On September 23, 2014 the Washington Post ran an article called “How to Best Survive a Bear Attack” just two days after Rutgers student Darsh Patel was tragically killed by a black bear when he and four friends were hiking in a New Jersey preserve.
Over the next two days, people commented on the Post website about how they’d have peed their pants, on how the group of young hikers should have stayed together as a group, on whether or not having food on them really mattered, and on whether or not black bears are really as dangerous to humans as the story made them out to be. Not one comment posted was upset at how the story, or the subsequent comments on the story, failed to mourn the tragic and violent death of Patel.
Not one comment posted accused the reporter or fellow commenters of victim-blaming. In fact, one even took the article’s how-to-avoid-this-fate message even further with this comment: “I love when city people write articles on what to do in a wild animal attack. How about staying in the aisles at Whole Foods instead if you don’t know what really goes on in the woods. What is sad is they (authorities) killed the bear who only did what is [sic] does in the real world of the forest.”
Imagine how people would react if within two days of a sexual assault we saw a news story with the headline, “How Best to Thwart a Sexual Assault.” Prediction: its author would be accused of victim-blaming, of not trying to get men to stop assaulting but instead of teaching women how to protect themselves from the assailants. It’s true that, theoretically at least, the human male is far more capable of learning to abide by social rules than a bear is. Regardless, when a sexual assault is imminent, we would do well to ensure that women and girls have every opportunity to learn and employ strategies to ward off assailants—even while we work to find long-term solutions to the problem of sexual assault. The Washington Post and others might defend the advice about how to defend yourself against a black bear on the grounds that we must prevent further tragedies and some knowledge can help us do that. They might also say that there is a surprising amount of research on bear attacks—from the differences between grizzly and black bears, bears around cubs versus bears who are alone, and even on whether or not being armed with a gun or bear spray is safer.
Exactly. And we have quite a bit of research on self-defense against the human male as well, and in particular the breed of party and acquaintance rapist found most often on college campuses. Why aren’t we sharing that research with young women in hopes of their warding off, thwarting, and surviving these men’s attacks? We have evidence-based, practical advice for women, but we don’t provide it for them because we fear it will be perceived as victim-blaming. People seem to have no problem telling men and women how to fight off a black bear; nor do we. So let’s also not object to telling women how to fight off your average date, acquaintance, or party rapist. These assailants should be considered unarmed and dangerous, and, as with black bears, there are definite do’s and don’t’s that can be communicated. We aren’t going to tell women not to let a man smell food or to keep the dog on a leash (things commonly told to hikers who might encounter a bear). But let’s take the final piece of advice given in the Washington Post and substitute “sexual assailant” for “bear”:
So what do you do if you come face-to-face with a black bear sexual assailant in the wild at a party??
Put up a good fight
Wave your arms, hold up your hands, try to appear as tall as possible. If you’re in a group, stand together. Clap, yell and throw things. “You’re trying to scare it away before it gets too close,” Stiver told ABC News. “Get a big stick, some rocks. Bang pots and pans.” If the bear sexual assailant doesn’t back off and — worst-case scenario — moves in for the attack, “do everything you can to get that animal off you,” Stiver said. Get physical. Punch and kick. “Give it a kick, start swatting the best you can. Stand up tall,” Forbes said. “These sorts of things have been shown to work quite well.”
We have no desire to mock the tragic death of the student in New Jersey, or anyone attacked by bears or people. But if it’s socially acceptable to offer strategies for thwarting a bear attack, we can damn well offer strategies for thwarting a sexual assault. We found some great bear warning signs that include how to stay safe and fight back if necessary. So we thought we’d create a few similar signs to advise campus co-eds about sexual assault.
Postscript: A word from one of our readers:
Dear Bloggers, I resent the fact that you created a warning sign with the phrase “Sexually Active Man Area” when, as only some active bears attack, only some sexually active men rape.
There is a lot of resistance to the idea of teaching self-defense skills to women – and we get it. It’s a slippery slope. We all know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie, right? Just imagine – if women practice and enact physical and verbal personal safety strategies, if we have the embodied experience of ourselves as strong, confident human beings who are entitled to protect our own physical and psychological integrity, THEN WHAT?
10. Wear pants
8. Speak in public
6. Operate heavy machinery – like a motor vehicle
5. Have a career
4. Claim an education
3. Control their own bodies
2. Prioritize their own sexual desire and agency
And, the #1 thing that women will do if we teach them self-defense, and we just can’t say it any better than Pat Robertson did: “Leave their husbands…practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”
These are the rights for which feminists have fought, and continue to fight: the right to dress as we like, to speak as we like, to move through the world claiming and participating in all spheres and domains available to men, and the right to live freely, safely, and happily in our own bodies. And that includes the right to self-defense, and to knowing how to protect ourselves. And no one should tell us that we can’t, or shouldn’t have to, have that right.
Clearly, a wide network of self-defense advocates are as incensed as we are that the White House Task Force recommendations failed to include self-defense training. Thank you, Boston IMPACT director Meg Stone for a thoughtful, well-written piece! Best line: “The most important characteristic of effective self-defense training is that it makes clear that the responsibility for sexual assault is the perpetrator’s. ”:
In the last few days we have seen a lot of press about the woman who fought back against her assailant and held him captive until the police arrived. It’s a great story with a great ending. The woman was out jogging when a man who, according to the news media, first identified himself as “Johnson” (we laughed out loud at that one), grabbed her ass and pulled her shorts down. She yelled at him to stop, identifying herself as a marshal, yelled to those nearby to call 911, and took off after him. She apparently then cornered him, and when he charged her, she kicked him in…well, in his Johnson. (Probably actually under and behind his Johnson, but either way.)
It’s a great story. A great, great, story, and we are delighted the media has reported it as widely as it has. One important point is missing, though, and we want to bring it up.
You don’t have to be a U.S. Marshal to fight back.
We love that she’s a U.S. Marshal for all kinds of reasons, but that title and job training are not required to kick someone in the groin, or fight back in all the other ways we know women and girls fight back all the time. Sometimes we get to hear those stories when they make the news – the 10-year-old girl who fought off a sex offender, the teenager who fought off two assailants on her way to band practice, the woman in her 30s who fought off an attacker in the laundry room of her building, the self-described “little old lady” who fought off an attacker in a parking lot. Most of the time, we don’t. But they happen all the time. And we want to know all the stories.
Perhaps if more of women’s self-defense success stories were shared, women would have more confidence about their abilities in these situations — and men would have less.