“Clear Communication” Must Include Self-Defense


If you’ve been following the hilarious Tumblr site, “Confused Cats Against Feminism,” you’ll have seen this dog who says “all cats love being chased, you can just tell.”  This joke is funny precisely because we know that what the dog believes is wrong, and it mocks the attitude through which a man might dismiss the feminist insistence that women actually have sexual boundaries. If a guy thinks — no, knows — that, deep down, a woman “wants it” and is certain that he “can just tell,” then our rape prevention strategy of telling people to “communicate clearly” is not enough.

Given what a common problem date, acquaintance, and party rape is on college campuses, students are routinely told to “communicate clearly” so that their dates aren’t left to read facial expressions and eye movements. Of course, this presumes that a guy is sexually assaulting out of just “not realizing”, or being insensitive to, the fact that the woman doesn’t want the same thing he wants, and that if he had only known he’d have backed off immediately. While this might be true in some instances, we know this is not necessarily the case, as evidenced by victims’ – and some perpetrators’ – reports that saying “NO” does not always stop an assailant.

Our culture teaches, and therefore some guys learn, that guys’ opinions and ways of defining situations are more important than those of the female persuasion. To take a hypothetical example, if a guy’s buddies (and his men’s magazines, and most TV shows, movies, blogs, and news reports) all convey that when a woman is eating chocolate, she gets so excited that she’ll want sex with whomever is in her company, then this guy will be reading, understanding, and even thinking empathically about this chocolate-consuming woman (or at least his idea of women), as wanting to have sex with him.

Pepe le Pew

The 1960s Warner Brothers Pepé Le Pew cartoon humorously illustrates this point. In that cartoon, a male skunk chances upon a black female cat who has unfortunately had a stripe of white paint spilled across her back. Since we know she’s a cat, we understand that she finds the skunk repugnant. Pepé Le Pew is comically clueless as he chases the nonverbal kitty and repeatedly attempts to capture her. At every turn, the skunk interprets every act of resistance on the cat’s part as a further invitation to him to pursue her. When she attempts to run away from him, and when she resists him by hitting him over the head, he construes her as “flirting.” He concludes that “she wants to play hard to get” and that “she is shy” at other points when she shows what we know is opposition to him. At one point, the skunk expounds, “She thinks that by running away, she can make herself more attractive to me. How right she is!”

Now, in the world of cartoon skunks, we might assume that a female skunk would indeed desire Pepé le Pew, simply because she too is a skunk, and we recognize that Penelope does not want Pepé because she is really a cat. However, in the world of human beings, as Virginia Tech sociologist Neal King’s analysis reminds us, there is no category through which a guy can assume or presume a woman is sexually interested in him. Yet in a rape culture that constructs women as sexually available to men for the taking, a guy might arrogantly  (mis)interpret any number of things – a woman’s race, social class status, college Greek house, academic status, level of attractiveness, gestures, and behaviors – as a desire for sex with him.  But none of those things can, or should, provide a guy any assurance whatsoever of his desirability to a woman.  Sadly, though, as Prof. King (p. 874) puts it, “[M]en can interpret anything that women do as signs of desire.”

Given the all-too-common tendency of guys interpreting, Pepé le Pew style, women’s behavior as signals of sexual interest, Dr. King concludes that no amount of telling men or women to communicate better will necessarily bring about sexual encounters that are truly respectful and consensual. If the problem is the default assumption, “She wants to have sex with me!”, then telling men and women to communicate more clearly won’t reduce the number of sexual assaults on dates and at parties. King (2003: 874) argues that the rape prevention strategy that emphasizes the victimization of women “may be the least constructive part of our project.” Further, he argues that affirming women’s vulnerability (as opposed to emphasizing their willingness and ability to resist rape) and encouraging men to know women more, and more deeply, are bound to backfire on us.

A good way to challenge men on their sense of certainty is to get them to question how they “know” what they “know” about women, to make them feel less certain than they may already feel.

