Young YouTuber Anna Akana explains in her “How Not to Get Raped” video that she’s “so fucking tired” of being told what she can do to thwart attacks, because we should be telling men to stop raping. But take it from us, Anna, we are WAY older than you and we are really very so fucking tired. . . of waiting for men to change. (See video below for a dramatization of our getting older and older as we wait for men to change.)
We took birth control, and considered our ability to control our fertility a relatively empowering thing. We did not say it should be up to men to prevent pregnancy. We also learned to swim. We did not say it should be up to lifeguards to keep us from drowning.
And, as we have said before, it’s not either/or. We believe men can change, and people can change, and culture can change. That being said, we can play an active role in those changes, and empowering ourselves to enforce boundaries if someone challenges them.
Our faithful readers are well aware that we take pains to understand why our fellow feminists find the idea of self-defense so abhorrent. Since the 1990s feminists have commonly accused anyone advocating self-defense of a) victim blaming, b) asking women to act too much like men, c) putting the burden to stop rape on women instead of on men, or d) being too fixated on the body and bodily pleasures to be truly political.
In addition, self-defense has also been subject to the charge of neo-liberalism. In this view, advocating self-defense is an individualistic strategy that naively places all the responsibility for solving a social problem on the individuals who deal with said problem which is, of course, actually a structural problem. Individual approaches to structural social problems are a neo-conservative’s dream because it rationalizes the removal of social programs and government funding that would help those suffering from the problem.
The charge of victim-blaming is a close cousin to the charge of neo-liberalism. For if one commits the sin of misunderstanding a structural, political problem for one that is solved by individuals, then this ultimately blames victims for the problem’s existence. The scholar who in 1971 invented the concept of “blaming the victim,” William Ryan, was talking about the racism involved in the ways that Black people were blamed for being poor. Poverty is caused by structural inequalities and statistically speaking there are likely to be way more poor people than rich people. Of course, feminists found the concept of victim-blaming very useful for criticizing the ways in which we excuse perpetrators of violence against women for their actions.
The charge of neo-liberalism in feminist circles presumes that a solution involving an individual woman’s agency or body is somehow not truly feminist because it places the burden on her to change the society. At the same time, the trend among post-structuralist and post-colonial feminists has been to emphasize women’s agency and practices of bodily resistance. When we talk about ways women use their bodies to resist sexist social structures, we need not sacrifice a feminist, structural analysis of social problems.
But, as Alison Phipps points out in her 2014 book, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neo-Liberal and Neo-Conservative Age, in a neo-liberal social climate many people merge or twist the post-colonial, post-structuralist feminist agenda of resistance with their neo-liberal agenda. The neo-liberal agenda turns an otherwise empowering, feminist discourse of personal choice, self-invention, and bodily agency into a conservative politics of personal responsibility.
Sometimes feminist efforts walk right into the neo-liberal trap. For example, as feminists did the amazing work of de-medicalizing childbirth in the 1970s, insisting that women know more about their bodies than they’d been given credit for and advocating that “breast is best,” feminists often ended up talking about “natural” birthing and breastfeeding practices. This discourse was putty in the hands of conservatives who embraced that rhetoric for their own arguments that women shouldn’t be in the workplace so that they could breastfeed their babies and do other household chores that were the “natural” job of women. Feminists had to emphasize that workplace policies should enable women to breastfeed (or pump their breastmilk), and also had to acknowledge that an unmedicated birth is not necessarily a “natural” birth. Phipps argues that the feminist emphasis on breastfeeding and unmedicated birthing has become so successful across our culture because it fits well neo-liberal approaches to the privatization of responsibility and personal accountability for health risks. Even still, we don’t want to go back to the norms of 1965.
Can advocating self-defense also fall into a neo-liberal trap? Sure it can. But, just as feminists advocating more empowering and healthy options for women around birthing and infant feeding must remind people of the structural and political issues at stake, we can remind people that advocating self-defense can and must be done as part of, not instead of, a structural approach to the problem of sexual violence.
Besides, not advocating self-defense falls into other conservative agendas–namely, that women’s bodies are too weak to fight aggressively, or that women ought to know their place and let men, bystanders, and the state protect them from harm. In other words, feminists don’t avoid an unholy alliance by avoiding self-defense advocacy.
When we advocate self-defense, we do not advocate cuts to federal funding aimed at preventing violence against women or serving the victims of it. We advocate including self-defense training as part of those prevention efforts. Ignoring self-defense–as so many of our colleagues in the rape prevention education arena do–is like throwing out the breastfeeding baby with the hospital bathwater in an effort to avoid cooptation by a neo-liberal agenda.
