Five years ago yesterday, I narrowly escaped being part of the 25 percent of women who are sexually assaulted during their lifetime. I was nineteen years old riding in a taxi at night on the way back from visiting a friend, and I’d naively sat in the front seat in an attempt to be friendly with the driver. After a series of increasingly vulgar comments about my body that I nervously laughed off, a few unsuccessful attempts to get my contact information and where I lived, and a cliche offer about an “alternative” way for me to pay for my ride, the driver stopped the taxi, locked the passenger-side door, and grabbed my wrist to try to pull me back when I tried to unlock it.
The rest of the memory was blurred by adrenaline and fear, but I managed to tear myself away from him, get the door unlocked, and run to a nearby bus. I sat in the back seat shaking and crying, cursing myself for not having tuck-and-rolled out of that taxi the moment the warning bells in my head started ringing. I felt weak and vulnerable, and I decided I never wanted to feel like that again.
Two days later, I signed up for my first kickboxing class at an MMA gym. After another five months and some encouragement from my then-boyfriend, I completed my first jiu-jitsu class. As time passed and I started submitting people who were bigger and stronger than me, I began to feel truly powerful for the first time in my life. What had started as a way to physically defend myself soon turned into a way for me to prove to myself that I was the only one in charge of my body — that you could squish me and twist me and push me and pull me, but I would find a way to make it out.
Years later, jiu-jitsu has become so much more than self-defense. The original part it played is so ironically small compared to all the other ways it’s enriched my life, but I’ll never forget the circumstances that led me to where I am today.
As I watched hundreds of thousands of people participate in the Women’s Marches around the world yesterday, I felt my heart swell over the sheer number of people who found the strength to stand up for what they believe in and tell the world that come what had and come what may, they wouldn’t be tapping out. They weren’t the rioters who had caused senseless damage and violence, but peaceful protesters who all had a variety of reasons to use their voices and made damn sure that those voices were heard.
These people — men, women, and children — have been criticized using buzzwords like “snowflakes” by people who seem to believe that every one of them has zero problems because they don’t live in a third-world country. Personally, I think it takes willful ignorance to turn a blind eye to the fact that we still have a long way to go when tens of thousands of both women and men are raped every month and the child sex trafficking industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year right here in the United States.
If we have the guts to say people have nothing to protest because things are worse elsewhere, I sure hope we use those same guts to proclaim that people have nothing to celebrate because things are better elsewhere.
I guess this gets to me so much because yesterday was the first time I shared my “jiu-jitsu origin story” with just about everyone I know. It’s not that I try to hide it; whenever people ask me why I started training, I reply honestly. But at the same time, I don’t exactly start conversations by saying, “I was almost raped a few years ago and now I choke people for fun.” It’s not common knowledge, and at this point, it’s something I really only think about when someone brings up a similar experience. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a pivotal event in my life or that it doesn’t influence me in small, subtle ways.
Just like most people (up until yesterday) weren’t aware of exactly why I do jiu-jitsu, most people weren’t aware of the reasons that all those people had for marching by the thousands all over the world. To dismiss their motivation because it’s not explicitly written out is to imply that their experiences and concerns are invalid because they aren’t your own.
If you were to go around and ask each individual person why they signed up for their first BJJ class, you’d likely get lots of reasons regarding the past (“I was bullied as a kid and wanted to feel strong again.”), the present (“Work is crushing my soul and I need an outlet.”), and the future (“I want to be healthy enough to play with my grandkids one day.”). Even if we were never bullied or have a job we adore or are way too young to even think about grandkids, we’d applaud our teammates for doing something to improve their lives. After all, regardless of our differences, we’re immediately united the moment we step into the gym. Rolling together helps us remember that we all bleed, we all go to sleep with a well-executed choke, and most importantly, we’re all fighting something.
It’s because of this — and many other reasons — that I support every single person who went out there yesterday and exercised their right to assemble and speak freely. I don’t know all their reasons, nor do I need to; the fact that they have them is good enough for me. Even though I wasn’t able to participate in the march myself, I do it in my own way every time I tie my belt and step onto the mats. By rolling, I accept my past, control my future, and hopefully show other people that while you can’t always stop yourself from hitting the ground, no one can stop you from moving forward.