Author Archive: Martha McCaughey

Self-Defense in Meatspace vs. Cyberspace

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.

Yeah, Carol (#6 in a series)

“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

Yeah, Carol (#5 in a series)

I know everyone in your women’s studies class is also taking pole dancing for fitness, but not everything counts as empowerment, CAROL.

Yeah, Carol (#4 in a series)

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

Yeah, Carol (#2 in a Series)

“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


What is the Power of One? An Open Letter

Dear “Power of One” Campaign,

Your Power of One social marketing campaign at the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) tells people that one person can make a difference, can do their part to stop sexual assault.  We applaud the fact that you’re not worried that this approach individualizes the problem of sexual violence.  You frame this strategy as primary prevention because it can stop sexual assault before it begins.  You say that people “have options when it comes to stopping sexual violence.”  In fact, you say that “even when it is hard, there is always something you can do. By taking a stand, you can help stop sexual violence in your community. ”   To this end, you use the Green Dot Program’s framework to say that people have “the Three D’s”: They can be Direct, Distract, and Delegate.  These are quoted below so people can see how you frame these three Ds.

1. You can be DIRECT.
Walk up and intervene. Respectfully ask that the offender stop the behavior and explain to them why it’s wrong.

2. You can DISTRACT.
Use a diversion to stop the behavior. Walk up and ask for directions or ask for the time. If it’s someone you know, talk about something you have in common with them.

3. You can DELEGATE.
Ask a friend, use the buddy system or call your local authorities to stop the behavior.

We agree that if everyone does their small part, we can help prevent sexual violence of any kind!  We just want to add a very crucial fourth D.

4. You can DEFEND yourself.

Move, shove, state “NO” firmly, shout “STOP!”, kick the groin or head, and resist the attacker with the goal of stopping the attacker and getting yourself to safety.  You can get help with these strategies by taking a self-defense training course, which emphasizes awareness, taking yourself seriously, verbal boundary setting and, finally, physical techniques for enforcing boundaries.

Oddly, your MCASA website lists self-defense classes as risk reduction rather than as primary prevention, despite the scholarly literature that establishes self-defense as primary prevention.   

We love that you want people to be engaged bystanders.  But of course we can be bystanders on our own behalves, too.  Women have historically been the caretakers of partners, children, and their communities.  It’s time we care for ourselves, too, and stand up for ourselves.  Bring in the bystander? Sure. But be your own bystander, too.  Be your own number one advocate.  Yeah, bring it! 


Jill & Martha

Self-Defense As Grown-Up Feminism

A new book by feminist media studies professor Laura Kipnis champions self-defense.  Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017) chronicles what happened to Kipnis and some others who have been scrutinized, investigated, gagged, and in some cases fired as a result of Title IX investigations.  In Unwanted Advances, Kipnis argues that college campuses have a problem of administrative overreach and a related problem of cultivating helplessness in heterosexual college women.


Unwanted Advances describes a sort of childish martyrdom among heterosexual women, which feeds a growing administrative class of campus rape prevention educators and investigators who fuel a fear, if not downright sexual paranoia, of nonconsensual sex–without teaching women how to do anything about it (other than hope for the gallantry of a bystander to intervene, or expect to report it after the fact).

Say this stuff, as Kipnis too well knows, and you’ll be skewered as a slut-shaming, anti-sex, anti-feminist victim-blamer–no matter what sort of feminist activist or academic credentials you might have, an experience to which many self-defense advocates can relate.  Kipnis makes clear that she seeks to blame no victims, and she’s as pro-slut as you get: As she says, “‘Fuck all the guys you want’ would be my motto” (p. 192).

Thus by her second to last chapter, Kipnis argues how utterly nonsensical it is for so many anti-rape educators and administrators on college campuses to be against self-defense training.  Kipnis describes self-defense as “risk reduction” and argues that although it is not prevention it works to reduce the rape rate.  Of course, any good prevention work ought to reduce the rape rate, and we have argued elsewhere that “risk reduction” and “prevention” is a false dichotomy.  Indeed, self-defense fits all the criteria of “primary prevention” in the public health model.

