Author Archive: Martha McCaughey

Feminist Zumba Lessons

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. 


If I Can’t Defend Myself, I Don’t Want Your Unfinished Revolution

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.


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. 


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