Eh hem, drumroll please…. Our major article is available here on the Univ of NC repository. By “major” we mean full-length academic article in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, namely Trauma, Violence, and Abuse. (Well, ok, by “major” we also mean that it took us a really long time and we kinda hope that Joe B. invites us to the White House to discuss our ideas with his Task Force.) In this article, we trace the meaning of “prevention” in the sexual assault prevention efforts on college campuses, and question why self-defense training is rarely a part of those efforts. Given that national attention, and new compliance mandates, have been heaped upon college campuses for their sexual assault problem, we think it’s a key time to review the scholarship on the efficacy of self-defense. Once you see all that in one place, it’s hard to accept people claiming that they don’t include self-defense in their anti-sexual assault agenda because we lack evidence for its effectiveness, or because it’s not “primary prevention”. Indeed, we argue that it is gender ideology, not a lack of evidence, that explains the tendency to exclude self-defense from our sexual assault prevention efforts. Moreover, we stress that self-defense is not secondary prevention but primary prevention as self-defense is a key protective factor in the public health model of rape prevention. And, because we’re all about solutions, our article ends with specific ways college campuses can incorporate self-defense into various sexual assault prevention efforts.
Dear Members of the Task Force,
On September 17, 2015, you released a Resource Guide to assist college and university communities in their efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses. It is an excellent review of what the Center for Disease Control and the White House Task Force have decided, prima facie, constitutes acceptable methods of preventing violence. Those include talking about healthy relationships, encouraging people to act as engaged and responsible bystanders, and shifting social norms around gender, sexuality and violence. And, when that it is all that you include in your definition of sexual violence prevention strategies, you rightly conclude that not much works.
You, and the CDC, and many other well-intentioned agencies and organizations, continue to systematically exclude self-defense training as a viable and acceptable method of sexual violence prevention, despite decades of evidence on the effectiveness of women’s self-defense in thwarting sexual assault, and despite the more recent evidence in the last ten years on the positive benefits of self-defense training, including the effectiveness of self-defense training in reducing future rates of sexual assault.
The data is available. The problem is your definition of what constitutes prevention.
Women are capable of engaging in powerful and effective resistance strategies, both physical and verbal, to thwart rape and sexual assault, and offering them the opportunities to learn and practice those skills via self-defense training is a method of primary prevention completely in line with the CDC’s stated definition, and entirely consistent with the strategies and methods they have chosen to include.
And yet you, and they, continue to exclude it.
There are many things about women’s use of and training in self-defense that people don’t like. It is not that it doesn’t work, because the data say it usually does. We can’t dismiss it outright as inconsistent with the definition and goals of “primary prevention”, because, as we have pointed out, self-defense IS primary prevention.
So we’re left with facing the ways that women’s training to defend themselves shifts norms around gender, sexuality, and violence. That is does so, we are left to conclude, is why people don’t like it. It’s much more compatible with current gender ideology to suggest women wait for some person or institution to save or protect them. Ironically, the Task Force also suggests we engage efforts to shift social norms around gender, sexuality and violence. Let’s do that. If you’re not going to, then may we suggest the following revision to your statements:
How to Prevent Sexual Violence on Campus:
• Engage in Primary Prevention (BUT PUT SELF-DEFENSE IN THE CATEGORY WITH VICTIM SERVICES, REPORTING OFFENDERS, AND LEGAL COMPLIANCE PROCEDURES)
• Train Bystanders to Intervene to Stop an Assault on Someone Else (JUST DON’T LET WOMEN KNOW THAT THEY COULD SERVE AS THEIR OWN INTERVENING BYSTANDERS!)
• Use Evidence-Based Methods for Sexual Assault Prevention (EXCEPT THE EVIDENCE THAT SELF-DEFENSE USUALLY WORKS!)
• Shift Social Norms around Gender, Sexuality and Violence (BUT NOT TOO MUCH! AFTER ALL, WE DON’T WANT WOMEN TO CONSIDER THEMSELVES ENTITLED TO THEIR BODILY BOUNDARIES!)
