April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as we knew, and which we were shocked to discover that Donald Trump knew, but that may have been because it was mentioned by one of his the 15 or more women who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Nonetheless, it has certainly contributed to raising awareness, including the scores of tweets in response to his proclamation. Those tweets ranged from snarky comments to video clips of his accusers to video clips of his own admission – nay, bragging – about committing sexual assault.
As college professors, we are accustomed to acknowledging issues on various months, and we do so happily, in a number of ways: hosting speakers, promoting events, distributing information, wearing buttons with slogans. Awareness is critical, and getting the message out in as many ways as possible is always a good thing. We’ve even worn jeans to support gay rights. Gay Blue Jeans Day is brilliant because everyone wears jeans and of course, part of the point of Gay Blue Jeans Day is to show that being gay is as normal and everyday as blue jeans.
But now, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, we’ve got to wear teal in support of SAAM this Tuesday, April 3. Teal? It was hard enough to find a font in teal, let alone an article of clothing.
Mind you, most professors have no sense of style. Worn-out shoes, broken fly zippers, and saggy old sport coats are commonplace in the halls of academe. Not that all academics wear pants and sport coats. Indeed, we’ve been to entire (politically conscientious, perfume-free) academic conferences where women were dressed in muumuus or clothing from Chico’s. And so as somewhat fashion-challenged college professors (although “fashioned-challenged” only applies to one of the authors of this blog, and we’re not saying who, but it’s not Martha), like many professors we often struggle with what to wear, relying on black and neutrals which always seem to match and don’t require changing shoes until the seasons require it. For SAAM, we used to be good – we’ve got a few variations on “no” t-shirts (one favorite says, “‘No’ is a full sentence.”), and the best part is that the t-shirts go with jeans.
So how about rethinking this teal plan? Something that middle-aged feminists and professors can more easily accomplish? We’re pretty sure we wore teal mascara back in the mid-80s, but that’s another issue, and fortunately, no photographic evidence seems to exist to back up that claim. It’s not that we think we look bad in teal (in fact, see our favorite hilarious list of what women over 30 should wear — don’t worry, it includes teal, and saffron, and ochre, and magenta, and…).
It’s just that it’s unclear what wearing teal actually accomplishes, in an era of activism where it’s awfully hard to keep track, and where, sadly, there are multiple issues requiring active resistance. We applaud, and thank, the young (and older) people who are speaking up so vociferously against sexual violence, racial violence, and gun violence, to name only a few. That’s work, and that’s hard, and it’s making a difference. We support these intersecting movements–ROY G BIV. Wearing a color, even a difficult one like teal, makes it too easy to simply post our outfit of the day on social media, and do no more. So wear what you like, including purple with a red hat, but wear it while marching, writing letters to politicians, advocating for self-defense training, and fighting back. Activism never goes out of fashion. And while Sexual Assault Awareness Month says wearing teal today shows that “everyone has a role to play in ending sexual violence, and showing your support for survivors by wearing teal is one way you can embrace your voice for change,” we hope that people will discover many more roles to play in ending sexual violence–before it even occurs.
Stephen Marche is a better man than you are. Why, you may ask? He is willing to admit to his monstrous nature. All men have it, according to Marche, a journalist and novelist who thought he’d use his excellent writing skills to get a Sunday Op Ed in the New York Times on a subject he knows nothing about: male sexuality.
Marche’s essay, “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido,” exposes what he calls the “ugly and dangerous nature of” said libido, and demands that we talk about this male “nature” for a change. (For a change?!!)
Using the recent exposure of men from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose as evidence for men’s caveman nature, Marche claims that “there remains no cure for human desire.” In his concluding paragraph, which reads like the concluding paragraph of most high school essays where the student argues for a perspective that he believes is new just because it’s the first time he thought of it, Marche suggests that we ought to start studying masculinity. In a move that actually reverses decades of scholarship that analytically separated biological sex from the script of masculinity, Marche waxes philosophical, opining that “masculinity [read: male sexual nature] is a subject worth thinking about.”
