How (and Why) Thousand Waves Started Teaching Men and Boys

07.26.17 by Nancy Lanoue

Nancy Lanoue is one of the founders of Thousand Waves and began the self-defense program here.  She is currently one of two head instructors of the karate program, and continues to advise on curricular issues in the self-defense program.

A Little History

After training two years in a small women-only dojo in New York City, I switched styles, started over, and trained from white to black belt at a large, mixed gender dojo with significant numbers of women, but none in key leadership positions. When I got my black belt, I moved to Chicago and opened an explicitly feminist dojo for women only in a women’s gym. I envisioned it as a place where women who would never have felt comfortable in my teacher’s dojo could train and empower themselves. Five years later, I opened the dojo to children, both girls and boys. Eventually, one of our male teenagers “outgrew” our kids program and had to leave to study with one of my senior students who had opened an affiliated co-ed branch. My partner and I took this loss hard, and started searching for a new space that could accommodate both women and men. In 1995, we moved into our current space and began inviting men to join our martial arts program.

I had studied self-defense at my first dojo and the classes I took (and later taught) there were for women only. When I switched to Seido, it offered and I studied self-defense in a co-ed self-defense program that taught hard core physical skills, similar in some ways to what Krav Maga offers today. A few years later, two other women and I started a self-defense organization called SAFE, and until we went bankrupt a few years later, SAFE offered women-only workshops and courses; LGBT workshops and courses; co-ed workshops and courses, and workplace and school programs that were sometimes gender-specific and other times mixed.

Since I’ve been in Chicago, I have always worked with both women and men as self-defense students. The three teachers I have trained and hired as directors of our self-defense/violence prevention work have all been women, but we have had men in our instructor corps since around 2000 when the first of our male students reached black belt. Incidentally, from the beginning, our male population has included significant numbers of gay men; and today they are a major leadership group at our Center.

Gender and Self-Defense Program Content
The self-defense teaching I did in the 1970s and 1980s focused almost exclusively on developing and nurturing women’s capacity for fierceness. This was, of course, to counter the prevailing social expectation for us to be nice, quiet and agreeable. I understood intuitively, and also from talking with survivors, that passivity was an ineffective response to violence. I coveted toughness and trained myself and my students for it with exercises like “slap for slap.” I considered it a big victory when a student reported that she yelled “f- you asshole” in response to some vile verbal harassment on the street instead of saying nothing and having it ruin her day. I believe that this aggressive, blunt training was necessary to shake us loose from the paralysis of fear and helplessness that so many of us felt stuck in.

But after some years, I began to question whether the tools I was teaching in self-defense were appropriate for all people, and even more troubling, I began to see how they could be contributing to cycles of violence. I became more and more convinced that self-calming skills as well as techniques to calm someone else down belonged in self-defense programs along with boundary setting. I started thinking about how I could inspire people to be more civil to one another; to “give ground,” “choose their battles,” and “walk away with their power.”

I came to believe that people have a responsibility to intervene when they witness subtle prejudiced and hateful speech and behavior if they know how to do it safely. Men have a special responsibility to speak out against misogynist culture and to work with women as allies to confront violence against women, just as straight people have a responsibility to interrupt homophobia and transphobia, and white people have a responsibility to speak out against racism.

At Thousand Waves, we researched what others were teaching and developed some program content that aims to inspire people to be allies with each other across racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and gender identity lines. We present these ideas as part of the responsibilities of a self-defender who believes in social justice. The result of all these curricular additions is that now our curriculum is very dense, nuanced and multi-faceted. To be totally honest, another result is that our students now sometimes respond too gently and politely when more force is needed because they are so motivated to try to be a peacemaker.

You may be wondering what all this has to do with teaching men and boys, and I am about to explain.

