Ask any feminist if men have power because they are bigger and stronger than women and you’ll get an answer that things are far more complex than this, gender is socially constructed and institutionally maintained, and that sex inequality determines how we see our biology rather than our biology being the cause of the inequality.
And yet, when we start talking about training women to fight off sexual assailants, feminists are often the first to object. We have witnessed multiple instances of this objection and we have offered multiple possible explanations for it. Here’s one more, rooted in a style of handling power.
The feminist literature is full of discussions of power as dominating or controlling another person. A subset of the feminist literature discusses power as a form of empowerment (eg., finding your power, empowering yourself to exert more control over yourself or your circumstances). This view frames power positively as competence. For instance, ecofeminist Starhawk frames power as a positive energy that “emerges from within.”
Those with institutional authority and privilege can exert their will using power as a physical or economic force. This is primary power. This is the power women talk about seeing/feeling/fearing when a man pulls his pants off. There’s a thinly veiled threat that rape or murder could be next. There are other ways to exert one’s will, of course. Nietzsche calls this secondary power. This is the power that someone lower on the food chain has to exert their will in certain circumstances, such as when a woman student comes on to a male professor with the office door closed only to say he harassed her, knowing that his untenured butt would get fired.
If women are more comfortable using secondary power, then our advocacy of physical and verbal resistance just smacks too much of primary power for feminists’ taste. These same feminists often prove themselves to be very comfortable with secondary power plays– for example, encouraging women to file Title IX complaints, investigating people, etc, etc. These are all ways feminists are completely comfortable seeing men go down. If I were a man, I’d much prefer to have had the temporary pain of my testicles twisted than to have lost my job or chance to finish my education.
If we take the claim, made by many in the gay rights and feminist movements over the years, that sexuality ought to be democratized, then we must rethink some of the popular positions on issues like dating, hooking up, and resistance to sexual assault. We must demand not simply respectability but responsibility. As R.W. Connell noted in an essay back in 1995, while the AIDS epidemic spawned a kind of collective responsibility in sexual practice in the gay community, this project of responsibility was not adopted in the heterosexual community. As a way to illustrate how conventional, hegemonic heterosexuality can absorb some aspects of feminist radicalism without really changing the power structure, Connell points out the 1975 best selling book, The Total Woman, by Evangelical Christian Marabel Morgan. Morgan advised women to employ the pro-sex ethos of the time–for example, by wearing make-up and sexy outfits–to please husbands under whose total authority they lived. As Connell put it, “The wife becomes an erotic doormat.”
If we want to democratize heterosexual relations, it will take more than just pole dancing at parties and being willing to hookup in one-night stands, often while drinking and drugging. It will take a willingness to set boundaries, deciding what you are OK and not OK with, and fighting back–in the moment–when/if you have to. Otherwise, college women on the hookup scene today are a contemporary version of the Total Woman–using eroticism to reinforce men’s power and control rather than to contest it.
Dear Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
Hello! First, we hope it’s ok that we call you RAINN. Second, happy 25th birthday! In keeping with the third wave of the feminist movement, we’ve all been emphasizing the importance of women’s being free from coercive defilement–whether that is by family members, dates, acquaintances, coworkers, intimate partners, exes, or strangers. It’s hard to believe we’ve all been at this for so long.
We were so pleased when we saw that you have an entire page on your website devoted to “Steps You Can Take to Prevent Sexual Assault.” For we here at See Jane Fight Back have been reviewing the scholarship that shows how self-defense–training in it and/or doing it when threatened–is tremendously empowering for many women, changes the scripts of our rape culture, and helps prevent sexual assault.
So imagine our disappointment, RAINN, when we realized that you say nothing about women resisting sexual assault (which is, after all, a key step they can take to prevent it). Turns out you only talk about how someone can help prevent the assault of someone else, as a bystander. This is not even data-driven advice.
