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.
Resistance Is Not Futile.
Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.
We put up a good fight. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, needed it to. We lost. Did the fight matter?
Resistance, in any form, to any kind of assault or violation, does not guarantee a particular outcome. And when the outcome is unwanted and scary and painful and wrong, and violates our individual and collective rights to freedom and empowerment and self-determination and safety, it can feel like the resistance was futile.
It was not futile. As Hillary Clinton reminded us in her moving concession speech this morning, it is not futile.
As scholars who advocate self-defense, we want to remind you of an important lesson from the data on self-defense: that the process of resistance is critical and empowering and positive, even when the outcome is negative. In the face of assault, women who knew resistance was an option and who made the best choice for themselves in that moment – whether that was verbal resistance or physical resistance or simply the determination to survive – had better physical and psychological outcomes following an assault than women who believed they had no choices.
We do not fight solely because we want a particular outcome. We fight because we are worth fighting for. And the fight is important on all levels – for individual people, for what it communicates to our families and friends and communities, for how it changes rules and norms and structures and policies and laws. We fight for what the fight says about and means to us.
What is the next step? There is no “right” answer to that, because resistance is multi-faceted, broadly defined, and individually determined. Yes, we will have successes and setbacks. But we know we will, as Hillary implores us to, go on fighting. Because, as Hillary said, “fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
An Open Letter from a Jane, to the Assholes She’s Dated Who Say Stupid Things When They Find Out She Knows Self-Defense
Most women who have taken a self-defense course, and then had the audacity to talk about it, have probably had the experience of being subjected another person’s perspective on why women’s self-defense is problematic/stupid/pointless/cute/sexy/offensive/etc. Those comments are offered in a variety of contexts: family dinners, office events, on-line chats, happy hour, gym workouts, dates.
So has Jane. Who is Jane? Jane is the middle student down the street who’s taking martial arts. She is your great-aunt who went to the self-defense program at the local community center. She is the young girl who stands her ground in the playground, the college student who takes a self-defense class on campus, the women who organize against harassment on the street or in the workplace, the woman who had yet another date with someone who said, with a smile on his face, “Oh, you know self-defense? I’d better watch myself…I guess you can kick my ass”, and then waited for you to laugh.
And so below, is one Jane’s response, after a date:
If we’ve gotten this far and are on a date, then you have had at least a few conversations with me and therefore allegedly have been listening when we’ve exchanged the usual pleasantries, including, but not limited to, “So…what do you do?”
And if you were listening, you would know I do a lot of things – I’m a feminist, I write fiction and snarky non-fiction commentary, and yes, I teach self-defense. Now that combination should tell you a number of things, including:
- I teach self-defense (I know I’ve already said that, but you clearly are not listening, so I feel the need to say it AGAIN);
- As a feminist, I’m not likely to find your stupid, misogynistic comments about self-defense remotely witty, smart, sexy, or compelling;
- As a writer, anything stupid you say is likely to end up in a blog post or open letter somewhere.
And yet, you persist – why? Did you think that I would find your belittling of my chosen profession charming? It was, admittedly, more charming, relatively speaking, than your complimenting my ass, but again I’m speaking here in relative terms only. And sure, I can appreciate that you took the high road by not calling me a feminazi, a sinner doomed to spend the afterlife in Hell, or such a strange contradiction because, despite my physical power, you also find me physically attractive. Did you expect me to simper, to blush, to bat my eyelashes, when you chuckle condescendingly as you say something like, “Oh…I guess I better watch myself, or you’re going to kick my ass, right?”
Yes, Assholes. Spot-on. Okay, not literally spot-on, because I would not actually kick your ass just for saying something stupid; furthermore, as any self-defense instructor would tell you, it is best to go for the areas where you can achieve the most pain, such as the testicles. But you get the idea.
In my other profession as a college professor, however, I do get to deconstruct your ass (-inine statement), and here’s my analysis: your tone is mocking as you indicate you’d better watch yourself, which suggests to me that you actually do not think you need to watch yourself, because if you wanted to step over some line and try to rape or assault me, you believe, in fact, that there is nothing I could do to stop you. That’s what you mean, yes? Yes. That’s what I thought.
So two points on that, Assholes. First, there are decades of data suggesting that women are extremely capable of fighting back against sexual assault, and capable of doing so successfully; if this were going beyond a first date, I could bring you a reading list, but since it’s not, I won’t bother. In fact, you might be the final-straw Asshole who made that comment and drove me dashing to the bathroom to compose this letter on my smart phone, and if that’s the case, I’m not even coming back to finish the first date.
Second, in some totally fucked-up way, I am guessing you’re attempting to be charming and trying to get into bed with me, which I assume is all you want, since you are saying stupid offensive things about me and my line of work on a first date, and therefore this can only mean that a) you have no fucking idea who I am, and b) you actually don’t care who I am, because all you want is to do is get laid, and I happen to be the unfortunate woman closest in physical proximity. And so your strategy to get laid is to say, “Hey, you know I could rape you if I wanted to”, all the while expecting me to giggle like a school girl, relieved that I have found a real man who could withstand my attempts to fight back?
No. Not happening. So here’s what you need to know in parting, Assholes, and yes, I mean parting literally. Because I’m never going to see you again. Why you would want to see me again is beyond me, given that I neither simpered nor blushed nor batted my eyelashes in response to your stupid comment, and yet you do, which only provides additional data for both points a) and b) above. It’s bad enough that I just spent an hour/a meal/an evening with you that I can never reclaim, and no, I will not go out with you again, ever.
