Monthly Archives: June, 2014

An Open Letter to Jon Stewart about the “The Fault in Our Schools”

Dear Jon Stewart,

Kudos to you and correspondents Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper on a brilliant, hilarious, and unfortunately, all-too-accurate take on sexual assault on college campuses and the radically different messages offered to men and women on how to negotiate their college experiences with regard to fun and safety – um, that would be fun for men, and safety for women.   Because, as we know, from all the typical “how to avoid sexual assault advice” out there, we tell men to have a blast, and women to hunker down, look out for red flags and green dots, travel in groups, and hope for the best.  This is exactly the skit I would have done had I not been a double-major-in-psychology-and-theatre-arts-who-dropped-the-theatre-arts-major-to-a-minor due to…well, a total lack of acting ability.  There.  I said it.  Despite my bitterness about my thwarted acting career, I’m no less appreciative of a fabulous performance when I see it.

But you forgot Part II, Jon Stewart, where you show what college women are actually capable of doing in the face of assault.  Show what self-defense looks like.  Show that it can work.  Without that, we are left with only a great parody of the status quo, without reminding everyone what’s WRONG with the status quo:  it’s damaging, it’s sexist, it’s inaccurate, and it’s NOT what we should be communicating to women or men about sexual assault.  So don’t stop there, Jon.  Keep ‘em coming!   Part II…I can see it now:  Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper in “Transforming Rapists:  The Age of Extinction.  Or “A Million Ways to Have Rape Die Out in the West, And Anywhere Else”.  Or “Kneed for Speed.”  Let’s incentivize that.

Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey

Top Ten Reasons We Should Offer Self-Defense Training to College Women  

10. Frat guys make an alcoholic beverage they call “the panty dropper.”

9.  Miss USA recommends it, and she’s a hot babe (and is also a fourth degree black belt).

8.  A testicle twist is far more effective at stopping a rapist than even the best feminist literary criticism.

7.  According to Pantene shampoo, you can kick a date rapist in the knees as long as you say “sorry” afterward, or beforehand, or during, or as long as you don’t say “sorry,” although it’s admittedly confusing (sorry).

6.  Guys won’t join the bystander intervention movement as a “good way to meet girls.”

5.  Being a damsel in distress is sooo 1849, unless you listen to the White House Task Force recommendations, in which case it’s sooo 2014.

4.  Two words: Steubenville, Ohio.

3.  Sometimes red flags require black eyes.

2.  As feminists, we’d really like to reclaim the term “ball busters.”


1.  Because college women need to kick George Will’s ass, which would totally give him that victim status he’s been coveting.


Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele




Open Letter to the American Association of University Women

Dear American Association of University Women (AAUW),

You have championed women’s equal rights to and in education for over a century. You were the organization that challenged bogus ideas back in the day, like that zinger about women being unable to go to medical school because it would compromise their fertility.

We were so glad to see that your website offers “10 Ways to Fight against Sexual Assault on Campus” but sad that self-defense—training in it or doing it when assaulted–is never mentioned. Precisely because research shows that self-defense training is often an effective and empowering way to thwart sexual assault, we take your concept of “fighting against sexual assault” a bit more literally, and so suggest here a modification or addition to each of your 10 action tips for fighting against sexual assault on campus.