While we hate to rain on your 25th birthday parade, we are deeply concerned that you are providing information informed more by some ideology about how it’s men’s job to change, not women’s, and that it would be victim-blame-y to share with anyone the research that verbal and physical resistance (self-defense) works to thwart assaults in individual situations and at a norms-changing societal level. (By the way, we do not think advocating self-defense is victim-blame-y.)
Your page for college students on preventing sexual assault also omits any mention of physical and verbal resistance, even though on this page you do risk blaming victims by telling them to be sure they have their smart phones set in certain ways to avoid attack, to have people they can contact at the ready, to have cash on hand, and also to keep their drinks covered so no one can drug it. Obviously, we should be teaching men not to drug our drinks, too, but we agree with you that it makes good sense to alert women of the things they can do given that, currently, there are people drugging drinks. For this same reason, we believe in telling women they can yell, kick, poke, push, and punch.
Sadly, RAINN, you tell women a variety of protective measures they can engage in but never tell women they can, and have a legal right to, resist an attacker verbally or physically. They can, and they do.
RAINN, please consider what the CDC has said about data-driven prevention advice and programs. You are robbing women of the information that could truly empower them and prevent assaults. And you’re old enough to know better.
Martha & Jill
Among the many pop-feminist, girl-power-esque books out last year, The Feminist Fight Club: A Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett, reviewed in the New York Times (lucky Jessica), tells women how to fight the power, with the help of your girl gang. Only without fighting.
Fighting, being mean, and anger are actually popular on the bookshelves in the pop feminism aisle. Here are some of the titles you’ll find:
—Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford
—Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister
—Mastering Your Mean Girl by Melissa Ambrosini
Clearly, there is something appealing about the idea of empowerment, being powerful, resisting sexism, and fighting. These seem to define feminist empowerment today. The only problem is that none of these books is actually about learning how to fight.
The feminist taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Why is teaching women to fight, resist, and master meanness metaphorically, without including self-defense, a problem? Because, as we have emphasized, knowing you can fight physically is instrumental in knowing you have the right and the skills to fight metaphorically.
Looking for an empowerment self-defense course? These links might help:
Wishing you all an empowered and impactful holiday season and New Year,
Martha and Jill
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as we knew, and which we were shocked to discover that Donald Trump knew, but that may have been because it was mentioned by one of his the 15 or more women who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Nonetheless, it has certainly contributed to raising awareness, including the scores of tweets in response to his proclamation. Those tweets ranged from snarky comments to video clips of his accusers to video clips of his own admission – nay, bragging – about committing sexual assault.
As college professors, we are accustomed to acknowledging issues on various months, and we do so happily, in a number of ways: hosting speakers, promoting events, distributing information, wearing buttons with slogans. Awareness is critical, and getting the message out in as many ways as possible is always a good thing. We’ve even worn jeans to support gay rights. Gay Blue Jeans Day is brilliant because everyone wears jeans and of course, part of the point of Gay Blue Jeans Day is to show that being gay is as normal and everyday as blue jeans.
But now, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, we’ve got to wear teal in support of SAAM this Tuesday, April 3. Teal? It was hard enough to find a font in teal, let alone an article of clothing.
Mind you, most professors have no sense of style. Worn-out shoes, broken fly zippers, and saggy old sport coats are commonplace in the halls of academe. Not that all academics wear pants and sport coats. Indeed, we’ve been to entire (politically conscientious, perfume-free) academic conferences where women were dressed in muumuus or clothing from Chico’s. And so as somewhat fashion-challenged college professors (although “fashioned-challenged” only applies to one of the authors of this blog, and we’re not saying who, but it’s not Martha), like many professors we often struggle with what to wear, relying on black and neutrals which always seem to match and don’t require changing shoes until the seasons require it. For SAAM, we used to be good – we’ve got a few variations on “no” t-shirts (one favorite says, “‘No’ is a full sentence.”), and the best part is that the t-shirts go with jeans.
