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.
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.”
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.
There were no courses called “Feminist Juijitsu” when we were in college. But if you’re a student at the College of Charleston you can enroll in just such a class.
We learned that incoming frosh who sign up for the course sometimes think it’s about “feminist juijitsu” in the figurative sense. We enjoy imagining what this version of “feminist juijitsu” might be:
“I got my health insurance to cover the cost of my birth control pills after telling them my menstrual cramps were a health condition… feminist juijitsu!” or perhaps, “I went out on a date with three boys and never once paid for my own bourbon… feminist juijitsu!”
But, all joking aside, when students enroll in the Feminist Juijitsu course, they are learning feminist juijitsu in the literal sense. Students actually learn how to wrap their legs around an opponent who has climbed atop them, and squeeze the opponent’s neck with their clenched thighs and locked lower legs. They also study scholarship about gender and violence in our society, and research on the prevalence and prevention of interpersonal violence.
There are two courses taught as complementary components by Amy Langville, John Venable, and Kristi Brian. (The three instructors are pictured here practicing the moves they teach their students.) The first-year students take a First Year Experience course doing readings and assignments in a regular classroom along with a physical course practicing combat moves in the juijitsu tradition.
According to Urban Dictionary, juijitsu means “the practice of gentleness”. Somehow, we like the idea that the feminist practice of gentleness involves putting a sexual predator in a headlock.
Young YouTuber Anna Akana explains in her “How Not to Get Raped” video that she’s “so fucking tired” of being told what she can do to thwart attacks, because we should be telling men to stop raping. But take it from us, Anna, we are WAY older than you and we are really very so fucking tired. . . of waiting for men to change. (See video below for a dramatization of our getting older and older as we wait for men to change.)
We took birth control, and considered our ability to control our fertility a relatively empowering thing. We did not say it should be up to men to prevent pregnancy. We also learned to swim. We did not say it should be up to lifeguards to keep us from drowning.
And, as we have said before, it’s not either/or. We believe men can change, and people can change, and culture can change. That being said, we can play an active role in those changes, and empowering ourselves to enforce boundaries if someone challenges them.
Our faithful readers are well aware that we take pains to understand why our fellow feminists find the idea of self-defense so abhorrent. Since the 1990s feminists have commonly accused anyone advocating self-defense of a) victim blaming, b) asking women to act too much like men, c) putting the burden to stop rape on women instead of on men, or d) being too fixated on the body and bodily pleasures to be truly political.
In addition, self-defense has also been subject to the charge of neo-liberalism. In this view, advocating self-defense is an individualistic strategy that naively places all the responsibility for solving a social problem on the individuals who deal with said problem which is, of course, actually a structural problem. Individual approaches to structural social problems are a neo-conservative’s dream because it rationalizes the removal of social programs and government funding that would help those suffering from the problem.
The charge of victim-blaming is a close cousin to the charge of neo-liberalism. For if one commits the sin of misunderstanding a structural, political problem for one that is solved by individuals, then this ultimately blames victims for the problem’s existence. The scholar who in 1971 invented the concept of “blaming the victim,” William Ryan, was talking about the racism involved in the ways that Black people were blamed for being poor. Poverty is caused by structural inequalities and statistically speaking there are likely to be way more poor people than rich people. Of course, feminists found the concept of victim-blaming very useful for criticizing the ways in which we excuse perpetrators of violence against women for their actions.
The charge of neo-liberalism in feminist circles presumes that a solution involving an individual woman’s agency or body is somehow not truly feminist because it places the burden on her to change the society. At the same time, the trend among post-structuralist and post-colonial feminists has been to emphasize women’s agency and practices of bodily resistance. When we talk about ways women use their bodies to resist sexist social structures, we need not sacrifice a feminist, structural analysis of social problems.
But, as Alison Phipps points out in her 2014 book, The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neo-Liberal and Neo-Conservative Age, in a neo-liberal social climate many people merge or twist the post-colonial, post-structuralist feminist agenda of resistance with their neo-liberal agenda. The neo-liberal agenda turns an otherwise empowering, feminist discourse of personal choice, self-invention, and bodily agency into a conservative politics of personal responsibility.
Sometimes feminist efforts walk right into the neo-liberal trap. For example, as feminists did the amazing work of de-medicalizing childbirth in the 1970s, insisting that women know more about their bodies than they’d been given credit for and advocating that “breast is best,” feminists often ended up talking about “natural” birthing and breastfeeding practices. This discourse was putty in the hands of conservatives who embraced that rhetoric for their own arguments that women shouldn’t be in the workplace so that they could breastfeed their babies and do other household chores that were the “natural” job of women. Feminists had to emphasize that workplace policies should enable women to breastfeed (or pump their breastmilk), and also had to acknowledge that an unmedicated birth is not necessarily a “natural” birth. Phipps argues that the feminist emphasis on breastfeeding and unmedicated birthing has become so successful across our culture because it fits well neo-liberal approaches to the privatization of responsibility and personal accountability for health risks. Even still, we don’t want to go back to the norms of 1965.
