My wrists throb. My knuckles are bruised and nicked. Dried blood flecks my slim gold wedding band. “Looks like you’re punching too hard and too fast,” says my self-defense instructor when I show him my swollen fists. Maybe I am. Of course I am. My thrusts are not my own. My left hook is dedicated to my 12-year-old daughter, Tess, who recently told me she gets bullied by boys at her middle school. Bam! My right hook goes out to the man who once chased me through a deserted parking garage. Pow! And my groin kick—oof!—is retribution for the one in three women who are physically or sexually abused in their lifetime.

The truth hurts: it’s inherently dangerous to be a woman in this world.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

Not this woman, though. Not anymore. A month ago, after reading that 9 out of every 10 adult victims of rape are female and realizing that I couldn’t land a solid punch, I enrolled in a fight club known for its ruthless approach to self-defense. Krav maga, which translates from Hebrew to “contact combat” and is pronounced “krahv muh-gah,” is an 85-year-old discipline created by Imi Lichtenfeld and later developed for the Israel Defense Forces. Unlike in mixed martial arts (or MMA), an equally vicious system of kicking ass where actions like spitting and headbutting are fouls, there are no rules in krav maga. Is hair pulling allowed? Yank away. May I gouge out an attacker’s eye? Don’t stop at one.

monica corcoran harel spars with fellow student belinda chen while training in the self defense practice of krav maga
The author spars with fellow student Belinda Chen while training in the self-defense practice of krav maga.
Christina Gandolfo

When I first considered which method of self-defense to study, the sheer brutality of krav maga seduced me. It felt like payback for all the gender conditioning to “smile” and “always be polite” that I’d absorbed growing up during the Reagan era. A fourth-grade teacher once told me, “Put a ribbon in your hair tomorrow and quit stomping around” when I shared that a boy had shoved me during recess. Talk about toxic femininity. Advice like that invites peril when one in five girls is a victim of child sexual abuse. Four decades later, I told my own then-10-year-old daughter to retaliate verbally if a boy got physical with her at school. I showed her how to put both her hands on his shoulders and lean in so he felt her presence, her prepubescent menace. I said to her, “Don’t knock him down. Just look him in the eyes and say, ‘You are never allowed to push me around.’ ” We practiced the drill twice.

Most self-defense workshops for women are equally brief and basic in nature. You take a three-hour class that covers how to stride with confidence, suss out a deserted stairwell at night, and use a key as a makeshift weapon in an attack. This time around, I wanted to learn how to defend myself like a superhero on steroids in any situation—especially since the United Nations reports that violence against women has intensified during COVID-19. Enter krav maga: you can’t even test for your Level 1 self-defense yellow belt until you undergo 40 rigorous hours of classes. Trust me: during some of those hours, you will taste your own blood, sweat, and tears—maybe even all at once. Budapest-born Lichtenfeld, an unassuming man with a big mustache who devised this personal security system in the 1930s to combat anti-Semitic gangs in his hometown of Bratislava, once said that he taught people to fight “so one may walk in peace.”

monica corcoran harel spars with fellow student belinda chen while training in the self defense practice of krav maga
Christina Gandolfo

My first day of krav maga training in an L.A. suburb is anything but peaceful. There are no introductions or pleasantries. Our class of about a dozen students jogs around the perimeter of the mirrored gym in Sherman Oaks for a few minutes, and then we pair off to fight. “If you think someone wants to choke you, think again,” says our instructor. “An attacker can crush your trachea in three seconds with two thumbs.” For that reason—and many other life-threatening hazards that come with an assault—we always start by adopting our fighting stance. I tuck my chin, raise my hands to eye level to protect my face, and move my feet apart at a slight diagonal with my back heel raised an inch. In this position, I’m remarkably stable and can propel my weight into every strike. When we match up to spar, I meet a sinewy millennial named Lucy who tells me she signed up for krav maga because her German shepherd—“my protector”—died a few months ago, and she likes to walk at night.

Women have a long history of appointing protectors instead of empowering themselves. Most likely because they were forbidden to throw a punch. In her book Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, San José State University associate professor and historian Wendy L. Rouse chronicles women’s struggle to get physical. In the late 1800s, for instance, a prominent Harvard physician named Edward Clarke cautioned that any extreme athleticism could compromise a female’s fertility; another prevailing norm was that women were just the weaker sex and shouldn’t even bother with such exertion. But in Chicago in 1909, 20-year-old nursing student Wilma Berger foiled a male attacker using jujitsu, and the incident swayed public opinion. Berger went on to teach self-defense to local society women. It was time for women to put down their parasols and put up their dukes. That same year, pioneering equal rights activist and New York physician Maude Glasgow advocated for ladies to learn to box: “Woman has the same weapons for defending herself that man has, and a little instruction in the manner of using them would enable her to beat off brutal assailants.”

self defense training for women gained popularity in the early 1900s, a woman fends off an attacker in these 1906 studio photographs
Self-defense training for women gained popularity in the early 1900s. A woman fends off an attacker in these 1906 studio photographs.
getty images

It would take until 1994 for Congress, in a bipartisan vote, to pass the first comprehensive law to protect abused women, known as the Violence Against Women Act. The bill was written by then-senator Joseph Biden to protect survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, add resources and training programs for law enforcement, and fund rape crisis centers. Until then, domestic abuse was considered a “private matter,” and police rarely intervened. The law expired during President Donald Trump’s term, in 2019, and wasn’t renewed until last year. Sadly, that lapse coincided with an uptick in domestic violence during the COVID lockdown.

My krav maga classes are split equally between women and men. We always pair up for intense drills and try to toggle between genders. When I can catch my breath, I poll my assailants: Why self-defense? One woman tells me, as she headbutts me in the chest—we always protect ourselves with padded tombstone-shaped shields—that she’s here because of a home invasion. As we grapple over a rubber gun in a stairwell, another classmate reveals that she often travels the world alone and has been physically harassed on buses and trains. A man in his 20s says, “Some jerks grow up but still pick on guys who are easy targets.” It hits me—as I get hit—that I’m a lucky statistic.

At 55, I have never been abducted, assaulted, or raped. However, like most women, I have faced serious threats. For instance, the man who trailed me in the garage in West L.A. after a late night at work was definitely an assailant. He wore head-to-toe black and mirrored sunglasses. When I quickened my pace, he started jogging toward me. I ran to my car, locked the doors, and leaned on the horn as I revved the engine. I watched in my rearview mirror as he gave me the finger and sidled off behind a pole. My hands shook so badly on my drive home that I pulled over twice. I kept thinking that I would have been forced to watch myself get raped or battered in his sunglasses if he’d caught me.

Would I do anything differently to thwart an attack now that I know how to shimmy out of a choke hold and throw an elbow strike? Nope. Krav maga is all about living to tell the tale—even if that story ends anticlimactically with you hightailing it to safety. You always avoid a fight if you can. But secretly, I long to avenge every woman who has ever been physically or sexually abused. This fantasy sees me employing all the self-defense techniques I’ve learned in my month of training. I poke eyes. I stomp toes. I crush tracheae. I am no longer a woman endangered. I am a dangerous woman. And after 30 more hours of self-defense prep, I’ll know exactly what to do if anyone ever catches me.•

Monica Corcoran Harel is a screenwriter with a media platform for women over 40 called Pretty Ripe and loves being middle-aged.