So how about rethinking this teal plan? Something that middle-aged feminists and professors can more easily accomplish? We’re pretty sure we wore teal mascara back in the mid-80s, but that’s another issue, and fortunately, no photographic evidence seems to exist to back up that claim. It’s not that we think we look bad in teal (in fact, see our favorite hilarious list of what women over 30 should wear — don’t worry, it includes teal, and saffron, and ochre, and magenta, and…).
It’s just that it’s unclear what wearing teal actually accomplishes, in an era of activism where it’s awfully hard to keep track, and where, sadly, there are multiple issues requiring active resistance. We applaud, and thank, the young (and older) people who are speaking up so vociferously against sexual violence, racial violence, and gun violence, to name only a few. That’s work, and that’s hard, and it’s making a difference. We support these intersecting movements–ROY G BIV. Wearing a color, even a difficult one like teal, makes it too easy to simply post our outfit of the day on social media, and do no more. So wear what you like, including purple with a red hat, but wear it while marching, writing letters to politicians, advocating for self-defense training, and fighting back. Activism never goes out of fashion. And while Sexual Assault Awareness Month says wearing teal today shows that “everyone has a role to play in ending sexual violence, and showing your support for survivors by wearing teal is one way you can embrace your voice for change,” we hope that people will discover many more roles to play in ending sexual violence–before it even occurs.
In their article “Stop Raising Awareness Already!” in the Spring 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand argue that organizations all too frequently attempt to raise awareness about their issue, as if awareness automatically translates into action for change. Instead, they argue, organizations must communicate more strategically with their public audiences, giving people concrete calls to action.
Christiano and Neimand explain that there are four specific risks to doing awareness campaigns the wrong way. Done improperly, awareness campaigns can: (1) lead to no action; (2) reach the wrong audience; (3) create harm; and (4) generate a backlash.
As an example of how well-intentioned campaigns can result in no action, the authors cite the CDC’s very witty “Zombie Apocalypse” campaign, which went viral but led to no measurable increase in people’s actually taking the recommended steps for disaster preparation. As an example of a creative and popular campaign that may have actually created harm, the authors cite the “Dumb Ways to Die” music video, which was created to encourage safety and decrease the deaths around trains in Australia. Sadly, the sweet-sounding song and cartoon video make death seem less horrifying and, importantly, did not take into account the research that shows that such imagery can actually increase suicide among those already contemplating it. As the authors put it, “Unfortunately, it is uncommon for practitioners to conduct a review of academic literature as part of the early stages of any effort. . . . The gulf between scholarship that could help practitioners avoid harm, reduce risk, or increase the effectiveness of their efforts and practice is common and wide.”
This is all particularly interesting to us since we created See Jane Fight Back because we were tired of the uphill battle it had been raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of women’s self-defense training. We have not felt particularly successful in getting women’s self-defense training to be an accepted part of the rape prevention discourse.
So let’s consider awareness campaigns for sexual assault prevention. These often lead to no action (other than after-the-fact reporting) or they create harm when, by not mentioning the research showing how effective active resistance can be, they rob women of the knowledge and skills to thwart an attacker and position women as damsels in distress who must rely on men’s good intentions. And the backlash is rampant, such as when Nina Sanchez, who won the Miss USA title in 2014, advocated self-defense training for girls and women as a rape prevention strategy.
When we look at the sexual assault prevention campaigns, it is obvious that those campaigns have not conducted a review of the academic literature. We have been a broken record, trying to tell people about the scholarship showing how effective self-defense is. Which leads us to examine our own campaign.
How effective is our campaign to advocate self-defense? To do well, it must move people to learn the empowering tactics of verbal and physical resistance to sexual assault and/or move policy makers to provide such training.
According to Christiano and Neimand, a successful public interest communications campaign contains four elements: (1) targeting your audience as narrowly as possible; (2) creating compelling messages with clear calls to action; (3) developing a theory of change; and (4) using the right messenger.
