Self-Defense: Safety vs. Dignity

Rape culture is highly gendered: women are far more likely to be targeted for sexual assault and men far more likely to do the assaulting.  Our culture’s constructions of gender present women’s bodies as legitimate and easy targets for “taking.”  Self-defense, as we have argued in the past, constitutes a feminist challenge to this gender ideology.

So why the heck do we have so much trouble convincing fellow feminists, rape prevention educators, and activists that self-defense (training in it and/or doing it) is neither bad nor antifeminist nor anything other than an effective, evidence-based enhancement to our collective movement to stop sexual assault and overhaul the societal constructions of gender that fuel the problem?

We have blogged urging people to help us put an effective rhetorical spin on the case for self-defense against sexual assault.  We have attempted numerous media-savvy  lists, golden rules, open letters, and memes hoping to spread the message. 

But here’s a new strategy. 

In his book, The Harm in Hate Speech, Jeremy Waldron notes the difference between safety and dignity.  Safety is inherently individualistic. It is about liberty.  Dignity, on the other hand, is concerned with a person’s basic social standing and the interest in being recognized as “proper objects of society’s protection and concern.”  Your right to safety is individualistic and about liberty, while your right to dignity is inherently comparative and about equality.  As Frederick M. Lawrence points out in a recent article about campus free speech/hate speech controversies, using Waldron’s argument, “to have one’s dignity respected is to be accorded the same basic social standing as any other member of the society.”

When we describe self-defense, it is all too often placed into the “safety” category.  Indeed, many campus sexual assault prevention educators insist on listing any self-defense classes their campus offers in a category called “Safety,” along with emergency blue-light phones and not walking alone at night.  In this light, it is no surprise that we get accused of committing an individualistic, neoliberal sin when we advocate self-defense training.    

So let’s try framing self-defense as dignity.  This is, of course, precisely how many self-defense instructors and advocates understand it already, implicitly if not explicitly.  When we train to defend ourselves, we are learning how to enforce that our dignity be respected, that we be accorded the same basic social standing as others.  

To be clear, safety and dignity are not incompatible concepts.  Self-defense training, while providing an avenue to move more safely through the world, does so deliberately by demanding that women be accorded the same basic social standing as men–the right to move freely, autonomously, and safely.  

Defending ourselves is demanding respect and our equality.  That is hardly a neoliberal safety stance insisting that sexual assault is an individual problem.  Defending ourselves is a stance of dignity which insists that sexual assault is a social issue, that women are the proper objects of our collective concern, and that women are worth defending.  Being alone in the action of self-defense when it happens does not make self-defense any less a social matter of dignity and equality than the assault itself. 


3 responses

  1. philipventrellogmailcom | Reply

    Very nice. Would you give me permission to share this (with due credit) on my website/blog and/or facebook page? Thanks! Phil Ventrello

    1. Martha McCaughey | Reply

      Thanks, and sure please feel free to repost. We’d love to hear what you and others think!

  2. Informative article, exactly what I wanted to find.

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