Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Women Face Down Fear ; Women Feel Alternately Empowered and Vulnerable. despite a National Decline in Violent Crime, the Perception of Danger Persists

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Women Face Down Fear ; Women Feel Alternately Empowered and Vulnerable. despite a National Decline in Violent Crime, the Perception of Danger Persists

Article excerpt

Hallie Lee still hasn't told her mother the story of how she came to the aid of another woman being mugged on a street near her apartment.

"My mother was concerned about me living in a city. She was always wanting me to live in a nice, safe neighborhood like she does," said the 20-something self-employed landscaper.

Ms. Lee has never taken a self-defense class, nor does she feel inclined to sign up for one now. She insists she feels comfortable living in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood that just 10 years ago was perceived as a place where it wasn't wise for a woman to walk alone after dark.

Since the self-defense movement became firmly established in the early 1970s, the reasons that urban women want to learn how to prevent an attack have changed. It's no longer largely fear of harm that's prompting women to sign up for classes, but a desire to discover, enhance, and test their physical strength.

"The average woman is now taking self-defense, where 30 years ago that wasn't true," said Lynn Auerbach, director of the Boston chapter of Impact Model Mugging.

"Many of the women who were taking self-defense 30 years ago ... already had abuse or trauma in their history."

This fundamental attitude shift, from one based on victimization to one of self-empowerment, would seem to indicate that urban women, like Ms. Lee, are embracing a more healthy perspective about living in the city. And graduates of Impact Model Mugging who later encounter confrontations on the street are finding that the situations can be resolved verbally most of the time.

However, experts maintain that this growing confidence runs against a tide of media messages depicting images of women as victims.

"[Media coverage] of one crime can create a lot of fear. The truth is that in many ways, fear of crime is an instrument to control women's lives," said Esther Madriz, a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco and author of "Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls."

"People may say women can do whatever they want, but in the next breath they say, 'But of course, women are vulnerable. You have to be careful,' " says Ms. Madriz. "We cannot say all women are fragile. We can train women to feel more self-sufficient, to feel more powerful."

Recent reports indicate that in the past year the violent crime rate has dropped 15 percent. But Martha McCaughey, a professor of women's studies at Virginia Tech, thinks that women are being fed more statistics and more stories of victimization than they were 20 years ago.

Ms. McCaughey, author of "Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Self-Defense," says that taking self-defense classes is one way women attempt to address issues of safety in their lives.

One such program is Impact Model Mugging. The international self- defense program with 17 chapters worldwide was established in 1971 in response to the rape of a Boston woman who held a black belt in martial arts. The assault prompted some martial artists to distinguish the sport as an art form, and not necessarily as the best way to practice self-defense.

In Impact, participants learn how to defend themselves in the emotional state - panic mode - a real attack would trigger.

At a recent class graduation, 14 women of different ages and sizes lined up at the edge of a blue mat in the basement room of the YWCA in Cambridge, Mass. A male instructor lumbered out, dressed in 30 pounds of protective padding. Raising his voice above the whir of a fan, he assured the guests seated in folding chairs that he would feel nothing - anywhere - when the women used their full force against him. Then he donned a football helmet wrapped in 3-1/2 inches of silver duct tape with alien-shaped mesh eye holes.

After circling up in a team hug, the women one by one demonstrated how they would first try to use their voices to resolve an aggressive confrontation. …

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