So know this instead: it is neither charming, nor witty, nor appealing, to suggest to a woman that you can overpower her, to imply that if you want to have sex with her there is nothing she can do to stop it. Nor is it accurate. And she doesn’t even have to have taken a self-defense course to prove that to you. And so, to address the literal content of your comment: Yes, you better watch yourself, or I am – or some other woman is – going to kick your ass.
In closing, then, the answer to your question is “Yes.” Yes, I can, and yes, she can, and she can, and she can. And we will, if you put your money where your mouth is. So shut the fuck up already, go take a women’s and gender studies course, and stop being such Assholes.
I’m a Harry Potter fan. I’ve read the books (many times), seen the movies (many times), been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (twice – the new and improved version is, in fact, new and improved; worth the trip), and even did the Watson Adventures Harry Potter scavenger hunt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC (I had to hurry my son and his friends along when they tried to stop to look at the art; “We’re not here for the art!” may have crossed my lips at some point). And here at SJFB, we have no doubt that some of our favorite female characters in the series would be totally on board with self-defense against sexual assault. See for yourselves:
- “Women shouldn’t have to defend themselves against sexual assault.” Sigh. Of course not, folks, if what you mean by that is “no one should sexually assault a woman, or anyone else, ever”, or “women shouldn’t be held responsible for sexual assault if they cannot/did not engage in self-defense, because the perpetrator is always to blame and responsible for sexual assault”. Right. But to say “women shouldn’t have to defend themselves” ala the Kurt Cobain meme is really just an excuse to deny women the right to defend themselves. And they do have the right to defend themselves, if that is the choice they make for themselves because of the risk of assault or in the face of assault. Period.
- “Self-defense isn’t primary prevention.” Um. Yes, it is, as we have explained countless times. Primary prevention, according to the CDC, stops an assault before it happens, and impacts social and cultural norms that permeate and perpetuate rape culture. Self-defense training, and women’s use of self-defense, has been demonstrated to effectively prevent and thwart assault, and to change our views of men as all-powerful and ever successful in sexual violence and women as inherently powerless and rapeable. Self-defense is as much a primary prevention strategy as bystander intervention programs and Red Flag trainings.
- “Self-defense is/leads to victim-blaming.” This critique is leveled at self-defense all the time. Why? Because we live in a rape culture. People blame victims and excuse perpetrators in all kinds of ways. Like when they say the victim is too pretty/not pretty enough, or too sexy/not sexually available, or on the street/in their own home/in a friend’s home, or too dark/too light/too white, or…right. Like that. The fact that people may perceive training more women in self-defense as inviting victim blame doesn’t make it victim-blaming, any more than people perceiving a woman in a short skirt as inviting rape means that her short skirt invites rape. Duh. Not all women want, or have the opportunity, to learn self-defense, for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t mean that self-defense training should be denied to other women.
- “Self-defense doesn’t work/escalates violence.” Well, it does work, in many, many situations, as the data indicate. And because of that, it rarely makes things worse, despite multiple episodes of Law & Order to the contrary (still available as professional consultants, L&O!) You don’t have to believe that for it to be true. Just like evolution and global warming.
- “Bystander training is better.” Better for whom? (That’s grammatically correct, folks; check it out.) And that is a fair question. Bystanders intervening is great, as the Stanford rape case recently demonstrated, and we encourage everyone to act as upstanders and find ways to safely intervene when they witness a sexual assault impending or in progress. But it’s not better; it’s different, and to be clear, only potentially effective when an assault is public or happened upon. And to suggest that it’s better is to put forth the belief that those targeted for assault (typically women) are not capable of engaging in active, effective resistance. You might as well say, “Bystander training is better because women can’t defend themselves, so don’t bother trying or learning how.” What a terrible, and false, message to propagate.
- “Some women training in self-defense puts other women at risk.” A close cousin to the concern about victim-blaming, this statement reflects two fears. The first fear is that when a woman defends herself successfully against a rape, that rapist will simply seek out another target. Not only is their no data to support that belief, but it suggests that women, in protecting themselves, are then responsible for other women being raped. Hogwash. And, quite frankly, misogynistic. The only person responsible for a rape is the rapist. The second fear is that the women who do not train in self-defense will be blamed for the assault once our culture, led by a bunch of bad-ass women, embrace the empowering self-defense approach. We don’t want to force all women, or any woman, to train in self-defense; but neither do we want to ignore the benefits of self-defense simply because some women, for a variety of reasons, may not engage in it. If a small percentage of people are allergic to eggs and thus can’t get the flu shot, should public health officials stop telling people to get their flu shot? In fact, just like with flu vaccinations, the greater percentage of people who’ve gotten them, the better off everyone is – even those who could not or did not get the flu shot. Imagine if an entire industry had developed around serving only those who get the flu, rather than taking care of those who had the flu and working tirelessly to defend against the flu virus. That would be unethical.
- “The idea of a woman being able to overpower a man is just…
uncomfortable/unattractive/unfeminine/unsexy/inappropriate.” Seriously? Seriously? In the face of an imminent sexual assault or a rape in progress, the biggest concern shouldn’t be “Does this knee-to-the-groin make my butt look big?” It doesn’t. And for those who don’t like it – too bad. Get over it.