Each year in January, female friends, co-workers and family members of Nicola Shocket can count on receiving a phone call or e-mail. The message isn't a New Year's greeting or birthday invitation. The 39-year-old executive-search consultant wants them to join her at a four-hour self-defense class given by the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW).
January marks an anniversary for Shocket. Fifteen years ago, in a downtown L.A. parking structure stairwell, Shocket was raped at knifepoint on her way to the office. Soon afterward, she signed up for LACAAW's self-defense class as a way to combat her feelings of vulnerability.
The LACAAW class teaches women how to help prevent or escape an assault. Participants learn punches, kicks and other physical techniques to fight off an attacker of superior strength and size. But more than the physical techniques, LACAAW emphasizes the psychological elements of self-defense.
"We use an empowerment model," says Denice Labertew, project director for LACAAW, who taught Shocket's class this year. "The goal is to provide options and choices which could be viable at any given moment."
Labertew and other instructors explain that assertiveness plays a key role in self-defense. They note that more than 80 percent of potential physical attacks can be avoided by using assertive responses -- some as simple as yelling "No!"
"Assertiveness means defending yourself physically and emotionally," Labertew says. So a good portion of class time is devoted to helping women practice affirming their rights and setting boundaries.
In Shocket's group, participants role-play, responding to situations ranging from being approached by a stranger in a parking lot to fending off flirtations from the office delivery man. They learn to use their words, voice and body to communicate firmly and clearly.
Instructor Leslie Bockian, who taught Shocket's group last year, works to help women overcome the tendency to be polite, even in questionable circumstances. She notes that attackers tend to test a victim's degree of compliance in determining whether to strike. They will often make requests for assistance, such as asking a woman to locate something for them on a map. "You decide whether or not to help, how close the questioner can get, and how long the interaction should last," Bockian tells participants. "You're the one in control."
Awareness is another key component to self-defense, and for LACAAW, that involves debunking myths about rape such as the woman "caused" it, that women are helpless or that most rapes are committed by strangers. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 75 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by people known to their victims.
Bockian says that although it might seem obvious, women must pay attention to their surroundings. Merely noticing a potential attacker's presence may be enough to dissuade him because it ruins the element of surprise. Equally important, women need to trust their instincts, since gut feelings often signal lurking danger.
For those instances when physical contact occurs, LACAAW teaches techniques for escaping an assailant's grasp and for disabling him long enough to flee by targeting vulnerable areas of his body.
Shocket says LACAAW has given her invaluable new strengths. "I'm much more aware of my surroundings. I'm more confident. I feel better prepared to deal with whatever situation might arise." Now, she wants to share her knowledge.
"I know the thought of taking a self-defense class can be intimidating, and it's easier to just put off doing it. So I decided to encourage others to take care of themselves by making it easier for them to participate."
Shocket estimates that she has recruited more than 100 class participants, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. Later this year, she plans to attend LACAAW's Woman Warrior Weekend, a more extensive, 12-hour workshop involving simulated attacks by trained, padded instructors.
"I want people to walk away from the class knowing they can take care of themselves. I want them to feel more confident, that they're not helpless in any situation. People think it won't happen to them -- I didn't think it would happen to me. But if I can prevent this for just one person, well, that's my goal."
Labertew hopes women will see self-defense as an important component of women's health. "Like getting a manicure or a massage, taking a self-defense class is one of those things you do to take care of yourself. Four hours is not too much to spend to make yourself safer."