In looking back to when I first began expanding our self-defense program content in the ways I’ve described, I think I did so partially because I thought men and boys needed those softer, more yin responses to violence as opposed to the fierce, more yang responses I had learned and was teaching to women. I believed the old adage that women need training to build up their egos, while men need it to tame and tamp theirs down. Despite the large grain of truth in this saying, it is still a stereotype and falls way short of accurately describing how a human being can be out of balance. Some women and girls come to training with a problem controlling their anger and some men and boys have no idea how to stand up for themselves.

My current thinking is that effective boundary setting – both physical and verbal – is the first and most fundamental skill that a person, regardless of gender, needs to be taught in self-defense. And it needs to be taught within a framework of rights and responsibilities, so as we learn to say no, we also learn to respect other people’s no. Both women and men need to cultivate the fierce power needed to fight for justice. On a physical plane, we all have to know that we have the power to hurt someone in order for the commitment not to do so unless absolutely necessary to be meaningful. Only after we are in touch with our own power and no longer feel helpless, can we begin to explore how to cultivate the open heart and mind needed to resolve conflicts peacefully if possible.

Thousand Waves self-defense teachers are trained to make no assumptions about what gender-based strengths and challenges students are likely to have when they start. I can’t recall a teacher ever reporting a gender breakdown in terms of how students responded to these learning opportunities. Perhaps when expectations of behavior based on gender are gone, students are freer to just be their human selves and share their strengths and vulnerabilities honestly, which of course is empowering for everyone.

We have made a few changes in how we present certain concepts as the result of dialog with male self-defense students and teacher colleagues.

  1. A response that most people would label assertive if done by a woman will often be labeled aggressive if done by a man. So a man trying to craft an assertive response may need to use a less intensive tone and body language to achieve the same result.
  2. Maintaining eye contact with someone in the testing phase of an encounter, if done by a woman, most commonly reads as vigilant monitoring and is therefore effective in reducing the likelihood of further aggression. But the same behavior if done by a man is often read as a challenge, and therefore can provoke further aggression in some cases.
  3. Women have a lower chance of being harmed by gun violence than they usually imagine, but this is not as true for men, so the weapons section of our course has expanded to include more practice of these skills since we have been teaching men.


Some Challenges of Inclusivity
Having only a few men in a large group of women can complicate our task of gathering the students together into a cohesive group. Having just a few young teens or seniors in a group of predominantly young to middle-aged folks creates a similar challenge. One guiding principle we follow is to try to have everyone in the room leave feeling that their particular issues regarding their vulnerability to violence were acknowledged and at least minimally addressed.

This means that the content of our “spectrum of violence” section has to change depending on who is there. It means we have to have a number of different role play scenarios ready to pull out to fit our students’ lives. It means some kids may listen to our “healthy relationships” discussion and not totally understand what the grown-ups are talking about but decide to tuck the information away for future reference. It means some adults may recover lost memories of the intense pain of social exclusion in middle school from hearing kids express it in the sharing circle. It means a few men may be privileged to witness a survivor forgiving herself for not being able to stop a rapist when she was a child. Helping a group of self-defense students navigate these awkward but potentially transformational moments can be one of the greatest joys of doing this work.

One thing we all share is the challenge of how to be an effective self-defense teacher to people who have different life experiences than we do. Is our knowledge relevant to them? Will they be open to learning from us? Will they challenge us? As a woman, I consider these questions as they relate to my male students. As a white person, I consider them as they relate to students with different racial identities. As a person who has never had a child, I consider them as they relate to students who are parents. As a North American, I considered them when I shared my syllabus with a male martial arts colleague in New Delhi who wanted to do something to help after the gang rape of a young woman traumatized that city some years ago.

The answer I always come up with is that the broad principles we teach are relevant on many levels and it’s okay if students have to adapt them to fit their life experience because this is where the real learning happens.


One response to “How (and Why) Thousand Waves Started Teaching Men and Boys”

  1. Patricia Broughton says:

    Thank you for sharing this informative and inspiring history of/framing for Thousand Waves’ self-defense program.

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