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” (http://jezebel.com/new-miss-usa-says-women-need-to-learn-to-protect-themse-1587972074)

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….” (http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/06/09/miss_usa_on_campus_sexual_assault_nia_sanchez_a_black_belt_in_tae_kwon_do.html)

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

7 responses

  1. YEEESSS!! Thank you! I’m super impressed that she said that as a part of her acceptance speech and really bummed that some other feminists take issue with it. I really don’t understand how a feminist could take issue with this stance.

  2. Great article AND next time please mention that women don’t need martial arts to learn how to defend ourselves. Sanchez happened to learn confidence and self defense during her years of martial arts training but it doesn’t take more than one or two self defense workshops taught by a feminist instructor (and maybe a refresher later on) to learn some basic self defense. Please contact the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation, which has a separate Self-Defense track, for a list of certified women’s self defense teachers. http://www.nwmaf.org

  3. Yes, we completely agree. Martial arts is only one of a number of ways that women learn self-defense, and we are in full support, and affiliated with, other self defense organizations. Thank you for the link; here’s another: http://www.prepareinc.com.

  4. The backlash against self-defense training in some feminist circles is baffling to me. Their argument is that it encourages victim blaming and we should instead focus on teaching men not to victimize women. I agree that men’s violence against women is the problem, but why can’t we have a multi-pronged approach to combatting that? People shouldn’t rob houses, but that doesn’t mean we don’t lock the doors to hour home. Hackers shouldn’t steal our personal information, but that doesn’t mean we don’t set passwords to protect ourselves. Men shouldn’t rape women, but that doesn’t mean women should forgo setting up punching, kicking, and screaming firewalls to protect ourselves.

  5. Martha McCaughey | Reply

    More props out to Miss USA! This from Lauren R. Taylor and Lynne Marie Wanamaker on the Washington Post blog: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/06/16/actually-miss-america-is-right-self-defense-can-prevent-sexual-assaults/

  6. […] don’t know how to make self-defense and self-defense training “catchy”.  Listen, if Miss USA gets slammed for even suggesting it should be an option, we know we’ve got an uphill battle.  […]

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