- “Women shouldn’t have to defend themselves against sexual assault.” Sigh. Of course not, folks, if what you mean by that is “no one should sexually assault a woman, or anyone else, ever”, or “women shouldn’t be held responsible for sexual assault if they cannot/did not engage in self-defense, because the perpetrator is always to blame and responsible for sexual assault”. Right. But to say “women shouldn’t have to defend themselves” ala the Kurt Cobain meme is really just an excuse to deny women the right to defend themselves. And they do have the right to defend themselves, if that is the choice they make for themselves because of the risk of assault or in the face of assault. Period.
- “Self-defense isn’t primary prevention.” Um. Yes, it is, as we have explained countless times. Primary prevention, according to the CDC, stops an assault before it happens, and impacts social and cultural norms that permeate and perpetuate rape culture. Self-defense training, and women’s use of self-defense, has been demonstrated to effectively prevent and thwart assault, and to change our views of men as all-powerful and ever successful in sexual violence and women as inherently powerless and rapeable. Self-defense is as much a primary prevention strategy as bystander intervention programs and Red Flag trainings.
- “Self-defense is/leads to victim-blaming.” This critique is leveled at self-defense all the time. Why? Because we live in a rape culture. People blame victims and excuse perpetrators in all kinds of ways. Like when they say the victim is too pretty/not pretty enough, or too sexy/not sexually available, or on the street/in their own home/in a friend’s home, or too dark/too light/too white, or…right. Like that. The fact that people may perceive training more women in self-defense as inviting victim blame doesn’t make it victim-blaming, any more than people perceiving a woman in a short skirt as inviting rape means that her short skirt invites rape. Duh. Not all women want, or have the opportunity, to learn self-defense, for a variety of reasons. But that doesn’t mean that self-defense training should be denied to other women.
- “Self-defense doesn’t work/escalates violence.” Well, it does work, in many, many situations, as the data indicate. And because of that, it rarely makes things worse, despite multiple episodes of Law & Order to the contrary (still available as professional consultants, L&O!) You don’t have to believe that for it to be true. Just like evolution and global warming.
- “Bystander training is better.” Better for whom? (That’s grammatically correct, folks; check it out.) And that is a fair question. Bystanders intervening is great, as the Stanford rape case recently demonstrated, and we encourage everyone to act as upstanders and find ways to safely intervene when they witness a sexual assault impending or in progress. But it’s not better; it’s different, and to be clear, only potentially effective when an assault is public or happened upon. And to suggest that it’s better is to put forth the belief that those targeted for assault (typically women) are not capable of engaging in active, effective resistance. You might as well say, “Bystander training is better because women can’t defend themselves, so don’t bother trying or learning how.” What a terrible, and false, message to propagate.
- “Some women training in self-defense puts other women at risk.” A close cousin to the concern about victim-blaming, this statement reflects two fears. The first fear is that when a woman defends herself successfully against a rape, that rapist will simply seek out another target. Not only is their no data to support that belief, but it suggests that women, in protecting themselves, are then responsible for other women being raped. Hogwash. And, quite frankly, misogynistic. The only person responsible for a rape is the rapist. The second fear is that the women who do not train in self-defense will be blamed for the assault once our culture, led by a bunch of bad-ass women, embrace the empowering self-defense approach. We don’t want to force all women, or any woman, to train in self-defense; but neither do we want to ignore the benefits of self-defense simply because some women, for a variety of reasons, may not engage in it. If a small percentage of people are allergic to eggs and thus can’t get the flu shot, should public health officials stop telling people to get their flu shot? In fact, just like with flu vaccinations, the greater percentage of people who’ve gotten them, the better off everyone is – even those who could not or did not get the flu shot. Imagine if an entire industry had developed around serving only those who get the flu, rather than taking care of those who had the flu and working tirelessly to defend against the flu virus. That would be unethical.
