Dear Vice President Biden and the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault:
We’ve read the press release, explored the web site, and followed the mostly positive media coverage about the recommendations of the Task Force. However, as feminist self-defense scholars and activists, and as college professors, we find it interesting, and problematic, that women in the 21st Century continue to be seen as damsels in distress.
We applaud the Task Force for underscoring the seriousness and prevalence of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, for highlighting the need for better data on the incidence rates, and for requiring colleges and universities to act. However, it’s striking that the only people who can act, it seems, are men. Men can stop raping. Men can serve as “bystanders” and stop their friends from raping. And (mainly male) university administrators can implement programs to reach men, and to better serve the (mainly female) victims that men have raped.
That approach presumes that women are sitting ducks. Easy targets. Rapeable. The best we can hope for, we are being told, is that campuses will adopt better policies, in compliance with Title IX of the Educational Equity Act for reporting the already-completed rape of women, and teach the good guys—the knight-errants roving from party to party—to save the damsels in distress.
But that’s not the best we can hope for. The highly regarded academic journal Violence Against Women just released an entire special issue in March 2014devoted to scholarship on self-defense against sexual assault, for which we served as the guest editors. In that issue, scholars present data on how effective training in and using self-defense can be for women. These scholars show that self-defense is usually effective in thwarting an attack (Dr. Sarah Ullman of the University of Illinois at Chicago); that self-defense typically results in no further injury to the women defending themselves(Drs. Jongyeon Tark and Gary Kleck of Hannem University in South Korea and Florida State University); that self-defense helps women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds (Dr. Lisa Speidel of University of Virginia) as well as women who have been previously victimized (Drs. Gia Rosenblum and Lynn Taska, trauma psychologists in Lawrenceville, NJ); that a good self-defense course is incredibly empowering in a number of ways for women, outside of their ability to thwart an actual attack (Dr. Martha Thompson of Northeastern Illinois University); and that because of the wide range of benefits self-defense training has, it actually helps change the gender norms and ultimately prevents sexual assault more broadly (Dr. Joceyln Hollander of University of Oregon).
We wish to be clear that women are not responsible for rape, no matter their behavior, their attire, or their level of intoxication; promoting self-defense training for women in no way suggests that the onus is now, or should be, onwomen alone to stop rape. Nor would we want to suggest that men who rape can’t ever change their ways, or that college administrators shouldn’t do more to ensure that there is gender equity in all areas.
But we do note, and question, the absence of self-defense as a goal that is part of an overall sexual assault prevention approach. Self-defense is no more individualistic than training individual bystanders to stop a guy before he rapes. Self-defense is no more victim-blaming than suggesting women communicate clearly on dates. Self-defense should be just as much a part of sexual assault prevention efforts as training bystanders and improving policies are. Besides, women really shouldn’t have to wait on government and university bureaucracies when, in a matter of weeks, they could learn the empowering, and effective, techniques of twisting the testicles, kneeing the groin, or gouging the eyes of Joe College Rapist.
Moreover, self-defense training doesn’t just teach women such physical techniques. It teaches women to take themselves more seriously, that they have bodies and lives worth defending, and that they are not pieces of meat, playthings, or pretty prizes of men. That, it seems to us, is an incredibly important message to give to women and their co-eds who are supposed to be learning that men and women are equally deserving of the right to an education. Practicing self-defense enables women to practice being taken seriously, in and out of a bedroom.
The White House Task Force urges colleges and universities to collect better data, to adopt better policies, and to protect the confidentiality of victims. We agree. But we argue that the Task Force must also urge college and universities to put into action what we know from the findings of decades of research: that women can safely and effectively defend themselves against rape, and that self-defense training for women benefits everyone. You want true educational equity? Then teach self-defense.
Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele