Jan. 28, 2015
Dear Members of the National Panhellenic Conference:
We write with great concern that your national presidents agreed to prevent University of Virginia sorority members from attending Boys’ Bid Night.
While we appreciate and share your concern with women’s safety on campus (and, as college professors, believe that all students would be better off at home studying), we would like to suggest that you consider an entirely different mandate to keep sorority women both safe and free. Your mandate that they not attend the big fraternity rush night, a tradition at U VA that involves the sorority girls going from one frat house to the next in tank tops imprinted with their Greek letters, will no doubt reduce the risk of rape–but only through cloistering.
How about, instead, you mandate (and fund) self-defense training for all sorority members? Women are far more likely than men to be sexually assaulted on campus, and yet it’s a crime that most women can thwart with verbal and/or physical self-defense.
We support your desire for the sorority women to engage in more sisterhood events, and we don’t see why any woman wants to hang out with drunken guys being obnoxious at a frat house anyway. But we get their outrage at your paternalistic protection tactic. And we can only imagine the response to the women who dare to disobey their curfew, who refuse to be grounded: go to the frat houses at your own risk.
Restricting women’s freedom and mobility in order to keep them away from a potentially dangerous and criminal situation–while allowing the potentially dangerous and criminal situation to run unchecked–is a clear message that men cannot be stopped and that women cannot stop them.
Self-defense empowers women and increases, rather than restricts, women’s freedom. Rape and the fear of rape keep women in line, while self-defense training gives women more options. And, training to assert and protect one’s own bodily boundaries would make a great sisterhood event.
Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele
An Open Letter to CNN’s Don Lemon and Other Journalists Who Interview Women Who Report They were Sexually Assaulted
Dear Mr. Lemon:
National and international media outlets are covering various aspects of the rape allegations made against actor and comedian Bill Cosby, dating back over four decades. None of it is surprising – not additional victims coming forward, not various celebrities expressing skepticism or disbelief, not stories about the psychological functioning or motives of those bringing allegations.
Nor is it surprising that women who come forward are being asked why they didn’t fight back.
On the evening of November 18, CNN reporter Don Lemon, in an interview with Joan Tarshis, one of several women who are reporting they were raped or assaulted by Cosby, said the following:
“You know, there are ways not perform oral sex if you didn’t want to…meaning using of the teeth…as a weapon…biting…I had to ask.”
No, Mr. Lemon, you didn’t have to ask.
We’re not going to ask you if you would bite the penis of a man orally raping you, Mr. Lemon. We’re not going to ask you if you think you would do it, if a man tried to orally rape you, either.
That’s not a question, Mr. Lemon. That’s victim-blaming.
Advocates of self-defense and self-defense training for women could tell you that, Mr. Lemon. We don’t tell women what they should do. We don’t ask them why they didn’t do it, if they have been raped or assaulted in the past.
Ms. Tarshis says that it did not occur to her to bite his penis. That is the option that occurred to you, when you heard the story, Mr. Lemon. It may or may not have occurred to you in the moment if someone were assaulting you.
This is why self-defense training is so important. Championing self-defense training for women should not be confused with saying that a woman should have resisted. Self-defense training teaches women strategies and options so that if someone tries to rape or assault them, they have a range of choices available to them. And so that they feel empowered to act on those choices, if they choose to, because they believe they are entitled to, because they have the knowledge and practice in doing so, and because they know that if one strategy doesn’t work, another one – verbal or physical – might. Self-defense training helps make resistance a viable option. And, Mr. Lemon, we trust that women make the choice that is the safest, the best, for them, in that moment, and we don’t judge or question their choices.
We don’t tell them what that choice should have been, Mr. Lemon, because we don’t know. And asking a survivor of rape or sexual assault why they didn’t resist in the particular way you can envision, even though you were not there and have no idea whether that would have been a safe, viable, or appropriate choice, is telling them what you think they should have done. Or what you think you would have done.
Instead, Mr. Lemon, you could have applauded Ms. Tarshis for coming forward with her story, and told her that you don’t blame her or hold her responsible for the violence that was perpetrated against her. You could have told her that you believe that she made the best choice she could in a terrifying and dangerous situation.
