is a consensus that strangers don’t have the right to go around hitting other strangers, regardless of gender.

In reality, the statistics about the violence women and girls live and die with show they are most likely to be hurt or killed by their so-called intimates. According to a Rutgers study, “Around the world, 1 in 3 women have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetime. Most often, the abuser is a member of her own family.”

When I attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995 I asked every woman I met there if she was concerned about her personal safety. Tragically, the answer was a resounding “Yes!” no matter whether I was speaking to a high-level executive from the World Bank or a woman from a small village in Africa. Walking around in a woman’s body is dangerous! I decided I had to introduce the conversation about personal self-defense at an international level.

The third article of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), abridged version, says, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” “Everyone” includes women, girls and boys, and their own personal security falls squarely into the UDHR. The third goal of the United Nations 8 Millennium Development Goals is to “Promote gender equality and empower women.” Indeed, I believe in spreading the word whether by mouth, book or film. Throwing a handful of sand or gravel into an attacker’s eyes may spell the difference between life and death. Making that information common knowledge is a moral imperative since it can save countless women’s and girls’ lives. In the most primitive form of biological warfare, HIV-infected mercenaries intentionally rape women with the goal of infecting and killing them. Not only does a woman have a right to defend herself from rape, she has the right to save her own life from HIV/AIDs.

After attending the annual U.N. Commission on the Status of Women for several years in a row as a journalist and NGO delegate for the United Nations Association, I learned first-hand that “self-protection” is notably absent from the usual discourse on ending violence against women. So on several occasions I have forced myself to ask publicly, “Are there any plans to educate women in developing countries on simple self-defense techniques?” knowing full well that my question would be ignored or minimized. Nonetheless, the topic deserves not just attention but serious consideration. I believe the question is met with such resistance because fundamentally both women and men have unexamined thoughts and prejudices about female human beings’ inherent inability to defend themselves.

We would never question whether a female lion or dog, for instance, should or shouldn’t defend herself. Self-protection within other species is not gendered. We don’t consider a female dog any less able to defend herself than a male. Whether she “wins” or not is a discussion separate from her gender; it depends on whether she’s got a litter, her size or other similarly variable factors. If we encounter a growling dog, we do not check to see if the dog is a male or female before we decide if we should be cautious in proceeding.

Knowing full well that the “nurture or nature” jury is not done deliberating, I assert that women’s so-called defenselessness is largely a result of nurture rather than nature. I also assert that not defending oneself is largely “unnatural” and a result of patriarchy, not biology.

In my effort to extend this conversation to as many people as possible, I’ve embarked on a documentary film project by the same name as my book, “Beauty Bites Beast.” An altruistic factory owner in Tijuana read my book and invited me to train the women who work for him. I, along with many incredible full-force, full-impact instructors from all over the U.S. trained over 20 women in his factory for an intensive course that transformed their lives. United Farm Workers co-founder and feminist activist Dolores Huerta delivered the women’s graduation speech. We saw the women grow from people convinced of their helplessness to citizens who stood up and declared, “No one ever gets to hit me again.” We left Tijuana knowing that at least 25 women would be ending violence in their families once and for all.

Now, as I release the 10th anniversary edition of the book “Beauty Bites Beast” and work to complete my film, I am still resolute. Women must reclaim their natural ability to be physically dangerous in order to achieve true freedom.

I am constantly amazed at how many women, upon hearing what my mission is, say, “I want my daughter/niece/grandchild to read your book” or “I want her to learn how to defend herself!” Rarely will a woman say, “I need to read your book,” or “I need to learn how to defend myself.” Explore that reaction if it’s yours: find out where it’s coming from and what it’s based on. I challenge mothers to include teaching their offspring how to defend themselves as a vital part of a “natural” job of good mothering and parenting; far more often than not, I meet daughters who tell me it was their fathers who taught them self-defense basics.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite quotes by fellow “missionary,” Alice Paul:

Women’s dearest possession is life,
And since it is given to her but once
She must live as to feel no torturing regret
For years without purpose,
So live as not to be scarred with the shame of
A cowardly and trivial past
So live that dying she can say:
All my life and all my strength
Was given to the finest cause in the world
The liberation of womankind.
- Alice Paul, 1885-1977

American suffrage leader and author of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923

About the Author
Ellen Snortland’s work as an author, self-defense advocate and instructor has been featured on Dateline NBC with her book, “Beauty Bites Beast.” A regular columnist for the Pasadena Weekly and frequent contributor to Ms. Magazine, she is a tireless advocate for women and girls and physical safety for all. Ms. Snortland believes that “Think Globally, Act Locally,” is vital for women and girls. She says, “There’s nothing more local than one’s own body.” Ellen received her Juris Doctorate from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

As a UNA delegate, co-chair of Fifty-Fifty Leadership and journalist, Ellen has attended United Nations world conferences and annual UN meetings. Her acclaimed one-woman show, “Now That She’s Gone” is a comic memoir about growing up as a Norwegian American in Colorado and South Dakota, which she is currently planning on having produced in a regular theater venue and as a touring show. She is also raising funds for and directing, “Beauty Bites Beast,” a documentary based on her self-defense advocacy. For more information, visit her organization’s website.

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6 comments on “My Unlikely Life Mission: Self-defense as Physical Literacy
  1. Nancy Vining Van Ness says:

    Wow, Ellen, this is wonderful. I am especially impressed with your perseverance even when you know that your concerns will be minimized or ignored in many contexts. I am glad that the WIP is one place where they are not.
    I have a most rudimentary personal knowledge about protecting myself, but I must admit I need to know more and would benefit from it.
    You probably know that Dorothy Sayers, a strong woman who was a pioneer in some areas which had been closed to women, shows her heroine Harriet Vane learning self defense techniques from Peter Wimsey. An effort to show equality of men and women was a central part of that book, “Gaudy Night.” There is a lot that modern feminists object to in Sayers’ work, but she certainly had her finger on this important aspect of the problem. Clearly, the ability of women to protect themselves is central to their equality.
    The continued abuse of women in the military by men in the military is a sign that there is more to the matter than physical skills as well. Women do indeed need to learn to allow themselves to take care of themselves.
    Many thanks for your work.

