Equalizing The Playing Field: Demand Surges for Self-Defense Classes for Loudoun Women and Girls

As a former high school security officer and mom of three daughters, Jessica Harden has a unique perspective on keeping women and girls safe.

This summer, Harden incorporated self-defense classes into her fitness and nutrition training business. And like other martial arts and fitness studios around the county, Harden is seeing a growing demand as high-profile school assaults make headlines.

“I’ve always loved learning real life tactics for self-defense, learning real life stuff that’s helpful for women and children against larger, stronger people,” Harden said. “We want to equalize the playing field so that we can get away from the threat.”

Harden launched her personal training and nutrition studio J FIT as a side business during last year’s pandemic shutdowns. At the end of the last school year, she decided to shift gears and pursue it full time, starting with a focus on individualized fitness. This summer, Harden added a self-defense component to her offerings after earning certification through the COBRA self-defense program, created by a law enforcement officer with martial arts experience.

Harden says much of the focus in her classes is on what she calls “mythbusting,” helping women shed preconceptions and focus on more effective strategies. 

“I know there are so many other women out there living under a false sense of security thinking they know what to do when they don’t. … Women love to say ‘I’ve got Mace on my keychain’, and they feel like that’s what’s going to keep them safe,” Harden said. “Being a mom of three daughters, I always thought I knew what to teach them to protect them if they were ever attacked or assaulted. Learning what I now know through my training with COBRA, I was wrong. It kind of blew my mind”

Harden offers child abduction prevention classes and safety and self-defense classes for teens and women, along with special classes designed for real estate agents, which she says is an especially vulnerable profession.

Harden’s classes start with preventative measures: “being aware of your surroundings, not walking with your head down on your phone, not wearing ear buds.” She then moves into hands-on self-defense techniques.

Harden launched her self-defense programs this summer and has seen a spike in interest since reported assaults in Loudoun schools made headlines this fall. 

“The format of the classes hasn’t changed, but I feel like people find that it’s more applicable now,” Harden said.

She said raising awareness and focusing on safety is essential, even in Loudoun where crime rates are relatively low. She points to reports of assaults on the W&OD Trail in recent years, including an alleged assault against a teen jogger in October, and high numbers of sex trafficking cases in Northern Virginia.

“It’s not to instill fear, but we can’t live in a Loudoun County bubble,” Harden said. “While crime rates are lower in this area—and that’s great—there’s still crime that happens every day. We can’t allow a false sense of security to affect our judgment, our awareness. … I tell [children] all the time that most people are good people, but we have to live in a reality where some people are not.”

Harden offers regular teen classes, women’s classes for 14 and older, which often appeal to mothers and teen/young adult daughters. Harden says she’s also getting more requests for private group classes, from teen groups to a senior women’s golf team, creating opportunities for both bonding and self-defense information.

“It’s a great way for women to come together and feel that empowerment and that confidence,” she said.

Harden also offers abduction prevention classes for younger children aged 5 to 12, with parents encouraged to attend. Her focus is on letting kids know it’s OK not to be quiet. 

“One thing I teach these kids is to use their voice and to be an advocate for their safety,” she said. “It’s OK to require physical space. It’s OK to tell somebody to stop. It’s okay to scream.”

Techniques in her children’s classes include lots of voice drills and age-appropriate self-defense techniques proven effective against much larger attackers, like a child wedging herself in a car door. 

Harden’s work as a school security officer with LCPS for more than a decade and raising three daughters now ages 17 to 23 has helped her to connect with the teen population. 

“I had fantastic relationships with the students at my school. It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I’m hip to everything that they’re doing and situations that they’re putting themselves into.”

Harden says that with both her fitness and nutrition and timely self-defense classes, her pandemic career pivot couldn’t have happened at a better time.

“Working with people individually and being able to help them with their specific needs is extremely rewarding,” she said.

For more information about COBRA self-defense and fitness classes at J FIT Training & Nutrition, go to myjfit.com.

A Martial Arts Approach in Purcellville

Self-defense for women and girls has also taken center stage for Kristi Lough, who runs Justin Lough Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Purcellville with her husband Justin.

