Tag Archives: open letters

An Open Letter to the NPR Weekend Edition Staff and the Parents of College Students You Misled


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:

  1. Anticipate a situation before you get into it
  2. Always travel with friends
  3. Have a planned list of activities, night and day
  4. Avoid isolation
  5. 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

The Top Five Things You Need to Know Before Heading Off to College

As we head into August, the internet is bursting with advice for the college student.  As college professors, we certainly want students to come to college prepared, and given the news coverage over the last few months about sexual assault on college campuses, we thought, surely, that information about the risk of sexual assault and how to protect oneself, particularly for first-year college women in the first few weeks of the semester, would make it onto these lists.  (Actually, we thought no such thing, but we were hoping, optimistic feminists that we are.)

Sadly, though, we found nary a list that even mentioned assault, let alone one that suggested that the young woman heading off to college might need to know of the risks and therefore offered her valuable information about effective ways to defend herself should someone try to rape or assault her.

But no.  What we found, instead, were suggestions about how to confront the problems of packing, laundry, and the Freshman 5/10/15.

So it’s not that we don’t think that it can be hard to know what to pack when you’re leaving home for 4 months; we certainly encourage you to figure out how to operate a washing machine, and healthy nutrition is always a plus.  In fact, as professors, we’d also encourage you to read your syllabus, do your homework, and proofread your papers.

However, what we really want you to know is that if you are a young woman in college, the risk of someone raping or sexually assaulting you, or trying to, is high; the data (you’re going to hear a lot about data in college, so get used to it) from a lot of different sources says that anywhere from 1 in 5 women to 1 in 3 women will be raped or sexually assaulted during her college years.

What we also want you to know is that there are things you can do to protect yourself.

We trust you’ll figure out what to bring, how to set up your room, and how to declare a major, so we’re not going to give you any advice on how to do that.  Instead, here are (drumroll please)….


  1. RAPISTS ARE NOT ALL STRANGERS. Statistically, a person who tries to rape you is going to be someone you know, and quite possibly someone you know and like – a friend, a date, a partner.  So it is important to be aware of the people you know, not just your surroundings, and to pay attention to how you feel when you are around the people you know.  Go with your gut, and trust your instincts.
  2. ALCOHOL IS TRICKY. Alcohol is implicated in an enormous number of rapes on college campuses, and here’s what we know about drinking alcohol:  intoxication can impair your judgment, slow your reflexes, and leave you more vulnerable to dangerous people and situations.  Yep, there are criminals (yes, rape and attempted rape are CRIMES) that will try to get you drunk in order to more easily commit an assault against you.  Know this:  being intoxicated does NOT, we repeat, NOT, mean you are responsible for someone trying to rape you.  No matter what. However, for a variety of reasons – health, safety, GPA, avoiding the Freshman 5/10/15 – we recommend drinking legally and responsibility, knowing your limits around alcohol and other drugs, and being aware of the risks associated with drinking.
  3. YOU ARE ENTITLED TO HAVE AND SET BOUNDARIES. You – not your date, your roommate, your friends, your family, your professors – YOU get to decide what is safe, comfortable, and desirable for yourself, and those get to get to be different for different people, or different at different times for the same person.  And no one has the right to push or override those.  NO ONE.  And what that means is this:  YOU GET TO SAY NO.  And we know how hard “no” can be to say.  Lots of people, but women and girls in particular, often have trouble saying “no” (“NO!”) because they are worried about appearing mean, rude, hurtful, or (gasp) bitchy.  And as college professors, with over 40 years teaching experience between us, we’re telling you it’s okay to say no, and in fact, it’s okay even if someone thinks you’re mean, rude, hurtful, or (gasp) bitchy.  Here’s our best advice to anyone who tells you otherwise:  Fuck ‘em.  (You may quote us on that.)
  4. THERE ARE THINGS YOU CAN SAY AND DO TO STOP SOMEONE FROM RAPING YOU. You may have heard a lot of (perhaps) well-intentioned but (in our humble, data-informed) opinion, stupid advice on this point that says the opposite, like:  Don’t fight back, it won’t work, you’ll get hurt, you’ll make him mad, you’ll make things worse….  In fact, here’s what we know from the data (are you tired of hearing us say “data” at this point?  Too bad.):
    1. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO RESIST. Self-defense is a human right, and those aren’t just pretty words.  You have the legal right to defend yourself, and that means against a rapist, too.  And it gets even better – keep reading:
    2. RESISTANCE CAN WORK. Resistance means a lot of things:  walking with confidence, telling someone not to touch you, pushing or shoving someone away from you, kneeing someone in the testicles (“Most incapacitating pain EVER,” our male friends tell us), and more.  Fighting back – verbally or physically – against a potential rape or sexual assault makes it LESS likely that the perpetrator will be successful and MORE likely that the perpetrator will fail.  Self-defense can work, even if a perpetrator is male, is larger, is stronger; you can use it to prevent or thwart an assault from happening.
    3. MORE IS MORE. Stronger levels of resistance – both verbal and physical – make it MORE likely that the perpetrator will fail.
    4. YOU CAN’T TRUST LAW AND ORDER SVU AS YOUR SOURCE OF INFORMATION FOR ANYTHING. (We know this seems off-topic, but just hear us out.)  And we say this as huge Law and Order SVU fans, but here’s the sad truth – they just make shit up*.  And one of the things they say that’s not true, which you’ve probably heard before, is that fighting back is a bad idea because you’re more likely to get hurt.    Just not true in most cases – in most cases, there are no difference in injury rates between women who resist and women who can’t or don’t.
  5. YOU ARE THE BEST PERSON TO DECIDE WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE TRIES TO RAPE OR ASSAULT YOU. One of the things that happens when we talk about self-defense is that people say things like, “When you tell women they can fight back, aren’t you telling them it’s their fault if they are raped?”, to which we say, “No, of COURSE NOT!”  (Then we roll our eyes and mutter to ourselves because we’re really tired of hearing that.)  We want women to know what their options are; we are not telling women what they should and shouldn’t do.  Every person and every situation is different, and we trust women to make the best decisions they can for themselves in any given moment.   Self-defense is an option, and if you know all your options, you can better make the best choice for yourself to stay as safe as you can in any situation – whatever that choice may be.  We trust you.