Open Letter to the Author of Thank You for Arguing.
Dear Jay Heinrichs:
We read your book, Thank You for Arguing, a national bestseller, to learn how we might use the techniques of persuasion in order to convince those who do not see the value of self-defense training to women. And we’re ready, as you say, to “move our audience to action”. Beyond ready. As self-defense scholars and advocates, we know that the data show that women’s use of self-defense to thwart sexual assault is likely to be effective and safe. The challenge has been to get people to embrace that data and move to the actions of funding, learning, and advocating women’s self-defense training. Your strategies can help us do that – let us know how we’re doing!
First we thought we’d try your tactic of starting with the opposition’s view and then showing how your own position better suits their view. For example, rape prevention educators say that “holding rapists accountable” is preventative. So how about taking that view — that “we must hold rapists accountable”– and then reframing it to say that a woman who shouts at, kicks at, or otherwise stops a man from carrying out his plans to rape is holding rapists accountable.
We also liked your approach of creating effective statements that blend parts of the opposition’s view with one’s own position, such as the highly effective statement, “Abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.” Perhaps we could say, Self-defense should be empowering, effective, and rare.
Another way we might be able to use your technique is to come up with a memorable soundbite expressing our position–something like: Securing funding from the CDC shouldn’t go against women’s security. Or: Self-Defense: Because We’re Worth It.
Perhaps our blog readers can help, too. Let us know your ideas for the best persuasive statements for self-defense advocacy!
Martha & Jill
- “Where there is power, there is resistance.” Michael Foucault
- “If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anyone else again.” Malcom X
- “The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.” Susan Sontag
- “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow, or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” Margaret Atwood
- “It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.” bell hooks
- “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” Elie Wiesel
- “Sometimes it’s appropriate to scream at them.” Helen Caldicott
- “I say to people today, ‘You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.'” John Lewis
- “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” Madeleine Albright.
- “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
We have often wondered why so many feminists are so skeptical of, if not downright opposed to, the advocacy of women’s self-defense (such as the latest missive on Everyday Feminism here)–even when we present the data showing how well resisting sexual assault can work, and how life- and culture-changing training in self-defense can be.
Julia Galef’s 2016 TED talk, “Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong,” proves insightful here. Julia Galef is a writer with a statistics background and the co-founder the Center for Applied Rationality, a nonprofit organization that helps people improve their reasoning and decision-making, particularly with the aim of addressing global problems. When it comes to decision making, Galef argues that people approach decisions with one of two mindsets: the soldier mindset, or the scout mindset.
These mindsets do not correlate with I.Q., and they are both equally emotionally rooted and equally logical. The difference is that those with the soldier mindset make a decision and stick it out, while those with the scout mindset feel curious, and are open to being wrong. For the scouts, their sense of self-worth is not tied to being right or wrong about any particular topic. Soldiers, on the other hand, yearn to defend their own beliefs and would feel ashamed of being wrong. Scouts feel proud when they notice they might have been wrong about something, feeling intrigued rather than defensive.
When it comes to self-defense, it appears that many feminists–like many people, in general–have the soldier mindset. They want to march forward with a single plan. The idea that the solution to sexual assault is only to educate men about how to stop assaulting, and then to encourage women to report those who have not stopped doing so, thereby showing men, through legal punishment, that we won’t tolerate it. Stepping in to suggest that we could constructively teach women boundary setting skills, awareness, and verbal and physical self-defense skills disrupts the path on which the soldiers have been marching.
Let’s be scouts. Let’s be curious about exploring multiple paths to end sexual assault and the rape culture that supports it. Let’s acknowledge women’s capacity for agency, choice, and action. Let’s examine what really works to thwart assault, what really works to empower women, what really works to get men to stop sexually assaulting, and what really works to change the rape culture. Let’s embrace self-defense.
Resistance Is Not Futile.
Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.
We put up a good fight. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, needed it to. We lost. Did the fight matter?
Resistance, in any form, to any kind of assault or violation, does not guarantee a particular outcome. And when the outcome is unwanted and scary and painful and wrong, and violates our individual and collective rights to freedom and empowerment and self-determination and safety, it can feel like the resistance was futile.
It was not futile. As Hillary Clinton reminded us in her moving concession speech this morning, it is not futile.
