The Good, the Bad, and the Bystander
In the effort to get men to stop raping, most activists and practitioners have settled for getting men to get other men to stop raping. This, of course, helped avoid the old “man-hating” charge we faced when we tried to discuss how aggressive male heterosexuality had been normalized in our rape culture. It’s so much easier to celebrate an idea of masculinity that does the right thing. Celebrating the majority of men avoids imposing guilt and might explain why this video, dramatizing a group of eight male bystanders who stop two men from assaulting a woman, has gone viral:
Yes, we know. We, too, wanted her to drop her books, put up her hands, yell, and run. And we’re not convinced that “every religion protect women” or that “protecting women is religion.” We also wondered how a woman in that situation would ever be assured that the other men encircling her don’t also mean to do her harm. Of course, our version of this video would not go viral. (Nothing of ours goes viral.)
The video is a perfect example of the current strategy to tell men that good, masculine, and truly religious men do not rape; and it’s the men who fail to follow these norms who disrespect and attack women. But as U. of So. Cal. Prof. Michael A. Messner points out in his new Gender & Society article, the effort to change rape culture by framing the problem as one of a few bad apples is a major break from the feminist movement that challenged rape to begin with. As Messner puts it, in the 1970s feminist women and pro-feminist men thought that
“. . . successfully ending violence against women would involve not simply removing a few bad apples from an otherwise fine basket of fruit. Rather, working to stop violence against women meant overturning the entire basket: challenging the institutional inequalities between women and men, raising boys differently, and transforming in more peaceful and egalitarian directions the normative definition of manhood. Stopping men’s violence against women, in other words, was now seen as part of a larger effort at revolutionizing gender relations.”
As Messner points out, the institutionalization and professionalization of anti-rape work since that time has led us to embrace a health model of rape prevention, which has medicalized the problem of sexual violence–and thereby, at least in some ways, de-politicized it.
This “rebranding” of anti-rape work, Messner says, re-individualizes the problem of rape and appeals to men’s sense of masculine honor and strength.
And, to Messner’s analysis, we would add that, as we pointed out in our Trauma, Violence & Abuse article, the strategy to teach good men that their role is to be intervening bystanders when bad men assault women also positions women as inherently helpless damsels in distress, and men as their knights in shining armor–solidifying one of the central myths of the rape culture we’re trying to dismantle.
Some advocates doing anti-rape work are aware of these tensions. Seeking to link structural injustices to incidents of sexual violence, for Messner, is the way forward. We think this also offers insight into how to avoid the charge that self-defense is an individualized, de-politicized solution to rape. For when a woman claims an entitlement to defend herself, she is insisting on challenging embodied gender roles and fighting structural injustice. When Jane fights back, Jane’s making one small kick for woman, but one giant kick for womankind. We know Jane can fight back. We’d like to see that go viral.
The Sicko Searches that Land People on Our Blog
The wonderful people at WordPress offer statistics to bloggers like us, and bloggers like us use the site’s administrative functions to see how many people have clicked on which blog posts, how many shares on Facebook a post on our site got, etc. For instance, in 2015 See Jane Fight Back made 45 posts that enjoyed nearly 10,000 views from visitors across 109 countries. Most people got to the blog from Facebook or Twitter.
One thing people might not realize is that WordPress also tracks the Internet search terms that landed someone on our blog. As it turns out, given the contents of a blog on women’s self-defense, some who land here at Château Jane were actually looking for sex videos involving rape and girls fighting, the grabbing of testicles, and sometimes simply “hot slutty Jane”.
So, although we may have disappointed those Internet surfers by failing to provide an eroticized Jane or testicle grabbing, we like to think these folks got a little taste of the way in which women use self-defense to refuse the position of sexual object for men’s pleasure, and to have sex on the terms they consent to. That’s our fantasy.
What Do Microaggressions Have to Do With Self-Defense?
Any advocate of self-defense training could tell you that the skills they learn in self-defense are useful in daily life for taking oneself seriously, being aware of one’s surroundings, and setting boundaries in situations that are more common than assaults.
With all the recent talk on “microaggressions” it might be tempting to think that self-defense training would make you into that person who turns every little microaggression into a federal case. Not so. For complaints about microaggressions are typically complaints to a third party. On a college campus, for instance, that third party could be a dean, a Title IX coordinator, or an Equity Office director.
Prof. Bradley Campbell, a Cal State-Los Angeles sociologist interviewed on public radio’s “Here and Now” show discusses his study of microaggression complaints and the moral status afforded to victims in today’s society:
“These microaggression complaints – what characterizes them is that they are appeals to third parties. They’re not something like vengeance where people just take direct action against the offender. Secondly, they’re complaints about minor things, which is what the ‘micro’ in microaggression means. And then also that these – the complaints – are about specific kinds of things. It’s not just any minor offense, it’s things that are said to further oppression, and mainly the oppression of minority groups. So we thought about like when do these things occur? So some of the social conditions we mentioned were things like, you know, the presence of authority and also the demise of communal groups. But one of the main things is actually the increase in diversity and equality. So it’s in settings where there’s already a lot of equality and diversity that you get these kinds of complaints.”
Complaints about microaggressions are actually more common where equality and diversity thrive. A college campus is a perfect example.
We are not suggesting that sexual assault is a microaggression; let’s make explicit that we’d put that in a MACRO aggression category. But we are suggesting that Campbell’s insights about not handling microaggressions oneself, but instead relying on third parties to handle, offers some insight into the continued resistance to advocating that women defend themselves. If we must rely on third parties to handle even microaggressions, then why would anyone consider training women to be prepared to handle larger ones? Given that the victims of microaggressions are reporting the incidences to third parties, it is hardly surprising that campus rape prevention strategies typically emphasize reporting the incident and asking third parties–bystanders–to intervene.
Self-defense training prepares one to manage major and minor aggressions, both verbal and physical, and in a way that does not require third-party intervention. It allows for agency while simultaneously acknowledging the experience, and impact, of violence and oppression, without necessarily requiring a culture of victimhood that positions women’s vulnerability as a moral high ground, and denies women their right to self-defense.