So that should cover it.  College is wonderful, and we want you to be as prepared for it as possible.  This is the best and most important advice we have for you.  Aside from that, we trust you to figure it out.  Although we do think it’s important to tell you that if you overcook microwave popcorn, it will stink up your entire dorm for a week.

Go get ‘em!

Professor Jill and Professor Martha

*If any producers or writers for Law and Order SVU are readings this blog, the authors are totally available for consultation on scripts and dialogue.  Totally.

Why Shouldn’t Women Prevent Rape?

An Open Letter to Tara Culp-Ressler and thinkprogress.org

June 11, 2014

Dear Tara Culp-Ressler of ThinkProgress.org:

Rock The Slut Vote linked to your post lambasting all the bogus advice women in this rape culture are given as “helpful” strategies to resist rape, which include:

Make it less fun to be a rape victim; buy special underwear; stop taking public transportation; and get married. Ok, we’re with you there. We get that it’s totally stupid to suggest women wear modern-day chastity belts or forgo the transportation necessary to move around freely in the world.

But you lose us—and women’s rights—when you suggest that taking a self-defense class is the same type of bogus, ultimately sexist advice.

Many, many feminists have supported women’s taking a self-defense class for the same reason we’ve supported women’s learning how to swim, learning how to change a flat tire on our own cars, or learning how to do breast self-exams. Such knowledge can be empowering and enable women to navigate real risks more effectively, thereby supporting their freedom to move around in the world.

Come on, Tara, what is YOUR advice to women about how to prevent rape? Get men to stop raping? How’s that been working for us?

Besides, it’s the sexist rape culture that has peddled the myth that women’s bodies can be no match for a man’s. It’s rape culture that has sexualized women’s vulnerability relative to men that has eroticized women’s weakness and men’s strength. It’s rape culture that has taught women the embodied habit of feminine politeness such that—let’s face it—a lot of young women do not know how to push, yell, or summon the sense of entitlement required to get a guy to back off.

Does self-defense work 100% of the time? Of course not. Does it work most of the time? Yes it does. And there is lots of data to back that up (see the March 2014 issue of the academic journal Violence Against Women, which is devoted to scholarship on self-defense against sexual assault).  Self-defense training, as a method of sexual assault prevention, expands women’s freedom, mobility, and choices rather than limiting or narrowing them. Is a sexual assault ever a woman’s fault? Of course not. Does teaching women self-defense still put the legal and moral burden on rapists to stop raping? Yes it does.