After hearing about reports of violence in Loudoun schools, Lough offered a free workshop for girls at the end of October. The class filled up so quickly she wound up doing several additional free workshops in November to accommodate interest. Lough has now launched a weekly series for women and girls.

“It was a tremendous hit,” Lough said. “With the current events in Loudoun County Public Schools, it’s something that came up again—and something that touches home.”

Lough offers ongoing Women’s Wednesdays free evening classes for women and girls ages 6 and up designed with mothers and daughters in mind. Lough also offers regular girls-only jiu jitsu classes on Saturday mornings.

Kristi Lough has trained in competitive Brazilian jiu jitsu (known as BJJ) for nine years and said she’s often the only woman in the room at competitions. BJJ is known for its focus on ground fighting and submission holds, which allow smaller people to create defensive leverage against larger opponents, and has elements that are ideal for women’s self-defense, Lough said. But BJJ is also known as a sport that requires intensive training, with most competitors taking eight to 10 years to earn a black belt, she said.

One of Lough’s areas of focus is on creating classes and workshops that pull elements from BJJ that can help people and be taught in a concise way rather than requiring years of training. 

“I love BJJ and all the aspects it brings to my life—from physical fitness in a fun way to self-defense to the connections that it makes within the groups that we have. I’ve always tried to be an advocate for women—not everyone is going to want to commit to the full sport the way that I have.”

Her popular workshops involve studying video footage and watching for situations that occur frequently in assaults.

“We break down the most common situations and give examples of what to do in that moment,” Lough said. “A lot of the seminar situations are how to get away—how to get out of the situation and get away quickly and safely.”

Lough will continue to offer one-time workshops but will also offer a more in-depth eight-week class for women and girls 10 and up starting in January. 

For Lough, rising awareness of the need for self-defense training for women and girls is an important takeaway from recent headlines.

“I’ve really tried to take advantage of people finally understanding how important it is,” Lough said. “Every time we do [a workshop], people learn a lot and feel empowered immediately, and that’s really rewarding.”

For more information about martial arts and self-defense classes at Justin Lough Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, go to purcellvillejiujitsu.com.

8 thoughts on “Equalizing The Playing Field: Demand Surges for Self-Defense Classes for Loudoun Women and Girls

  • 2021-12-03 at 8:25 am

    Situational awareness training and hand-to-hand combat skills are great, but there is only one true equalizer.

    For women, it’s especially challenging to lawfully carry a firearm in a safe and readily-deployable manner. The good news is that there are sources for this type of training in Loudoun. The bad news is that the (D)s are hell-bent on limiting everyone’s right to protect themselves in this manner.

    Don’t let this happen. Get informed. Get trained. Practice. Stand up for your Constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

    • 2021-12-03 at 10:53 pm

      You’re absolutely right! It’s not enough to have a conceal carry, you MUST MUST MUST have extensive training on how to access, deploy and retain your weapon. Thanks for commenting!

  • 2021-12-03 at 8:49 am

    Anything that can empower women & girls — I’m all for. Sadly, we live in a misogynistic soiciety. There’s no special carve-out for Loudoun. Recent events within LCPS demonstrate that rape can happen anywhere. One woman actually told me she’s on a “rape schedule.” She won’t go out after dark by herself for fear of being assaulted. That’s an outrageous situation. Kudos to the strong women featured in this article. Happy Hanukkah Loudoun!

    • 2021-12-03 at 10:55 pm

      That is heartbreaking to hear how that woman feels. Connect her with me and I can hopefully bring her some skills and confidence to not live in a world of fear. Thank you for commenting!

  • 2021-12-03 at 9:16 am

    Outstanding. Self reliance, particularly for all women is a positive.

  • 2021-12-03 at 10:09 am

    Brava! This is a great thing. Women need to be aware of and prepared for the potential threats around them!

    Many people may have OC spray but I bet most people have never deployed the tool they carry and have never practiced with it. Make sure you know how to use the tools you carry.

    Thanks to these folks! I’ll see if they have gift certificates so I can send a few people to your classes.

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