Mr. Lemon, perhaps you were trying to be helpful. So let us help you, Mr. Lemon, with what NOT TO SAY to someone who tells you they were raped or sexually assaulted:
- Why didn’t you…(fight back, knee him in the groin, bite his penis, scream for help…or whatever you believe she should have/you would have done in the same situation)?
- Why did you…(wear that, go there, say that, do that…or whatever behavior you see as the reason she was raped or sexually assaulted)?
- Why were you…(drinking, drunk, smoking, high…or using whatever substance you think made her responsible for someone raping or sexually assaulting her)?
- If it were me…(fill in the blank with your solution to avoiding rape or sexual assault).
Resistance is complicated, and difficult, and scary, Mr. Lemon, and while many girls and women resist – some with self-defense training, and more without – your question suggests that resistance is simple and easy and obvious and what you would have done/what everyone should have done. Your question suggests that in the absence of resistance, it wasn’t really rape, or that the rape was the responsibility of the survivor, not the perpetrator.
Mr. Lemon, we live in a society that does not offer girls and women any regular opportunities to learn how to value themselves and their bodily boundaries, or how to use their bodies aggressively (remember, we’re the cheerleaders, not the football players), and in a society that routinely tells girls and women NOT to fight back because it won’t work or they’ll get hurt or they’ll make things worse. And yet, the question you ask is, “Why Didn’t She Do This or That Aggressive Act in Self-Defense?!
We could add, Mr. Lemon, how about you ask why we’re not teaching girls and women to defend themselves, violently, if necessary. That’s our question, Mr. Lemon. Next time, make it yours.
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey
Dear Ms. Rosenkranz,
We have seen multiple stories now – first in the Ramapo News from Ramapo College, but then in Jezebel, in Addicting Info, in the Telegraph – about how you recommended that female students practice their “anti-rape faces in the mirror”. Or words to that effect.
That’s not prevention, Ms. Rosenkranz. That’s victim-blaming. We don’t need to practice our anti-rape faces. Any face we make is an anti-rape face.
Prevention is focusing on changing a rape culture that perpetuates the myth that men’s rape of women as inevitable. Prevention is acting to change social norms about men’s beliefs about their entitlement to women’s bodies, and the eliminating the behaviors that follow those beliefs. And prevention is teaching women how to physically and verbally thwart an attempted sexual assault.
Women do not invite rape by how they look, or what they wear, or the expression on their faces. Or by their perceived attractiveness, or their relationship status, or their sexual orientation, or the color of their skin. Or anything else.
We want to reduce women’s risk for assault, Ms. Rosenkranz. We assume you do, too. But if you want to make women safer, empower them – don’t blame them. Encourage your campus to offer self-defense classes that, as the data show, actually reduce the chance that they will be raped and increase women’s feelings of confidence and empowerment.
We assume your goal is to reduce sexual assault on your campus, Ms. Rosenkranz. But making faces doesn’t make people stop raping. Action does. And that’s why we are writing to you, rather than making a “we don’t like what you’re saying” face.
Women’s faces/bodies/clothes/words/behaviors DO NOT invite rape, and rape prevention is not about withdrawing an invitation. So please – check the data, and get your facts straight.
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey
Dear Your Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:
We applaud your recommending last week, in conjunction with your attendance at an interfaith meeting in India, that girls learn martial arts self-defense against sexual assaults. In your interview with One World South Asia, you said that women and men should be equally valued in society, and when asked if you had any message you’d like to give to the young girls in India, you answered that “the idea of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to train school girls in martial arts seems a practical solution. For self defence, young girls in India should learn martial arts like Karate. In the long run, education can be an effective tool in helping girls to stand up against sexual crimes.” To this you added that “lower castes should pay more attention in education. They should particularly educate their girls. People who are well off should help the poor people in getting education.”
You didn’t say that girls shouldn’t put themselves in risky situations, Your Holiness, because you know what we know – that sexual assault is not about what women targeted for sexual assault do to “increase” their risk.