- “The idea of a woman being able to overpower a man is just…
uncomfortable/unattractive/unfeminine/unsexy/inappropriate.” Seriously? Seriously? In the face of an imminent sexual assault or a rape in progress, the biggest concern shouldn’t be “Does this knee-to-the-groin make my butt look big?” It doesn’t. And for those who don’t like it – too bad. Get over it.
Eh hem, drumroll please…. Our major article is available here on the Univ of NC repository. By “major” we mean full-length academic article in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, namely Trauma, Violence, and Abuse. (Well, ok, by “major” we also mean that it took us a really long time and we kinda hope that Joe B. invites us to the White House to discuss our ideas with his Task Force.) In this article, we trace the meaning of “prevention” in the sexual assault prevention efforts on college campuses, and question why self-defense training is rarely a part of those efforts. Given that national attention, and new compliance mandates, have been heaped upon college campuses for their sexual assault problem, we think it’s a key time to review the scholarship on the efficacy of self-defense. Once you see all that in one place, it’s hard to accept people claiming that they don’t include self-defense in their anti-sexual assault agenda because we lack evidence for its effectiveness, or because it’s not “primary prevention”. Indeed, we argue that it is gender ideology, not a lack of evidence, that explains the tendency to exclude self-defense from our sexual assault prevention efforts. Moreover, we stress that self-defense is not secondary prevention but primary prevention as self-defense is a key protective factor in the public health model of rape prevention. And, because we’re all about solutions, our article ends with specific ways college campuses can incorporate self-defense into various sexual assault prevention efforts.
Dear Members of the Task Force,
On September 17, 2015, you released a Resource Guide to assist college and university communities in their efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses. It is an excellent review of what the Center for Disease Control and the White House Task Force have decided, prima facie, constitutes acceptable methods of preventing violence. Those include talking about healthy relationships, encouraging people to act as engaged and responsible bystanders, and shifting social norms around gender, sexuality and violence. And, when that it is all that you include in your definition of sexual violence prevention strategies, you rightly conclude that not much works.
You, and the CDC, and many other well-intentioned agencies and organizations, continue to systematically exclude self-defense training as a viable and acceptable method of sexual violence prevention, despite decades of evidence on the effectiveness of women’s self-defense in thwarting sexual assault, and despite the more recent evidence in the last ten years on the positive benefits of self-defense training, including the effectiveness of self-defense training in reducing future rates of sexual assault.
The data is available. The problem is your definition of what constitutes prevention.
Women are capable of engaging in powerful and effective resistance strategies, both physical and verbal, to thwart rape and sexual assault, and offering them the opportunities to learn and practice those skills via self-defense training is a method of primary prevention completely in line with the CDC’s stated definition, and entirely consistent with the strategies and methods they have chosen to include.
And yet you, and they, continue to exclude it.
There are many things about women’s use of and training in self-defense that people don’t like. It is not that it doesn’t work, because the data say it usually does. We can’t dismiss it outright as inconsistent with the definition and goals of “primary prevention”, because, as we have pointed out, self-defense IS primary prevention.
So we’re left with facing the ways that women’s training to defend themselves shifts norms around gender, sexuality, and violence. That is does so, we are left to conclude, is why people don’t like it. It’s much more compatible with current gender ideology to suggest women wait for some person or institution to save or protect them. Ironically, the Task Force also suggests we engage efforts to shift social norms around gender, sexuality and violence. Let’s do that. If you’re not going to, then may we suggest the following revision to your statements:
How to Prevent Sexual Violence on Campus:
• Engage in Primary Prevention (BUT PUT SELF-DEFENSE IN THE CATEGORY WITH VICTIM SERVICES, REPORTING OFFENDERS, AND LEGAL COMPLIANCE PROCEDURES)
• Train Bystanders to Intervene to Stop an Assault on Someone Else (JUST DON’T LET WOMEN KNOW THAT THEY COULD SERVE AS THEIR OWN INTERVENING BYSTANDERS!)
