As a college student in Portland, Trish Rossignol was accosted on Congress Street by a man who wanted to take her to a hotel. When he grabbed her in a bear hug, instinct took over and she quickly kneed him in the groin.
This maneuver convinced her assailant she wasn’t interested and she was able to escape.
In the years since she was attacked in Portland, Rossignol has built a career teaching self-defense to others.
She and other instructors are finding an increasing number of Maine women willing to spend time in sweaty gyms to learn self-defense skills that might some day prove useful on a lonely street, or even in their bedrooms.
Most women believe they will never be physically attacked and injured, raped or killed. That belief would appear to be even more valid in Maine, where many people, not just women, believe violence happens somewhere else, south of the Kittery bridge. But more and more women, across the country and in Maine, are making a conscious decision to prepare for the possibility that they could be wrong.
During the past five years, martial arts studios throughout Maine have observed a steadily increasing number of women sampling, and succeeding in, their classes. Some studios also offer special women’s self-defense classes.
At Huard’s Ju-Jitsu and Karate in Winslow, a waiting list has developed for the school’s six-week anti-rape, self-defense classes, and women frequently outnumber men in the martial arts classes. Classes across the state range from as few as six weeks up to 12 weeks and more, depending on the type of training sought.
Rose Robinson of Hartland was one of the women to take advantage of classes in her community. Standing 4-feet, 11-inches tall and self-described as “pushing 60,” Robinson wanted to be assured she would not be caught off-guard.
“Every woman, or girl, and even some guys, need something in the back of their mind to protect themselves,” Robinson said. “It [self-defense training] gives you more confidence. You always think of slapping, finger can do a lot of damage if you know what to do.”
One focus of self-defense training for women is identifying the best place or manner to strike an assailant, like the groin, side of the neck, an upward thrust to the chin or forehead, a gouge or poke to the eyes, boxing both ears at once, and quick kicks or stomps to the ankles, instep or knees. The actions inflict both pain and surprise, a distraction — the focus of self-defense training.
Instructors across the state said the primary lesson in self-defense courses is an emphasis on escape, an escape to get help.
“I’ve never been in a situation where I needed to know , but I never know when I will be,” Robinson said. “If you just know enough so you can get away…”
Just knowing the techniques, knowing they might overpower, hurt an assailant, or simply escape, gives many women a mental edge, a feeling of security that may never be needed.
“If I got somebody down, I’d probably kick them in the head before I ran,” Robinson said.
The women’s liberation movement, the O.J. Simpson trial and bleak crime statistics have all focused attention on violence against women. Calls to rape crisis centers in Maine increased 48 percent between 1992 and 1993. Several instructors said every case of abuse or assault that reaches the media brings more calls for training. Although some women don’t follow through by taking classes, instructors from Portland to Presque Isle said women were searching for ways to be prepared.
In rural Hartland, Vicky Rice reacted to random attacks on women in central Maine by offering specially designed self-defense classes for women at her fitness studio, Fit 1. She saw the interest in self-defense developing around her.
“When we spent one whole aerobics class talking about it, I saw the need,” she said. “It was such a revelation for some women to learn it doesn’t take strength — it takes knowledge.”
Standing in the middle of an exercise mat, Rice demonstrates with apparent ease how leverage, speed, pain and a heavy dose of surprise can stun or even disable an attacker. As she is grabbed from behind by an “attacker,” she moves quickly, almost instinctively, to return the grasp.
In 1994, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released the results of a survey that said 61 percent of women who resisted an attacker verbally or physically think they improved their situations. Only 23 percent of the women who resisted rape, robbery or assault by arguing, reasoning or fighting back believed the self-protective behavior did not help. Another 16 percent weren’t sure.
Four out of five women took some protective action when their attacker was an intimate or other relative. But fewer than three out of four did so when an acquaintance or stranger attacked, the survey found.
Rice began martial arts training as an extension of her career as a fitness trainer. Bringing it home to Hartland was a natural move, she said.
“No community is too small for this. A lot of people can’t afford to travel for it [training]. It’s been well accepted here. Self-defense is something personal I want to do for women,” she said.
“It can be hard to get women into self-defense training. They don’t realize what it’s all about,” Rice said. “They think it’s just for the young and fit.”
Self-defense training does not require fitness as much as knowledge and the confidence to use it. While many women take the training as an extension of their fitness programs, just as many others will take up a fitness program or additional martial arts training after learning self-defense.
Women register for self-defense for many reasons. For many it is an extension of fitness training. Some women are challenged by the discipline of martial arts; it takes them beyond the jumping jacks of an aerobic class. But by far the primary reason many women seek self-defense training is fear — fear of what could be.