So here are our questions:
Have we targeted our audience properly? Do we have an audience, or instead, audiences? Women and girls are a diverse group – to target our audience narrowly, as Christiano and Neimand suggest, we may need different messages, theories, and messengers.
What about the message–if we came up with a compelling message with a clear call to action, what would it be? Having a clear call to action is no guarantee of success, as we learned from the CDC’s Zombie Apocalypse campaign, which made it crystal clear that you ought to make an emergency kit. But having a clear call is one of the four necessary elements of a successful public interest communication campaign.
What about our theory of change–do we need to rethink that? We’ve been thinking that as more women feel that pleasurable sensation of empowerment as they develop an efficacious relationship with their own potential for setting boundaries, they will be more likely to set boundaries and men, recognizing that more and more women in their midst are setting strong limits, will be less likely to see women as easy targets to prey on. The data suggest this is true, but perhaps, with the goal of raising awareness, this isn’t the theory that compels women and girls to embrace self-defense.
And finally, we are thinking that the self-defense advocacy movement needs the “right messenger”– perhaps a cool woman to whom girls and young women would listen. Lady Gaga? Beyonce? Pink? Laverne Cox? Serena Williams? Who do you think our messenger should be?
These are the questions we must answer if we want the research on self-defense to wind up making a real difference to prevent sexual assault. Tell us what you think in the comments section!
Leave it to feminist academics to make a lesson out of a Zumba class, that popular form of group exercise for the decidedly hyperkinetic. Some well-meaning feminist-leaning people have already questioned our participating in Zumba and other forms of female-dominated Jane-Fonda-esque aerobic activities to be a sign of our having patriarchal body image problems and self-loathing, so perhaps turning Zumba into a feminist lesson (and blog post) might make up for any misperceptions along those lines.
Two fun pop songs played in Zumba classes these days are Meghan Trainor’s “No” and Trainor’s duet with LunchMoney Lewis “I Love Me.”
In the song “No” Trainor advises women to recognize their right to say no, offering multiple ways to do so:
“All my ladies listen up/If that boy ain’t giving up/Lick your lips and swing your hips/Girl all you gotta say is/My name is no/My sign is no/My number is no/You need to let it go/You need to let it go/Need to let it go.”
Of course we self-defense advocates know and celebrate this sentiment. But it’s the words LunchMoney Lewis sings in “I Love Me” that drive home a perhaps equally important and complementary lesson for men, so that they can take no for an answer. In his part, LunchMoney Lewis sings:
“Oh hey-ey-ey, I love me/Hey, hey, hey, I love me/’Cause I’m sexy and it ain’t my fault/I ain’t waitin’ on nobody’s call/You don’t want me, baby that’s your loss/I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine, baby.”
Men need to follow the example of LunchMoney Lewis and develop their own self-love, self-care, and sense of centeredness. For having all of those things makes taking no for an answer, and respecting another person’s boundaries, a non-issue. Of course, it’s possible to take no for an answer and respect someone’s boundaries anyway (like, because it’s the law and all), but what a wonderful place from which to listen and respect. As LunchMoney Lewis so clearly says, being rejected might not be fun, but it’s FINE.
And, as for being a feminist who goes to Zumba, well, I love me.
In a Dec. 12 New York Time Magazine piece called “The Conversation”, Emily Bazelon interviews several notable feminist academics and journalists on workplace sexual harassment. Laura Kipnis, author of a recent book critiquing Title IX overreach on college campuses, is one of those in the conversation. Kipnis points out that feminists have struggled to gain what she calls “civic equality” (access to full participation in politics, the workplace, and other public spheres) as well as to gain bodily autonomy (such as reproductive freedom and freedom from interpersonal violence). Both of these revolutions are unfinished, as the sexual harassment of working women brings to light.