Unfortunately, Kipnis is not aware of the scholarship on self-defense (outside of the New York Times’ coverage of Charlie Senn’s study published in the New England Journal of Medicine) or of the fact that many of us have been, for years, struggling to convince the campus rape prevention educators of the importance of self-defense.  It’s the reason we created this blog, the reason we say “My Vagina Has a Dream,” the reason we wrote Miss Eliza Leslie’s Hookup Handbook for Ladies, and the reason, in all seriousness this time, we explain the difference taking self-defense class has made.  Kipnis is not aware of the resistance to self-defense that we have faced.  But it’s nice, in any case, to read such a well known and well respected scholar describe how downright reasonable advocating self-defense would be, how helpful it was to her years ago when she took Model Mugging self-defense classes, and how advocating self-defense and a broader sense of taking charge of one’s own fate is not victim-blaming but simply “grown-up feminism.”

Kipnis understands from both her own experience and her feminist scholarship what it’s like to be socialized into feminine helplessness and passivity.  For her, this is all the more reason to support self-defense training, since it counteracts the gender norms so many embody unconsciously.  As Kipnis puts it, “someone has to call out the codes of self-martyring femininity” (p. 212).

Kipnis is not making a conservative call for curfews, teetotaling, or a new chastity.  Kipnis wants women to fuck all the guys they want to– but, crucially, recognizes that not  fucking the ones you don’t want to fuck “is where things get tougher, since this requires women actually knowing what they want, and resisting what they don’t want. It requires a certain amount of self-coherence, which isn’t readily available when one is passed out” (p. 192).  Despite partying like a guy, as if that is what’s feminist, let’s face it, to quote Kipnis, “self-induced helplessness isn’t gender progress” (p. 195).

Kipnis is perhaps even more aghast than we are that so few college women take themselves seriously and know how to say no.  As she puts it, “One of the dirty little secrets of hookup culture is that a significant proportion of college women don’t know how to say no to sex, which is painful to anyone who thinks that, by this point in the long slog toward female independence, no would be the easiest word in the language” (p. 195).  Self-defense instructors see firsthand women’s difficulty in and fear of saying “no”, and self-defense training helps make saying “no” far more accessible and appealing to women.  Is saying what Kipnis writes out loud even allowed?  If we can’t say this, then we are so scared of the victim-blaming charge that we are, ironically enough, leading women to get victimized.  Perhaps we ought to risk someone feeling blamed over someone actually be victimized.  

We love that women want to be equal to men, and that’s why we know they need to assert and defend this equality when facing a man who does not treat them respectfully.   As Laura Kipnis put it,  “Yes, there’s an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness–just in case that day never comes” (p. 214).

Unwanted Advances reminds us not to underestimate the power of a mindful awareness of one’s own motives and one’s own surroundings, of saying “take your hand off my knee,” and yelling, “No!”, or of pushing, striking, or biting to defend one’s boundaries. Doing so is defending one’s status as equal. Doing so is grown-up feminism.



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. 


Top 10 FUQs [Frequently Unasked Questions] about Empowerment Self-Defense for Women

FUQ….!  We say that a lot in conversations, both casual and academic, about self-defense training it because is so often dismissed outright.  When we press the issue, asking, “But what is your concern about self-defense training?”, we start to uncover the assumptions people sometimes hold that they can’t easily challenge, because they don’t even ask the question!  We therefore offer you our Top 10 Frequently Unasked Questions (FUQs) about empowerment self-defense, along with our answers.  

1. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense teachers actually know the realities of who assaults whom, or do they naively believe all rapists are strangers who jump out of the bushes?  A:  Yes!  Empowerment self-defense instruction is informed by the data on violence against women, and so these instructors know very well that women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know – an acquaintance, a friend, an intimate.  Empowerment self-defense training includes the dynamics and responses to sexual assault by known perpetrators as well as strangers.  Without asking this FUQ, you might have the impression that this training is about karate chopping strangers and street fighting.

2. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense teachers realize some women have frozen during an assault because they were so shocked it was taking place?  A:  Absolutely.  “Freezing” is a common and natural response when the body is flooded with adrenaline as part of a fear response.  Empowerment self-defense training teaches women to minimize how long that response lasts by creating realistic assault scenarios and teaching women to breathe, focus, yell, and fight.  Adrenaline then facilitates women’s ability to fight back, rather than interfering with it.

3. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense teachers realize that a lot of women are impaired by drugs or alcohol when they are assaulted?  A:  They do; in empowerment self-defense training, women learn that drugs and alcohol can impair their ability to respond in an assault situation, and that at times, perpetrators deliberately use drugs or alcohol to create impairment to facilitate an assault.  Women are reminded that while drugs and alcohol are risk factors for assault, the responsibility for assault always lies with perpetrator, and never the target/victim/survivor.  Moreover, empowerment self-defense training increases the likelihood that women can and will have options to respond, even with some impairment from drugs or alcohol.

4. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense teachers train women in anything other than karate chopping and throwing someone to the ground?  A:  “Karate chopping”?  What is this, 1970?  🙂  Empowerment self-defense training uses a range of physical and verbal strategies that are demonstrated to be effective in thwarting assault.  While some empowerment self-defense instructors have a martial arts background, the techniques taught and practiced in empowerment self-defense are simpler to master in a matter of hours, not years, of training.  And the verbal skills are of equal importance to the physical techniques; women learn that they are entitled to set and maintain their own boundaries, and the words and language to calmly and assertively do so; the physical techniques are designed to maximize women’s areas of strength, and to target areas of vulnerability on the perpetrator.

5. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense teachers even realize that the gender norms and expectations in our society encourage women to be nice and pleasing, not mean and aggressive?  A.  They certainly do.  Gender socialization is an explicit topic in the psychoeducation that accompanies the verbal and physical strategies taught in empowerment self-defense, and women are encouraged to try and practice different traits and behaviors, regardless of what they have been taught or what feels “natural”.  Just like for drugs and alcohol, women are not blamed for being targeted for assault by virtue of their “niceness”; niceness is not asking for it.  However, our (un)questioning friends, women’s socialization and adherence to – and access to – stereotypical gender norms varies in multiple ways, and women in empowerment self-defense courses are understood to have different socialization experiences.  See Question 6!

6. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense classes recognize the way gender is not the only form on inequality– that women’s experiences are in fact filtered by physical ability, age, religion, race, ethnicity, size, etc.?  A:  Um, yes!   Intersectionality, or the concept that our identity is multi-faceted and that systems of oppression…well, intersect around different aspects of identity (thank you, Kimberle Crenshaw) is critical in understanding violence against women, and the differences in violence that different women experience.  

7. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense classes assume you have to be young and fit to learn and/or use self-defense?  A:  Absolutely not! (as the increase in our aches and pains in our 20+ years of work with empowerment self-defense can attest).  For example, Prepare Inc., the NYC-based chapter of IMPACT (c) Personal Safety, address that very issue on their web site:  “This system of self-defense is appropriate for all ages, all levels of fitness, and all body types. You will discover and learn to enhance your own body’s natural strengths. Limited class size ensures individual attention and personalized instruction, including accommodations and adaptations for pre-existing injuries, physical disabilities and learning challenges.”

