It never fails. I meet a man at some sort of social event and he asks what I do. “I teach self-defense,” I say. And he responds, like clockwork, with some version of, “Ooh, I better not mess with you!” and starts laughing a) like he is the first person ever to come up with such a clever response and b) like it’s funny. It’s not. (The same thing also happens with shocking predictability all the time to women who are moved to share with male friends and family members that they are taking a self-defense class.)
But he has left me holding the two sacks of shit empowered women are so familiar with. In one sack is the shitty option of smiling and laughing along and then gently, oh so gently so as not to alarm him or insult his sense of enlightenment/entitlement, explain that self-defense isn’t actually about hurting innocent men at cocktail parties. Duh.
In the other sack is the specter of the Humorless Feminist. And believe me, if you want to be invited to more parties you don’t want to be identified as the guest who unleashes the Humorless Feminist.
As it turns out, I carry with me at all times a lovely little beaded bag, classy as hell, that contains nothing but verbal whoop-ass. I open it.
“So you would have messed with me if you thought I didn’t know how to defend myself?” I ask in my sweetest, demurest tone of voice with a warm smile on my face.
There is a brief but slightly uncomfortable pause while he puzzles out what just happened. I can hear the whispers in his head, “She just accused me of assaulting women. But I guess I kind of said that I do. But . . .” the next part comes all the way out of his mouth: “That’s not what I meant!” I can feel him psychically willing my hand to open the sack containing the Humorless Feminist so he can get a quick laugh at my expense and then seek validation from others that indeed I am A Humorless Feminist and everyone knows you can’t talk to them about anything. Eye rolls and nods all around.
I won’t do it. I won’t lecture him on why his statement is so offensive: it assumes women cannot defend themselves if they haven’t taken a self-defense class (false), it implies that women who have taken a self-defense class will use those skills to assault men rather than just defend themselves (false and insulting), and it reinforces the idea that women are in danger from all men, all the time, unless they have the physical skills to defend themselves but at the same time reinforces the idea that women are paranoid and angry if they are wary of men because #NotAllMen.
In short, it’s a condescending, rude, gaslighting masterpiece of a response upon learning that the woman you are speaking to has learned some physical skills to protect herself if she is attacked.
“I know. But that’s what you said,” I might respond and then sit back and wait for more nonsense. Or I might just stand there staring at him as if his last statement was exactly as asinine and nonsensical as it sounded.
At this point, about 1 in 100 will literally or metaphorically slap himself on the forehead, apologize, and actually get curious about my work. Most will change the topic just as quickly as they can. Some will proceed to mansplain self-defense to me. A few will persist in trying to get me to ratify the notion that I am the rude person in the conversation because I won't laugh at the "joke," at which point I simply leave while he is mid-speech.
I will walk away because, Mr. Annoying, avoiding a conflict is a valid self-defense strategy that I encourage my students to remember is in their bag of tools. So yeah, you better NOT mess with me, or I might walk away and leave you standing in the middle of the room looking bewildered and stupid while I find someone more interesting to talk to. Really, dude, you better not mess with any women. Not because they might kick your ass if you do, though many of them can whether they’ve gotten formal training or not. But because it’s wrong (not to mention criminal) and I really hope you’re a better person than that.
You don't mess with women physically, you say? Great, take the next step and speak with them respectfully when they tell you they are learning to defend themselves against the people who do.
* I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and I want to thank Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele of See Jane Fight Back for recently publishing their take on this phenomenon, which got me off my writer’s block.