Dear Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
Hello! First, we hope it’s ok that we call you RAINN. Second, happy 25th birthday! In keeping with the third wave of the feminist movement, we’ve all been emphasizing the importance of women’s being free from coercive defilement–whether that is by family members, dates, acquaintances, coworkers, intimate partners, exes, or strangers. It’s hard to believe we’ve all been at this for so long.
We were so pleased when we saw that you have an entire page on your website devoted to “Steps You Can Take to Prevent Sexual Assault.” For we here at See Jane Fight Back have been reviewing the scholarship that shows how self-defense–training in it and/or doing it when threatened–is tremendously empowering for many women, changes the scripts of our rape culture, and helps prevent sexual assault.
So imagine our disappointment, RAINN, when we realized that you say nothing about women resisting sexual assault (which is, after all, a key step they can take to prevent it). Turns out you only talk about how someone can help prevent the assault of someone else, as a bystander. This is not even data-driven advice.
While we hate to rain on your 25th birthday parade, we are deeply concerned that you are providing information informed more by some ideology about how it’s men’s job to change, not women’s, and that it would be victim-blame-y to share with anyone the research that verbal and physical resistance (self-defense) works to thwart assaults in individual situations and at a norms-changing societal level. (By the way, we do not think advocating self-defense is victim-blame-y.)
Your page for college students on preventing sexual assault also omits any mention of physical and verbal resistance, even though on this page you do risk blaming victims by telling them to be sure they have their smart phones set in certain ways to avoid attack, to have people they can contact at the ready, to have cash on hand, and also to keep their drinks covered so no one can drug it. Obviously, we should be teaching men not to drug our drinks, too, but we agree with you that it makes good sense to alert women of the things they can do given that, currently, there are people drugging drinks. For this same reason, we believe in telling women they can yell, kick, poke, push, and punch.
Sadly, RAINN, you tell women a variety of protective measures they can engage in but never tell women they can, and have a legal right to, resist an attacker verbally or physically. They can, and they do.
RAINN, please consider what the CDC has said about data-driven prevention advice and programs. You are robbing women of the information that could truly empower them and prevent assaults. And you’re old enough to know better.
Martha & Jill
Dear “Power of One” Campaign,
Your Power of One social marketing campaign at the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) tells people that one person can make a difference, can do their part to stop sexual assault. We applaud the fact that you’re not worried that this approach individualizes the problem of sexual violence. You frame this strategy as primary prevention because it can stop sexual assault before it begins. You say that people “have options when it comes to stopping sexual violence.” In fact, you say that “even when it is hard, there is always something you can do. By taking a stand, you can help stop sexual violence in your community. ” To this end, you use the Green Dot Program’s framework to say that people have “the Three D’s”: They can be Direct, Distract, and Delegate. These are quoted below so people can see how you frame these three Ds.
1. You can be DIRECT.
Walk up and intervene. Respectfully ask that the offender stop the behavior and explain to them why it’s wrong.
2. You can DISTRACT.
Use a diversion to stop the behavior. Walk up and ask for directions or ask for the time. If it’s someone you know, talk about something you have in common with them.
3. You can DELEGATE.
Ask a friend, use the buddy system or call your local authorities to stop the behavior.
We agree that if everyone does their small part, we can help prevent sexual violence of any kind! We just want to add a very crucial fourth D.
4. You can DEFEND yourself.
Move, shove, state “NO” firmly, shout “STOP!”, kick the groin or head, and resist the attacker with the goal of stopping the attacker and getting yourself to safety. You can get help with these strategies by taking a self-defense training course, which emphasizes awareness, taking yourself seriously, verbal boundary setting and, finally, physical techniques for enforcing boundaries.
We love that you want people to be engaged bystanders. But of course we can be bystanders on our own behalves, too. Women have historically been the caretakers of partners, children, and their communities. It’s time we care for ourselves, too, and stand up for ourselves. Bring in the bystander? Sure. But be your own bystander, too. Be your own number one advocate. Yeah, bring it!
Jill & Martha
- “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.
Remember those images of shapes broken up into little square boxes, and the multiple choice test asking you to picture the same shape rotated differently? Such spatial reasoning is a stereotypically male skill. Well, a study out of the University of Berlin shows that women who were asked to imagine themselves having stereotypically masculine personality traits–strength, risk taking, assertiveness, and the like–performed as well as male peers on the spacial reasoning test immediately following this picture-yourself-as exercise, while women who were asked to imagine themselves having stereotypically feminine personality traits–agreeableness, caring for others, etc.–performed much lower than male peers on the special reasoning test right afterward.
“Gender priming” influenced women’s performance, big time.
This reminds us that allowing women to imagine themselves with the assertiveness and entitlement to fight back against an assailant can make an appreciable difference in their actual ability. If you can picture testicles rotated in space, you might be more likely to be able to actually rotate them in space if a guy you’re with won’t take no for an answer.
As September approaches, young people gearing up for college are inundated with information about freshman year – what NOT to buy for your college dorm room, tips for getting along with your new roomie, how to/why you’ll love freshman year, how to drink at college parties, and of course, the Freshman 15.