8. Q:  Are advocates of empowerment self-defense assuming that we shouldn’t teach men not to rape, and making only women responsible for addressing violence against women?  A:  Are swim instructors assuming we should fire all the life guards?  Are nutritionists assuming we don’t need any FDA regulations?  Are…okay, you get the idea – and NO!  Teaching women to effectively defend themselves against sexual assault is a critical aspect of combating violence against women, and with more demonstrated efficacy in reducing rates of sexual violence than programs targeting rape myths, norms around masculinity, and bystanders, but NO EMPOWERMENT SELF-DEFENSE INSTRUCTORS ASSUME THAT THIS SHOULD BE THE ONLY WAY TO ADDRESS VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.  Sigh. Forgive the yelling.  We just say this A LOT. 

9. Q:  Do empowerment self-defense classes teach about how to get help if you’ve been assaulted?  A:  Empowerment self-defense training focuses on all critical issues around gender violence and sexual assault; in addition to verbal and physical safety strategies, instructors talk about awareness, interpersonal dynamics, and self-care – before an assault is imminent, in the face of assault, and after being targeted or attacked, regardless of whether the assault was attempted or completed.  Women are encouraged to be aware of what they need, and to believe they are entitled to get it.

10. Q:  Are empowerment self-defense classes blaming women who did not fight back when assaulted for being assaulted?  A.  Never.  Empowerment self-defense training is designed with the goal of increasing women’s options and choices – in life and in the face of assault.  Instructors work to provide women with knowledge, skills, and resources; they trust women to make the choices that are best and safest for themselves, and they respect those choices, whether women choose to resist an assault or not, and whether the assault is thwarted or completed.

Memo to the RAD Instructional Team re: Susan B. Anthony Poster

April 25, 2017

To: RAD Instructional Team 

From: I. D. Claire, RAD Instructional Team

Re: Misfire with that Self-Defense Training Poster


Well folks, the votes are in.  People on campus–especially the feminists!–have been complaining about our poster that promotes RAD self-defense classes with the Susan B. Anthony quote, “Woman must not depend upon the protection of a man, but must be taught to protect herself.”

anthony quote

I told the development team to get someone hotter, and preferably nonwhite, on that poster.  But you didn’t listen.  Sure, most of what passes for “rape prevention” on our campus is victim services and an attempt to get victims to report offenders.  It’s up to us to promote the importance of self-defense training on campus.  We sure as hell know the sexual assault prevention office and the women’s center aren’t going to do it.  And the CDC still doesn’t want to embrace the data on the effectiveness of self-defense.  We also know RAD self-defense classes play a special role in offering something that is truly preventative, and empowering to boot.  

We want people to realize that self-defense is in line with feminism, not against it.  How did Susan B. Anthony take us off message here?  Time for a gut check.  Susan B. Anthony is not hot.  And she is associated with white feminism– in a time when we all have the vote already.  (Post-feminism, anyone?)  Plus, that old gal had no birth control so in order to stay free and have a lifelong career as a public speaker and feminist activist, she never got with a man.  That sends the wrong message in today’s era of birth control and hooking up.

They’re also saying our poster promotes victim blaming.  Certainly college campuses display posters that say if you don’t lock your dorm doors then you almost deserve to have your laptop stolen, and people don’t go hollering to the Dean of Students that this message is victim-blaming.  Maybe the campus feminists are just looking for a reason to dismiss self-defense.  Still, could we do more?  

Let’s be sure our posters show images of women fending off known assailants in the most likely ways.  No more street scenes where the money shot is the woman getting the thug in a headlock.  We’re teaching boundary setting, verbal self-defense and, when those fail, physical resistance tactics.  dare, can you turn that into a graphic?  Ditto: the most likely places we teach women they’ll defend themselves– their dorm room, on a couch, floor, or bed, at a party, &etc.  Rhyanna, for now, change the image of Susan B. Anthony to bell hooks (a young bell hooks!!).  Find a quote that captures feminism being pro-self-defense, but also pro-sex, pro-drinking, pro-choice, and pro-football.  Jessica, for a longer-term strategy, look through recent issues of Cosmo and Glamour for current celebrities who might have said something great about kicking ass.  Maybe Beyoncé. 


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