Home > Library > Guest Speaker Chats > Gaz Black Chat

Self-Defence for Rape Survivors - Chat Transcript

The Pandora's Aquarium chat room welcomed Gaz Black May 19 2012. Gaz is a pro-feminist anti-rape activist and creator of The Best Defense Program http://thebestdefenseprogram.wordpress.com. Gaz teaches that women's resistance to violence encompasses many different aspects and facilitates the way to finding and using the tools to enhance our safety.

Louise: Hi everyone! I just want to extend a big welcome to you and to our guest speaker, Gaz Black, who is accompanied by his daughter and teaching-partner Chantal – two for the price of one, lucky us :). Thank you all for coming! Gaz is an anti-rape activist and facilitator of self-defence classes for women. He is the creator of The Best Defense Program (http://thebestdefenseprogram.wordpress.com/).

For many of us who have been sexually assaulted, the issue of taking care of ourselves in future is a crucial one, and we are sure this chat will be enlightening and beneficial for survivors.

This chat will run for 90 minutes. We'll be asking pre-submitted questions during the first half of chat. During the second half, Gaz will answer your questions, and if time and space allow, we have more prepared questions. Feel free to ask questions throughout the chat, though they will not show up until later.

Louise: Gaz, first would you tell us a little about The Best Defense Program and your work as a padded assailant?

GazB: Well, first off I'm going to offer a bit of a correction on that introduction...I teach self-defence/counter-violence, but my classes aren't "women's self-defence" classes. I find the term to be a bit irritating, actually, as though women aren't capable of "regular self-defence" the way men are. It's along the same lines as pink versions of everything you can buy in the store. I don't teach "pink self-defence."

Louise: Right. Good point :)

GazB: Now, as for my involvement, I began at a fairly young age. I was exposed to violence early, then started training in martial arts, and then I started working in "use of force situations. I saw some conflicts with the way I was being taught, and when I was asked to teach I taught in ways that were more easily applicable. It's all about the scenario.

For instance, many people teach from the standpoint of what I call the "attack in a vacuum." As though you will be grabbed, punched, etc., all without any warning of any kind. I don't teach like that, and there's a move toward most self-defence teaching in reality based, scenario settings. So for me, I add a lot of scenarios that go backward farther and farther until we can get to "pre-conflict."

Louise: Could you elaborate on the different dimensions of self-defence or women's resistance to violence? For example, it isn't just physical, is it? For example, how can mind and instinct help us in a potentially dangerous situation?

GazB: Instinct is everything. We all have it, but some of us - read that, "you" - have been told to disregard that instinct.  As though you don't know what's best for you. For instance, most women can relate to the idea of meeting someone, getting a "creepy vibe," and then squishing it because, hey, the guy she just met is a friend of a friend so he can't be a creep. That's not right, it's not fair, and it's not helpful in any way.


Louise: Many women worry that a show of resistance to an attacker will result in them being hurt "worse." Could you explain why this deeply-entrenched belief, though understandable, may be dangerous and disempowering? There are some pretty compelling studies, aren't there?

GazB: There are a lot of studies that show women who resist violently are not hurt any worse than those who do not. The other thing is, when I hear this question I have to ask, "Worse than what?" Isn't he already trying to hurt you (or worse)? And it's about boundaries. I'm not someone who says, "Violently resist" for every situation.  But if you have boundaries and someone crosses them, there must be a repercussion.  Otherwise the boundary is going to be crossed again, and perhaps even more violently. So, I say start small and early. Start with, "Hey, Bob, can you please not tell those sexist jokes around me?" And if Bob keeps it up, enforce the boundary. Walk away, report to human resources, tell him you're going to take it a step further if that's what you feel you can do. Then, you can start to defend more physical boundaries. Like forced/imposed affection - non-violent hugs, and so on.