Of course, one’s lack of bodily autonomy impedes one’s civic equality. And as feminist legal theorist Catharine A. MacKinnon pointed out in her landmark 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, sexual harassment is a pervasive problem keeping women from both economic and sexual self-determination. By the way, it’s interesting that MacKinnon is not one of those interviewed or referenced in these recent conversations. She has been stereotyped as anti-male and anti-sex, and yet her work was crucial in making sexual harassment a legally actionable form of sex discrimination in the workplace. In short, at some level anyway, we are all MacKinnon feminists now.
In the NYT Magazine interviews, Kipnis is the only one in the group to ask the question about how women respond to this kind of sexual aggression. When Bazelon asks who should be responsible for change, Anita Hill answers: “There are three ways you could approach the problem of sexual harassment. You can fix the women. You can fix the guys. Or you can change the culture.” Danyel Smith, Soledad O’Brien, Lynn Povich, and Amanda Hess all chime in that we must change men or the culture. Kipnis asks, with the innocence born of the utter sensibility of the question and the trepidation that stems from knowing full well that feminists have embraced a victim politics and she’s sure to get hammered, “Do we have to choose? Can’t it be all three?” After all, it’s not as if changing women is not also changing the culture–and vice versa. Of course, we would argue, empowerment self-defense training does not “fix” women who are “broken”. Kipnis mentions that she wants to embrace the kind of assertiveness training that was once a popular and acceptable part of the feminist movement.
In suggesting this, Laura Kipnis faces what we’ve been facing for years in our advocacy of women’s verbal and physical resistance to men’s sexual aggression: the reality that for many feminists, self-defense is verboten. The taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Ironically, the outright refusal to embrace the embodied tactics that resist one’s oppression embraces and essentializes the very feminine comportment and victim mindset that themselves constitute the lived realities of a sexist culture. In response to Anita Hill’s remark that “if we fix the guys and change the culture, we won’t need to fix women,” Kipnis simply, but insightfully, comes back with, “Good luck.” Suggesting that we make men change is not only unrealistic but demands and solidifies a Victorian ideal of male chivalry. This is not equitable, nor is it pro-sex, nor is it chock full of girl power. Indeed, it is an attitude that goes against all other ideas popular among feminists today.
Amanda Hess goes so far as to say that women cannot challenge their sexual harassers, proclaiming: “I think that freezing and trying to slip away when something upsetting happens to you is a human response. I think it’s also a very human response sometimes for people who are witnessing some sort of harassment, even men. I don’t think we can necessarily teach that response away.” In short, Hess wants men to change–and no doubt rejects the arguments that, thanks to evolution, our male coworkers are just cavemen in suits–but wants to underscore the fact that women, biologically, cannot change their responses to sexual harassment. Women are engaged in a “human response” that we can’t “teach away.” (Try telling Hess her male colleague’s ogling the gorgeous young woman who arrived at work wearing a bodycon dress, stiletto heels, and no bra is just a “human response.”)
Wanting to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace without training women how to challenge it flies in the face of sexual harassment law itself. After all, unless it’s the quid-pro-quo type of sex harassment (e.g., “perform this sexual act if you want the promotion/don’t want to get fired”), the law itself demands that the victim first let the perpetrator know that his verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is unwelcome. The condition-of-work type of sex harassment presumes that people are differently sensitive to jokes, touching, and asks for drinks, and that people have different views of what conduct is sexual in nature. Thus the victim must first say something either through her supervisor or established written complaint channels, or directly to the perpetrator, such as, “I’m not comfortable with your sexual jokes; do not tell them to me anymore”, or “I don’t want you to touch me”, or “I do not want to see the porn on your computer; do not show me that again.” If a guy continues to subject his colleague to these working conditions after he is told to stop, and such action unreasonably interferes with her work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, then it is sexual harassment. (Note: gendered terms used to make the argument easier to follow. OF COURSE some harassers are women, some victims are men, etc.)
We still need to challenge gender inequality in intimate relationships, in the workplace, and in civic life. And, to appropriate Emma Goldman, if I can’t defend myself I don’t want to be part of your unfinished revolution.
