Hey, CDC: Friends Don’t Let Friends Deny the Effectiveness of Self-Defense Training

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.

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3 responses

  1. Regarding the statement 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.”

    This idea leaveouts out the fact that the man would have by his actions committed a crime. Assuming the woman reports the crime, he is now subject to the consequences of societal enforcement/punishment. Thus making it less likely he will commit an additional crime.

    1. Martha McCaughey | Reply

      Erik, Thanks for sharing this great, and more detailed, explication of how teaching people to swim is considered to be an effective drowning-prevention strategy that simultaneously acknowledges that there are different levels of swimming ability and that drowning is always still a possibility even after you’ve learned to swim. I think our analyses differ on this one point: You suggest that people resist self-defense as sexual assault prevention because they favor a social engineering approach, whereas I would see training girls and women in self-defense as a social engineering approach and suggest the resistance to self-defense training as such an approach is that they think it comes with something that the social engineers do NOT want to see: aggressive women.

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