Young YouTuber Anna Akana explains in her “How Not to Get Raped” video that she’s “so fucking tired” of being told what she can do to thwart attacks, because we should be telling men to stop raping. But take it from us, Anna, we are WAY older than you and we are really very so fucking tired. . . of waiting for men to change. (See video below for a dramatization of our getting older and older as we wait for men to change.)
We took birth control, and considered our ability to control our fertility a relatively empowering thing. We did not say it should be up to men to prevent pregnancy. We also learned to swim. We did not say it should be up to lifeguards to keep us from drowning.
And, as we have said before, it’s not either/or. We believe men can change, and people can change, and culture can change. That being said, we can play an active role in those changes, and empowering ourselves to enforce boundaries if someone challenges them.
Our faithful readers are well aware that we take pains to understand why our fellow feminists find the idea of self-defense so abhorrent. Since the 1990s feminists have commonly accused anyone advocating self-defense of a) victim blaming, b) asking women to act too much like men, c) putting the burden to stop rape on women instead of on men, or d) being too fixated on the body and bodily pleasures to be truly political.
In addition, self-defense has also been subject to the charge of neo-liberalism. In this view, advocating self-defense is an individualistic strategy that naively places all the responsibility for solving a social problem on the individuals who deal with said problem which is, of course, actually a structural problem. Individual approaches to structural social problems are a neo-conservative’s dream because it rationalizes the removal of social programs and government funding that would help those suffering from the problem.
The charge of victim-blaming is a close cousin to the charge of neo-liberalism. For if one commits the sin of misunderstanding a structural, political problem for one that is solved by individuals, then this ultimately blames victims for the problem’s existence. The scholar who in 1971 invented the concept of “blaming the victim,” William Ryan, was talking about the racism involved in the ways that Black people were blamed for being poor. Poverty is caused by structural inequalities and statistically speaking there are likely to be way more poor people than rich people. Of course, feminists found the concept of victim-blaming very useful for criticizing the ways in which we excuse perpetrators of violence against women for their actions.
The charge of neo-liberalism in feminist circles presumes that a solution involving an individual woman’s agency or body is somehow not truly feminist because it places the burden on her to change the society. At the same time, the trend among post-structuralist and post-colonial feminists has been to emphasize women’s agency and practices of bodily resistance. When we talk about ways women use their bodies to resist sexist social structures, we need not sacrifice a feminist, structural analysis of social problems.
But, as Alison Phipps points out in her 2014 book, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neo-Liberal and Neo-Conservative Age, in a neo-liberal social climate many people merge or twist the post-colonial, post-structuralist feminist agenda of resistance with their neo-liberal agenda. The neo-liberal agenda turns an otherwise empowering, feminist discourse of personal choice, self-invention, and bodily agency into a conservative politics of personal responsibility.
Sometimes feminist efforts walk right into the neo-liberal trap. For example, as feminists did the amazing work of de-medicalizing childbirth in the 1970s, insisting that women know more about their bodies than they’d been given credit for and advocating that “breast is best,” feminists often ended up talking about “natural” birthing and breastfeeding practices. This discourse was putty in the hands of conservatives who embraced that rhetoric for their own arguments that women shouldn’t be in the workplace so that they could breastfeed their babies and do other household chores that were the “natural” job of women. Feminists had to emphasize that workplace policies should enable women to breastfeed (or pump their breastmilk), and also had to acknowledge that an unmedicated birth is not necessarily a “natural” birth. Phipps argues that the feminist emphasis on breastfeeding and unmedicated birthing has become so successful across our culture because it fits well neo-liberal approaches to the privatization of responsibility and personal accountability for health risks. Even still, we don’t want to go back to the norms of 1965.
Can advocating self-defense also fall into a neo-liberal trap? Sure it can. But, just as feminists advocating more empowering and healthy options for women around birthing and infant feeding must remind people of the structural and political issues at stake, we can remind people that advocating self-defense can and must be done as part of, not instead of, a structural approach to the problem of sexual violence.
Besides, not advocating self-defense falls into other conservative agendas–namely, that women’s bodies are too weak to fight aggressively, or that women ought to know their place and let men, bystanders, and the state protect them from harm. In other words, feminists don’t avoid an unholy alliance by avoiding self-defense advocacy.
