When I walked into the room that was to host my first ever ju-jitsu class, I found it full of men. Just men. But not just any men. Men swathed in martial dress, men flexing themselves into martial postures. Men kicking a football about as a prelude to an evening of kicking each other about. These were men, in other words, who had come together to be men.
My unannounced entrance into a crowd such as this inevitably altered the atmosphere. I felt as exposed as a nudist in church, as out of place as an Amish pacifist at an NRA convention, and about as awkward as a dachshund who finds herself the only puppy in a pet parliament after inadvertently attending a felines-only council for the discussion of domesticated animal grievances. The men, to stretch the last tortuous simile to its painful conclusion, reacted to my intrusion of their sacred man-time as the council of cats would, if those cats – seized by a fit of politeness that is admittedly quite uncharacteristic of cats – decided that rather than humiliating the already bashful pup, they would let her stay. More than that, they would affect a heightened air of relaxation as though to imply they thought there was nothing quite so natural as a canine at a cat council, and some, after chewing the matter over, came to admit, even if only within their pussy-cat minds, that an action-against-owners assembly was if anything more useful to dogs than cats, as a dog, through its greater dependency on the kindnesses of the stronger partner in the pet-man relationship, is so much more vulnerable to exploitation and indignity.
So: I was allowed to stay. For which posterity, or at least the behavioural psychologists of the future, will thank those men. As had I not stayed, and had I not for the full hour of the lesson had one-on-one tuition with the ju-jitsu instructor while the rest of the class tumbled and thrashed unsupervised around us, I would not have been able to form the following simple hypothesis –
All men on their journey from inexperienced callow youth to suave Bond-incarnate seducer pass through three stages of development:
1. The boy is shy around all females. He is reluctant to touch one, and above all reluctant to be suspected of wanting to touch one.
2. The man-child is over-enthusiastic around all females. He is far too eager to touch one, and thus will lunge in whenever an opportunity presents itself, without so much as a fleeting “do you mind if I do?” first.
3. The man becomes more far-sighted. Seeking more than the mere gratification of stage two he veils his enthusiasm, and masters the three effective f’s: flattery, flirtation and foreplay.
What has this to do with ju-jitsu? Simply: to witness these phases in a conveniently contracted space of time, the female observer of man’s psychology can do no better than to place herself within a male-dominated sphere where she is so unexpected, so unfamiliar, that the males must learn to interact with her again as if for the first time.
Such was the experience of my poor instructor. While his pupils hurled footballs at my head or ignored me, the instructor, having promised to partner me for the full hour, had to grapple with the delicate problem of how he was to grapple me.
The problem, to be blunt, lay with my chest, a chest which my instructor evidently regarded as being in the way of my torso, and therefore in the way of his teaching me certain moves and holds properly. “Being a lady” (he repeated this at intervals, as though I were liable to forget the good fortune of my gender), his arms in various attacks and defences were by necessity positioned higher or lower or further apart than he claimed they would have been were he fighting a man. Indeed, for the first fifteen minutes or so, my instructor gave the whole region of my chest a wide berth – which is hardly the sort of gentlemanly behaviour one would expect from a ruthless real-life attacker. What is the point of learning how to fight off a beastly assailant if your mock attack bears no semblance to reality?
How soon one regrets what one once wished for. For in the second third of the lesson my instructor, with no forewarning, underwent an alarming development: he moved into stage two. Suddenly, learning the easy standing up, arm-lock manoeuvres wasn’t enough. Suddenly, it was absolutely imperative that in my first lesson I learnt how to free myself from a man pinning me down to the ground and – even more imperative – that I learn how to disable a man I am pinning down. Therefore, within barely twenty minutes of meeting him, I found myself straddling my instructor. Which I thought was a bit much, not least on account of the fact that this was a highly unlikely position for me to find myself in were I being attacked. Indeed, I hope any man I sit on top of in the future will be friend rather than foe, and I can’t imagine me wanting to end any such scenario by breaking the poor fellow’s arm.
Fortunately, I have always found it difficult to prevent my feelings from transferring to my face, and it only took a few straddles and counter-straddles for the instructor to realise I was deeply uncomfortable. He thereupon returned to the safer territory of teaching me various ways to escape from someone holding your wrists or throat, during which instruction his occasional patting of my arms and only slightly patronising compliments that I was a very quick mover evidenced the onset of his maturation to stage three.
I must however say that, albeit this was the most acutely self-conscious hour of my life in which I suffered the sort of intimate liberties that would have caused Jane Austen’s heroines to drop their teacups in mortification, I did actually learn some useful tricks. Ju-jitsu, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is the art of self-defence. A ju-jitsu lesson therefore consists of reconstructing all manner of assault situations (kicking, brawling, strangling, punching, and – naturally – straddling) and working out how to defend yourself against them.
To my instructor’s credit, we certainly rattled through the moves. In but an hour I learnt how to force a man heavier than me onto his back, how to knock a man kicking me to the ground, how to release my throat from a stranglehold and my wrists from the tightest grip. And were I to apply these moves with a little more pressure than we did in class, I am now capable of breaking the wrist of a big brutish hairy attacker. At least, that is the theory. Whether I would have the calm clarity of mind to remember and execute any of these manoeuvres should I really be attacked is somewhat dubious, as is the answer to the question: would they actually work? All the tricks are undoubtedly very effective at flooring a man who approaches me very slowly from the front and doesn’t resist. Success is therefore dependent on my opponent being passive or weak or, ideally, both; but passivity and weakness are hardly traits that feature prominently in the personality profiles of many violent criminals.
Be that as it may, learning the basics of self-defence can be useful for women, even if that use only goes as far as boosting her confidence and empowering her to put up a fight should the worst happen.
As for men, after an hour’s keen observation of watching sturdy, well-built, dark-alley-lurker type specimens grappling with each other, I could discern no practical purpose for their leaning self-defence, and no self-evidential attraction in the sport, unless the attraction simply be what I threatened to interrupt by turning up: man-time. Perhaps self-defence classes are after all merely an excuse for men to roll about on the floor with other men, while manfully beating the devil out of each other.