You didn’t say that girls are responsible for preventing sexual assault, because you know what we know – that the responsibility lies with perpetrators, not with targets and victims.
We agree wholeheartedly with this agenda for young girls and believe this should be our message to girls in the U.S. as well.
We only wish that you had made this recommendation to U.S. President Barack Obama during your recent meeting with him at the White House. We don’t think you did because they’d surely have put you in their “It’s On Us” video. The goal of that movement, they say, is to “…reframe the conversation surrounding sexual assault in a way that inspires everyone to see it as their responsibility to do something, big or small, to prevent it”. And what you said, Your Holiness, reframes the conversation by suggesting that women don’t need to just hope that someone else gets that “it’s on them”; you reframe the conversation by taking a stance, as the most influential spiritual leader in the world today, that women as equal pillars of humanity, have the right to and capacity for self-defense.
So can you call President Obama back and tell him that?
We know that you won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and that you call yourself a feminist. We just hope that your recent recommendation to girls about self-defense is understood by others as not at all in contradiction with your being a Nobel laureate. For we know of your teachings about compassion as well as women’s rights.
Overall, we love your messages, as well as how you offer them. You not only speak, have f2f meetings, and write books; you also have your own Twitter (with 9 million followers!), Facebook, and Google Plus accounts. We do too! (Except we have about 8.9999999 million fewer followers.)
Martha McCaughey & Jill Cermele
PS: Is being the Dalai Lama a good job?
Dear Campus Rape Prevention Training Videos,
You’re so slick with your semi-pro actors and your use of hip language. We think the companies that made you will really get a lot of mileage out of you. You’ll prove profitable long-term investments now that universities across the country are anxious to comply with federal mandates to offer all incoming students some kind of rape prevention education.
You do a great job explaining what consent looks like. For example, one of you has this whole “can I use your cell phone” analogy. Powerful. I mean, you really get to the heart of the matter when you show the difference between coming up to a guy who’s sleeping and pulling his cell phone out of his pocket versus sitting down next to a guy and asking to use his phone, followed by a back-and-forth about which things on the phone he’s ok with another person playing with. That’s exactly like sexual assault versus affirmative consent.
Also cutting edge are the culture-changing bystander interventions you espouse. Watch how we stop a guy who’s about to go rape a girl. “Uh, Joe, that’s, um, not cool. Let’s get something to eat instead.” We totally get how getting a guy something to eat will fundamentally change the rape culture. And we totally totally agree that committing a felony is “not cool.” Fer sure.
We all want young people to go to school, party, and have sex in an environment that is free from coercion. The problem is, videos, you mostly seem to think that the only way that can happen is if some men step in when other men are coercive and violent, right? Like, “Don’t worry, baby, if someone is trying to rape you; some knight in shining armor will come along and…um…ask the potential rapist if he wants a snack.”
How do you think the women viewing you now feel, as they hope that the cell phone analogy is powerful enough to stop rapists, as they hold their breaths wondering if Joe will, in fact, decide to have a burger or shoot some pool or play beer pong instead of assaulting the woman he’s been targeting all night?
The real question is, videos, what do you have to say when bystanders did not intervene on behalf of the girl? Pretty much nothing, that’s what.
Is there some reason you are so averse to telling a woman what she can do to intervene on her own behalf?
As videos, you could easily show what it looks and sounds like to shout “NOOOOOO!” and “BACK THE FUCK OFF!” and (because not all guys listen in such circumstances) to grab the testicles and twist them, and how a guy typically reacts to that kind of pain. You could show exactly how to land a kick to the groin or head, and how to make a sharp beak with five fingers to poke the eye of one’s assailant.
Oh, feeling squeamish? Imagining the men viewing you now saying “oooooch” and grabbing their crotches protectively? They probably would do that when they watch you. And getting men to imagine THAT might be an effective rape prevention strategy.
Indeed, that would be a whole lot more effective and specific than the clip of the local campus police specialist at the University of Montana who says you can “come and see him in his office to talk about the self-defense courses that he offers.” (Although a step in the right direction, University of Montana video! Now, show us a knee to the groin.)