But the real issue with thinking "I can get hurt worse" is that it says we're not worthy of defence at every degree of insult, and then when it gets increasingly violent it becomes more difficult to defend physically. Does that make sense?

So, I think if we're going to start with a thesis statement, if you will, of "I am worthy of defending. I am worthy of good," then we're less likely to run into the paralysis that can disempower us in conflict of any kind.

Louise: Some survivors of rape feel anguish when they hear about self-defence. It can revive their self-blame about what they "didn't do to stop it" when they were raped. Can you tell us why this shouldn't be the case? How does an instructor encourage survivors and women in general not to see themselves as necessarily helpless, at the same time very much keeping the responsibility for committing rape on the rapist?

GazB: Why shouldn't it be the case..? Well, they are still here. Clearly they did what they needed to do to survive. Self-defence education and training isn't about "shoulding" on ourselves or other survivors, it's about exploring options. If I could go back in time to a violent situation I've already survived only this time I do something different, who's to say I don't die or suffer more injury this time? Last time my instincts were there. Maybe that's all I really needed. So learning to hone those instincts might be the option I want to explore.

Louise: It's common for many survivors to want to "rape-proof" themselves to make sure it never happens again. Many of us find that this is ultimately unrealistic and putting undue onus on ourselves instead of perpetrators. How can a good self-defence course empower a rape survivor for her future without setting up false guarantees?

GazB: It's important to know there are no guarantees with anything. No route of action will prevent attack, as it's the attacker who gets to decide who, when, where, what, and how. Again, it's about options and not about a cheat sheet of things you will do. There is no real Tab A/Slot B approach to self-defence So, for those survivors who want to "rape proof" themselves, I advocate for, again, exploring more options as a means to having a response to something that may not have been there before.

Louise: Could you explain why certain methods of resistance may cause a rapist to desist?

GazB: Well, one of the things I advocate for is a very legalistic approach to self-defence. In Canada, we are obligated to use no more force than is being used against us unless we are in fear of grievous bodily harm or death - then we can cause same. So, consider the less common "stranger attack:" If I'm walking down the sidewalk and someone is walking toward me and I feel scared/threatened/encroached upon, I am obligated to respond with only that much force as is being used. So, I change my line of travel so the person approaching me is no longer walking directly toward me. If that person changes his line of travel to meet mine, I now up the force. I might stop, put up a "physical fence" and reinforce it verbally. That assertive action alone may cause him to reconsider. Everything we want to do will follow this same guideline. The hope is we will never have to employ counter-violence, but in the event we do have to, we do it with a strong foundation already in place of having set boundaries and reinforced them in increasingly difficult situations.

Louise: Does resistance have limitations in certain situations? For example, what if the assailant has a weapon, or there is more than one assailant? Is it thus useful to have a repertoire of skills which may apply to different situations? Could you give a couple of examples?

GazB: Everything has a limit, but much of that will depend on the person who is employing that resistance. If you are more or less willing than the next person to escalate the amount of force you are using, then you are just as more or less likely to run into that limitation. For example, with the stranger who is walking toward you, if you "up the ante" and he notices something that tells him you aren't willing to escalate, then he may call your bluff. But if he believes your commitment to your safety involves physical escalation, he may take the message and back off. But resistance isn't one thing, one way. Resisting can be running away. It can also be deciding to just "get through it." So, the limitation is largely set by the situation, but also by the individual.

Louise: What does a good instructor do when a survivor becomes triggered in the course of a class? Can triggers in fact be potentially useful?

GazB: Well, the first part of that question is different for everyone. It's important people who have history, are involved closely with those who have history, or who are in high-stress lifestyles know that "triggering" is very possible. In fact, one of my goals is to take participants out of a "balanced" state and accelerate their heart rates due to stress.  To change their thinking away from logical, clear, action-response processes and into action-reaction processes.

But for those who "flash" in a class, it's important to try to get them back to a sense of homeostasis, normalise the reaction they had, and help them determine what the next course of action is.  This isn't a "fall of the horse and get back on" situation in class.

