How to Think Bigger to End Campus Rape

Jennifer S. Hirsch argues in Time (March 11, 2015) that colleges need to “think bigger to end campus rape” and this means taking a public health approach to preventing sexual assault. We agree with Hirsch that campus administrators and activists alike seem too wedded to reporting procedures and services for sexual assault victims and not focused enough on the prevention of sexual assault.  However, we disagree strongly with Hirsch’s claim that we don’t know what is effective for preventing sexual assault. There is actually no “real gap in science” on this.

Multiple empirical studies have shown that women’s training in and use of verbal and physical self-defense techniques makes them much more likely to thwart an attack and not to be (re)victimized in the first place. But despite that, campus authorities and activists, as well as policy-making and advocacy groups, believe self-defense is either ineffective or dangerously victim-blaming. This is not simply not true; there is significant data demonstrating that self-defense is effective, and no data we have seen that suggests it is experienced as victim-blaming.

We also take issue with Hirsch’s implicit argument that training women in self-defense is a simple “educational message” and as such not true prevention.  Self-defense training challenges the rape culture that makes sexual assault both easy to accomplish and easy to rationalize.  In offering women self-defense training, then, we challenge the embodied ethos of rape culture that defines defenseless women sexy and sexually aggressive guys manly.

Hirsch rightly points out that major public health achievements did not come solely by exhorting people to act differently. But it’s also true that we would never hope to reduce fatal traffic accidents without exhorting people to wear their seatbelts, reduce teen pregnancy without teaching teens how to use condoms, or combat unhealthy tobacco use without offering smoking cessation classes. Moreover, self-defense training does not exhort people to act differently – it teaches them a new set of skills, both physical and verbal, that can be used effectively to maintain one’s physical and psychological integrity.

We should not hold sexual assault prevention programs to a higher theoretical standard (is this primary prevention? Or “just” risk reduction?) than we would other types of public health prevention programs, particularly when they work.  For example, if we took the approach to stopping teen pregnancy that campuses have been taking to stopping sexual assaults (even those campuses saying they follow the public health model), we’d have been telling teens the definition of pregnancy; giving them the frightening statistics on how many teens experience unwanted pregnancies; telling them how it will ruin their lives; telling them to abstain from reproductive sexual encounters; training other people to stop them from engaging in those encounters or showing up just in the nick of time with a condom; and then offering to help them, telling them we care about them and aren’t judging them after they become pregnant, and keeping track of their numbers. It would be treating teens as if there is nothing they themselves can do if and when they are sexually active. In the case of preventing teen pregnancy, the CDC would never have failed to provide teens with the tools they needed to prevent the outcome of impregnation at any point along the process that leads to it–and would never have been so successful in reducing teen pregnancy if it had. Nor would the CDC have regarded the use of birth control to stop an egg and sperm from meeting to create a pregnancy as secondary or tertiary prevention rather than as primary prevention of teen pregnancy. The CDC has not advocated that we prevent teen pregnancy only by telling teens not to have sex. The CDC acknowledges that the consistent and correct use of birth control among sexually active teens helps prevent teen pregnancy. Teaching self-defense is the equivalent of teaching birth control. It’s putting the condom on.

Dr. Hirsch is correct – we need to ask the hard questions, drawing on data from across academic disciplines.  The data on the efficacy of self-defense and self-defense training come from psychology, sociology, gender studies, feminist studies, and criminology.  The hard question, perhaps, is why scholars, practitioners, universities, public health advocates, and sexual assault prevention workers continue to assert the futility of self-defense for women, or ignore the possibility altogether.

We do have the power to transform – to transform the experiences of individual women and men, and to transform a culture that believes in the inherent rapeability of women’s bodies and the inherent superiority of men’s.  So yes, let’s think big: self-defense training must be understood to be an important part of sexual assault prevention in the public health model.

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