Home Interviews Some of My Best Moves Can Hurt You: Elle’s Martial Arts Training

Some of My Best Moves Can Hurt You: Elle’s Martial Arts Training

Would you know how to get out of this? Pictured: Elle and instructor Justin Norton

Foster Fitness is a humble little gym on SE Foster in Portland, OR. The atmosphere is chipper, the air perpetually sticky, and sometimes the young children of Troy, the owner, are toddling around. Foster offers a variety of martial arts classes: Jujitsu, Judo, Krav Maga, Karate, and my choice; Arnis (pronounced: Ar-niece). I like this place, but despite the dozen nearby adult businesses and dance clubs, I am the only female who trains there.

In only three years stripping, I’ve worked with hundreds of women. Recent statistics tell us that by the age of 18, one in four females and one in six males will have been sexually assaulted. And victimization statistics indicate that some individuals tend to be at a higher likelihood for victimization, meaning that they will experience assault more than once in their lifetime.

Why, then, am I the only woman in my class?

The teachings are applicable to many situations, and cover varying degrees of conflict. Knife disarms. Throws. Knowing the methods of proper deflection and blocking of strikes. Grappling on the floor. Learning how to fall. Limb destruction.

Since most violence against women is by men, and men typically possess greater physical strength, proportionally, I’m learning the methods of managing an otherwise devastating blow, and fighting through it.

And I’ve definitely used some of these teachings already. Just ask the junkie who attacked me at my favorite late night spot, last spring. Or the handsy lapdance customers who have attempted to manhandle me, only to leave the room minutes later with a sore index finger and a different perspective, no security intervention needed.

Sensei/Guro Benjamin Fowler

Incidentally, both of my instructors work as security guards in clubs throughout Portland, with 33 years of experience between them. Working in some of the highest-crime areas in the city has earned them a wealth of knowledge and experience in dealing with violence and conflict resolution. I sat down to speak the men behind my newfound sense of confidence; Ben Fowler and Justin Norton.

Why do you think that more men than women study martial arts?

Justin: That’s not always the case, especially in society nowadays. But the majority of it stems from the way we are raised from a young age.

Ben: I think, historically, men have been raised to fight and play aggressively, and women have been encouraged to be nurturers, but in the last 30 or so years, it’s beginning to change drastically. Women are including themselves in sports as more taboos are rejected, and they are heading for martial arts as well. Part of the problem with entering into a male-dominated martial arts class is that males can have competitive egos, and I’ve seen men go a little tougher on their female classmates. Traditionally, all differences are supposed to end at the door, and gender shouldn’t matter. I started a women-only self-defense class so that it would give these women a jumpstart, and that they would be able to integrate with males more easily. I’ve seen it work before.

In a city with so many sex workers, why do you think we don’t have many coming to classes?

Justin: A lot of people don’t take their own safety seriously until after something has happened. Part of the time, that individual will end up leaving the industry altogether. On the other hand, a lot of girls will allow a certain amount of abuse from customers, because they think that’s what they need to do to gain or maintain customers.

Ben: Honestly, for most people, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” Of course, I could give you plenty of horrible stories, or read you statistics on rape, but to no avail. Life has too many distractions, and unless someone experiences an attack, they won’t consider making time to train.


Do you know any sex workers who have been targeted or victimized specifically because of the nature of their work?

Justin: That’s kind of a tricky question. Yes and no. Thankfully, mostly no.

Ben: To answer this specifically; no. I’ve known several sex workers who have been stalked or harassed, to the point of restraining orders even, but none that I know of who were attacked. However, I just heard on NPR today that it’s estimated 28% of women in the United States have been raped, but the vast majority of them will take their secret with them to the grave. So, if no one is talking about it, how would I really know?

What made you decide to study your art?

Justin: Ever since I was a young man I felt the urge to study an art form that would help me understand how to control my mental and physical state of being. I remember watching Bruce Lee, with all of his grace and beauty. When I started bouncing for bars and clubs it became a necessity to study. It took me a few years to find Arnis, but it was pretty much love at first sight. Arnis is so practical to the real world, and the situations I deal with on a daily basis.

Ben: I’ve always been attracted to the martial art since I was a child in Hawaii. But I didn’t get serious about learning it until violence touched my life. Since then, I have a saying; “Simplicity plus brutality equals effectiveness.”

You both primarily work with strippers. What do you think would be some good advice for these girls, in avoiding being attacked?

Justin: Be consciously aware. Be aware of yourself, and be aware of your surroundings. Know your limitations, and know what your resources are. Don’t get too caught up in your thoughts. At the very least, take some self-defense classes, even if it’s just a couple.