It has to be something the instructor and student approach together. Otherwise, it can do damage.

Louise: And now we’ll move on to some member questions. The first two were presubmitted before the chat:

Member: What are some ways we can work on psychologically being strong, standing up for ourselves... avoid freezing up at the moment when fight or flight should kick in? In order to stop things from happening again when the abuser is someone that is still in our lives.

GazB  [Chantal]: We mentioned starting with enforcing boundaries. We recommend starting to practice with friends, building eachother up, learning your boundaries together. Because of this, you've already established who is worthy of trust. You will have learned to distance those who don't respect you, not to apologise and make yourself less than equal to your friends, acquaintances, partners etc.  Then it becomes easier to start that escalation against the person in your life who becomes aggressive, and then violent

Starting like that, we can build our expectations of the type of treatment we deserve.  It's incredibly important that everyone knows violence of any kind is most often perpetrated by someone we know.

GazB [Gaz]: Knowing that, knowing the law, and then knowing a bit of our self-worth makes it easier to do "incremental" self-defence. Freezing is one of the many possibilities, though. Freezing is less likely when we've experienced some form of success in a very similar set of circumstances. Typically, we do what has worked for us before. So, as Chantal said, it's important to start with building relationships outside that abusive one, focusing on building our self-esteem, and seeing what respect looks like. Violence is, quite simply, highly disrespectful of the person at whom it is aimed.

I hope that gets at the question. I would like to hear more from that member, if it's possible. I'd like to make sure I've answered thoroughly enough.

Louise: We can recommend that she email you if you like

GazB: That would be great. I am always willing to take questions at gaz@thebestdefenseprogram.com

I also would like to remind everyone to send email safely - in the event you're still with the abuser, it may be necessary for you to cover your tracks.

Member:  As a visually impaired woman, how can I become more aware of danger in my immediate surroundings? How can I become more able to protect myself?

GazB : Because "visually impaired" is such a general term, it may be difficult to answer that satisfactorily... But...The first thing I *always* ask people to do is to really talk and really listen with those around them. If you have a good feeling for the type of people you are with, trust your gut. Same thing if that feeling changes. If you're talking about "on the street," well... The issue is, how safe any given area is, is completely up to the criminal. Visually impaired or not, crime is not the responsibility of the victim. Teach those around you about victim blaming, about rape culture, about how and why our criminals' behaviour is normalised, and then advocate for that change.

It's a long process.

A self-defence class can help you to feel safer, especially if the instructor is familiar with the disabilities of the students. But safety is about becoming self-reliant.  Awareness isn't just about what we see. It's also what we hear and what we feel in our gut.

A list of "always do" and "never do" defensive tactics isn't the way to go. I wish it was.  But the answer is still about trusting yourself. If the disability is new, conversations with those who have lived with it can help.

You know when the temperature feels too warm for what you're wearing, and you trust yourself there. There have been a lot of lessons to today’s citizens to not trust themselves. If it feels like the situation is off, it very likely is. If you’re feeling is wrong, and you go home and re-evaluate, you've only ever missed out on one thing at a time. If, however, we go home, never re-evaluate, and live in fear, we aren't any better off... Honing our instinct is always a possibility, and often the best teachers are those who have lived in that community all of their lives.

Kate:  Now we have some questions that have come in through the chat

Member:  I find it hard to break the pattern of being submissive in order to stay alive as it began so early and feels so engrained. I find assertion so hard. My instincts are always spot on but I can't use words and I physically freeze. Fear completely cripples me. How do you begin to break through that fear?

GazB  [Chantal]: If you have a friend that understands this part of your life, or if there is a support group you trust, you can begin to practice with them. You can choose the phrases you would like to learn to employ, and over a period of time use it with those friends to gain feedback and support, so that you have the practice and the reinforcement. When you go into the next situation, remember that you have practiced, have gained those tools, and have the support and recognition from the people you have trusted and worked with on this.