  1. Share resources and groups that help survivors. One such resource is self-defense training. Research has shown that good self-defense programs have been developed for trauma survivors and that those programs lead to increased feelings of empowerment, reduction in psychological symptoms, and reduction in self-blame for survivors.
  2. Know your rights.  You not only have the right under Title IX to equal access to education but you have the legal right to defend yourself from someone attacking you.
  3. Take action on the Campus SaVE Act. Push your campus administrators to comply with the Campus SaVE Act in a way that includes self-defense training for college women.
  4. Write an op-ed. Include the importance of self-defense training in the op-ed piece you write, and include stories about women’s and girls’ successful resistance to violence to broaden our narratives about women and sexual assault.
  5. Use social media. Spread awareness of the power and potential of teaching college women the empowering practice of self-defense, and share stories about how college women fight back in the face of assault.
  6. Start a conversation on victim-blaming and how to stop it. Advocating self-defense should never be construed as victim-blaming. Self-defense helps women hold perpetrators accountable for their violent actions, and women who have taken self-defense training, including women who have been raped or sexually assaulted, report that they feel more empathy, not more blame, for victims and survivors.
  7. Hold a bystander intervention session. Bystanders can help stop a sexual assault in their midst by intervening in a situation. If a bystander doesn’t catch such a situation and stop it, a woman can very likely use self-defense skills to do so. So, hold a self-defense training session as well. Self-defense training will empower everyone to act, whether they are the targets of sexual assault or the bystanders to it.
  8. Get involved in national campaigns. In addition to the Clothesline Project, V-Day, and Take Back the Night, there are national campaigns and organizations such as the American Women’s Self-Defense Association, Rape Aggression Defense, and the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation, which support women’s self-defense training. Get involved, and while you’re at it, demand that the Clothesline Project add a new color T-shirt for women who thwarted their attackers, and that V-Day channel some of its millions of dollars to women’s self-defense training.
  9. Volunteer. In addition to helping out at your local rape crisis center, learn self-defense and get certified to teach it to more women. Wouldn’t it be great if women needed rape crisis centers less often?
  10. Apply for Funding. AAUW branch members can apply for funding, but don’t expect most major organizations that give out money to service victims, prosecute perpetrators, and educate bystanders to intervene to give you any money to get women trained in self-defense… unless major gender equity organizations like the AAUW legitimize self-defense as an important component of sexual assault prevention on college campuses.

 The AAUW has always challenged the idea that women were not capable. Please make a point of challenging the idea that women aren’t capable of stopping most campus sexual assailants.

Yours truly,

Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele


Self-Defense Can Work Well for Trauma Survivors

When we advocate women’s self-defense training, we often hear worries about the possible victim-blaming that is implied (“it will only make victims feel bad for not having defended themselves” and “it will only make people expect women to fight back in order to make a legitimate claim in a court of law”). We also hear related concerns about survivors of interpersonal violence. Won’t they feel bad for not having “successfully” defended themselves? Won’t they blame themselves for the attack they suffered? Will they be too traumatized to go through self-defense training? 

Survivors are not necessarily ready for self-defense training, but some are.  In fact, some survivors are even referred by a therapist to self-defense training because it can be helpful for reclaiming their power and sense of safety.  Of course, for these reasons self-defense classes must be taught by well trained, feminist instructors who are sensitive to the many issues around gendered violence that can emerge when training women how to practice self-defense techniques.  In the 2014  Special Issue of Violence Against Women on self-defense against sexual assault, Gianine Rosenblum and Lynn Taska outline the elements of self-defense training specifically for trauma survivors. The self-defense curriculum they helped develop is based in research on trauma and its treatment.  In a class like this, a therapeutic teaching team works to understand each student’s needs, triggers, and window of tolerance. Students also have the option of requesting custom scenarios to (re)enact past events or trigger experiences, providing an opportunity to re-script the event or experience. In these self-defense classes, trauma survivors who are ready to enter self-defense training can experience therapeutic benefits such as the internalization of new emotional and physical resources. 

Self-defense training is not just for the strong, the young, or the unscarred among us.  And above all, self-defense need not blame past or future victims. Its aim is to empower us to challenge the rape culture that we live in, and the rape culture that lives in us.


10 reasons why advocating self-defense training for women is feminist and not victim-blaming.

