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Friday, June 14, 2024

‘Girls night out’: Self defense class empowers Gainesville women

Women gather inside a pet store to learn safety tips

Participants of SASS Go’s program partner up to demonstrate proper self defense techniques.
Participants of SASS Go’s program partner up to demonstrate proper self defense techniques.

Editor’s note: This article discusses topics of sexual assault.

From a young age, whether implicitly or explicitly, girls are taught to fear the boogeyman. The fear isn’t rooted in a childish yet monstrous make-believe figure, but rather the familiar. It’s the odd neighbor who stares for an unusually long time or the stranger on the street who follows too closely behind. To be a woman is to envision a million boogeymen. 

But the Surviving Assault Standing Strong, or SASS Go, self-defense class for women is not about the boogeyman, Jenna Allanson, a 26-year-old self-defense instructor, said. 

Allanson is a survivor of sexual assault. She took her first self-defense class in 2015 when she was a freshman at the University of South Carolina. Following her attack, she said she sought counseling, but it was not improving her quality of life.

“I used to have nightmares every night,” Allanson said. 

Allanson’s counselor suggested she try a self-defense class. The class was offered at USC and she was able to take SASS Go as a one-credit course to satisfy her physical education requirement. 

“I did it, and that’s where I just found this power,” Allanson said. “It gave me the power back.” 

Allanson’s assault was very violent, she said. The instance of her attack would play over and over again in her mind when she went to sleep.

As Allanson progressed in SASS Go’s curriculum, her mind began applying the moves she learned in class to her nightmares.

“The nightmare actually turned into one time where I fought back and I won,” Allanson said. “That was a huge monumental shift for me because I could finally sleep.” 

Practicing self-defense was so instrumental to Allanson’s healing process that she realized she needed to teach other women as well, she said. 

Allanson said women are initially reserved at the start of the program, but with time, they start standing up straight, taking up more space and using their voices. The classes aren’t about fear or the boogeymen hiding underneath the bed, she said. 

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SASS Go partners with colleges and universities to offer self-defense courses for class credit. Universities such as USC, Clemson University, University of Georgia, University of Utah and other community colleges across the country are among some of the institutions that offer SASS Go’s curriculum. 

“The University of Florida could be on that list,” Allanson said.

In Gainesville, the classes are hosted at the GoodNature Pet Store, located at 1315 S. Maine St. The pairing was made possible by SASS Go’s partnership with local businesses to provide a place for women to practice and learn self-defense techniques. 

The self-defense courses provided by SASS Go are exclusive to women. Allanson acknowledged that anyone, regardless of sex or gender, can be a victim of sexual violence. Allanson’s expertise, however, is women, she said.

“Being trauma-informed, we really like to be able to give that space to women,” Allanson said. “But that doesn’t discredit the fact that violence does happen to men as well.” 

Kat Drawdy, 53, and her wife Joy Drawdy, 53, have been business owners in Gainesville for over 30 years. The Drawdy’s recently relocated and rebranded to GoodNature Pet Store a couple months ago. 

The Drawdy’s met Allanson at their original store in Micanopy, a gift shop called Restless Mamas. The Drawdy’s were not familiar with SASS Go, but eventually agreed to let Allanson host her classes at their store. As a female-owned business, the store prioritizes the safety and empowerment of women.

“We love this town and we hate to see women get hurt,” Joy Drawdy said.

‘You do the math’ 

One in three women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization.

“If you go to college, you are three times more likely to be a victim of sexual violence, and that’s incredibly gut wrenching,” Allanson said. “It hurts my heart.”

While the statistics seem grim, it is important to understand the urgency behind organizations like SASS Go, which seek to eradicate violence against women globally. 

“We have a big mission to fill and that’s why we’re still here,” Allanson said.

Following physical training, instructors attend a class where they learn to deal with sexual assault-based trauma for months. At the end of class, instructors make resources available so people are able to stay informed and get help if needed. 

The classes are for anyone of any skill level, Allanson said. SASS Go’s courses are designed for women and teenagers ages 15 and up.

“We do talk about sexual violence and domestic violence in our classes,” Allanson said. “We talk about some real things and so that’s why we have it designed for that age group.” 

Allanson emphasized how participants don’t need to have any prior experience or any particular fitness level to be a part of the course. Allanson encourages folks to bring their friends and have a fun “girls night out” alongside like-minded women, she said. 

As a program, SASS Go offers a variety of classes ranging from basic self-defense to advanced courses.

“That class really dives deep into the power of [womens’] hips and our legs,” Allanson said. “And it’s a mean class in the best way possible because the moves take it up a level.”  

Women can register and participate in a two-hour self-defense class for $30. The only SASS Go self-defense course that varies by price is the elite class, which provides women with eight classes over the span of eight weeks.

“We’re really turning people into weapons," Allanson said. “But along with that, they know that they’re worth fighting for.”

In its mission to eradicate violence against women, SASS Go hopes to expand classes to younger audiences. The junior courses, specifically made for middle schoolers dubbed Miss Independent, are set to grace Gainesville within the year, Allanson said. The program’s SASSAFRAS course also offers self-defense to elementary students starting as young as 5 years old.

“I hope that I can work myself out of a job, that’s my personal goal,” Allanson said. “If one woman walks out of my class saying, ‘Wow I think that just changed my life,’ or ‘I feel so much better, I feel so much stronger,’ I know that I’ve done my job.”

The participants

America Gordon, a 60-year-old Micanopy art dealer, attended her first class to support other local female business owners. However, Gordon also gets worried when making night deposits or when staying at her store by herself, she said. 

“You don’t think about personal safety until you need it,” Gordon said. 

Gordon attended the self-defense class in spite of having recently recovered from a broken foot.

“As a 60-year-old woman, I’m so amazed at how much I learned in this class,” she said. “I feel so much more powerful. I don’t need a gun. I need this class and a can of wasp spray. That’s all I need.” 

Following her self-defense debut, Gordon believes everyone should get involved with SASS Go. 

“This could benefit anybody, it doesn't matter your age,” Gordon said.

Brittany Crown, a 28-year-old UF employee, understands what it’s like to be a woman in a college town, she said. Crown knew what discomfort felt like but she never knew what she could do to protect herself, she said.

The class gave Crown the tools to defend herself, which she never would have thought of before. 

“It puts you in scenarios that are probably fairly common unfortunately,” Crown said. “But now you understand what you can do to get out of them without necessarily having full training.” 

Crown is eager to share the course with her friends and family, especially those who live alone, she said. 

“I’ve always been a proponent of anyone getting education to be able to protect themselves,” Crown said.

If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, you can call The National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-4673 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800)-799-7233 for confidential support.

Contact Valentina Sarmiento at vsarmiento@alligator.org

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Valentina Sarmiento

Valentina Sarmiento is a UF journalism senior with a specialization in photojournalism. She is an Avenue staff writer for The Alligator. Aside from storytelling, she enjoys binging horror movies, cats and the occult.


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