I’m sure you’ve heard it: Squeeze your car keys between your fingers when you’re walking around alone at night or through a dark parking garage. That way, presto! Should someone attack you, you have an effective weapon at the ready.
But do you really?
Almost certainly not, according to Ellen Snortland and her colleagues at IMPACT Personal Safety, all of whom are leading experts in self-defense. I consider taking IMPACT classes one of the most valuable gifts I’ve given myself. Another gift? Sitting down with Ellen in the studio recently for a Girl Boner Radio chat.
Ellen is a lawyer, author, filmmaker, and writing teacher. As a public intellectual regarding gender justice, she’s been a speaker, U.N. Press Corps-credentialed journalist and delegate for major United Nations World Conferences, including the Women’s conference in Beijing and Conference Against Racism in South Africa, and the Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. Ellen’s breakout book is Beauty Bites Beast, and her award-winning documentary of the same name has screened around the world.
Together we explored the life-changing event that spurred her activism, common myths about female strength and self-defense, ways self-defense training can bolster your sex life and relationships and more! Dr. Megan Fleming also chimed in, with important thoughts for a listener who fears his girlfriend’s sex-positive fervor has gone too far, leading to crossed boundaries.
Highlights from Sexual Empowerment & Self-Defense: A Girl Boner Radio chat with Ellen Snortland
The terrifying event that led to Ellen’s advocacy
AUGUST: You had an experience that changed the course of your life as far as becoming such an advocate for self defense and for women really embracing their own strength. Could you take us to that experience?
ELLEN: Sure. I lived in a big, big craftsman house in a really sketchy neighborhood. My husband and I came home at midnight in two separate cars. He pulled in and then I pulled in behind him in this long driveway and all of a sudden he’s knocking on my window and he says, “Stay in the car. I think somebody’s broken into the house.” Now it’s midnight. And so I froze and he went into the house…. So then I shook myself up and I said, what kind of partner am I to let my sweet husband, who doesn’t have any skills whatsoever except maybe high school wrestling—what is he gonna do? Wrestle somebody?
So I followed him in and as I crossed the threshold, a man in a ski mask was coming up the basement stairs, met me at the door, held up a knife and was ready to plunge it into me. I froze and then a little voice said, “Do something. Do it now.” And I screamed so loudly, the man dropped his knife, grabbed his ears and ran like hell…so, the next day I was going to work—I was a segment producer at the time for a very large production company—and I went in and I was just stunned that I was able to scream and I went to every single person and I said, “Do you know how to defend yourself?”
We had about 40 people on staff and I kid you not, August. Every single man said, “Yeah, I think I could.” And some of them were clearly lying. And 100% of the women said, “Oh God, no. I can’t even believe you screamed. And I went, Wow, that’s weird. That is very weird. So being the voracious reader than I am, I started to try to figure out if there was a book written about why human females feel so defenseless and why we continue to raise girls to think somebody is going to rescue them. It’s like, “No, they’re not going to rescue you.” Or they might, but you can’t depend on that. That’s bullshit. And statistically, it’s completely bullshit. So why do we keep clinging to this romantic notion that somebody is going to rescue us? So I wrote Beauty Bites Beast.
Common myths about self-defense
AUGUST: What’s one of the biggest myths that you hear about women and self-defense?
AUGUST: That if you’re small, you can’t defend yourself? How do you reply?
ELLEN: Size. That if you’re small, you can’t defend yourself. And how do you reply? Well, I say, Okay. Let’s say you’re walking down the street and you encounter a growling snarling dog. First of all, what do you do? If you’ve been educated, you back away. You don’t look at it in the eye. You don’t run. You respect the boundary because that’s what the growling and snarling is. It’s setting a boundary: “Watch out. There’s going to be danger, possibly.” Right? So there’s integrity in that… What you don’t do is you don’t check to see if it’s male or female. It’s irrelevant, right? As is the size. Because if it’s a chihuahua, you’re still not going to pick up a growling snarling chihuahua because that chihuahua’s going to go for your face when you pick it up…
Size and gender are irrelevant…if you regard yourself as consequential, and we basically raise girls to consider themselves inconsequential. I was not taught how to deliver consequences. I was taught to be nice, no matter what: Be polite. Be nice. Well, that’s great. I’m really good at it and I’m really glad I am. I can be nice under the most excruciating circumstances. However, I need to work on some other things like boundaries and saying, “You know what, you’re too close back up,” which is very simple, yet it is a command.
AUGUST: I really feel that the confidence that we get from self-defense training makes us more capable of experiencing pleasure.
ELLEN: Absolutely. And that’s universal too, by the way. You know, people don’t like being subjugated or considered to be less. They really don’t. And it doesn’t matter what culture you come up in, it doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable. And by keeping women helpless, by keeping them dependent, we’re keeping an unsustainable, rigid set of fictional rules in place.
The importance of role-playing self-protection and consent
AUGUST: One of the most powerful things that I experienced in the IMPACT class, that I wasn’t really expecting to be so powerful, were the role play exercises. We practiced working our consent muscles…using that kind of self-advocacy. How important do you feel self defenses for consent and boundary setting?