Ben: To be aware. And don’t allow yourself to be too comfortable, because that’s when you let your guard down. Most dancers have regular customers and when they feel safe around these men, it can be problematic. Maybe you think nice ol’ customer Bob would never do anything, but remember that the overwhelming majority of rapes against women are perpetrated by a person familiar to that victim.

Elle and partner Shawn

Can you tell us a little about the nature/style of Arnis?

Ben: Arnis is unique, because we are taught weapons first, and secondly we are taught using empty hands. Knowing about weapons is applicable. I’m an advocate of winning at any cost. It’s more useful on the street than wrestling. I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

Besides, the practitioners of Arnis are more well-rounded and able to adapt than many other fighting styles. For example, all of the fighting that you see in those Jason Bourne movies (The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, etc) is based off of Arnis. He can adapt to anything. He can use a pen, a towel, a knife. That is how we train our Arnis students, to be adaptable to any fighting scenario.

Justin: I personally think it’s important to understand how your body works, what you’re capable of doing, and what you’re not capable of doing.

Ben: Again, it’s based upon weapons. Weapons are an equalizer. And the movements don’t take as much power and strength. It’s not based upon strength, like boxing. Boxing is dependent upon strength, Arnis is not.

Any easy tips?

  • Be aware of yourself, and appear confident. Predators only attack prey that they think they can handle, so if you appear assertive and comfortable, they won’t attack.
  • Don’t park in the same spot day after day.
  • Don’t take the same route every day.
  • Have someone you check in with every day, no matter what the time. 3 a.m, whatever.
  • Never leave your drink unattended when you are working.
  • Don’t leave with a customer. There are some girls who will allow their regulars to take them home, which is their judgment call, but I take issue with it. I can’t legally stop them. All I can do is document the guys license plate. So if she ends up chopped up in pieces…well, at least we got the license plate. That hasn’t happened, yet.

Ben can be contacted at www.lakanarnis.com

Foster Fitness


  1. I really love the idea of martial arts and/or self-defense classes that are designed specifically for sex workers. I know that the Portland Police have a program – Womanspace – (I think that’s the name) that is a series of self-defense classes for women, but I’ve always been leery of programs that are sponsored by the police. Plus, I’d have to wonder if a police-sponsored self-defense class for women would be kind to a sex worker if she was accidentally or intentionally outed as one. It’s great to know that there’s a gym like this in Portland (which is where I live.)

    • I love that idea too. If anyone ever wants to put something like that together I would happily help out in whatever way possible, and participate. I think there was a self defense class for sex workers in Portland, way back in the late ’90s I think, at this place on Alberta maybe called Open Hand (…?).

  2. The police program is very well-intended, and the instructors are female volunteers, and they do a good job, however, it’s only a series of 3 or 4 classes, and not incredibly comprehensive.

    But it IS a good jumping off point!

  3. I wish more women were aware of the opportunities available for learning self-defense. The first ‘easy tip’ is essential. Growing up in New York City in the 70’s, being cognizant of your surroundings was crucial to staying safe. NEVER feel completely comfortable when out, alone. Wish there was an Arnis class in my area.

  4. I find this very interesting, as a sex worker who has also maintained a ‘day job’ in the private security industry since I was 18 years old.

    Of course, most Sex Workers know, that training however thoroughly, is only half the battle…
    The other half being, having the presence of mind to be able to summon up any amount of theoretical knowledge and training in a real life situation, when you are possibly half dressed, and probably no one is going to come to your aid.

    I think that it’s often understated, but one of the very real benefits of self defence training, is the intangible aura of general self assurance good self confidence that it gives to the student.
    It’s the kind of switched on manner of polite assertiveness that makes a would- be attacker decide, for some reason that they probably can’t even pinpoint, that ‘this’ girl is not going to be worth the hassle of fucking with.

    Also the self assured or self defence trained sex worker has a great ability to manage and, if needed, cut off an encounter in the early stages of the ‘this doesn’t feel right’ feeling, and so avoid getting into a potential fight or flight scenario in the first place.

    For sure, nothing works 100% of the time- And in life there will always potentially be someone bigger and badder than you. But you can swing that percentage in your favour , by taking a little time and effort to learn some self defence basics and as part of that, learn to look at the way you view yourself, and your clients, and your environment on the whole, in a different way.

    • Appoline; I couldn’t agree more. You undoubtedly have the best grasp of this topic, and it was really good to hear your input. Thank you for your words.

      Indeed, nothing works all the time, and training is only part of it, and hopefully it will only be utilized in the most dire of circumstances, or never at all.

      But the confidence, awareness, and presence of mind and body that comes with training can not explained to anyone who hasn’t begun on that path. Thanks again for speaking up!

  5. I actually gave up on working on Bourbon Street the first time I tried it, because it took about two nights for me to assess that at that time in my life and stripping career, it was too much risk for the money I could make.


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