On January 22, 2014, President Obama said:
If you’ve really got the backs of sexual assault survivors, and truly want to support effective methods of sexual assault prevention, you cannot continue to ignore self-defense training as an important, effective, and valid method. Provide the resources and support for women to be their own bystanders.
This makes us feel really old. First, rape culture has just risen? As if. Second, the hopeful subtitle “and what we can do about it” is not going where we hoped it might. We’ve been through this so many times that we should have predicted that Harding would include self-defense in her lament about all the disempowering things women do, but shouldn’t have to, in order to avoid or otherwise protect themselves from rape. Harding states in The Guardian:
“There’s something wrong with expecting women to remember that they should always go for the groin, or the eyes, or the armpit, or the upper thigh, or the first two fingers (I am not making any of these up), and that it only takes five pounds of pressure to rip off a human ear, and if you hit someone’s nose with the palm of your hand and push up just right, you can drive the bone into their brain and kill them.”
It’s too bad Harding does not say what that “something” is that is wrong with self-defense. Maybe it’s that women are too delicate and pure to envision themselves doing such violent things. Or perhaps it’s that women should not really be that vigilant about standing up for themselves. Or maybe it’s that women shouldn’t have to worry their pretty little heads about the violence that is out there in the world. After all, it’s hard for ladies to remember so many things (like when Barbie reminded us, back in the 90s, that math is hard). Men are actually victims of violence more often than women are; would Harding say there is “something wrong” with men needing to know how to handle (de-escalate, resist, thwart, or otherwise survive) a violent encounter?
Harding goes on to state:
“By the time we finish high school, our brains are already filled with such rape-proofing basics as the appropriate skirt length for discouraging violent attacks (long); the number of alcohol units that can be consumed before one is thought to have invited sexual assault (one, tops); a list of acceptable neighborhoods to visit alone in daylight; another of acceptable neighborhoods to visit alone after dark (just kidding – there are none); and a set of rudimentary self-defense moves (“Solar plexus! Solar plexus!”).”
For Harding, encouraging women to learn any self-defense is akin to telling them to wear a burka–victim-blaming nonsense that restricts women’s freedom, blames women for rape, and, regardless of its effectiveness, diverts our attention from getting men not to rape:
“This ubiquitous idea that, by controlling our behavior, appearance and whereabouts, we can keep ourselves from being raped does nothing to help women (let alone potential victims who aren’t women). It merely takes the onus off the rest of society to seriously consider what we can all do to prevent sexual violence.”
We wish Harding would talk to women who teach and take self-defense classes. If she did, she would learn that making women aware of their rights to defend themselves, and offering them training in self-defense skills, empowers women to move freely about the world and make the choices that are best for them – choices like how short to wear their skirts, or what beverages they consume, or which neighborhoods they frequent, or yes, whether to go for the groin or the solar plexus if someone is trying to assault or rape them. Even though she published with a nonacademic press that is geared toward attracting a wide audience, we wish Harding would have done her research. If she had, she would know that, unlike much rape-avoidance advice women hear, self-defense expands women’s freedom and, moreover, really does challenge the rape culture.
Remember those images of shapes broken up into little square boxes, and the multiple choice test asking you to picture the same shape rotated differently? Such spatial reasoning is a stereotypically male skill. Well, a study out of the University of Berlin shows that women who were asked to imagine themselves having stereotypically masculine personality traits–strength, risk taking, assertiveness, and the like–performed as well as male peers on the spacial reasoning test immediately following this picture-yourself-as exercise, while women who were asked to imagine themselves having stereotypically feminine personality traits–agreeableness, caring for others, etc.–performed much lower than male peers on the special reasoning test right afterward.
“Gender priming” influenced women’s performance, big time.
This reminds us that allowing women to imagine themselves with the assertiveness and entitlement to fight back against an assailant can make an appreciable difference in their actual ability. If you can picture testicles rotated in space, you might be more likely to be able to actually rotate them in space if a guy you’re with won’t take no for an answer.