ELLEN: Like within relationships, it’s integral. And what is really important to me is practicing when it’s not actually happening. We have fire drills when there’s no fire happening. We have drills for earthquakes when no earthquake is happening. Because when you’re under stress, when your adrenaline and cortisol are spiking and you’re in fight or flight or freeze mode, you’re not going to come up with good ideas because those chemicals are not about the intellect.
It’s about your body moving into action to see what’s going to have you survive. The brain science lately, and I can’t cite anybody in particular, says that rehearsals are just as important as the actual thing and they help you deal escalate and to manage your adrenaline when it’s actually happening. So that’s why those exercises are so important.
AUGUST: I remember talking in [an IMPACT] class about some of the techniques that we are taught will work, but don’t. One was to carry your keys between your hand or carry mace. As you said, that fight, flight, freeze, when you’re in that survival mode, your hands will be shaking… You might not be able to grab your keys much less, you know, stab someone in the eye with it. So I think it’s really important, those exercises… The brain can’t tell the difference between a real attack or fake, whether it’s verbal or physical.
ELLEN: Yeah. And Mother Nature wants us to survive. So imagine the kind of energy it’s taken for women to tamp down what Mother Nature wants her to do and to hand over the keys, basically, to her own car. It just breaks my heart, because we are fully capable, potentially dangerous mammals.
And that’s why I use animals [as examples] so much, because the lion doesn’t go, “Oh, you know what? Oh, let’s wait until Daddy Lion gets home…” It’s absurd… And yet we relate to human genders like they’re immutable, that they are rigid and they’re not… I grew up being called a tomboy, which I resented. I’m me. I’m not any Tom and I’m not a boy.
Women’s strength on the big screen
AUGUST: Ever since taking [IMPACT] classes, I see violent scene so differently. You act out what you would do and half the time I’m just like, “She would be able to do something!” Even if it’s a trained FBI agent [character], they will have her just like fall to the floor… And that’s why I think your film, one of the reasons, it’s so important… Would you tell us a little more about the film?
ELLEN: Basically I unravel [and] unpack a lot of myths about women and self-defense. I kind of lightly followed a few individuals, but really, in my mind as a filmmaker, I made the protagonist women’s self defense itself, because at first I was invited to a factory in Mexico to train women there because the man I knew from Landmark had read my book and he contacted me and he said, “I’m tall, I’m blonde, I’m privileged. I had never realized just how scary it must be to walk around in a woman’s body. And I read your book and I will never be able to unsee that again. And the women who worked for me in this factory, I can see that they’re afraid of me…I am just a big mush-bunny, and that’s not okay with me. Would you come down and teach them how to defend themselves?”
AUGUST: What a great ally.
ELLEN: That’s beautiful, isn’t that? And so I thought the movie was going to be about that. And I went, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, wait a second. If I make a movie about these women in a Mexican factory, people will be able to go, “Oh, well that’s not me. I’m not in Mexico. Such a macho, violent culture.” There is not one culture that doesn’t have misogyny and violence against women. Even the really great countries, when you get alcohol and you get domestic stuff going, there’s violence… We have this epidemic of violence against women and children. And as far as we can tell, the only way to stop it is to have someone in the family stop and say, “No, that’s it. We don’t do that here. Stop the cycle cycle.”
Choosing an Empowering Self-Defense Class
AUGUST: How can somebody know that a self defense class is an ideal one? A really empowering impactful one?
ELLEN: Well, first of all, I would not do a self defense class if they didn’t have at least one female lead instructor because she knows thesocialization. I have such trouble saying that word socialization that we have to deal with. It’s not just a matter of learning how to hit. It’s undoing centuries, millennia, of conditioning that you don’t give men commands. You don’t say no. You’re nice no matter what. That’s some really embedded crap. It’s embedded and our survival has depended on it. So it’s not just some kind of dumb willy-nilly thing… A lot of women have watched what’s gone on and they’ve figured out that the best way to get by, and the best way to survive, is to comply—a serious coping mechanism that you just can’t undo immediately. So I would look for a female co-instructor at the very least, and ideally the woman is the lead instructor and the man is there to be her partner.
AUGUST: And still people apologize. I know I did.
ELLEN: Yeah. “Oh, I’m sorry! Wait a second. I just paid hundreds of dollars to have this training and I’m apologizing.” It’s like, whoa. Look how deep that is.
AUGUST: You learn so much about yourself and conditioning that you’ve experienced for sure.
ELLEN: And it’s not an individual’s fault. It’s culturally dictated. It’s not a personal flaw. It’s just what we’ve observed and taken in and continue to perpetuate until we break it.
AUGUST: Do you have any suggestions for someone who doesn’t have access to such a class? Maybe there isn’t one in their small town or they don’t have enough budget for it. Are there things that you can learn on your own?
ELLEN: Yeah. See, my movie that sounds like shameless self promotion, which by the way, is a taboo for women… It’s not a self-defense learning movie. However, you will see things that you don’t see in movies. And that’s how we learn to use fists… When I teach kids, they’re already using fists [in ways] that will break their little hands. So we have to have them unlearn fists and teach them eye strikes and heal palms instead, because though that won’t break anything.
My movie too will inspire people to go, “Okay, what am I going to do in my community to bring in self defense?” Because I did it as a tool to have people go, “Okay, I need this”. And then people are so creative and so entrepreneurial, they’ll figure it out.
Stream the full Girl Boner Radio episode up above or on your favorite podcast app.