Self Defense

All of us mothers are afraid of rape. Not for ourselves, though God knows that could still happen. No, we are afraid of sending our daughters off to college to be raped by boys who look like our sons. What a strange, fucked up thing that is, that the boys we raise in our well-appointed houses in our well-laid out towns will be the ones who will date rape our daughters when they are both drunk beyond all reasoning. When we mothers speculate about this we think it probably has to do with all the free porn available on the internet, porn where the girls get tied up, spit on, choked, verbally assaulted. Those who don’t have children might say, why don’t you restrict what they can see on the internet to which we say, we have but then they can’t do their homework. The apps that would keep our children away from the filth we don’t want them to see can’t distinguish from the filth we do want them to see — the aftermath of war, political violence, sexual assault, etc.

Today one of the mothers has organized a class for our daughters on how to protect themselves from men. The instructors who come to the house are a man and a woman.

The woman’s face is older than her body which looks like it might be solid all the way through. She demonstrates the moves on the young man who wears thick protective covering that makes him look like the Michelin Man. She lines the girls up and tells them to go for the most vulnerable parts on a man’s body — the eyes, the throat, the groin. She says, “You have to act like you mean it. Hesitate and die.” She shows them how they’ll have to work against their natural instincts to run away, how they’ll have to turn in their attacker’s direction, close the distance between them. One by one, she has them face the man, turn their hands into a weapon and stab toward his vulnerable areas, all the while shouting, “Hai!”

The girls are hesitant, their “hai!”s and stabbing, loose and non-committal. They’re only thirteen and fourteen and have not spent much time with young men so to jab and shout in the face of one seems to be asking too much. When they’re standing together in a line, newly tall, thin, with long legs like flamingos, they look so much alike we have to squint to see which girl is ours. Seeing them together like that, we feel like lions on the plains of the Serengeti stalking a group of large-eyed, jumpy gazelles. It pains us that they would be so easy to catch, kill, and devour.  Flamingoes, gazelles, whatever we liken them to, is there a creature more vulnerable than a young girl? And what exactly do people mean when they wink and admire our daughters’ beauty, tell us we are going to have “to watch out.” It makes us mothers think, no, we can’t possibly send them away. Now we understand why in the old days, they were kept indoors, close to the house, away from strangers eager to take advantage of them. But is that a life? No, that is why we are here today.

The instructor has them go through the drills, over and over again, while the girls remain self-conscious, their voices small and liable to scare off no one, though for a moment or two they throw themselves into it. The instructor changes course, calls us mothers up to go through the drill. Full of the pressure to show our daughters how they should act, how they need to mean what they do, we close our eyes for a moment and remember every unwanted touch, whistle, catcall, and leer, and worse, the flashing, the pushing, the tearing, and violating we have endured. The times we have stammered to our bosses that we felt uncomfortable, the smiles that accompanied our ‘no’s in order to stave off anger, our learned ability to shrink from and duck away from too-close bodies, our pretended ignorance of the inappropriate remark and unwanted stare. And still, we are laughably self-conscious.

“Hai!” we yell as we use our manicured hands to poke eyes, smash protruding Adam’s apples. “Hai!” we scream as we raise our knees with the intention to pop a man’s balls. “Hai!” we shriek, starting to get into it, remembering the times we made ourselves small in order not to get noticed, or didn’t say what we knew because it might make others feel dumb, or just the million fucking times we couldn’t walk by ourselves on city streets at night or in the woods during the day without the companionship of a dog, even then still on high alert, so we shout “hai!” more vehemently into the young man’s face until he stumbles back looking scared. His partner guffaws and says, “This is just pretend, ladies, just pretend.”

But we know that it is not. The statistics show that one or two of our girls will be harmed by boys who would have been their friends in high school, the same ones they studied with, shared late night hamburgers with, went to the prom with. We fervently hope our daughters will remember this lesson but we wouldn’t bet money on it.

Afterward, as our daughters do cartwheels in the grass while we sip our gin and tonics, glad that at least today we made some effort to protect our daughters, one of the mothers says, “This wouldn’t even be necessary if we taught our boys not to rape, not to hurt.” And we laugh giddily, nearly weeping, because it all sounds so simple and so impossible.

Caroline Kim

Caroline Kim

Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea, but moved to America at a young age. Her collection of short stories, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories won the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was long listed for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collections and The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Bare Life Review, Carve, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, The Santa Monica Review, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.
Caroline Kim

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Author: Caroline Kim

Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea, but moved to America at a young age. Her collection of short stories, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories won the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was long listed for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collections and The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Bare Life Review, Carve, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, The Santa Monica Review, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.