BAMM is a Californian self-defence course for women that promises to turn their fear of attack into righteous anger. Jane Cornwell reports

A WOMAN is wrestled to the ground by a male attacker in a heavily padded suit. "C'mere,'' he intones from inside a dustbin-sized foam helmet, eyes obscured behind angry red wire mesh, "you know you want it." His prone "victim" swiftly winds her hips to the side and lets rip with a potentially femur-crunching kick that sends the assailant flying. Terminator- like, he bounces back, only to have his feet violently stomped on and his eyes gouged with a scrunch-finger "bird beak". A chorus of female voices join in the fracas. "Go on, go for the neck! Get him in the groin!" they yell, and scream, and sob. The attacker feigns unconciousness; the course instructor leads a thunderous round of applause.

Welcome to women's self-defence, California-style. Impact International was created by a martial artist in the Seventies after a female colleague - a black belt - was raped; its female-centric affiliate, Bay Area Model Mugging (or BAMM for short), offers women an environment in which to practice full-contact self-defence against violent attacks. Classes of 16 are led by a female instructor assisted by two male "model muggers", who, verbally and physically, assist in turning participants' fear into anger. Which, in turn, ensures they'll fight back.

Devotees vary widely in age, size and shape. With violence against women on the increase, all come to be empowered. What makes BAMM different from other self-defence classes is two-fold: the provision of the emotional support required when dealing with rape or assault; and a unique teaching method where simple, effective techniques are taught in realistic scenarios, using specially-trained, fully-padded assailants.

So why full-contact self-defence? "Memorizing moves doesn't work," says BAMM director Cori Couture, "but actually doing them does. Students train their `muscle memory' by practising in adrenalin-producing scenarios, which changes freeze instincts to action responses even when they are surprised or scared."

Thousands of women have graduated from the 25-hour BAMM Basics course; their success stories and praise fill the bi-yearly newsletter. Lois Allen, for example, was attacked as she jogged along a trail near her house. "By the time my brain had registered I was being attacked, my body was already twisting to get out of the grip, falling and bracing into the kick position," she says. "Because I went to ground while the attacker tried to stay standing, I was able to land some really good kicks. We fought for a few minutes before he decided he'd had enough and ran off. I was so enraged I wanted to kick his butt for a while longer!"

But BAMM isn't all about invincibility. Students are taught to observe their environment and prevent negative encounters, to use their voices to attract attention and their wits to gauge an attacker's vulnerabilities.

"BAMM comes as close to `getting in the water' as far as facing real violence and dealing with the body's physiological responses, like terror, as anything I've seen," says Eliot Nemzer, martial artist turned "model mugger". "The class is a long and arduous journey, but the sense of confidence that students arrive at is easily worth the hard work."

BAMM has proved phenomenally popular across America, where it is lauded by police departments, therapists, businesses and schools. Oprah has had practical BAMM demos on her show. There are thriving "chapters" in Australia, Canada and Switzerland, kick-started by evangelical Bay Area graduates. It's hoped there'll be a permanent London base by mid-1999.

"I think English women have the same myths taught to them as American women, that we do not have the physical power to stop a man," says Couture, "or that fighting back makes it worse. But when a woman knows she can defend herself, that she will never again be a victim, her whole life changes and that of the people around her. By never allowing anyone to hurt her, she has broken the cycle of violence. I believe that, 16 women at a time, we are changing the world."

BAMM'S basic 25-hour course takes place in five-hour blocks at RADA, Chenies Street, London W1, on 8, 9, 12, 15 and 16 August. Call 0171 226 2974 for details