What do you imagine women would feel and do if they had the opportunity to watch women like themselves respond powerfully and effectively to enforce their bodily boundaries? We’re women and as we watch you we’ve been feeling frustrated that we only see women as damsels in distress.
Campus rape prevention training videos, it’s time to change your tune. By all means, stay slick, stay hip (although know that if you’re actually thinking things like “slick” and “hip”, you might be stuck in 1974) – just get it right.
Martha McCaughey & Jill Cermele
Dear NPR Weekend Edition Staff and the Parents of College Students You Misled:
The August 24 program “Weekend Edition” produced a story on how some universities are “tackling sexual assault before parties start”, which underscores how important it is for parents, as well as colleges and universities, to prepare students in advance, and to remind them of the risk while offering them strategies to reduce it. This broadcast featured a clip of a conversation between a father of an incoming University of New Hampshire student, who is a doctor, and his daughter, “Kelly”. When Kelly asks her father specifically for advice (“What should I know about consent and assault and rape?”), Dad offers Kelly the following advice:
- Anticipate a situation before you get into it
- Always travel with friends
- Have a planned list of activities, night and day
- Avoid isolation
- Avoid substances
Kelly feels better, and Kelly’s Dad, who is clearly educated, informed, and appropriately concerned about his daughter’s safety and well-being, has done his job. And yet, what has she been told, really? Don’t ever be alone, don’t ever drink or use drugs, and keep yourself on a preset busy schedule. In other (vague) words, avoid, curtail, limit, distract, and then hope for the best. She might as well live at home and take all her courses online.
The take-home message of that list of rape avoidance strategies — inadvertently offered, perhaps, but communicated nonetheless — is that once danger is imminent, the outcome is a given. If one’s avoidance measures fail, there is no advice provided, implying that women do not have the option of fighting back.
And yet research has shown that girls and women are capable of safely and effectively resisting rape and sexual assault. Self-defense training is one critical way to teach, and allow for the practice of, active and clear strategies for things you can say and do in a potentially dangerous situation, where someone is trying to rape or assault you. And the research tells us that these strategies make women feel safer, make them more empowered to set and assert their boundaries in a range of situations – including social and dating situations – and can effectively prevent an assault or a rape from occurring.
So NPR and parents, please have these conversations, and please include not only a guy’s legal obligation not to attack but a gal’s legal right to defend herself. Here’s our script for daughters:
If someone tries to rape or assault you, one thing you need to know is that you have the right to protect yourself – verbally or physically. You have the right to tell someone that what they are saying to you, how they are touching you, is not what you want, is not okay, is a crime; you have the right to yell and scream and call for help and make a scene to attract the attention of someone who might be able to help you. And you also have the right to physically resist – by pushing, shoving, hitting, kicking, with any part of your body that you can use – hands, elbows, hips, knees, feet – and against any part of their body – testicles, face, abdomen, arms, legs. And, you need to know these are all things you can do, and have the right to do, but that if you are in danger, we trust you to make the best decision for yourself that is going to keep you feeling as safe in the moment as possible. And that means that while we want you to know that it is okay for you to do these things, it doesn’t mean you have to or you should. You do what’s best for you, and we will love and trust and support you, no matter what.
Not that anyone asked, but here’s our script for sons:
If you want to do something physically intimate with someone, tell them and ask them. If the person you’re with has been drinking or using drugs, consider them incapable of offering meaningful consent and move on. If the person is reasonably sober and makes it explicitly clear that the desires are mutual, great. Do not assume you can pick up signals or hints. Do not ever attempt to impose yourself or your will onto another person. It’s neither sexy nor legal. Don’t treat anyone as an “easy lay.” If you don’t understand these principles, you just might get your ass kicked.
That’s the way to tackle sexual assault before the party starts.