  1. SELF-DEFENSE CAN WORK.  There are decades of data, referenced by the National Institute of Justice, that support the effectiveness of self-defense, verbal and physical, in stopping rape and sexual assault.
  2.  Self-defense advocates and instructors know that rape and sexual assault is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the target, victim, or survivor.
  3. Self-defense offers women an option for risk reduction and maintaining their safety in ways that increase their freedom to the world, rather than limiting their freedom and options the way that relying on avoidance strategies and male protection does.  In fact, the reliance on the men in our lives to maintain our safety is problematic; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost 80% of the perpetrators of sexual violence against women between 2005 and 2010 were family members, intimate partners, friends, or acquaintances.
  4. Self-defense is a legal right open to women just as it is to men.
  5. Self-defense challenges the notion that women’s bodies are inherently vulnerable to men’s and the notion that men’s bodies are unstoppable.
  6. Self-defense challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention.
  7. Self-defense training changes the broader culture that supports rape culture (or did you think it was just coincidence that so many guys think assertive women aren’t sexy?).
  8. Self-defense training teaches women the skills that facilitate the setting of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.
  9. Self-defense is empowering, and can change women’s beliefs about what they are capable of and what they are entitled to.
  10. And finally, for all these reasons, SELF-DEFENSE ALSO TEACHES MEN NOT TO RAPE.

Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey

Announcement and Essay from Amy Jones, coordinator of Peaceworks

“My Dream: Self-Defense Scholars and Instructors Working Together” by Amy Jones


Why Shouldn’t Women Prevent Rape?

An Open Letter to Tara Culp-Ressler and

June 11, 2014

Dear Tara Culp-Ressler of

Rock The Slut Vote linked to your post lambasting all the bogus advice women in this rape culture are given as “helpful” strategies to resist rape, which include:

Make it less fun to be a rape victim; buy special underwear; stop taking public transportation; and get married. Ok, we’re with you there. We get that it’s totally stupid to suggest women wear modern-day chastity belts or forgo the transportation necessary to move around freely in the world.

But you lose us—and women’s rights—when you suggest that taking a self-defense class is the same type of bogus, ultimately sexist advice.

Many, many feminists have supported women’s taking a self-defense class for the same reason we’ve supported women’s learning how to swim, learning how to change a flat tire on our own cars, or learning how to do breast self-exams. Such knowledge can be empowering and enable women to navigate real risks more effectively, thereby supporting their freedom to move around in the world.

Come on, Tara, what is YOUR advice to women about how to prevent rape? Get men to stop raping? How’s that been working for us?

Besides, it’s the sexist rape culture that has peddled the myth that women’s bodies can be no match for a man’s. It’s rape culture that has sexualized women’s vulnerability relative to men that has eroticized women’s weakness and men’s strength. It’s rape culture that has taught women the embodied habit of feminine politeness such that—let’s face it—a lot of young women do not know how to push, yell, or summon the sense of entitlement required to get a guy to back off.

Does self-defense work 100% of the time? Of course not. Does it work most of the time? Yes it does. And there is lots of data to back that up (see the March 2014 issue of the academic journal Violence Against Women, which is devoted to scholarship on self-defense against sexual assault).  Self-defense training, as a method of sexual assault prevention, expands women’s freedom, mobility, and choices rather than limiting or narrowing them. Is a sexual assault ever a woman’s fault? Of course not. Does teaching women self-defense still put the legal and moral burden on rapists to stop raping? Yes it does.

Please join us in challenging the view of women as damsels in distress who must wait for the legal system, a GPS app that alerts first responders, or benevolent “bystanders” at a party to save them. And please, please let’s stop this business of pretending that if you teach women anything empowering you’ve given up on the struggle to make men more accountable. You’re not going to suggest women stop doing breast self-exams because they should be insisting that we find a cure for cancer or because it will cause people to blame women for getting breast cancer, are you?

Tara, we’re as tired of the rape culture as you are. But you do women and the women’s movement a tremendous disservice to ignore all the research on the effectiveness of self-defense training when you peddle such bogus and ultimately sexist advice.

Yours sincerely,

Martha McCaughey & Jill Cermele



June 9, 2014

An Open Letter to Miss USA, Nia Sanchez


On June 8, 2014, Nia Sanchez, (“Miss Nevada”), was crowned Miss USA.  And, in the question-and-answer portion of the finals, she said something totally radical about sexual assault against women:

“More awareness is very important so women can learn to protect themselves….[Y]ou need to be confident and be able to defend yourself…That’s something we need to implement for a lot of women.”

We completely agree, Nia Sanchez.  And given the influence you have as the newly crowned Miss USA, we are delighted that you shared this perspective on national television, so that the millions who may have been watching got to hear you say it. It’s a message that young men and women need to hear.