Please join us in challenging the view of women as damsels in distress who must wait for the legal system, a GPS app that alerts first responders, or benevolent “bystanders” at a party to save them. And please, please let’s stop this business of pretending that if you teach women anything empowering you’ve given up on the struggle to make men more accountable. You’re not going to suggest women stop doing breast self-exams because they should be insisting that we find a cure for cancer or because it will cause people to blame women for getting breast cancer, are you?

Tara, we’re as tired of the rape culture as you are. But you do women and the women’s movement a tremendous disservice to ignore all the research on the effectiveness of self-defense training when you peddle such bogus and ultimately sexist advice.

Yours sincerely,

Martha McCaughey & Jill Cermele


An Open Letter to Girls’ Life Magazine

May, 2014

An Open Letter to Girls’ Life Magazine

OMG, a magazine, like, just for girls. Wicked cool. Only not. Why? Because you, GL, are shooting girls in the feet when you’re trying to get them running.

We had high hopes. Right there, amidst the advice column on fifty ways to flirt, the incisive investigative report on lip balm addiction, the savvy section on bedroom redesign, and the photo shoot of perfect swimsuits, is an article by Katie Abbondanza on nonconsensual sex (Feb/March 2014 issue).

“Hands Off!” tells the stories of several girls who, in a GL reader survey, said their rejections were ignored by guys bent on pushing the boundary. So far, so good. Even though it’s just a survey of GL readers, we know that girls and women across the United States report similar experiences, and we know that one in five college women are sexually assaulted while they’re there. So we do need to reach girls while they’re still teenagers.

This article offers girls the important message that “NO” is a boundary, and girls have a right to assert it, and that it’s always unacceptable when a girl’s boundaries are disregarded, whether the “NO” is to give her phone number, walk with her, go to a private place, or touch her. You’ve even provided girls with the phone number of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, in case they have been raped or sexually assaulted.

You are right: girls get to say “N-O”. And the article’s “five more things you need to know about saying N-O” includes some basic things girls will hear once they get to college from their sexual assault prevention program: that no means no and that a guy should stop as soon as he hears the word; that some guys will try to negotiate with or pressure girls into saying yes but that girls are entitled to stick to their guns; that a girl should, if possible, remove herself from the situation; that if a guy pressures a girl in a social setting he’ll probably continue to do this once he’s alone with her so let that be a red flag; and that if a girl says no, and it’s ignored, then “it’s not [her] fault.”

Hold up. What’s not her fault? If a girl says no and it’s ignored, then sure, the guy’s ignoring her is not her fault. But we’re afraid you’re assuming, and leading any given girl to assume, that if a guy ignores her no, then she’ll have been assaulted.

It’s important for girls to be aware of boundary violations, small and large, and to assert their boundaries. It’s also important to know what sexual assault is.  While its precise legal definition varies from state to state, sexual assault is generally unwanted sexual touching that stops short of (completed or attempted) forced sexual intercourse; forced sexual intercourse, whether the force is physical or verbal, is rape. Sexual assault includes all kinds of troubling and illegal behaviors that can lead to rape. But here’s the good news: both verbal and physical self-defense techniques can stop these behaviors from progressing along that continuum.

This is not the time to be vague; it’s the time to be crystal clear, just like the word “N-O”. So let’s be clear: assault is never the victim’s fault. Never.

But’s let’s be clear about this also: “Ignoring a N-O” can mean a variety of things, including a guy trying to assault or rape a girl. And a girl has a LOT of things she can do in between indicating, saying, or yelling “N-O”, and a completed assault or rape. And it’s just as important to tell our girls that as it is to tell them all the other things we tell them about safety.

Here’s the crucial information missing from your article: How a girl can enforce her N-O if it’s ignored.   It’s called self-defense. Self-defense training empowers girls to go beyond hoping their use of assertive communication techniques don’t fall on sexually entitled, arrogant asshole ears.

That’s right, an important thing to know about saying N-O is how to F-I-G-H-T.

Your article tells a story of a girl who quickly told a guy, “Don’t touch me!” and I consider that a great example of self-defense. When girls learn self-defense, they practice speaking precisely that way; but they also train to use physical techniques that can back up such verbal techniques. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to tell a guy to back off when you know that you can, if necessary, land an elbow strategically into his nose. A broken nose is a whole different level of N-O.

Please, GL, let girls know that there’s more that can happen between saying N-O and calling RAINN.


Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele

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