As scholars who advocate self-defense, we want to remind you of an important lesson from the data on self-defense: that the process of resistance is critical and empowering and positive, even when the outcome is negative. In the face of assault, women who knew resistance was an option and who made the best choice for themselves in that moment – whether that was verbal resistance or physical resistance or simply the determination to survive – had better physical and psychological outcomes following an assault than women who believed they had no choices.
We do not fight solely because we want a particular outcome. We fight because we are worth fighting for. And the fight is important on all levels – for individual people, for what it communicates to our families and friends and communities, for how it changes rules and norms and structures and policies and laws. We fight for what the fight says about and means to us.
What is the next step? There is no “right” answer to that, because resistance is multi-faceted, broadly defined, and individually determined. Yes, we will have successes and setbacks. But we know we will, as Hillary implores us to, go on fighting. Because, as Hillary said, “fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
Remember the Feminist Ryan Gosling memes? Then University of Wisconsin graduate student Danielle Henderson set up a Tumblr site with images of Ryan Gosling offering feminist theoretical insights to (presumably) straight women designed to make them melt and support their studying feminist theory. Those memes represent one of many seriously silly mashups of high theory and pop culture. Many more examples abound: KimKierkegaardashian (@), the Twitter account that tweets the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard mashed with the tweets and observations of pop star Kim Kardashian, and Kantye West (@Kantye_West)–whose statements such as, “Thieves! You may rob Kim of her jewels but never her inherent ability to rationalize the graspable content of her own surroundings,” read as if the 18th Century Enlightenment philosopher and the music producer/rapper belonged together.
And so, in our continuing mediatized efforts both to amuse and to make a difference for women’s empowerment, we bring you our very own mashup:
For a seriously silly mashup of self-defense advocacy told through our beloved Snoop Dogg’s language and lyrics, follow Self-Defense Dogg (@SD_Doggystyle) and when you’ve got something that’s both feminist and fly to say about self-defense, like, “Don’t drink the Red Flag Campaign’s coolaid cuz women can be their own bystanders,” use the hashtag #SD_Doggystyle.
That’s right, it’s self-defense doggystyle! Follow Self-Defense Dogg on Twitter. Fo shizzle!
An Open Letter to Donald Trump
Dear Mr. Trump,
We are not writing to express our surprise that recent tapes revealed your proudly describing how you go up to women and start kissing them without even waiting (for consent) and how you “grab ’em by the pussy.” This does not shock us at all, given your relative power as a rich white man living in a rape culture.
But what does that mean, rape culture? Rape culture refers to that set of attitudes and beliefs about men, women, and sex that presume that men are going to aggress against women and that women will, at best, be OK with it or, at worst, don’t matter anyway. Rape culture includes the way we speak about men and women.
When we describe someone brave and assertive, we say that person has “got balls.” If we want someone to be more courageous, we say they really ought to “grow a pair.” This makes logical sense in a culture that associates manhood with the ability to assert one’s will. When we describe someone who is weak, fearful, or otherwise wimpy (you know, “not man enough”), we say they are a “pussy.” This is not at all coincidentally also a slang word for female sex organs.
These associations were in full play in the sign carried by one of Trump’s supporters, which declared “Better to grab a pussy than be one!”
The issue, as many have pointed out, is not the use of the term “pussy” to describe women’s genitalia, or even the use of the word “pussy” as a pejorative and emasculating slur. The issue is Trump’s assertion that pussies, and by association the human beings who have them, are there for his taking. Yet they, and we, are not.
Self-defense training teaches women that there is nothing about having a pussy that makes us pussies of the Trumps of this world. And self-defense training teaches us that resistance comes in many forms, and that there is not just one moment in time for resistance. Resistance can happen when we see the threat coming a mile away, when the threat is right in front of us, and any time after an assault, be that minutes or decades. In fact, the willful act of standing up to the Trumps of the world, verbally and/or physically, courageously telling one’s story about these Trumps, and civil disobedience are all forms of resistance to the rape culture. We only fully challenge the rape culture when we challenge the belief that women have no power to resist men, and the accompanying belief that men can, because of either social or physical power, just waltz up to women and grab ’em by the pussy.
Because you can’t, Mr. Trump. And this is what resistance looks like.
Read more about this image at http://www.wnyc.org/story/pussy-grabs-back-movement/
Also posted on Manly Musings, a blog by C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges
Men can now openly enjoy My Little Pony, and some now call other men out for rape-supporting attitudes. But as sociologists C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges astutely note, in these cases men often still cling to a notion of manhood that they have and that the outsider lacks. Not the right kind of Brony? Then a guy might hear, “Go be normal somewhere else, faggot!” Not the right kind of campus dating man? Then the message might be, “You’re a rapist, not a real man.” Pascoe and Bridges’ point is that toxic masculinity is about that act of denying a powerful social identity to others. Redefining the behavior that suits a”real man” doesn’t change the way men seek acceptance from other men as men.