GazB [Gaz]: It's again, important to remember we tend to use what has worked for us in the past, which is likely why you return to a response you don't really want to - it worked before. So it can - and should - start with the simplest verbal boundary reinforcement in safe places.

Here's a bit of disclosure on my (Gaz's) part: A few years ago I received a head injury that saw my reactions to stress and conflict FLARE. In order to normalise it again to the point I could enter into conflict, I started blogging and debating online.  It's all in my area of expertise, and so I came into it with an advantage. But the point is, I started dealing with that conflict more assertively. Most things we do that are difficult are approached that way. The old-fashioned idea of throwing someone into the deep end to teach them how to swim has, by and large, gone the way of the do-do. And it's a good thing. Ease in.

Does that answer your question?

Member: Earlier you said "If that person changes his line of travel to meet mine, I now up the force. You suggested to stop, put up a "physical fence" and reinforce it verbally. What does "put up a physical fence" in this situation mean? (stranger walking towards you).  Could you give us an example of how to reinforce it verbally?

GazB [Chantal]:  The physical fence can be putting a hand or both hands up, like a stop sign, or holding your bag or other carried item between you and that person - it's a preventative in case the person reaches for you and you need to react, and it communicates the body language that you would like to disengage, and they should stay back.

The verbal reinforcement can be "stop", or any equivalent that communicates your message. You can be polite - "please do not come closer" - or as forceful as necessary.  "I don't want this" is also very useful.

GazB  [Gaz]:  Physical fences can take many forms, like Chantal said. Just having your hands between you and the other person is a fence. The more obvious the threat, the more obvious the fence. And in that scenario, the point is to have the other person in a position of having to make their intention known or to abandon it.  Is that clear enough?

Member: Regarding triggering in a defence class and needing the instructor and student to approach it together, how do you think it can do damage if they don't do this? Say, if I keep the trigger to myself, or the instructor proceeds without giving me time to stabilise?

GazB: If the instructor proceeds, there is a chance of physical injury. Likewise with keeping the trigger to yourself. Of course, this depends on the nature of the trigger, but generally speaking, the trigger is a greater leap into the sympathetic nervous system.  Rational thought can become difficult, fear responses can be heightened, and power can increase.

Depending on the nature of the class, it may become more difficult to do the tactics as taught.

"Stabilise" is an interesting term, as well... I don't want my students to be completely relaxed and "in the green zone" during a class. I want there to be some reaction. Just not something overt and dangerous to either the student, another participant, or the instructors.

GazB [Chantal]: We tend to need a warning, but this does not mean you should have to disclose anything that would make you uncomfortable for others to know either. All we would require is a talk about what we might expect - "I may become non-verbal" for example - or your expectations for what you would need - "I might need to sit, or leave the room"

GazB [Gaz]: Exactly. Disclosure isn't the point. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities in our - and I think any good - classes to check in with participants and see if proceeding with the exercise at hand is appropriate, necessary, or just not where someone wants to go at the moment. Your experience and any disclosure of it should always be up to you.

Member:  I often wonder if I did the "right thing" by not fighting back. What is it about the "freeze" response that works in a scary situation?

GazB [Chantal]: It's hard to say for sure why it works. It can be about how you stayed in a guarded position, it can be about psychological or emotional strength it holds for you in that moment, or any number of things. But ultimately, if it works, it works. Your instincts and knowledge of the situation contributed to the decision or reaction, so it is appropriate.

GazB [Gaz]: It often seems very cliché to say, "You survived, so you did the right thing." Fact is, your "freeze" may have been a less than fully conscious read of the situation and decision to employ the very tactic you needed.

