Dear Ms. Hoffman,
In “College Rape Prevention Program Proves a Rare Success”, you concluded an otherwise empowering, data-driven piece on the effectiveness of self-defense by trotting out a quote from Kathleen Basile at the CDC, who ignores the data in suggesting that self-defense training places the “onus for prevention on potential victims”. Self-defense is a key protective factor in rape prevention, as Senn’s data clearly demonstrate; no disclaimer required. It is no more problematic to suggest women have the option of self-defense training than it is to suggest that women do a self-exam for breast cancer or wear sunscreen when they go outside. The only difference is that we are far less comfortable with the idea of women’s use of defensive violence than we are with other, kinder, and gentler ways that we support women’s self-care.
The responsibility for rape lies with the perpetrators; suggesting that self-defense somehow shifts that responsibility to the victim is what is misguided and victim-blaming, not the option of self-defense for women.
We at SJFB are getting a little tired of the latest backlash against self-defense, and the knee-jerk responses, by feminists and non-feminists alike, to Dr. Charlene Senn’s study out of the University of Windsor on the effectiveness of self-defense training in reducing the likelihood of attempted and completed assaults against college women, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
It’s easy to dismiss self-defense training and women’s capacity or powerful, effective resistance: it rocks the status quo in a way that other responses to rape and sexual assault, like marches and t-shirts and performance art, just don’t. But the responses reflect our cultural discomfort with women’s empowerment and entitlement to self-defense far more than any logic or data.
Not convinced? Change the topic to home alarm systems – an option that some people choose as a way to minimize or thwart burglaries or home invasions.
- IF A WOMAN HAS TO GET A HOME ALARM SYSTEM, THAT WILL ONLY MAKE HER FEEL FEARFUL, SMALL, UNSAFE, AND SELF-RESTRICTING IN HER OWN HOME.
- IT MIGHT NOT WORK (AND IF IT DOESN’T WORK, IT WILL RESULT IN BLAMING HER FOR NOT HAVING GOTTEN ONE THAT WAS MORE EFFECTIVE.)
- SHE MIGHT FORGET TO TURN IT ON, AND THEN IT WILL BE HER FAULT IF SOMEONE BREAKS INTO HER HOME
- IF SHE HAS A HOME ALARM SYSTEM AND HER NEIGHBOR DOESN’T, THEN AN INTRUDER MIGHT JUST LEAVE HER HOME AND MOVE ON TO HER MORE VULNERABLE NEIGHBORS, AND THEN IT WILL BE HER FAULT IF SOMEONE BREAKS INTO THEIR HOMES.
- NOT EVERYONE HAS THE OPPORTUNITY TO GET A HOME ALARM SYSTEM, AND SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE?
- GETTING A HOME ALARM SYSTEM IS AN INDIVIDUAL SOLUTION TO THE SOCIAL PROBLEM OF CRIME AND UNFAIRLY PLACES THE ONUS FOR CRIME PREVENTION ON THE HOME OWNER
Ridiculous, right? No one has to or can get a home security system, but we don’t challenge anyone’s right to get one, and we don’t worry about victim-blaming, or the (undocumented, unsupported-by-the-data) fear of putting others at risk by choosing to get one. And we certainly don’t suggest people don’t get one because it’s not the end-all, be-all solution to crime.
Sure, our bodies are quite not property that we live in and need to protect from robbers. But the analogy works to show how flimsy the knee-jerk reactions to Senn’s self-defense study are.
Instead, let’s celebrate this data – that self-defense training for college women can effectively reduce their risk of assault – and put that in the context of all the other data on the efficacy of self-defense in thwarting rape. Let’s put our energy instead into demanding that organizations, educational institutions, and governments make funding available so women and girls have the option, not the onus, of self-defense training. That’s the cost to focus on, because we know the cost of violence against women. Last year, the CDC had a budget for sexual assault prevention of about $50 million dollars. That could fund a heck of a lot of self-defense classes.