Sensing or at least presuming that being a man is what’s important to guys, rape prevention advocates have tried to appeal to manhood to get guys to rethink their assumptions. As we explain elsewhere, the “My Strength” campaign offers a series of posters that remind men to choose to use their (presumably natural and superior) strength to protect women, rather than to rape them.
Likewise, the “Real Men Don’t Rape” campaign trades on how important manhood is to men, and attempts to redefine manhood as respectful, gentlemanly.
The “real men don’t rape” strategy hopes to convey that manhood ought to be defined by morality, not muscle. But, as a photo from the campaign illustrates, it winds up essentializing male strength—as if that’s the one thing no one can challenge, that at the end of the day (or date), the man there is more physically powerful and ultimately dominant over the woman.
In the educational film designed to reconstruct gender for African American boys and men, My Masculinity Helps, many male allies are shown taking the problem of violence against women seriously. One woman in the film states, “Men have power. Now let’s talk about how to harness that power for good.” While we would all agree that we need those with privilege to embrace the social movement’s goals. But why does it have to be about their masculinity and how useful or helpful it is? The feminist movement has challenged gender ideology and, importantly, the centrality of demarcating manhood. Could we imagine, and would we accept, a film about stopping racism called My Whiteness Helps?
C. J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander argue, in a recent article published in Gender & Society, the campaigns attempting to mobilize men turns men’s not raping into a “chivalrous choice, a courtesy extended to a subordinate rather than the respect due to an equal.” These campaigns highlight women’s subordinate status and almost celebrate men’s putatively superior strength and power. They oppose rape “in ways that work to reinforce, rather than challenge, underlying gender inequalities.”
When men are enlisted as allies in ways that attempt to make them feel good about themselves as men, we are continuing the rape culture by privileging men’s feelings. That same privileging of men’s feelings and needs is exactly what men who abusively control their partner and sexually assault women expect: their feelings and desires to be prioritized. Moreover, in this movement men continue to be framed as the more powerful sex, and women continue to be framed as damsels in distress who “real men” help and not hurt. “Real men” are still dominant—they are just to use that power and dominance benevolently. This protectionist discourse actually works to reinforce some of the very beliefs that it appears to call into question.
The strategy behind “real men don’t rape” and “my strength” is meant to suggest that respecting women, rather than getting laid, is what makes you a man. Of course, this tactic turns the tables, given the assumption that men are so eager, even desperate, to have sex with women (even if the women aren’t willing), because it helps them see themselves as manly.
As a result, we are now told that rape is something committed only by weird, desperate, unmanly men. But, as we point out elsewhere, Prof. Michael A. Messner argues in his Gender & Society article that the effort to change rape culture by framing the problem as one of a few bad apples is a major break from the feminist movement that challenged rape to begin with. As Messner puts it, in the 1970s feminist women and pro-feminist men thought that
“. . . successfully ending violence against women would involve not simply removing a few bad apples from an otherwise fine basket of fruit. Rather, working to stop violence against women meant overturning the entire basket: challenging the institutional inequalities between women and men, raising boys differently, and transforming in more peaceful and egalitarian directions the normative definition of manhood. Stopping men’s violence against women, in other words, was now seen as part of a larger effort at revolutionizing gender relations.”
As Messner points out, the institutionalization and professionalization of anti-rape work since that time has led us to embrace a health model of rape prevention, which has medicalized the problem of sexual violence–and thereby, at least in some ways, de-politicized it. Once the overall problem of rape has been depoliticized, nobody cares that we’re kowtowing to some dude’s need for his manhood to be confirmed.
In those earlier days of the anti-rape movement, male feminist writer John Stoltenberg argued in his book Refusing to Be a Man that, when a man is making out with a woman, he should be more worried about being the friend there than about being the man there. Stoltenberg’s point was far more radical than today’s tactic of simply reversing what counts as real manhood. Stoltenberg suggested that we just stop worrying about who’s a real man.
The current campaigns basically presume men are like the dog waiting for affirmation in the dog meme–you know the one in which the dog is saying, “What if I never find out who’s a good boy?”
Our message to guys would be: No, you’re never going to find out who’s a real man. Let’s move on and worry about what being a respectful human being actually looks and feels like. We really aren’t concerned about your masculinity, however you conceive it. Because your sense of manhood is not what this movement is about.