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The need for female self-defense

Some Thursdays, I just don't feel like fighting for my life. If it's been a long day, and I'm worn out, I don't want to scream, kick, bite – or thrash on the ground with the 170-pound black woman sitting on my chest.

Meet Shihan Linda Ranson, the fifth-degree black belt who teaches Women's Self-Defense at Dillon Gym this semester. She's hands-down the toughest person I've ever met, only about five-foot-two but built like a freight train.

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She runs her own self-defense academy in the Bronx, she's survived more than one attack herself, and she "specializes," as she puts it, in knives and guns. For two hours every Thursday, she drills a motley pack of Princeton girls on how to incapacitate an attacker.

You may have seen us hurrying to Dillon in our little white uniforms with the little white belts – they belie the rough-and-tumble dirty fighting were learning. "There are no perfect techniques," Shihan Linda says.

Nothing is off-limits here: some of our imperfect techniques include eye-gouging, biting and head-butting. We've also mastered an impressive repertoire of strikes to the groin.

Still, until the day Shihan Linda tried to kill me, I thought of the class as little more than a rowdy game, like a tussle with my sister. Sure, I'd been choked, kicked in the groin, thrown to the floor. I'd had my neck twisted, my cuticles ripped and my face slammed into the mat. But I failed to make a connection between that concrete, bearable pain and the abstract terror I felt at the thought of being attacked.

I'd never considered what it would actually feel like if someone were to assault me: I've rarely even been yelled at, much less physically abused. I imagined it would strike me with the same face-covering, paralyzing fear I felt while watching "Psycho" or "Scream 2."

Before long, however, I realized that self-defense doesn't mean How to Get Help. It means How to Help Yourself. I think I didn't fully understand that when I signed up for the class. What did I expect – safety tips? Easy tricks? What I got was Shihan Linda making me fall, kick and hit over and over again, until I was exhausted.

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"You've got to get it right the first time," she'd rebuke us. "Out on the street, you can't say, 'Wait a minute, mister, let me try that again,' or 'Could you grab the other ankle instead, please?'"

Repeatedly, she reminded us, "If you get in a fight, you are going to get hurt. Your job is to deal with the pain and inflict pain on your attacker."

For me, the epiphany came a couple of weeks ago, when Shihan Linda demonstrated a ground fighting technique by locking her thighs around my waist and snapping them together hard, doing her best to crush my viscera.

Overpowered and unable to breathe, I cried out helplessly. She released me and I crawled to the far corner of the room, gasping for air and crying. She probably didn't realize how much she was hurting me; after all, she's a tank and I'm a stick of butter. But that moment of agony was enough to show me how it feels to be attacked, and it made me angry.

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It made me angry enough to realize that I could never forgive myself if I allowed someone to hurt me again without putting up a vicious struggle. I owe it to myself to know how to fight back effectively. I owe it to myself to scream bloody murder. Learning to protect myself and banish my unproductive terror is more than a good idea: it's a responsibility. But it's an easy responsibility to overlook if, like me, you've never been in a knockdown, drag-out brawl.

In this month of sexual violence awareness, I'd like to encourage all of you peaceful Princeton women to think about signing up for Women's Self-Defense next year. I know you may not feel like fighting for your lives for two hours every week. Do it anyway – it's the best $25 investment you'll make here.

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