You may or may not have thought about what kind of a reaction you would get for that statement, and you may or may not have cared one way or the other.  We, as academic feminists and self-defense advocates, applaud you.  And we are disheartened, but not surprised, that this is not the response that you will get from all women who identify as feminists, and that in 2014, after decades of work by feminist scholars and activists advocating for women’s empowerment, broadly defined, that such a statement is still criticized.  Consider the piece in Jezebel today, where Rebecca Rose takes exception to your comment, writing:

“While I certainly admire how hard she’s worked to obtain her status as a black belt, college women shouldn’t have to “learn to protect themselves.” College men should “learn not to rape.” But somehow I doubt we’re going to hear those words come out of the mouth of a national beauty pageant contestant anytime in the near future” (

Rebecca Rose positions women learning self-defense against men learning not to rape—as if these are mutually exclusive choices, where one is clearly better/more radical/more feminist.  Rebecca Rose also questions why women should “have to” learn self-defense.  Well, why should we get mammograms, learn to change our tires, use birth control, get cervical screenings, or learn how to swim?  For that matter, why should we learn to drive?

Here’s the answer:  Because the best way to protect ourselves from risk, human or environmental, is to have any and all options at our disposal, any and all kits in our tool bag.  Preventing sexual assault includes awareness and prevention work of all kinds, including working to teach men not to rape.  But none of that precludes teaching women that resistance is an option—and a really, really good option in most cases.

Amanda Marcotte criticizes you in Slate, saying that self-defense probably won’t work, and that talking about self-defense is victim-blaming and disempowering to women, and even that self-defense will make claims of rape in court impossible.  “Most disturbingly,” Marcotte writes, “the focus on self-defense allows some to argue that a rape doesn’t count as a rape unless the woman attempted to use violence in self-defense.”  Marcotte goes on to suggest that “in a society where women are urged to take on the responsibility for stopping rape through self-defense, it becomes incredibly easy to start to see rape not as a matter of the rapist’s choices, but of the victim’s. Which, in turn, becomes an excuse to let rapists off the hook….” (

Don’t worry, Miss USA, we—like you—know that we do not live in a society urging women to stop rape through self-defense. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find any information about women’s legal right to defend themselves or where to get that training in any given campus’s rape prevention materials.  It is not taught in public high schools along with CPR; it is not taught by the American Red Cross; and it is not recommended by the Center for Disease Control, despite their focus on sexual assault.  Nor is it listed anywhere in the recent recommendations of the White House Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault.  Overall, our culture still prizes docility and vulnerability in women and values strength and assertiveness in men.  And in fact, in a culture that steadfastly refuses to acknowledge women’s rights to defend themselves against sexual violence, the question of “Did she fight back?” has been, and continues to be, trotted out in the legal arena as “evidence” as to whether a rape occurred.  We have nothing to lose by letting women know this is a viable option.  We cannot conceive of a reality where anyone would prefer to be the victim of a completed attack just to be able to successfully prosecute the attacker later (as if most college rape victims ever go to court anyway).

We also know that self-defense is not victim-blaming, and that self-defense is an option, not a responsibility.  And we know that it does work in the vast majority of cases—according to LOTS of data, including that published in our own March 2014 special issue of the academic journal Violence Against Women. 

While we support any legal response that women and girls have in the face of assault, we think it’s really important for them to know that self-defense is an option.  And knowing that it’s an option is a whole lot better than sitting demurely by, crossing our ankles, whether in our Christian Louboutins, our Birkenstocks, or our Uggs, and waiting for someone to teach men to stop raping.

People like Rebecca Rose and Amanda Marcotte are going to assume that you don’t believe that we should teach men not to rape, that you have somehow naively accepted sexual assault as the natural course of things.   We, however, are happy to see a lovely young woman advocate self-defense training—and we apologize for our fellow feminists who are using your beauty against you to indicate that you must not be progressive enough.  They’re the ones who aren’t progressive enough.  Keep up the fight.

Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey

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