(Yet Another) Open Letter to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

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:

Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone.  We have your back. I’ve got your back.

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.

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One response

  1. Protect women only space as an act of resistance in it’s own right and as the best way to keep ourselves safe. In this world where most of the violence is committed by men, its is man space that needs reducing, not women space!

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