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey
Dear Campus Rape Prevention Educators Adopting the Bystander Intervention Model:
The White House tapped the University of New Hampshire’s bystander intervention program, Prevention Innovations, as a model for sexual assault prevention at the national level. Chances are you have or are adopting that comprehensive bystander intervention program or one very similar to it. UNH’s program trains individuals not only to identify dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, but how to intervene actively and safely. A second leg of that program is a social marketing campaign, which includes posters, bus wraps, and buttons that show realistic situations and potential bystander responses.
This social marketing campaign centers on a “Know Your Power®” theme. This community-mobilization approach enlists men as allies in the struggle to stop rape by telling them how powerful they are. Similar to the old campaign that placed in men’s restroom urinals stickers that read, “You’re holding the power to stop rape in your hands,” the “Know Your Power” campaign tells men they have the power not to rape.
And to rape. That’s right; implied in the message to men – and to women– that men have the power to stop rape (presumably by other men) is the message to men – and to women – that men also have the power to rape if they want to or if no bystander intervenes.
Women apparently can train as bystanders alongside men, and thus, at least in theory, have the power to intervene as a bystander in select situations and in particular ways. Sadly, though, nothing in these campaign materials suggests that there is anything the woman targeted for assault can do, in the moment, to stop the assault.
And that’s simply not true. Women are, and can be, enormously powerful. Resisting sexual assault is a viable option. It can work. It does work. Women can do it, men can do it, kids can do it. Of equal importance, women gain a sense of empowerment when learning self-defense. We want to emphasize that the research shows that women need to know their power. Women have the power (and the legal right) to fight back.
Of course, stressing self-defense is never a reason to let men or society or the university off the hook for ending rape culture. Indeed, if more men thought more of their campus coeds knew how to break their arm, we’re pretty sure they wouldn’t feel off the hook.
And would it really be so offensive or too radical to tell women to know the power they have? So far, though, colleges are telling men to know their power and telling women to know their nines (as in Title IX of the Educational Equity Act).
Can we guarantee that self-defense will work for every person in every situation? Of course not. Nor can bystander intervention programs make that claim, and as far as we can tell, no one asks that those programs do. We teach swimming even though some people will still drown, we recommend the flu shot even though some people will still get flu, we tell people not to smoke even though some people will still get lung cancer….you get the idea.
But it does work, and we should also be telling those stories. Sexual assault awareness and prevention materials must include stories of thwarted assaults, not just completed ones. If our stories consist exclusively of bystanders saving victims, we teach everyone that once an assault is in progress (because not all bystanders will intervene, and not every assault has a bystander), there is nothing that can be done to stop it. And that’s not necessarily or always true.
Hence, we recommend that all campuses offer self-defense training as an option and, importantly, that colleges and universities frame this as part of their mission to fulfill the federal mandate to educate all new college students in sexual assault prevention. Not all students might want to take self-defense training, and that is fine. But without self-defense as part of the sexual assault prevention and education efforts on campus, we are telling women that they are to rely on concerned bystanders, university policies, and the law for protection against acquaintance, date, and party rape. We might as well tell women, We’re here for you, we’re creating knights in shining armor to come rescue you—and if they don’t, princesses, it’s gonna happen.
Only self-defense training reminds everyone – no matter their sex or gender, no matter their sexual orientation, no matter their assault or perpetration history – that women are not damsels in distress, and men are not magical omnipotent creatures.
The message of the University of New Hampshire bystander intervention program is “Know Your Power.” That should not just apply to men and bystanders. We beg you to know (and teach) her power. The message of bystander intervention programs is don’t be a bystander. We want women to know they don’t have to wait for one, either.
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey
Dear Ross Douthat:
Your New York Times Op Ed piece on June 28, 2014 offers three ways American colleges could get to the root of the problem of campus sexual assault, thereby having fewer sexual assaults going through the often criticized campus judiciary process that was originally meant to handle minor infractions.
We share your desire to make sexual assault harder to accomplish rather than service victims’ post-abuse lives (what you call “after-the-fact responses”).
We also share your skepticism that our society will lower the drinking age (the first of your three solutions), or that universities will weaken the college party scene (solution #2). Your third solution is to go back to a gender-neutral version of the old sex-segregated, chaperoned campus.