Stephen Marche is a better man than you are. Why, you may ask? He is willing to admit to his monstrous nature. All men have it, according to Marche, a journalist and novelist who thought he’d use his excellent writing skills to get a Sunday Op Ed in the New York Times on a subject he knows nothing about: male sexuality.
Marche’s essay, “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido,” exposes what he calls the “ugly and dangerous nature of” said libido, and demands that we talk about this male “nature” for a change. (For a change?!!)
Using the recent exposure of men from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose as evidence for men’s caveman nature, Marche claims that “there remains no cure for human desire.” In his concluding paragraph, which reads like the concluding paragraph of most high school essays where the student argues for a perspective that he believes is new just because it’s the first time he thought of it, Marche suggests that we ought to start studying masculinity. In a move that actually reverses decades of scholarship that analytically separated biological sex from the script of masculinity, Marche waxes philosophical, opining that “masculinity [read: male sexual nature] is a subject worth thinking about.”
Perhaps Marche would, in addition to acknowledging his own biological original sin, venture a trip to his local library, or perhaps a simple Google search, before we lose net neutrality altogether, where Marche would find a cornucopia of scholarly books and articles, and even entire academic associations, that have been devoted to studying masculinity over the past three decades.
When our students have an ah-ha moment and imagine that they are the first person on the planet who has ever thought of their idea, we always send them to the library, where they discover what has already been written on this idea. This humbling and illuminating task is responsible scholarship and responsible journalism. Stephen Marche seems not to have looked at anything already written on his topic.
Had Marche done any of the studying of masculinity he claims ought to be done, he might have found the textbook Men’s Lives, edited by Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner, now in its 9th Edition. He’d find The Caveman Mystique by See Jane Fight Back’s own Martha McCaughey, deconstructing the popular myth that men are just, deep down, biologically wired to ogle, harass, and sexually assault women. (If he’s an Amazon prime member, he can get both of them with free two-day shipping!) He could even attend the conference of the American Men’s Studies Association this coming March, which, believe it or not, has been in existence for 26 years.
Such exploration would have shown Marche how many people have made his argument before and how many have debunked it. Of course it’s tempting to use the deplorable behavior of Weinstein et al. as evidence for the highly popular idea that men are biologically wired to objectify, harass, and assault women whenever and wherever they get the opportunity.
But it’s not so simple because that logic ignores two things: (1) Those with institutional power behave this way, and they prey upon those over whom they have institutional power; and (2) Feeling like behaving that way with your body does not mean it’s your body’s nature or that your entire sex is driven to behave that way.
In short, men’s lascivious behavior is context-dependent and culture-dependent.
Those who study masculinity find the same thing those of us who study and teach self-defense to women find: that what our culture tells us about the true “nature” of women and men is, well, a load of crap. We may feel in our bones the power of our gendered scripts. That we feel them that deeply, that we embody them, does not mean these behaviors are biologically innate. It means that gendered expectations are lived ideologies.
When women get on the mat and learn to fight, they unlearn the script of feminine helplessness – something many of us assumed was our female “nature” and felt deeply.
Similarly, when men have women bosses and a culture that tells them they are expected to treat coworkers as peers, it’s amazing how much less they feel like pulling their dicks out and assuming those around them are into it.
Sorry/not sorry, Mr. Marche: your NYT Op Ed piece is nasty, brutish, and short on scholarly analysis.
See Jane Fights Back gives a shout out to Ellen Snortland for her release of the documentary Beauty Bites Beast, which shares the title with her book from 2001. The documentary has been screened across the globe – from California to Pakistan, and so many places in between! It showcases interviews with self-defense instructors, advocates, and students, and is a great opportunity to hear first person accounts of the transformation that empowerment self-defense can produce. We are excited that more information is coming out to larger audiences about the importance of empowerment self-defense, and the effectiveness of its use by women and girls in keeping themselves safe. Thanks, Ellen!