Can advocating self-defense also fall into a neo-liberal trap? Sure it can. But, just as feminists advocating more empowering and healthy options for women around birthing and infant feeding must remind people of the structural and political issues at stake, we can remind people that advocating self-defense can and must be done as part of, not instead of, a structural approach to the problem of sexual violence.
Besides, not advocating self-defense falls into other conservative agendas–namely, that women’s bodies are too weak to fight aggressively, or that women ought to know their place and let men, bystanders, and the state protect them from harm. In other words, feminists don’t avoid an unholy alliance by avoiding self-defense advocacy.
When we advocate self-defense, we do not advocate cuts to federal funding aimed at preventing violence against women or serving the victims of it. We advocate including self-defense training as part of those prevention efforts. Ignoring self-defense–as so many of our colleagues in the rape prevention education arena do–is like throwing out the breastfeeding baby with the hospital bathwater in an effort to avoid cooptation by a neo-liberal agenda.
Open Letter to the Author of Thank You for Arguing.
Dear Jay Heinrichs:
We read your book, Thank You for Arguing, a national bestseller, to learn how we might use the techniques of persuasion in order to convince those who do not see the value of self-defense training to women. And we’re ready, as you say, to “move our audience to action”. Beyond ready. As self-defense scholars and advocates, we know that the data show that women’s use of self-defense to thwart sexual assault is likely to be effective and safe. The challenge has been to get people to embrace that data and move to the actions of funding, learning, and advocating women’s self-defense training. Your strategies can help us do that – let us know how we’re doing!
First we thought we’d try your tactic of starting with the opposition’s view and then showing how your own position better suits their view. For example, rape prevention educators say that “holding rapists accountable” is preventative. So how about taking that view — that “we must hold rapists accountable”– and then reframing it to say that a woman who shouts at, kicks at, or otherwise stops a man from carrying out his plans to rape is holding rapists accountable.
We also liked your approach of creating effective statements that blend parts of the opposition’s view with one’s own position, such as the highly effective statement, “Abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.” Perhaps we could say, Self-defense should be empowering, effective, and rare.
Another way we might be able to use your technique is to come up with a memorable soundbite expressing our position–something like: Securing funding from the CDC shouldn’t go against women’s security. Or: Self-Defense: Because We’re Worth It.
Perhaps our blog readers can help, too. Let us know your ideas for the best persuasive statements for self-defense advocacy!
Martha & Jill
- “Where there is power, there is resistance.” Michael Foucault
- “If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anyone else again.” Malcom X
- “The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.” Susan Sontag
- “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow, or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” Margaret Atwood
- “It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.” bell hooks
- “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” Elie Wiesel
- “Sometimes it’s appropriate to scream at them.” Helen Caldicott
- “I say to people today, ‘You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.'” John Lewis
- “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” Madeleine Albright.
- “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
We have often wondered why so many feminists are so skeptical of, if not downright opposed to, the advocacy of women’s self-defense (such as the latest missive on Everyday Feminism here)–even when we present the data showing how well resisting sexual assault can work, and how life- and culture-changing training in self-defense can be.
Julia Galef’s 2016 TED talk, “Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong,” proves insightful here. Julia Galef is a writer with a statistics background and the co-founder the Center for Applied Rationality, a nonprofit organization that helps people improve their reasoning and decision-making, particularly with the aim of addressing global problems. When it comes to decision making, Galef argues that people approach decisions with one of two mindsets: the soldier mindset, or the scout mindset.
These mindsets do not correlate with I.Q., and they are both equally emotionally rooted and equally logical. The difference is that those with the soldier mindset make a decision and stick it out, while those with the scout mindset feel curious, and are open to being wrong. For the scouts, their sense of self-worth is not tied to being right or wrong about any particular topic. Soldiers, on the other hand, yearn to defend their own beliefs and would feel ashamed of being wrong. Scouts feel proud when they notice they might have been wrong about something, feeling intrigued rather than defensive.
When it comes to self-defense, it appears that many feminists–like many people, in general–have the soldier mindset. They want to march forward with a single plan. The idea that the solution to sexual assault is only to educate men about how to stop assaulting, and then to encourage women to report those who have not stopped doing so, thereby showing men, through legal punishment, that we won’t tolerate it. Stepping in to suggest that we could constructively teach women boundary setting skills, awareness, and verbal and physical self-defense skills disrupts the path on which the soldiers have been marching.
Let’s be scouts. Let’s be curious about exploring multiple paths to end sexual assault and the rape culture that supports it. Let’s acknowledge women’s capacity for agency, choice, and action. Let’s examine what really works to thwart assault, what really works to empower women, what really works to get men to stop sexually assaulting, and what really works to change the rape culture. Let’s embrace self-defense.