  2. Ellensnortland says:

    Thank you Nancy. I so appreciate your comments. You have no idea…
    Warm regards, Ellen

  3. Pauline Field says:

    Ellen, thanks to you and your work I have completed a self-defense class and know that I can defend myself physically which has made a great difference in being able to feel powerful in the world as I navigate through it.

  4. aloddigs says:

    Ellen, Thanks for sharing this article. It is wonderful to learn about this side of your work. I took a self defense course in the mid-70s that really changed my life in many ways, so I can speak from experience. Although I have not yet encountered the kind of violence you describe, learning karate helped me face fearful situations with some degree of confidence. It helps to realize that one doesn’t need to simply give in to the violence. When faced with a dangerous situation, presenting ones self with confidence might in and of itself help prevent some violent acts.
    The long term benefit for me is that learning karate has also helped me face some less dangerous challenges in my life, even long after I am not actively involved with it. When you approach life as a powerless being, if affects every aspect of your life. Mentally, I can take the karate stance!
    Some women (many women) in developing countries face extremely repressive cultural marriage customs and discrimination with regard to educational rights, etc. so I’m particularly happy to learn that you are attempting to bring these issues to the international level. Education is key to helping young women realize their potential, both intellectually and with regard to their physical well being.
    I look forward to hearing more about your work.
    Alice Hofstad Loddigs

  5. girlfighter says:

    The problem I and others have with with Ms Snortland is that (1) she herself is not well versed in self defense outside of the Impact program which is very limited in its scope; and (2) her writing (take this for example) however subtley, conveys the erroneous notion that she and her co-horts are the only ones taking the message of self defense to the “peoples” or presenting a larger global perspective –which is absolute BS. Dare I say, her sound offs are typical of white feminists who are essentially not physical.
    I’m involved in a number of highly practical self defense systems for women, including for example, Krav Maga, Brazilian Jujitsu with centers ALL OVER THE WORLD which apparently Snortland either has no knowledge of or simply dimsisses because it is not her team (aka Impact, a system with the guy with the GIANT rubber head and which, frankly, for all the good it has to offer, is lacking in mnay respects and few of their trainers are even immersed in other fighting arts or martial disciplines.)
    I’m also involved with the American Women’s Self Defense Assocation and other women’s self defense groups, which has even traveled to Afghanistan to train activists.
    Furthermore, some of Snortland’s feminist rhetoric is stuck in the past. Women and girls today are already light years ahead — that learning to protect their bodies is not foreign nor groundbreaking, which she continually asserts. The learning of self defense as physical literacy, a term well known for years in the physical education arena, is already alive and well in many parts of the world.
    Having recently returned from Palestine where many girls train in Karate and other martial arts, I can attest to this fact.
    Sorry Ms. Snortland but your messages and self inflated view are neither new nor revolutionary. May I suggest you step out of your bubble and take a broader view.

  6. girlfighter says:

    I know this isn’t politically or feministically correct but I have to add one more thing on the side of reality versus idealism or ignorance, so here goes: it seems like part of ms snortland’s self defense agenda (having also read her book, seen her movie trailer and other articles) is to propegate the fact that size doensn’t matter, and that a woman can be super fat or disabled and still effectively fight back. On that note, there’s a picture above of a VERY VERY large overweight (OK, fat, there I said it)self defense teacher named “lisa Gata” who apparently is the HEAD of IMPACT self defense, the sensei I gather.
    I’m all for women learning to fight back regardless of their size and ability but anyone worth a wit in the world of real fighting arts, defenisve tactics or self defense knows that if you have to physically fight off an assailant or rapist, your size and WHAT SHAPE you’re in DOES matter and it effects, for example, how you move, your body mechanics, how much air you have, and your level of cardio fitness (for example, can you run? maintain a rapid heart rate engagement for at least two minutes; are you fit enough to take getting struck or thrown; can you deliver repeated moves without running out of air?) Simply put, essential fitness matters a lot. Don’t kid yourself. Ask any one who’s “been there.”
    I’m not saying women have to be in “great” shape to protect themselves, that’s not true either or that overweight women cannot do so– there’s ample eviddence to the contrary – but you DO have to draw the line somewhere, and to be realisitc without all the feminist rah rah. So this party line mantra about any size, any shape being equal and that the HEAD of a prominnet women’s self defense group is so grossly obese is not healthy or sane role modeling– and most importantly, it is NOT grounded in reality.
    I don’t know whehter Ms Snortland or Ms. Gata has ever been attacked FOR REAL and acutally had to fight off an attacker who is pumped up on adrenaline and who hits HARD and FAST (unlike their padded guys), but being obese or excessively overweight is a serious detriment, a really overweight woman would have one helluva time fighting off a commited male attacker, and if she ended up on the ground, frankly (there’s no pretty way to say this), she would be a little like a beeched whale, severely limtied in her ability to move, strike or kick quickly, explosively to defend herself. (Physically speaking, how can you even get off a good chambered kick with all that baggage in the way, holidng your legs back?) You can’t.
    I have to say this because we must be realistic while encouraging all women to learn to protect themselves. Especially if the women you are trying to reach are not going to train ongoingly in a martial or fighting art and are relying on a short term course to provide their survival tools and above all, the truth.

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