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.