Sometimes, that freeze feels very... weak. But really, there was probably a lot more going on than just staying non-violent. There's a repositioning of the psyche in that moment. There's often a resignation to the event in order to see the other side of it. As Tori Amos said, "I've never seen Barbados so I must get through this." How you read the situation in the moment and all the garbage we can add to it - the "shoulding" on ourselves - are completely different beasts.

Kate: Okay, one more question from the members and then I think Lou has a final question to ask :)

GazB: Sounds good

Member: I want to get involved with activism for child sexual abuse, but I'm a bit worried about how telling everyone may affect my family, but it's something I really would like to do. What do you think I should do? Are there ways where survivors can get involved in defence as a way to raise awareness of rape and sexual abuse?

GazB: Disclosure for some people is a very strengthening experience. For others, it's a very private experience. Disclosure is not a pre-requisite for activism. I teach a lot of classes. I don't disclose my history to everyone I teach, though I do to some, and I always choose how much of it. Teaching someone about self-defence and counter violence can be motivated by anything, but it's really about the value of what you are teaching that matters. I've met very well-intentioned people that teach absolute garbage, just as I've met jerks who really knew what they were talking about. The happy medium between the two is more difficult, and more important.

GazB [Chantal]: I've read anecdotes from survivors who think because they have disclosed and felt comfortable, they are no longer part of the survivor discussion. I've read some from survivors who think because they haven't, they also don't belong. The truth is that we need all kinds of survivors - regardless of whether you choose to disclose to the group or not, your knowledge is still valuable, you are still part of the survivors' discussion.

Kate: I think that is so valuable to keep in mind Gaz and Chantal, about the quality of the teaching. I did a self-defence course in high school where I was taught to always wear my hair in a bun, carry my keys at all time and never walk alone between the hours of 6pm and 6 am. Absolute rubbish - and from a woman who said she was a survivor.

GazB: The other part of it is, you're allowed to weigh whether you want to draw your family into it or not. It might be worth it to you, or it might not. No one else can judge that decision for you; you decide what's best for you. You may start with one decision not to disclose, and then disclose later, or change the way you speak about it as you become more comfortable with your involvement.

GazB [Chantal]: Absolutely, Kate, it does not make sense to always limit yourself, "just in case"

GazB [Gaz]: A list of "alwayses" and "nevers" is a lousy way to learn to feel safe. That hyper-vigilance can actually leave us feeling worse, and even less safe

Kate: Particularly if you throw in PTSD! ;)

Louise: Okay Gaz, before we wind up, how about some last quick but centrally important things you believe survivors and women in general need to know about resistance to sexual violence?

GazB : I'd like to leave everyone with a lesson we can all teach and be a part of in the lives of the young people we know. We can help them to develop their boundaries, trust their instincts, and even teach the adults in their lives by never accepting a grudgingly given kiss or hug.


When Chantal was little, I was in a bit of a bind with my mother whenever we went to visit. "Do you want to hug your Granma?" I would ask. "No," would be the answer more often than not. And my mother wanted that affection.  She spent time being mad at me because I would say, "Maybe next time." Thing is, one day Chantal ran into the house yelling, "Granma!" and threw herself into my mother's arms. All was forgiven.

Chantal understood her body was hers, and who she gave affection to was her decision to make. She also knew I was her ally in that.

Our young people, especially our women, need to know that.

If anyone is interested, I have lots of information on our blog. Tips on self-defence, street harassment and so on.  TheBestDefenseProgram.Wordpress.com

None of it requires any knowledge of counter-violence.

I think that's about it!

Louise: We are now out of time. Thankyou, Gaz and Chantal for extending this interesting chat to 90 minutes (actually a bit longer!).  It's been a great pleasure to have you here. Thankyou for agreeing to be our guests! And thanks also to everybody who attended. We will be posting the transcript of the chat in the very near future. Have a lovely weekend everybody :)

Kate: Thank you Gaz :)

GazB : You're very welcome from both of us! And thanks for the great questions!


If you would like to suggest a topic or speaker for future guest speaker chats, please contact us!