• Use Evidence-Based Methods for Sexual Assault Prevention (EXCEPT THE EVIDENCE THAT SELF-DEFENSE USUALLY WORKS!)
• Shift Social Norms around Gender, Sexuality and Violence (BUT NOT TOO MUCH! AFTER ALL, WE DON’T WANT WOMEN TO CONSIDER THEMSELVES ENTITLED TO THEIR BODILY BOUNDARIES!)
On January 22, 2014, President Obama said:
If you’ve really got the backs of sexual assault survivors, and truly want to support effective methods of sexual assault prevention, you cannot continue to ignore self-defense training as an important, effective, and valid method. Provide the resources and support for women to be their own bystanders.
Dear Ms. Hoffman,
In “College Rape Prevention Program Proves a Rare Success”, you concluded an otherwise empowering, data-driven piece on the effectiveness of self-defense by trotting out a quote from Kathleen Basile at the CDC, who ignores the data in suggesting that self-defense training places the “onus for prevention on potential victims”. Self-defense is a key protective factor in rape prevention, as Senn’s data clearly demonstrate; no disclaimer required. It is no more problematic to suggest women have the option of self-defense training than it is to suggest that women do a self-exam for breast cancer or wear sunscreen when they go outside. The only difference is that we are far less comfortable with the idea of women’s use of defensive violence than we are with other, kinder, and gentler ways that we support women’s self-care.
The responsibility for rape lies with the perpetrators; suggesting that self-defense somehow shifts that responsibility to the victim is what is misguided and victim-blaming, not the option of self-defense for women.
We at SJFB are getting a little tired of the latest backlash against self-defense, and the knee-jerk responses, by feminists and non-feminists alike, to Dr. Charlene Senn’s study out of the University of Windsor on the effectiveness of self-defense training in reducing the likelihood of attempted and completed assaults against college women, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
It’s easy to dismiss self-defense training and women’s capacity or powerful, effective resistance: it rocks the status quo in a way that other responses to rape and sexual assault, like marches and t-shirts and performance art, just don’t. But the responses reflect our cultural discomfort with women’s empowerment and entitlement to self-defense far more than any logic or data.
Not convinced? Change the topic to home alarm systems – an option that some people choose as a way to minimize or thwart burglaries or home invasions.
- IF A WOMAN HAS TO GET A HOME ALARM SYSTEM, THAT WILL ONLY MAKE HER FEEL FEARFUL, SMALL, UNSAFE, AND SELF-RESTRICTING IN HER OWN HOME.
- IT MIGHT NOT WORK (AND IF IT DOESN’T WORK, IT WILL RESULT IN BLAMING HER FOR NOT HAVING GOTTEN ONE THAT WAS MORE EFFECTIVE.)
- SHE MIGHT FORGET TO TURN IT ON, AND THEN IT WILL BE HER FAULT IF SOMEONE BREAKS INTO HER HOME
- IF SHE HAS A HOME ALARM SYSTEM AND HER NEIGHBOR DOESN’T, THEN AN INTRUDER MIGHT JUST LEAVE HER HOME AND MOVE ON TO HER MORE VULNERABLE NEIGHBORS, AND THEN IT WILL BE HER FAULT IF SOMEONE BREAKS INTO THEIR HOMES.
- NOT EVERYONE HAS THE OPPORTUNITY TO GET A HOME ALARM SYSTEM, AND SO WHAT ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE?
- GETTING A HOME ALARM SYSTEM IS AN INDIVIDUAL SOLUTION TO THE SOCIAL PROBLEM OF CRIME AND UNFAIRLY PLACES THE ONUS FOR CRIME PREVENTION ON THE HOME OWNER
Ridiculous, right? No one has to or can get a home security system, but we don’t challenge anyone’s right to get one, and we don’t worry about victim-blaming, or the (undocumented, unsupported-by-the-data) fear of putting others at risk by choosing to get one. And we certainly don’t suggest people don’t get one because it’s not the end-all, be-all solution to crime.