When we advocate self-defense, we do not advocate cuts to federal funding aimed at preventing violence against women or serving the victims of it. We advocate including self-defense training as part of those prevention efforts. Ignoring self-defense–as so many of our colleagues in the rape prevention education arena do–is like throwing out the breastfeeding baby with the hospital bathwater in an effort to avoid cooptation by a neo-liberal agenda.
Open Letter to the Author of Thank You for Arguing.
Dear Jay Heinrichs:
We read your book, Thank You for Arguing, a national bestseller, to learn how we might use the techniques of persuasion in order to convince those who do not see the value of self-defense training to women. And we’re ready, as you say, to “move our audience to action”. Beyond ready. As self-defense scholars and advocates, we know that the data show that women’s use of self-defense to thwart sexual assault is likely to be effective and safe. The challenge has been to get people to embrace that data and move to the actions of funding, learning, and advocating women’s self-defense training. Your strategies can help us do that – let us know how we’re doing!
First we thought we’d try your tactic of starting with the opposition’s view and then showing how your own position better suits their view. For example, rape prevention educators say that “holding rapists accountable” is preventative. So how about taking that view — that “we must hold rapists accountable”– and then reframing it to say that a woman who shouts at, kicks at, or otherwise stops a man from carrying out his plans to rape is holding rapists accountable.
We also liked your approach of creating effective statements that blend parts of the opposition’s view with one’s own position, such as the highly effective statement, “Abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.” Perhaps we could say, Self-defense should be empowering, effective, and rare.
Another way we might be able to use your technique is to come up with a memorable soundbite expressing our position–something like: Securing funding from the CDC shouldn’t go against women’s security. Or: Self-Defense: Because We’re Worth It.
Perhaps our blog readers can help, too. Let us know your ideas for the best persuasive statements for self-defense advocacy!
Martha & Jill
- “Where there is power, there is resistance.” Michael Foucault
- “If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anyone else again.” Malcom X
- “The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.” Susan Sontag
- “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow, or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” Margaret Atwood
- “It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.” bell hooks
- “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” Elie Wiesel
- “Sometimes it’s appropriate to scream at them.” Helen Caldicott
- “I say to people today, ‘You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.'” John Lewis
- “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” Madeleine Albright.
- “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
We have often wondered why so many feminists are so skeptical of, if not downright opposed to, the advocacy of women’s self-defense (such as the latest missive on Everyday Feminism here)–even when we present the data showing how well resisting sexual assault can work, and how life- and culture-changing training in self-defense can be.
Julia Galef’s 2016 TED talk, “Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong,” proves insightful here. Julia Galef is a writer with a statistics background and the co-founder the Center for Applied Rationality, a nonprofit organization that helps people improve their reasoning and decision-making, particularly with the aim of addressing global problems. When it comes to decision making, Galef argues that people approach decisions with one of two mindsets: the soldier mindset, or the scout mindset.
These mindsets do not correlate with I.Q., and they are both equally emotionally rooted and equally logical. The difference is that those with the soldier mindset make a decision and stick it out, while those with the scout mindset feel curious, and are open to being wrong. For the scouts, their sense of self-worth is not tied to being right or wrong about any particular topic. Soldiers, on the other hand, yearn to defend their own beliefs and would feel ashamed of being wrong. Scouts feel proud when they notice they might have been wrong about something, feeling intrigued rather than defensive.
When it comes to self-defense, it appears that many feminists–like many people, in general–have the soldier mindset. They want to march forward with a single plan. The idea that the solution to sexual assault is only to educate men about how to stop assaulting, and then to encourage women to report those who have not stopped doing so, thereby showing men, through legal punishment, that we won’t tolerate it. Stepping in to suggest that we could constructively teach women boundary setting skills, awareness, and verbal and physical self-defense skills disrupts the path on which the soldiers have been marching.
Let’s be scouts. Let’s be curious about exploring multiple paths to end sexual assault and the rape culture that supports it. Let’s acknowledge women’s capacity for agency, choice, and action. Let’s examine what really works to thwart assault, what really works to empower women, what really works to get men to stop sexually assaulting, and what really works to change the rape culture. Let’s embrace self-defense.