Perhaps Marche would, in addition to acknowledging his own biological original sin, venture a trip to his local library, or perhaps a simple Google search, before we lose net neutrality altogether, where Marche would find a cornucopia of scholarly books and articles, and even entire academic associations, that have been devoted to studying masculinity over the past three decades.
When our students have an ah-ha moment and imagine that they are the first person on the planet who has ever thought of their idea, we always send them to the library, where they discover what has already been written on this idea. This humbling and illuminating task is responsible scholarship and responsible journalism. Stephen Marche seems not to have looked at anything already written on his topic.
Had Marche done any of the studying of masculinity he claims ought to be done, he might have found the textbook Men’s Lives, edited by Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner, now in its 9th Edition. He’d find The Caveman Mystique by See Jane Fight Back’s own Martha McCaughey, deconstructing the popular myth that men are just, deep down, biologically wired to ogle, harass, and sexually assault women. (If he’s an Amazon prime member, he can get both of them with free two-day shipping!) He could even attend the conference of the American Men’s Studies Association this coming March, which, believe it or not, has been in existence for 26 years.
Such exploration would have shown Marche how many people have made his argument before and how many have debunked it. Of course it’s tempting to use the deplorable behavior of Weinstein et al. as evidence for the highly popular idea that men are biologically wired to objectify, harass, and assault women whenever and wherever they get the opportunity.
But it’s not so simple because that logic ignores two things: (1) Those with institutional power behave this way, and they prey upon those over whom they have institutional power; and (2) Feeling like behaving that way with your body does not mean it’s your body’s nature or that your entire sex is driven to behave that way.
In short, men’s lascivious behavior is context-dependent and culture-dependent.
Those who study masculinity find the same thing those of us who study and teach self-defense to women find: that what our culture tells us about the true “nature” of women and men is, well, a load of crap. We may feel in our bones the power of our gendered scripts. That we feel them that deeply, that we embody them, does not mean these behaviors are biologically innate. It means that gendered expectations are lived ideologies.
When women get on the mat and learn to fight, they unlearn the script of feminine helplessness – something many of us assumed was our female “nature” and felt deeply.
Similarly, when men have women bosses and a culture that tells them they are expected to treat coworkers as peers, it’s amazing how much less they feel like pulling their dicks out and assuming those around them are into it.
Sorry/not sorry, Mr. Marche: your NYT Op Ed piece is nasty, brutish, and short on scholarly analysis.
See Jane Fights Back gives a shout out to Ellen Snortland for her release of the documentary Beauty Bites Beast, which shares the title with her book from 2001. The documentary has been screened across the globe – from California to Pakistan, and so many places in between! It showcases interviews with self-defense instructors, advocates, and students, and is a great opportunity to hear first person accounts of the transformation that empowerment self-defense can produce. We are excited that more information is coming out to larger audiences about the importance of empowerment self-defense, and the effectiveness of its use by women and girls in keeping themselves safe. Thanks, Ellen!
Mark Halperin is sorry. George H. W. Bush is sort of sorry – sorry that women were offended by his humorous groping of their bodies without their consent, anyway. (No sense of humor, those feminists. Q: “How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?” A: “That’s not funny!”) Harvey Weinstein was sorry, for a minute – sorry that he “came of age” in a time where sexual harassment and assault were just a perk of the Hollywood culture, but then, apparently, not sorry, because after remembering what he did as all part of the times, he then chose to have a “different recollection” of the (multiple) accusations that are coming forward. Donald Trump is NOT sorry. (But why would he apologize for fake news anyway? Sheesh.)
The hashtag #metoo has taken off, inspiring women to come forward with stories, and inspiring many people to believe, to empathize, to sympathize, and to demand action, in a way that is clearly more effective when it’s prompted by white actress Alyssa Milano than it was when it was started over ten years ago by activist Tarana Burke as part of her work to empower girls and young women of color. Giving voice to one’s victimization is absolutely a method of resistance; we support those coming forward with their stories, and we support those who who do not.