Sure, our bodies are quite not property that we live in and need to protect from robbers. But the analogy works to show how flimsy the knee-jerk reactions to Senn’s self-defense study are.
Instead, let’s celebrate this data – that self-defense training for college women can effectively reduce their risk of assault – and put that in the context of all the other data on the efficacy of self-defense in thwarting rape. Let’s put our energy instead into demanding that organizations, educational institutions, and governments make funding available so women and girls have the option, not the onus, of self-defense training. That’s the cost to focus on, because we know the cost of violence against women. Last year, the CDC had a budget for sexual assault prevention of about $50 million dollars. That could fund a heck of a lot of self-defense classes.
The CDC is going to have an increasingly difficult time ignoring the data that show how effective self-defense training is for reducing completed sexual assaults. As Dr. Jocelyn Hollander points out in the Huffington Post, “the CDC has steadfastly refused to consider self-defense training as part of its approach to preventing sexual violence. And because other major organizations – including the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and a large number of universities and colleges – rely on the CDC for their research, self-defense training has been completely left out of the current rush to develop effective prevention strategies, especially on college campuses.”
The CDC’s approach is a public health approach, which means they want to use data-driven methods to prevent the problem of sexual assault–including changing the cultural norms that support and perpetuate the problem. For some reason, the CDC and others have either not known about the research on self-defense or they have been aware of the research but dismissed it as not truly prevention-oriented. After all, CDC researcher Dr. Sarah DeGue stated skeptically that a man who finds himself thwarted by a woman who defends herself against his aggression could move on to a woman who is untrained or otherwise more vulnerable. Thank goodness public health officials didn’t see the polio vaccination that way. Not everyone has to be vaccinated to make a major dent in a public health problem.
Ok, not really the same thing? After all, rapists aren’t infections or diseases; they are oppressors. Well, thank goodness the ACLU doesn’t use this logic on oppressive abuses of social and political authority. If they did, they’d have no interest in educating people about their civil liberties and instead would say that such efforts are futile since a government official or corporation could only find someone who does not know their rights to oppress.
OK, then what about victim-blaming, or as countless newspaper articles have put it this past week, “putting the ONUS ON WOMEN to prevent sexual assault”? Thank goodness the American Red Cross doesn’t see it this way. If they did, they’d have little reason to certify water safety instructors and offer water safety classes to children. They do this because they know that learning to swim helps prevent drowning. As parents who had the onus of taking children to a public pool for Red Cross swim lessons (and onus is appropriate here because they didn’t always want to go, and when they did we went through this ritualistic struggle as a candy machine was parked strategically outside the swimming pool entryway), we must say that it would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about our children drowning. But we do–and hey, it turns out swimming is pretty darn fun, good exercise, and overall has multiple benefits. We think the same is true of self-defense.
Jocelyn Hollander gives this analogy: Imagine if researchers discovered that there was a way car drivers could reduce auto accidents by 50%. Would we not promote that strategy on the grounds that car companies should make the cars safer so drivers don’t have to do that? Would we not promote that strategy on the grounds that it puts the onus on drivers and could result in blaming victims of auto-accidents, not all of whom will engage in the safety strategy? Let’s hope not.
The point of the ecological public-health model is to use multiple methods to get at the root of a problem. Offering self-defense training is how we will do that. Ignoring self-defense or dismissing it as not truly preventative might ultimately turn out to reveal that unlike a polio vaccine, unlike swim lessons, and unlike knowing your rights, self-defense training involves a major disruption to the gender status quo. We don’t mind young ladies knowing their rights. We even suggest they “know their nines” (understand their rights under Title IX). It’s aggressively asserting those rights that seems so, well, unladylike.
And that it does is exactly why it challenges more than an individual attacker but an entire culture.