Now, all the data tells us that the Freshman 15 is a myth – the average weight gain for students is around 3 lbs (the same as for non-students of the same age), but the problem of sexual assault is not a myth. So we here at SJFB are shamelessly co-opting the phrase “Freshman 15” to give you the top 15 things you actually need to know as college students, first year and otherwise:
- You get to decide what you do with your own body. That’s right – whether it’s what you eat or who you’re with and what you do, that choice is yours, and yours alone, as long as you’re not deciding something for someone else’s body in the process.
- Trust your gut. Take the time to learn how you feel, and pay attention to it. If something, or someone, doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not, and you get to leave any situation or person that doesn’t feel right for you. As they say, there are plenty of fish in the sea (or…carrots in the field, for the vegetarian/vegan crowd…)
- See the options around you. Good advice for anywhere on campus, not just the cafeteria. Take the time to survey who and what is around you, and if something – or someone – isn’t working for you, know that you can choose a different option, whether that is where to live, where to socialize, or who you are spending time with.
- Get the facts. Even in college, and even about sexual assault, misinformation abounds. Don’t rely on what’s right in front of you – whether in conversation with friends, a statement by a professor, or a sign on the door in the bathroom stall. Fact: fighting back can be extremely effective in thwarting an assault – it’s a right you have, and a choice you can make if it feels right to you.
- Tweak your lifestyle. – For the better! Make choices (not just food!) that are good for you, and surround yourself with people who are interested in what you want for yourself, not just what they want from you.
- Swap your go-to order. Old habits die hard, and we often go with what feels familiar, rather than what feels safe and healthy. If what you’ve done before doesn’t feel good now, try something new.
- Skip the stupid aisle. Okay, in the diet magazines, they will you to “skip the salty aisle”, but we like this better. College – like life – is too short to waste with stupid people, and by that, we mean people who are interested in bringing you down to their level. Trust us – there are better aisles out there.
- Do a purge. One nice thing about college is that you get to leave high school (and middle school) behind you. We’ve all made mistakes in the past, and we will make them in the future. Don’t let them define you – a figurative purge allows you to let those go, and move forward in the direction you want.
- Healthy up your happy hour. As we’ve said before, alcohol is complicated. The connection between alcohol and assault on college campuses is well-documented, which in no way means that drinking or being intoxicated makes a person assault someone else, or makes a person responsible if someone assaults them. Know, whether or not you choose to drink, that it is important to know your limits and the risks associated with alcohol use.
- Pile on the boundaries. You get to “no” to things you don’t want, without disclaimer, explanation, or apology. As scholars who write for a living, we are here to remind you that “No” is a complete sentence. (And remember – what’s posted on-line STAYS on-line. Err on the side of caution.)
- Show some restraint when appropriate. Whether in person or on social media, remember that you are not obligated to please others at the expense of your own happiness and well-being.
- Get off the couch. Staying physically active in college is a great way to manage stress and manage your moods. Stay focused on exercise that makes you feel better—not whether it makes you look better.
- Know what you stand for. Notice injustice and oppression in your environment – your own personal space, and the world at large – and decide how you can respond to it safely. Being in college is just like being in any other community: there will be conflicts, tragedies, and triumphs. And what kind of community member you choose to be will help shape what that community becomes. Part of a group or club doing something deplorable? Take a stand—change it, report it, leave it.
- It’s always okay to ask for help. Whether it’s help with your writing skills, with depression or anxiety, or in a situation that feels unsafe, ask for what you need. You may be living on your own, but you’re not an island. College campuses have more resources than ever to support your well-being and your academic success. Know the resources out there, and don’t be afraid to use them.
- Get fired up. Take the time to get to know yourself, and then go for it, full steam ahead. Know what you want – and don’t want – and keep your eye on the prize. You’re in college to be an academic rock star and pursue your dreams. College is about making your future, so evaluate every option or course of action based on whether it will help, or hinder, achieving your goals. Believe in yourself. We believe in you.
Back when Miss USA, Nia Sanchez (we love you, Nia, even if you won’t return our phone calls), said that to combat the problem of sexual assault on college campuses more women should be offered the opportunity of self-defense training, feminist-identified pundits with access to HuffPo interviews flipped out. The concerns varied: some said that recommending self-defense training is putting the onus on women (rather than men) to prevent rape; others argue that self-defense training wouldn’t work because the likely perpetrator is someone known to the victim, and that’s not the “mind-set” for self-defense.
But the real head scratchers were those who rejected self-defense training on the grounds that it ran counter to feminine socialization. They understood that the fact girls and women are trained to subordinate their interests to boys and men, and that this feminine socialization interferes with defending themselves. Indeed, self-defense training is all about NOT subordinating your interests to men and boys. So opposing the recommendation to offer women self-defense training on these grounds (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/11/miss-usa-self-defense_n_5482117.html) seems to presume that we self-defense teachers and advocates do not understand this. What do they think, that self-defense teachers just show women a punching bag, offer them some chewing tobacco, and say “have at it”?
Let’s offer those most likely to be targeted for sexual assault the skills to intervene on their own behalf. Yes, for many of these people, and women in particular, such skills will contradict their socialization into femininity. Self-defense training is a kinesthetic experience that rattles the feminine training so tragically well suited to rape culture. That’s exactly what we like about it and why it’s so transformative beyond the individual women it helps.
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.