However, we notice something in many of these stories that has failed to attract media attention – women’s successful use of resistance strategies. #metoo shows us the many times where women’s use of verbal or physical strategies – or both – either changed the outcome for the women, or stopped a perpetrator from perpetrating or continuing the assault. These are not stories where “nothing happened” – these are stories where women were able to keep themselves safe, or get to safety. They do not mitigate the stories where women did not or could not resist; all “#metoo” stories are important, underscore the epidemic of violence against women, and make it crystal clear that the perpetrators are responsible, and at fault, for the harassment and assaults.
More stories will come to light – and they will – and more people are accused – and they will be. Sorry is better than not sorry, to be sure, but criminal behavior demands appropriate legal response. And as of now, at least, sexual assault is still a crime. We applaud and honor the women who have survived, who have spoken out, who have resisted and are resisting. An apology, sincere or half-assed or otherwise, doesn’t quite cut it.
If bystander intervention is an acceptable way to thwart an assault, then I’m pretty sure I can also be my own fucking bystander, CAROL. #seejanefightback
When someone says, “Women shouldn’t have to be able to defend themselves,” and we’re like, “Oh, so you think that the ability to defend themselves is solely the prerogative of men, CAROL?” #seejanefightback
We are delighted to highlight guest blogger Hannah Kohn’s reflection on her experience with empowerment self-defense training.
I am in bed, under the sheets. The lights are dim. As I sleep, the man I am in bed with climbs on top of me. I wake up in the midst of his assault. But there’s a twist: this isn’t a bedroom, it’s a large room with a pile of exercise mats stacked up to look like a bed. Likewise, the man on top of me is not a rapist, but a padded, fiercely feminist instructor. The staff from PREPARE, a feminist self-defense program, have agreed to recreate the space in which I was raped so I can reclaim a moment I have long felt was stolen from me. Mind racing, flashback roaring, I toss the padded instructor to the side with my hips, strike him in the eye, knee him in the groin, and land a devastating punch on his helmet. I hear the whistle of the instructor. My classmates shout the familiar mantra: “look!” (around my surroundings, to identify my path to safety) “assess!” (is the aggressor still a threat?) “go get help!” (whatever that means to me). The scenario is over. I have successfully stopped the aggressor from completing their assault.
I was first raped when I was sixteen years old, but as is the case with so many women who experience sexual violence, my truth was systematically rejected. Adding the scars of gaslighting and victim blaming to the experience of rape, I became increasingly confused as to what constituted a violation of my body. Convinced by the people around me that what I had experienced was not, in fact, rape, I was subjected to sexual violence many more times without ever putting a name to it. I arrived at university, and was assaulted yet again in my freshman year.
Simultaneously, I was exposed to much more information regarding sexual violence. President Obama was in the White House, and at long last a President was calling out the national crisis of rape on campuses across the United States. Mandated by law, colleges had no choice but to educate students on consent, rape, and sexual assault. I was lucky to be on a campus that actively supported these mandates, and I found myself heavily involved in sexual assault prevention on campus, throwing myself into every opportunity for activism that came my way. However, despite the barrage of bystander intervention training, consent workshops, and awareness raising campaigns I went to and organized, I continued to be raped and assaulted repeatedly. I could easily understand how other were assaulted and raped, but remained oblivious to attacks on my own body. How could that be?
When I was in high school, I would have sworn on my life that I really just wanted to be “nice.” I was the most agreeable, generous, patient doormat of a girl there ever was. Nonviolence was a way of life, an unmoving principle, applying to every measure, action and thought. I went through the world timid to move too quickly, should I unwillingly send a reverberation through the air. However – and I would never have admitted as much at the time – behind my unshakeable kindness, there was a motive. I longed to be accepted and liked and adored by everyone, because…well, because of course I had been conditioned to please. I had been conditioned as a woman. And what a good woman I was turning out to be!
This all changed, of course, when I enrolled in a self-defense class with PREPARE.
Junior year: now a fully-fledged Women’s and Gender Studies student at Drew University in Madison, NJ, complete with Audre Lorde quotes on my wall and critical discourse analysis on my mind, I enrolled in a class called “Gender, Violence, and Women’s Resistance.” I had been told repeatedly that I should knock someone over to get into the course, as it was life-changing and chronically had a waitlist of disappointed students. As it turns out, the class is currently the only one of its kind in the nation: the first twenty hours, or five weeks, are spent completing a beginners’ empowerment self-defense class. The rest of the course focuses on the theory around self-defense and gender-based violence. Excited but completely unsure of what to expect, I went to the black box theatre where we would be learning to defend ourselves.
