“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
If bystander intervention is an acceptable way to thwart an assault, then I’m pretty sure I can also be my own fucking bystander, CAROL. #seejanefightback
“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
When someone says, “Women shouldn’t have to be able to defend themselves,” and we’re like, “Oh, so you think that the ability to defend themselves is solely the prerogative of men, CAROL?” #seejanefightback
We are delighted to highlight guest blogger Hannah Kohn’s reflection on her experience with empowerment self-defense training.
I am in bed, under the sheets. The lights are dim. As I sleep, the man I am in bed with climbs on top of me. I wake up in the midst of his assault. But there’s a twist: this isn’t a bedroom, it’s a large room with a pile of exercise mats stacked up to look like a bed. Likewise, the man on top of me is not a rapist, but a padded, fiercely feminist instructor. The staff from PREPARE, a feminist self-defense program, have agreed to recreate the space in which I was raped so I can reclaim a moment I have long felt was stolen from me. Mind racing, flashback roaring, I toss the padded instructor to the side with my hips, strike him in the eye, knee him in the groin, and land a devastating punch on his helmet. I hear the whistle of the instructor. My classmates shout the familiar mantra: “look!” (around my surroundings, to identify my path to safety) “assess!” (is the aggressor still a threat?) “go get help!” (whatever that means to me). The scenario is over. I have successfully stopped the aggressor from completing their assault.
I was first raped when I was sixteen years old, but as is the case with so many women who experience sexual violence, my truth was systematically rejected. Adding the scars of gaslighting and victim blaming to the experience of rape, I became increasingly confused as to what constituted a violation of my body. Convinced by the people around me that what I had experienced was not, in fact, rape, I was subjected to sexual violence many more times without ever putting a name to it. I arrived at university, and was assaulted yet again in my freshman year.
Simultaneously, I was exposed to much more information regarding sexual violence. President Obama was in the White House, and at long last a President was calling out the national crisis of rape on campuses across the United States. Mandated by law, colleges had no choice but to educate students on consent, rape, and sexual assault. I was lucky to be on a campus that actively supported these mandates, and I found myself heavily involved in sexual assault prevention on campus, throwing myself into every opportunity for activism that came my way. However, despite the barrage of bystander intervention training, consent workshops, and awareness raising campaigns I went to and organized, I continued to be raped and assaulted repeatedly. I could easily understand how other were assaulted and raped, but remained oblivious to attacks on my own body. How could that be?
When I was in high school, I would have sworn on my life that I really just wanted to be “nice.” I was the most agreeable, generous, patient doormat of a girl there ever was. Nonviolence was a way of life, an unmoving principle, applying to every measure, action and thought. I went through the world timid to move too quickly, should I unwillingly send a reverberation through the air. However – and I would never have admitted as much at the time – behind my unshakeable kindness, there was a motive. I longed to be accepted and liked and adored by everyone, because…well, because of course I had been conditioned to please. I had been conditioned as a woman. And what a good woman I was turning out to be!
This all changed, of course, when I enrolled in a self-defense class with PREPARE.
Junior year: now a fully-fledged Women’s and Gender Studies student at Drew University in Madison, NJ, complete with Audre Lorde quotes on my wall and critical discourse analysis on my mind, I enrolled in a class called “Gender, Violence, and Women’s Resistance.” I had been told repeatedly that I should knock someone over to get into the course, as it was life-changing and chronically had a waitlist of disappointed students. As it turns out, the class is currently the only one of its kind in the nation: the first twenty hours, or five weeks, are spent completing a beginners’ empowerment self-defense class. The rest of the course focuses on the theory around self-defense and gender-based violence. Excited but completely unsure of what to expect, I went to the black box theatre where we would be learning to defend ourselves.
The first day, as we sat quietly in the black box, our Lead Instructor (a certified IMPACT instructor) bustled in. She is the embodiment of the phrase “I don’t give a c**p what you think,” if these words were uttered in the most feminist and compassionate of voices. She is comfortable being her authentic, loud, powerful self. She lives her work, and it’s impossible not to want to be exactly like her.
Within a few minutes, our instructors had transformed the room of well-behaved students into a united group of ambivalent fighters, yelling the word “no” at the top of our lungs. Confused theatre students wandered in and out of their space as we powerfully used our voices and bodies and practiced moves in the air as if there were invisible attackers in front of us. They weren’t invisible for long, though: padded instructors soon came in for us to practice our moves on. Working through adrenalized responses, each member of the class faced the padded perpetrators, yelling “no!” with each strike. I had thought of myself as non-violent my entire life. This perception changed over the course of that one class.
Reader, I dearly miss kneeing a padded man in the groin every Friday morning. I would be lying to myself if I pretended for a moment that I didn’t relish each and every strike I landed on the padded instructors. I would never want to be faced with a situation outside the classroom where I would have to use these strikes; indeed, I hope and pray never to confront such a situation again. But allowing myself to be unkind to someone who was acting as an aggressor, to say no, to shake the deeply entrenched norms of femininity I had embodied for so many years, was endlessly liberating. So liberating, in fact, that I organized an advanced PREPARE workshop a year after the beginners’ class had ended. The final advanced class brings us back to the bedroom scene I described earlier.
I had the unique experience of taking part in the PREPARE workshops as I worked through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in part related to my history of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of intimate partner violence. Reclaiming my right to make decisions over my own body, my right to space, my right to confidence, and my right to my own reality impacted my recovery in a truly transformative way.
Although I appreciate the use of bystander intervention and consent education alongside empowerment self-defense classes, I speak from a very personal place when I say that alone, those forms of sexual assault prevention are not at all transformative. Why should I rely on a bystander to rescue me, or a potential perpetrator to miraculously change his mind due to consent education and not attempt to rape me? Data doesn’t back up these techniques long-term, and quite frankly, I’m not particularly comforted by the idea that a knight in shining armor will a) save me from a villain or b) not be a villain. If anything, I would prefer that the knight in shining armor reevaluate his benevolent sexism before talking to me. No, I would really like to stand on my own two feet and learn to protect myself, challenging the normative gender script of female damsel/male savior as I go.
Through taking part in self-defense training, I have come to understand why my involvement in bystander intervention wasn’t enough to allow me to recognize assaults upon my own body: its sole focus is on rescuing others, and so my perspective never faced inwards. Only through learning to protect myself did I come to recognize what it meant to be personally harmed. Bystander intervention didn’t stop me from being raped; it didn’t even help me to understand that I had been raped. On the other hand, self-defense restored my sense of self-worth, helped me to preserve and protect my boundaries, and made me realize that I am a goddamn warrior who will leave anyone who tries to hurt me in a state of deep, painful regret.
Since taking my first PREPARE class, no one has attempted to assault me. Not once. I guess I scream out “I will maul your groin if you get anywhere close to me” nowadays. I like that.
I have recovered from the worst of my PTSD. Where I was once convinced by a terrible ex-boyfriend that I was too stupid to go to college, I have now graduated Summa Cum Laude. I am in a relationship with a feminist who loves and respects me deeply. Most of all, I feel safe as I walk through this world, armed with the knowledge that I am, against all the perceptions my younger self held dear, a fighter.
Hannah Kohn is a graduate of Drew University in Madison, NJ. Having grown up in London and Hong Kong, she now lives in New York City. She is a fierce feminist with no patience for masculinity complexes. When she’s not geeking out over feminist theory, she can be found working on subversive cross-stitch projects, marveling over Central Park, and nagging her members of congress to vote against the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She is one of those untrustworthy people who likes both cats and dogs equally.
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.
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.