Among the many pop-feminist, girl-power-esque books out last year, The Feminist Fight Club: A Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett, reviewed in the New York Times (lucky Jessica), tells women how to fight the power, with the help of your girl gang. Only without fighting.
Fighting, being mean, and anger are actually popular on the bookshelves in the pop feminism aisle. Here are some of the titles you’ll find:
—Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford
—Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister
—Mastering Your Mean Girl by Melissa Ambrosini
Clearly, there is something appealing about the idea of empowerment, being powerful, resisting sexism, and fighting. These seem to define feminist empowerment today. The only problem is that none of these books is actually about learning how to fight.
The feminist taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Why is teaching women to fight, resist, and master meanness metaphorically, without including self-defense, a problem? Because, as we have emphasized, knowing you can fight physically is instrumental in knowing you have the right and the skills to fight metaphorically.
Looking for an empowerment self-defense course? These links might help:
Wishing you all an empowered and impactful holiday season and New Year,
Martha and Jill
In their article “Stop Raising Awareness Already!” in the Spring 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand argue that organizations all too frequently attempt to raise awareness about their issue, as if awareness automatically translates into action for change. Instead, they argue, organizations must communicate more strategically with their public audiences, giving people concrete calls to action.
Christiano and Neimand explain that there are four specific risks to doing awareness campaigns the wrong way. Done improperly, awareness campaigns can: (1) lead to no action; (2) reach the wrong audience; (3) create harm; and (4) generate a backlash.
As an example of how well-intentioned campaigns can result in no action, the authors cite the CDC’s very witty “Zombie Apocalypse” campaign, which went viral but led to no measurable increase in people’s actually taking the recommended steps for disaster preparation. As an example of a creative and popular campaign that may have actually created harm, the authors cite the “Dumb Ways to Die” music video, which was created to encourage safety and decrease the deaths around trains in Australia. Sadly, the sweet-sounding song and cartoon video make death seem less horrifying and, importantly, did not take into account the research that shows that such imagery can actually increase suicide among those already contemplating it. As the authors put it, “Unfortunately, it is uncommon for practitioners to conduct a review of academic literature as part of the early stages of any effort. . . . The gulf between scholarship that could help practitioners avoid harm, reduce risk, or increase the effectiveness of their efforts and practice is common and wide.”
This is all particularly interesting to us since we created See Jane Fight Back because we were tired of the uphill battle it had been raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of women’s self-defense training. We have not felt particularly successful in getting women’s self-defense training to be an accepted part of the rape prevention discourse.
So let’s consider awareness campaigns for sexual assault prevention. These often lead to no action (other than after-the-fact reporting) or they create harm when, by not mentioning the research showing how effective active resistance can be, they rob women of the knowledge and skills to thwart an attacker and position women as damsels in distress who must rely on men’s good intentions. And the backlash is rampant, such as when Nina Sanchez, who won the Miss USA title in 2014, advocated self-defense training for girls and women as a rape prevention strategy.
When we look at the sexual assault prevention campaigns, it is obvious that those campaigns have not conducted a review of the academic literature. We have been a broken record, trying to tell people about the scholarship showing how effective self-defense is. Which leads us to examine our own campaign.
How effective is our campaign to advocate self-defense? To do well, it must move people to learn the empowering tactics of verbal and physical resistance to sexual assault and/or move policy makers to provide such training.
According to Christiano and Neimand, a successful public interest communications campaign contains four elements: (1) targeting your audience as narrowly as possible; (2) creating compelling messages with clear calls to action; (3) developing a theory of change; and (4) using the right messenger.
So here are our questions:
Have we targeted our audience properly? Do we have an audience, or instead, audiences? Women and girls are a diverse group – to target our audience narrowly, as Christiano and Neimand suggest, we may need different messages, theories, and messengers.
What about the message–if we came up with a compelling message with a clear call to action, what would it be? Having a clear call to action is no guarantee of success, as we learned from the CDC’s Zombie Apocalypse campaign, which made it crystal clear that you ought to make an emergency kit. But having a clear call is one of the four necessary elements of a successful public interest communication campaign.
What about our theory of change–do we need to rethink that? We’ve been thinking that as more women feel that pleasurable sensation of empowerment as they develop an efficacious relationship with their own potential for setting boundaries, they will be more likely to set boundaries and men, recognizing that more and more women in their midst are setting strong limits, will be less likely to see women as easy targets to prey on. The data suggest this is true, but perhaps, with the goal of raising awareness, this isn’t the theory that compels women and girls to embrace self-defense.
And finally, we are thinking that the self-defense advocacy movement needs the “right messenger”– perhaps a cool woman to whom girls and young women would listen. Lady Gaga? Beyonce? Pink? Laverne Cox? Serena Williams? Who do you think our messenger should be?
These are the questions we must answer if we want the research on self-defense to wind up making a real difference to prevent sexual assault. Tell us what you think in the comments section!
Leave it to feminist academics to make a lesson out of a Zumba class, that popular form of group exercise for the decidedly hyperkinetic. Some well-meaning feminist-leaning people have already questioned our participating in Zumba and other forms of female-dominated Jane-Fonda-esque aerobic activities to be a sign of our having patriarchal body image problems and self-loathing, so perhaps turning Zumba into a feminist lesson (and blog post) might make up for any misperceptions along those lines.
Two fun pop songs played in Zumba classes these days are Meghan Trainor’s “No” and Trainor’s duet with LunchMoney Lewis “I Love Me.”
In the song “No” Trainor advises women to recognize their right to say no, offering multiple ways to do so:
“All my ladies listen up/If that boy ain’t giving up/Lick your lips and swing your hips/Girl all you gotta say is/My name is no/My sign is no/My number is no/You need to let it go/You need to let it go/Need to let it go.”
Of course we self-defense advocates know and celebrate this sentiment. But it’s the words LunchMoney Lewis sings in “I Love Me” that drive home a perhaps equally important and complementary lesson for men, so that they can take no for an answer. In his part, LunchMoney Lewis sings:
“Oh hey-ey-ey, I love me/Hey, hey, hey, I love me/’Cause I’m sexy and it ain’t my fault/I ain’t waitin’ on nobody’s call/You don’t want me, baby that’s your loss/I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine, baby.”
Men need to follow the example of LunchMoney Lewis and develop their own self-love, self-care, and sense of centeredness. For having all of those things makes taking no for an answer, and respecting another person’s boundaries, a non-issue. Of course, it’s possible to take no for an answer and respect someone’s boundaries anyway (like, because it’s the law and all), but what a wonderful place from which to listen and respect. As LunchMoney Lewis so clearly says, being rejected might not be fun, but it’s FINE.
And, as for being a feminist who goes to Zumba, well, I love me.
In a Dec. 12 New York Time Magazine piece called “The Conversation”, Emily Bazelon interviews several notable feminist academics and journalists on workplace sexual harassment. Laura Kipnis, author of a recent book critiquing Title IX overreach on college campuses, is one of those in the conversation. Kipnis points out that feminists have struggled to gain what she calls “civic equality” (access to full participation in politics, the workplace, and other public spheres) as well as to gain bodily autonomy (such as reproductive freedom and freedom from interpersonal violence). Both of these revolutions are unfinished, as the sexual harassment of working women brings to light.
Of course, one’s lack of bodily autonomy impedes one’s civic equality. And as feminist legal theorist Catharine A. MacKinnon pointed out in her landmark 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, sexual harassment is a pervasive problem keeping women from both economic and sexual self-determination. By the way, it’s interesting that MacKinnon is not one of those interviewed or referenced in these recent conversations. She has been stereotyped as anti-male and anti-sex, and yet her work was crucial in making sexual harassment a legally actionable form of sex discrimination in the workplace. In short, at some level anyway, we are all MacKinnon feminists now.
In the NYT Magazine interviews, Kipnis is the only one in the group to ask the question about how women respond to this kind of sexual aggression. When Bazelon asks who should be responsible for change, Anita Hill answers: “There are three ways you could approach the problem of sexual harassment. You can fix the women. You can fix the guys. Or you can change the culture.” Danyel Smith, Soledad O’Brien, Lynn Povich, and Amanda Hess all chime in that we must change men or the culture. Kipnis asks, with the innocence born of the utter sensibility of the question and the trepidation that stems from knowing full well that feminists have embraced a victim politics and she’s sure to get hammered, “Do we have to choose? Can’t it be all three?” After all, it’s not as if changing women is not also changing the culture–and vice versa. Of course, we would argue, empowerment self-defense training does not “fix” women who are “broken”. Kipnis mentions that she wants to embrace the kind of assertiveness training that was once a popular and acceptable part of the feminist movement.
In suggesting this, Laura Kipnis faces what we’ve been facing for years in our advocacy of women’s verbal and physical resistance to men’s sexual aggression: the reality that for many feminists, self-defense is verboten. The taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Ironically, the outright refusal to embrace the embodied tactics that resist one’s oppression embraces and essentializes the very feminine comportment and victim mindset that themselves constitute the lived realities of a sexist culture. In response to Anita Hill’s remark that “if we fix the guys and change the culture, we won’t need to fix women,” Kipnis simply, but insightfully, comes back with, “Good luck.” Suggesting that we make men change is not only unrealistic but demands and solidifies a Victorian ideal of male chivalry. This is not equitable, nor is it pro-sex, nor is it chock full of girl power. Indeed, it is an attitude that goes against all other ideas popular among feminists today.
