I was sexually assaulted but refuse to live in fear so I learnt self-defence – all women should

AFTER writer Katherine Sidnell, 28, was attacked, she struggled to deal with what had happened.

Then she took a martial arts class… 

"I heard the police officer say the words “sexual assault by touch”, and I couldn’t believe she was talking about me. 

In a heartbeat I’d become a statistic, another woman attacked on the streets. But it was far from just a “touch” – and had it not been for my basic knowledge of self-defence, I dread to think how much worse it could have been.

I’d only lived in Fulham, London for six months, when it happened in December 2016. It was 4pm and I was walking the short distance from the laundrette to my flat when suddenly someone slammed into me from behind.

A man lifted me up and his large, gloved hands grabbed at my breasts. I could feel his breath on the back of my neck as I screamed and thrashed. My front door was just yards away. If I could just break free and get inside, I’d be safe, I told myself, my heart pounding with panic.

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My dad had served in the army and when I was young he taught me basic self-defence. I remembered what he’d told me, arching my back to break my attacker’s grip and trying to get my feet back on the ground. As his hand slithered towards the waistband of my leggings, 

I began to kick frantically and seconds later, his arms dropped and I was free.

As my attacker ran, I gave chase. I was full of adrenalin and anger. I didn’t want him to get away and do the same thing to another woman.

I wasn’t able to catch him, though, and a family walking in the opposite direction stopped to help me, calming me down as I wept and called the police. I reported the assault, but as I hadn’t seen his face and there wasn’t any CCTV in the area where it happened, he was never caught.

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For a long time afterwards, I struggled to call what happened to me a sexual assault. I have friends who’ve been raped, and I felt I’d got off lightly – my experience was nothing compared to theirs.

I turned down an offer from the police to take a self-defence class, struggling to acknowledge the seriousness of what had happened to me. I carried on living with the legacy of the attack – having flashbacks, walking home from work with my keys pressed tightly in my hand, fighting back tears if I heard another set of footsteps, convinced it was my attacker.

The death of Sarah Everard, who was abducted and murdered by a serving police officer in March 2021, triggered something within me. I attended her vigil at Clapham Common and felt incredibly sad. I knew how lucky I’d been to escape when she hadn’t, and I no longer wanted to live in fear.

Last month, I enrolled in a fundamentals of jiu-jitsu class at the Roger Gracie Academy in Hammersmith, after seeing it advertised on an Instagram post by The Witcher star Henry Cavill.

INCREDIBLY SAD

The offer of an initial free session was a draw, as it’s usually £179 a month – a cost many women simply can’t afford. 

I’ve now learned how to escape if I’m being pinned down, practised throwing an attacker off me and improved my strength and fitness. Sparring and being able to put my instructor Bruno in a headlock has made me feel strong and confident.

Bruno says self-defence is as much about believing in yourself as technique. “You can do way more than you believe you can,” he told me. He also advised me that self-defence should be a last resort, or women can put themselves in danger.

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I’m also more aware of my surroundings, I know not to listen to loud music if walking alone and to run from a dangerous situation. But it’s sad I have to take these measures to stay safe. 

More than five years on from my assault, the fear lingers, but I also have a growing feeling of resilience and confidence, thanks to learning self-defence. I hope I never need to use the skills I’ve learned, but if I do, I’ll be grateful to have them. I’d encourage every woman to tool up, too."

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