It is the fear that Fred Maddocks of Charleston questions. He is concerned people are building an industry based on fear and not focusing on the mental preparedness that can counter violence against women.
Most instructors urge women to examine their reasons for seeking self-defense training and their commitment to follow through with it.
“A lot of women come to us because they want to learn how to break someone’s leg. That’s not what we are about,” said Maddocks, who offers self-defense courses along with his wife, Tina. “We’re not here to teach you how to fight, but how to defend yourself.”
Although they teach physical self-defense, the Maddocks believe mental attitude and physical presence can also be a deterrent to an attack or intimidation. The subtleties of verbal response, including choice of words and the inflection of the voice and how a woman handles herself in public, are elements in their training program.
“We teach the gentle art of verbal self-defense up to full-fledged physical contact. If you fight back, it can escalate and then it becomes a matter of the person who is stronger or with the most endurance who will win. If you allow yourself to be manipulated into fighting back, you have lost control,” he said.
But not enough women are seeking self-defense training, Fred Maddocks said.
“They are either in denial or they are intimidated,” he said.
Maddocks was one of the few instructors contacted who had not experienced a significant increase in women looking to protect themselves.
In Presque Isle, Jerry Joles said more women may be seeking self-defense training, but once the classes go beyond distracting and disabling measures to escape from an assailant, many women don’t want any part of it.
“If you can’t get away [from an attack], you have to be committed to followi through as if your life depended on it. And, it may,” he said.
It’s grappling on the ground with an attacker that most women fear the most and therefore don’t want to deal with it, he said. And they drop out of the classes or fail to get refresher courses to maintain their new skills.
But Rossignol has witnessed the opposite, with women actually eager to learn how to handle grappling situations in the belief an attempted rape may escalate to a physical struggle.
Joles also teaches classes in combat firearms and finds women will follow through with that training more than physical forms of self-defense. Women who take the firearms training, he said, feel they have more control.
“The younger women, and more fit, will stick with the self-defense training. If it gets too physical, older women find it’s more than they expected,” he said.
With more and more people, including women, wanting concealed weapons permits, Joles’ training program meets the state requirement for a certified handgun safety course. But he also extends the course to include firing range experience that is required by some local police departments.
A total of 25 states, including Maine, now allow citizens to carry concealed weapons, with a permit.
In Bangor, Mike Clark of Clark’s Tae Kwon Do, said women may call about self-defense training, but few will follow through by taking a class or workshop. He has more success with women registering for martial arts training.
“It depends on what is happening in the area,” he said. ” A few years ago when we had those rapes downtown, we had a lot of calls.”
More recently though, workshops or seminars for self-defense training alone would elicit 30 to 40 calls, but only five people would actually attend, he said.
Mary Madore of Madawaska, whose husband, James, teaches self-defense classes in Fort Kent, said many high school students and soon-to-be college students will take martial arts training before heading off to school in more urban areas. But she also pointed out a crash course in any form of self-defense, without sufficient refresher classes or follow-up, can give women a false sense of security.
The real success for women or girls in martial arts is to start young, she said. The training becomes ingrained, something you never really lose. Statistics show that of 500 women who begin self-defense training through the martial arts, only one will achieve black-belt status, she said.
Lyndon Hopkins, instructor at the Newport division of Huard’s, was surprised at the number of women who signed up for the first classes last September at the Newport site. An instructor in Winslow for eight years, he too has witnessed steady enrollment by women of all ages, ranging from six-year-old girls to age 50-plus women. Increased self-esteem and confidence are obvious by-products of the training, he said. He has watched at least four women in recent years pursue training to the black belt level.
For Linda Brown, an educational consultant in Pittsfield, registering for martial arts training at the Newport studio was a personal challenge and an attempt at a new skill to enhance her understanding of children’s performance anxiety.
“Women don’t fight physically, not assertively,” she said. “It helps your self-esteem, your self-confidence. And it takes away your performance anxiety. I gained a new skill and learned how to protect myself.”
Self-esteem and empowerment are also strong weapons, according to Pittsfield Police Sgt. Tim Roussin. As a veteran officer, Roussin has responded to a number of domestic complaints in his career. Years of mental abuse breaks down any self-esteem the abused women may have. If women believe they are worthless they are less likely to fight back, physically or mentally, he said. Training to defend themselves could only boost their self-confidence and self-esteem.
“It’s a good thing for these women to be prepared, ” he said, “but not just because she could use the skills, but to know she has them, and have a better idea of what can happen.”
Confidence is the most apparent byproduct of self-defense training, as Rossignol can attest from her long-ago experience in Portland.
“I was afraid just like anyone, but knowing what I could do kept me from panicking. I had already told him to get lost and that didn’t work,” she said. “A lot of it [self-defense] is mental. You have to have confidence.”