Of course sex segregation, curfews, and less unsupervised partying would technically give men less opportunity to rape—but only because it would give them less opportunity to hook up with women (in consensual encounters or otherwise). We therefore suggest a different way to stop rape on campus: teach women self-defense. Let’s embrace women’s ability to say yes and to say no and mean it–and enforce it if necessary. Part of self-defense training can be about alcohol consumption. Part of it can be about how to shout “no” forcefully, and how to back up that verbal self-defense with physical self-defense when necessary.
Mr. Douthat, we agree with you that society is not helpless to stop sexual assault. But neither are women.
Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele
We love love love your sex-posi pointers on YouTube for men and women, straights and gays, and everyone in between!
Especially important is Consent 101, your video about consent—what it looks and sounds like, and the importance of being sure all sexual acts are consensual. This is very helpful for a lot of straight guys who have learned that you infer consent through a series of self-serving and arrogant interpretations of women’s “signals” or—worse yet—that you intentionally incapacitate a woman (which they call “loosening up”) so as to “get laid” with no resistance. You are spot on to suggest that coercing or pressuring someone into doing something sexually is creepy, rapey, and douchebag-y.
Your video also shows women how to set boundaries in a way that is fun, playful, sexy, and also seriously self-assured and firm. However, we wish you’d acknowledge that, in some cases, women do set such boundaries only to have them disregarded. What’s a girl to do when her date, boy toy, or hookup partner doesn’t listen to her assertions of non-consent?
This is where we’re hoping for a Laci Green follow-up video, one that would show that she still has options: she might be able to get up and walk away or, if he’s physically forcing her, she has physical self-defense options such as an eye strike, a testicle twist, or something as simple as pulling one of his fingers backwards.
Self-defense moves can never be guaranteed, but as we well know, neither can assertive verbal communication of one’s sexual boundaries. When a woman’s rapey rendezvous doesn’t respect her wishes, she needs to be able to enforce her boundaries and know that doing so is not mean but necessary in some circumstances. Such is the logical next step to having good, fun, sex-posi sex.
Without this part of the message, your video, sadly, implies that verbal communication skills will prevent rape and/or that women either cannot or should not feel entitled to enforce their boundaries physically when necessary.
Like you, we encourage women to enjoy feeling sexual. Please show women that part of being able to enjoy their sexuality is to enjoy being strong—both verbally and physically. At least until we’ve rounded up all the rapey guys and reprogrammed them.
Thank you! And, of course, we’re here to help. Have your secretary call ours (oops, just email us because we don’t actually have a secretary).
Martha McCaughey & Jill Cermele
Dear Jon Stewart,
Kudos to you and correspondents Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper on a brilliant, hilarious, and unfortunately, all-too-accurate take on sexual assault on college campuses and the radically different messages offered to men and women on how to negotiate their college experiences with regard to fun and safety – um, that would be fun for men, and safety for women. Because, as we know, from all the typical “how to avoid sexual assault advice” out there, we tell men to have a blast, and women to hunker down, look out for red flags and green dots, travel in groups, and hope for the best. This is exactly the skit I would have done had I not been a double-major-in-psychology-and-theatre-arts-who-dropped-the-theatre-arts-major-to-a-minor due to…well, a total lack of acting ability. There. I said it. Despite my bitterness about my thwarted acting career, I’m no less appreciative of a fabulous performance when I see it.
But you forgot Part II, Jon Stewart, where you show what college women are actually capable of doing in the face of assault. Show what self-defense looks like. Show that it can work. Without that, we are left with only a great parody of the status quo, without reminding everyone what’s WRONG with the status quo: it’s damaging, it’s sexist, it’s inaccurate, and it’s NOT what we should be communicating to women or men about sexual assault. So don’t stop there, Jon. Keep ‘em coming! Part II…I can see it now: Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper in “Transforming Rapists: The Age of Extinction. Or “A Million Ways to Have Rape Die Out in the West, And Anywhere Else”. Or “Kneed for Speed.” Let’s incentivize that.
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey