If you are starting eighth grade (or look like you could be), chances are you have already experienced some form of sexual harassment. Being harassed is why I took a self-defense class.
I was 13 and walking with my friends when a group of 20-something guys thought it would be fun to yell obscene propositions at us from their car. In the moment, we did not realize that one of our friends had fallen behind. Giving up on the rest of us, the pack of young men pursued her. She got so scared that she actually hid in a rose bush. The guys kept harassing her until my friend and I came back to rescue her.
Scary situations like this are far too common. Since that day, I have learned that 86 percent of 10- to 19-year-old girls in one study had experienced verbal harassment, many daily, and 60 percent were afraid to walk in their neighborhood.
Perhaps most devastating was their sense of powerlessness. The Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team reported that, “Most of the girls who we interviewed felt that they could not do anything to stop the catcalls and groping. They felt pretty powerless.”
Street harassment, while bad, is not the worst threat many of us will encounter. One-third of adolescent girls experience some form of abuse from a boyfriend, 70 percent of kidnapping victims are adolescent girls, and 44 percent of victims of sexual assault are under 18.
After spending just a weekend learning about and practicing self-defense techniques, I gained physical and emotional confidence to protect myself. In self-defense classes like the one I attended, you learn strategies for stopping a potentially violent encounter before it escalates; how to be a “bad” victim; and how to get help during and after you are threatened or attacked.
Knowing how to act and what to do when you are threatened can save your life.
You also hear first-hand accounts from other women about how they have dealt with harassment and violence.
Before the class, I thought my mom was unreasonable when she refused to let me walk home from school after dark. The workshop leaders gave examples of attacks at bus stops and other public places and suddenly I felt less safe. Unfortunately that is a good thing, because it means I’ll take steps to be safer.
And who knows? Taking a self-defense class, even one with your mom, could be fun. While I wasn’t crazy about it at first, it ended up being pretty awesome. I met other girls who were taking the class before starting high school, I learned to be more prepared and aware, and I got to watch my mom on the ground kicking and screaming.
Zora Navarre is a freshman at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. Michelle Navarre Cleary is her mom and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. They took the class together.