The first day, as we sat quietly in the black box, our Lead Instructor (a certified IMPACT instructor) bustled in. She is the embodiment of the phrase “I don’t give a c**p what you think,” if these words were uttered in the most feminist and compassionate of voices. She is comfortable being her authentic, loud, powerful self. She lives her work, and it’s impossible not to want to be exactly like her.
Within a few minutes, our instructors had transformed the room of well-behaved students into a united group of ambivalent fighters, yelling the word “no” at the top of our lungs. Confused theatre students wandered in and out of their space as we powerfully used our voices and bodies and practiced moves in the air as if there were invisible attackers in front of us. They weren’t invisible for long, though: padded instructors soon came in for us to practice our moves on. Working through adrenalized responses, each member of the class faced the padded perpetrators, yelling “no!” with each strike. I had thought of myself as non-violent my entire life. This perception changed over the course of that one class.
Reader, I dearly miss kneeing a padded man in the groin every Friday morning. I would be lying to myself if I pretended for a moment that I didn’t relish each and every strike I landed on the padded instructors. I would never want to be faced with a situation outside the classroom where I would have to use these strikes; indeed, I hope and pray never to confront such a situation again. But allowing myself to be unkind to someone who was acting as an aggressor, to say no, to shake the deeply entrenched norms of femininity I had embodied for so many years, was endlessly liberating. So liberating, in fact, that I organized an advanced PREPARE workshop a year after the beginners’ class had ended. The final advanced class brings us back to the bedroom scene I described earlier.
I had the unique experience of taking part in the PREPARE workshops as I worked through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in part related to my history of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of intimate partner violence. Reclaiming my right to make decisions over my own body, my right to space, my right to confidence, and my right to my own reality impacted my recovery in a truly transformative way.
Although I appreciate the use of bystander intervention and consent education alongside empowerment self-defense classes, I speak from a very personal place when I say that alone, those forms of sexual assault prevention are not at all transformative. Why should I rely on a bystander to rescue me, or a potential perpetrator to miraculously change his mind due to consent education and not attempt to rape me? Data doesn’t back up these techniques long-term, and quite frankly, I’m not particularly comforted by the idea that a knight in shining armor will a) save me from a villain or b) not be a villain. If anything, I would prefer that the knight in shining armor reevaluate his benevolent sexism before talking to me. No, I would really like to stand on my own two feet and learn to protect myself, challenging the normative gender script of female damsel/male savior as I go.
Through taking part in self-defense training, I have come to understand why my involvement in bystander intervention wasn’t enough to allow me to recognize assaults upon my own body: its sole focus is on rescuing others, and so my perspective never faced inwards. Only through learning to protect myself did I come to recognize what it meant to be personally harmed. Bystander intervention didn’t stop me from being raped; it didn’t even help me to understand that I had been raped. On the other hand, self-defense restored my sense of self-worth, helped me to preserve and protect my boundaries, and made me realize that I am a goddamn warrior who will leave anyone who tries to hurt me in a state of deep, painful regret.
Since taking my first PREPARE class, no one has attempted to assault me. Not once. I guess I scream out “I will maul your groin if you get anywhere close to me” nowadays. I like that.
I have recovered from the worst of my PTSD. Where I was once convinced by a terrible ex-boyfriend that I was too stupid to go to college, I have now graduated Summa Cum Laude. I am in a relationship with a feminist who loves and respects me deeply. Most of all, I feel safe as I walk through this world, armed with the knowledge that I am, against all the perceptions my younger self held dear, a fighter.
Hannah Kohn is a graduate of Drew University in Madison, NJ. Having grown up in London and Hong Kong, she now lives in New York City. She is a fierce feminist with no patience for masculinity complexes. When she’s not geeking out over feminist theory, she can be found working on subversive cross-stitch projects, marveling over Central Park, and nagging her members of congress to vote against the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She is one of those untrustworthy people who likes both cats and dogs equally.
- “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.