Amanda Hess goes so far as to say that women cannot challenge their sexual harassers, proclaiming: “I think that freezing and trying to slip away when something upsetting happens to you is a human response. I think it’s also a very human response sometimes for people who are witnessing some sort of harassment, even men. I don’t think we can necessarily teach that response away.” In short, Hess wants men to change–and no doubt rejects the arguments that, thanks to evolution, our male coworkers are just cavemen in suits–but wants to underscore the fact that women, biologically, cannot change their responses to sexual harassment. Women are engaged in a “human response” that we can’t “teach away.” (Try telling Hess her male colleague’s ogling the gorgeous young woman who arrived at work wearing a bodycon dress, stiletto heels, and no bra is just a “human response.”)
Wanting to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace without training women how to challenge it flies in the face of sexual harassment law itself. After all, unless it’s the quid-pro-quo type of sex harassment (e.g., “perform this sexual act if you want the promotion/don’t want to get fired”), the law itself demands that the victim first let the perpetrator know that his verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is unwelcome. The condition-of-work type of sex harassment presumes that people are differently sensitive to jokes, touching, and asks for drinks, and that people have different views of what conduct is sexual in nature. Thus the victim must first say something either through her supervisor or established written complaint channels, or directly to the perpetrator, such as, “I’m not comfortable with your sexual jokes; do not tell them to me anymore”, or “I don’t want you to touch me”, or “I do not want to see the porn on your computer; do not show me that again.” If a guy continues to subject his colleague to these working conditions after he is told to stop, and such action unreasonably interferes with her work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, then it is sexual harassment. (Note: gendered terms used to make the argument easier to follow. OF COURSE some harassers are women, some victims are men, etc.)
We still need to challenge gender inequality in intimate relationships, in the workplace, and in civic life. And, to appropriate Emma Goldman, if I can’t defend myself I don’t want to be part of your unfinished revolution.
At a meeting last week of the campus Interpersonal Violence Council, a new administrative leader championed what we could do with technology–for example, by acknowledging that today’s students don’t read through webpages, and instead get a lot of information on their smart phones. Wonderful, we thought. She also suggested that the Council partner with the campus Chief Information Officer and others who might not be on the Council. Also wonderful! Finally, as an example, she suggested that our students and employees could learn how to change their privacy settings and turn off the location services on their phones because those committing interpersonal violence might be tracking and stalking a person using these technologies. Again, wonderful– and there is where we see that people who typically say that advocating self-defense is victim-blaming do not have a problem with these other means of self-defense–call them cyber-self-defense. No outcry that we should be teaching people not to stalk online! No nervousness that such actions would not count as primary prevention! Why not?
The difference between learning to defend yourself in cyberspace and learning to defend yourself in meatspace (the brick-and-mortar environment of, say, a college party) is a physical one. People tend to recognize that women, in particular, are vulnerable in both situations, and embrace the idea of their being able to do something about that vulnerability in cyberspace. But not in physical space. And yet the very same principles of knowing where you want to draw your boundaries, and what level of privacy and autonomy you expect to have, apply equally in cyberspace and in the very physical space of a college party.
We are often told, by those doing rape prevention work in particular, that suggesting women can learn physical and verbal personal safety strategies smacks of victim blame. And yet, there is no similar concern about teaching women to turn off location tracking on their social media apps. This makes us wonder whether the charge that f2f self-defense is victim blaming is really just a cover for a belief that women can’t – or shouldn’t – actually engage in physical self-defense.
Because physical self-defense challenges rape culture and gender ideology in a way that cyber self-defense does not, cyber-security techniques maintain the illusion of female vulnerability and masculine prowess. The idea that women can powerfully, forcefully, physically, and effectively defend themselves is far more threatening than the image of a manicured finger tapping the “off” button of a smart phone app.
Perhaps we can embrace the general willingness to accept the validity and necessity of teaching people about their “virtual” boundaries and show how that applies to their “meat” boundaries as well. As with cyberspace, so with meatspace.
“The problem is that people try to teach women to defend themselves when they should be teaching men not to rape.”
Us: “Um, those aren’t mutually exclusive, CAROL.” #seejanefightback
I know everyone in your women’s studies class is also taking pole dancing for fitness, but not everything counts as empowerment, CAROL.
We hate when someone says, “Women shouldn’t have to be like men and learn to defend themselves.” But this is fucking real life, not some cultural feminist fantasy, CAROL. #seejanefightback
“I shouldn’t have to learn how to defend myself.”
Us: “Well, I shouldn’t have to wait for men not to rape, CAROL.” #seejanefightback