Women Pull No Punches Learning to Fight Back

<i> Moss is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

The room is breathless. A woman is resting face down on a pillow. A shadow passes. All too soon, a 180-pound man is astride her, pinning her arms above her head.

The man barks obscenity-ridden instructions. The woman complies, rolling onto her back. The man moves down, sitting on her ankles, pulling at her clothes. The woman is deathly still.

Then, yelling, “No!” the woman sits up like a rejuvenated corpse. She gouges at her attacker’s eyes, yanks her legs from under his body and connects half a dozen kicks to his face, throat and groin. He’s stunned but keeps coming at her, grasping at her feet. She deftly kicks his hands, breaks free and plants several more blows.


The attacker falls back, cradling his temples. With all her might, the woman stomps on his head three times.

Show of Support

An attentive audience suddenly applauds in appreciation and support as the woman, fatigued and shaking, is embraced by her classmates.

This scene was not acted out on a Hollywood sound stage, but in a North Hollywood dojo--a martial arts studio. The “rapist,” outfitted in 60 pounds of protective plates and padding, is actually a black belt in aikido. The “victim” is a student of Model Mugging Inc.

Scenarios like these are the foundation of Model Mugging, a course in which women not only learn self-defense techniques, but actually practice them--no punches pulled.

Origins in Northern California

Developed 14 years ago by a Stanford graduate and taught in the San Francisco Bay area, Model Mugging was brought to Los Angeles nearly a year ago by two martial arts enthusiasts--Al Potash, 35, and Sandy Margolin, 24, who now serve as “mugger” and instructor for the course.

“I was tired of the predatory way women were being treated in our society,” said Potash, a licensed psychotherapist. “I can’t go out and take out muggers, but I can, by training women, change the equation.”

Matthew Thomas, a 36-year-old black belt in several martial arts, developed Model Mugging after a close friend, a brown belt, was raped.

Learning to Fight Back

“I felt responsible,” said Thomas. “We had taught her how to spar, but not how to fight.”

In developing the technique, Thomas said he pored over 2,700 police reports of assaults on women. He concluded that most assailants are unarmed. He determined that, although attackers usually fight men on their feet, they will most likely knock a woman to the ground. So it became apparent that teaching women to fight with upper-body strength is a waste of effort.

Thomas devised what Potash calls “polite street fighting,” a defense technique that primarily relies on kicks from the ground aimed at all the vulnerable areas. Such moves are illegal in traditional martial arts. The objective is to land a knockout blow in five seconds. Three stomps on a mugger’s head can knock out an attacker long enough to ensure the victim’s immediate safety.

Suited for Battle

The armor that allows Model Mugging students to practice their craft costs nearly $1,000, said Thomas. It includes football gear, nylon, fiberglass and something called a “super jock.”

The original suits used by Thomas were crude and not sufficiently protective. His injuries in the first few years included cracked ribs.

The 16-hour course for women only is taught in four installments at studios in North Hollywood and Palmdale. The installments range from teaching students to instinctively yell “no” when attacked to a videotaped graduation ceremony. In between, each woman is “mugged” about 50 times.

But Model Mugging instructors say the physical training represents only half the program’s rigors. The others are psychological--breaking through the women’s nonviolent conditioning.

Emotional Aspects

The course teaches women that they have a right to fight back.

“Nobody has the right to tell you what to do,” Margolin said.

Margolin and Potash try to “push the buttons” of students to make them aware of their anger. “Muggers use foul language and sometimes personal or racial insults,” Margolin said. “Emotional outbursts and tears are not uncommon.”

“It’s not an easy class,” said graduate Theresa Saldana. “People get scared by it. Some women in my class cried. It was extremely emotional.”

Saldana is the actress who founded Victims for Victims after her own near-fatal stabbing four years ago this March. Her story was told in a television movie in which she starred.

Adrenalin Runs High

“It’s incredible to actually be able to practice in real-life situations. The adrenaline content of the class is not unlike the real thing,” said Saldana.

Would this training have prevented her assault?

“Possibly,” she said. “It’s hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure I would have been less seriously injured.”

Students who have been attack victims frequently relive the experience during a similar scenario in class. That was the case with Heather Woodruff, an actress who six months ago had her “face beaten in” by her boyfriend of three years.

Woodruff said she was “completely taken aback” when faced with a mock frontal attack in class. “That was the way he attacked me,” Woodruff said of her boyfriend. “But, once I faced the fear, it no longer had any power.”

Back in Control

The course costs $150 (financial arrangements can be made for those unable to afford the fee), and graduates say they find new strength after the program.

“It gave me my life back,” said Woodruff. “I’m back in control again.”

But the program is not without its detractors. It was once thrown out of a dojo for “promoting violence.” Some of the program coordinators fear that it will be viewed as a training ground for feminist vigilantes. Men visiting the class are often threatened by its intensity.

“These are just tools,” countered Saldana. “I don’t think any of us are on a macho trip where we’re going to go out pouncing on men.”

Confronting Armed Attackers

The question of facing armed assailants haunts students.

“As in life, there are no guarantees that you can fight your way out of every situation,” said Potash. “We’re just giving women more choices. You may have to submit because that’s the best choice.”

Law enforcement officials are noncommittal on whether anyone should fight during a confrontation. Rob Bernsen, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, said his department makes no categorical statement on that issue.

However, “if a woman chooses to fight, she can only do what she is prepared mentally and physically to do,” Bernsen said. “Self-defense without practice is useless.”

Nearly 4,000 women have graduated from Model Mugging in the Bay Area and on the East Coast. Thomas said 44 graduates have reported using psychological means to avoid assault. Of 19 women who faced violent confrontations, 17 landed knockout blows. The other two chose to submit because the assailants had weapons.

Since October, 120 women in the Los Angeles area have graduated from the course. About 35 percent, Potash said, were victims of assault or incest before taking the course.

Woodruff has enrolled her 17-year-old daughter in the course. Virginia Lane, a 62-year-old graduate, is talking to senior citizens’ groups about Model Mugging. And Saldana says she recommends it to every woman she meets.

“Most women don’t want to face the prospect,” said Saldana. “But this is not a negative course. It’s positive. It’s empowerment.”