The CDC is going to have an increasingly difficult time ignoring the data that show how effective self-defense training is for reducing completed sexual assaults. As Dr. Jocelyn Hollander points out in the Huffington Post, “the CDC has steadfastly refused to consider self-defense training as part of its approach to preventing sexual violence. And because other major organizations – including the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and a large number of universities and colleges – rely on the CDC for their research, self-defense training has been completely left out of the current rush to develop effective prevention strategies, especially on college campuses.”
The CDC’s approach is a public health approach, which means they want to use data-driven methods to prevent the problem of sexual assault–including changing the cultural norms that support and perpetuate the problem. For some reason, the CDC and others have either not known about the research on self-defense or they have been aware of the research but dismissed it as not truly prevention-oriented. After all, CDC researcher Dr. Sarah DeGue stated skeptically that a man who finds himself thwarted by a woman who defends herself against his aggression could move on to a woman who is untrained or otherwise more vulnerable. Thank goodness public health officials didn’t see the polio vaccination that way. Not everyone has to be vaccinated to make a major dent in a public health problem.
Ok, not really the same thing? After all, rapists aren’t infections or diseases; they are oppressors. Well, thank goodness the ACLU doesn’t use this logic on oppressive abuses of social and political authority. If they did, they’d have no interest in educating people about their civil liberties and instead would say that such efforts are futile since a government official or corporation could only find someone who does not know their rights to oppress.
OK, then what about victim-blaming, or as countless newspaper articles have put it this past week, “putting the ONUS ON WOMEN to prevent sexual assault”? Thank goodness the American Red Cross doesn’t see it this way. If they did, they’d have little reason to certify water safety instructors and offer water safety classes to children. They do this because they know that learning to swim helps prevent drowning. As parents who had the onus of taking children to a public pool for Red Cross swim lessons (and onus is appropriate here because they didn’t always want to go, and when they did we went through this ritualistic struggle as a candy machine was parked strategically outside the swimming pool entryway), we must say that it would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about our children drowning. But we do–and hey, it turns out swimming is pretty darn fun, good exercise, and overall has multiple benefits. We think the same is true of self-defense.
Jocelyn Hollander gives this analogy: Imagine if researchers discovered that there was a way car drivers could reduce auto accidents by 50%. Would we not promote that strategy on the grounds that car companies should make the cars safer so drivers don’t have to do that? Would we not promote that strategy on the grounds that it puts the onus on drivers and could result in blaming victims of auto-accidents, not all of whom will engage in the safety strategy? Let’s hope not.
The point of the ecological public-health model is to use multiple methods to get at the root of a problem. Offering self-defense training is how we will do that. Ignoring self-defense or dismissing it as not truly preventative might ultimately turn out to reveal that unlike a polio vaccine, unlike swim lessons, and unlike knowing your rights, self-defense training involves a major disruption to the gender status quo. We don’t mind young ladies knowing their rights. We even suggest they “know their nines” (understand their rights under Title IX). It’s aggressively asserting those rights that seems so, well, unladylike.
And that it does is exactly why it challenges more than an individual attacker but an entire culture.
Prof. Charlene Senn and colleagues did a major study on college women who were trained in empowering self-defense and compared their outcomes with those in a control group who had no such training but only access to brochures on sexual assault. The study, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine and reported on in the New York Times today, found that those who took the program called “Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance” were victims of completed rape a year later significantly less than those in the control group (5.2% vs. 9.8%; relative risk reduction, 46.3%). The self-defense program also reduced the incidence of attempted rape (3.4% in the resistance group vs. 9.3% in the control group; relative risk reduction, 63.2%). In addition, incidences of nonconsensual sexual contact and attempted coercion were lower in the resistance group than in the control group.
Now, as we have been saying, the CDC’s public health approach to preventing sexual assault on college campuses insists that we use data-driven approaches that contribute to making population-level changes and that also change the cultural norms that support sexual assault. This new study and the press it’s getting make it impossible for the CDC to continue to suggest that there is simply no data on victim protective factors that will contribute to the prevention of sexual assault. Training women to resist sexual assault is a key protective factor. If the CDC ignores it and continues to stand by only bystander intervention training, then it will become obvious that ideological factors, not a lack of data, explain the CDC’s resistance to resistance.