How a self-defense class helped me embrace my bisexuality
Trigger Warning: This essay discusses rape and sexual assault.
I take a deep breath as a massive instructor dressed in full-body padding looms towards me. Underneath the armor, I know there is a good man with feminist convictions, but a rush of adrenaline convinces me he is a threat. I’ve been through this drill before; I know the exact moment to land a punishing punch to the head or an unforgiving knee to the groin. Nevertheless, as he approaches me, I descend into a traumatic flashback: A large rugby player corners me, flashing his menacing muscles. I recognize him — he is my ex-boyfriend’s teammate. “I hear you like it both ways now,” he cackles, “but I bet you just need a big cock to turn you straight again.”
Livid and back in the present, I tackle the six-foot-five instructor with ease. The time for bashing my bisexuality is over.
Coming out as bisexual was an experience driven by love, and quickly confronted by violence. I was 18 years old, living in Hong Kong amongst an expatriate community that subscribed to rigid norms of gender and sexuality. You were either a man or a woman, and you could only desire a person of the opposite gender. There was no in-between, no variation. Bisexuality could not exist within these dichotomies, so it was not allowed to exist at all.
The act of coming out was, in and of itself, a joyous one. I was giddy about the woman I was seeing and eager to be open about my relationship. But after coming out, I was only met with hostility from my peers. There were threats that targeted my perceived hypersexuality by describing what needed to be done to get me “back in line.” I was “selfish” for liking men and women, a “slut” for being “willing to sleep with anyone.” Some posited that I just needed to be “raped straight again” — and a few men attempted this latter technique.
As this violence ceaselessly continued over time, I developed crippling anxiety and self-doubt. Eventually, I started believing the people around me who dictated what I wanted and needed.
My feelings of control over my body and identity disappeared.
Two years later, I moved to New Jersey to study at Drew University and became involved with activism around gender-based violence. I advocated tirelessly for students facing sexual violence while I, without recognizing it, continued to be victimized by those very same forms of violence.
I remember reading statistics on violence against bisexual women. The numbers were shocking: according to the CDC, 61% of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, 46% have been raped, and 75% have experienced a form of sexual violence other than rape. “How terrible,” I recall thinking, with distance and composure, “that so many bisexual women face this.”
Then, in junior year, I enrolled in a class called “Gender, Violence, and Women’s Resistance.” The first twenty hours of the class are spent completing a self-defense program. The rest focuses on the scholarship around gender-based violence.
The self-defense portion was taught by an organization called PREPARE. PREPARE grounds self-defense in its social context, paying particular attention to the gendered nature of violence. The course is unique in that students practice physical and verbal techniques against padded instructors so they can learn to move, with full force, through an adrenalized reaction.
I completed each physical exercise gleefully. I couldn’t wait for my turn to elbow an instructor in the head each week. It felt good to physically defend myself against someone who wanted to hurt me.
The verbal exercises were more challenging. When instructors spoke with language that violent perpetrators might use during an attack, my trauma would incite brutal flashbacks. Sometimes, I blacked out throughout the fight. When, in one scenario, I told an instructor to respect a physical boundary, my stomach dropped. I was confused by my body’s reaction to these exercises.
Expressing what I did and didn’t want felt alien.
It eventually dawned on me that I had forgotten how to articulate my needs and wants. I had internalized people’s perceptions of my bisexuality. I had internalized the narrative that I was “easy” and “down for anything.” The scars of sexual violence added to my amnesia; I had come to think of my consent as unnecessary — until I had forgotten how to set boundaries altogether.
On the day I understood this, I decided: no more.
In the next class, I came in with a will to fight through all the assumptions that were thrust upon me. With each strike to an instructor’s helmet, I bashed through a homophobic threat. Each time I yelled “no” in a verbal exercise, I rejected the constraints my former community had placed on my identity.
Week by week, I was able to think with greater clarity while fighting. The verbal exercises that had eluded me became second nature. By the end of those twenty hours, I felt that I had been reborn.
Learning to defend myself reminded me that I alone have the power to define my sexual identity and my boundaries.
Now liberated, I cherish my ability to love across genders. That love has expanded and multiplied in directions I did not know existed. I am happy to say that — largely due to learning self-defense — I know I will never stop loving my full, bisexual self.