Furthermore, if we teach women the techniques that allow them to back up their verbal communication with physical resistance, then we do two things: we give them the practical, in-the-moment tools to thwart a sexual assault, and we provide to men a series of behaviors and words far less likely to be (mis)interpreted as sexual interest.  Teaching women to defend themselves, publicizing their ability widely, and pressing the point that women resist might just challenge men’s sense of sexual certainty.

Postscript: We regard it as no coincidence that Neal King has cats

3 responses

  1. […] “Clear Communication” Must Include Self-Defense – Martha McCaughey […]

  2. […] “Clear Communication” Must Include Self-Defense […]

  3. I think that the above referenced makes some great points. I will expand upon it in terms of my model of Progressive Boundary Setting.

    My interpretation is that effective boundary setting must include Clear Communication and Enforcement. Physical self-defense is a form of Enforcement. It is not enough to only communicate boundaries. The communication must be backed up by the consequences of enforcement if the boundary is violated. Just-Right (appropriate) enforcement creates respect for personal and societal boundaries (Rules of Behavior).

    Some people violate boundaries because they don’t understand where the boundary is. Other people violate boundaries because they lack respect for the boundary. In the scenarios described by Martha, there is a continuum of certain violating men. On the less extreme side are the self-deluded men who for whatever reason are misinterpreting the woman’s communication (boundaries). On the more extreme side are men who don’t respect the woman’s boundaries and knowingly violate them.

    According to a highly referenced study, the majority of collegiate sexual violations come from a small percentage of serial male offenders. These are the men who knowingly violate their victims. The other violations come from people (usually men) who due to certain factors, some mentioned in Martha’s article, sometimes compounded by alcohol, unknowingly violate their victim’s boundaries.

    Most people think of interpersonal communication mainly in the form of body language (Visual Fence) and verbal phrases (Verbal Fence). These are the first two levels of communication. But the 3rd and higher level of communication comes in the form of physical actions (Physical Fence). Body language is easily misunderstood. Verbal phrases are less likely to be misunderstood, but can be ignored, especially, if the words are uttered without forceful emotion. Direct physical actions that support simultaneous verbal phrases are hard to misinterpret.

    The important point here is that everyone’s current belief is subject to change. The “Unknowingly” man may believe that the woman wants sex with him up only up to a certain point. Regardless of what events transpired before, a person who “thinks” that someone else wants to have sex with him or her is vulnerable to having his or her belief shattered by clear communication that comes in the form of unequivocal verbal combined with direct and forceful physical resistance.

    The greater problem comes from the serial offenders who not only knowingly violate their victims. They knowingly seek out victims that are unlikely to enforce their boundaries. These serial offenders’ belief systems combine self-delusion with a lack of respect for their victim’s boundaries and for societal behavioral boundaries. Part of their belief system is that they can and will get away with their actions. This belief is backed up by previous incidents where they have got away with their violations without consequence.

    Dealing with this type of person requires more than just communication. Effective physical enforcement is needed to stop violations by either making the violator unable to commit further violations or unwilling to commit further violations. Resistance in the form of pushing away, pulling away, and half-hearted strikes is more communication and less enforcement. Creating pain and injury in the form of biting, gouging eyes, breaking fingers, ripping ears, crushing windpipes and testicles is more enforcement and less communication.

    It is easier to temporarily change a belief than it is to physically stop someone from doing something. The serial offender’s belief is not just that they can do something. It is also that they can do it AND get away with it without consequence. Enforcement directly conveys to violators that they will not get away with their actions. Enforcement is not only interruption of a violation, enforcement can also happen after the violating event.

    It is the combination of individual enforcement along with societal enforcement from school administrations coupled with legal consequences that creates the overall enforcement that breaks the serial offenders’ belief systems of impunity and creates respect for the Rules of Behavior.

    In summary, self-defense training is complimentary to societal methods of primary violation prevention. It is not one or the other. Self-defense makes it easier for society to punish offenders because it eliminates the “Unknowingly” defense. The presence of college women who are willing to enforce violations increases the risk of collegiate perpetrators getting caught and punished. It alters the misguided belief systems of serial offenders who think they can do whatever they wish without consequence, thus providing a strong deterrent to future violations.

    The original post with supporting links may be viewed here:

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