Tag Archives: White House Task Force on Sexual Assault

Major Article on Self-Defense as Primary Prevention

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.

(Yet Another) Open Letter to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

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:


• 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!)


On January 22, 2014, President Obama said:

Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone.  We have your back. I’ve got your back.

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.

Hey, CDC: Friends Don’t Let Friends Deny the Effectiveness of Self-Defense Training

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.

Joe, please read this email —

Dear Vice-President Biden,

Forgive us for calling you Joe, but when you sent Martha this email, you used her first name, and it was such a nice, personal touch, we thought you wouldn’t mind.  We did read your email, and we found it compelling and clear, in intent and request.  So we’re sending you one back (okay, this isn’t exactly an email, but you get the idea), and we borrowed the format (yours is on the left, and ours is on the right).  We hope you don’t mind.

We read your email, Joe.  Please, read ours:

Martha — What do you want out of the next two years?Me? I want to finish President Obama’s second term strong and elect Democratic leaders who will champion priorities like increasing the minimum wage and strengthening Social Security.Barack and I are committed to advancing these priorities. But if we as Democrats don’t start working right now to make it happen, we’re in for a much bleaker future. One in which the Republicans in power serve only the ultra-wealthy, ignore the reality of climate change, and turn Medicare and Social Security into something unrecognizable.

Whether we can achieve success depends on what you do, right now.

Will you help us fight for Democratic values and elect the progressive champions oftomorrow? Pitch in to the DSCC’s Back to Blue campaign by the FEC deadline in 96 hours.

If you’ve saved your payment information with ActBlue Express, your donation will go through immediately:

There’s a choice to be made: We can have strong Democratic leaders who fight for a progressive agenda — or a Republican president like Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, with a GOP Senate that rubber-stamps each reckless decision.

What’ll it be? Your actions right now will determine the outcome.
Want to make sure our Democratic values win the fight? Then pitch in now to the DSCC’s Back to Blue campaign. 

Thank you,
Joe Biden












Joe – What do you want out of the next two years?  [or actually, forever?]

Me?  I want all girls and women to have the opportunity to be trained in self-defense, by instructors who will remind them that they have the right to defend themselves and teach them how to do it.

Self-defense advocates and scholars world-wide are committed to advancing these goals.  But if we as concerned citizens don’t start working right now to make it happen, we’re in for a much bleaker future.  One in which those who benefit from the rape culture will continue to perpetrate violence, and rob them of their basic human rights.

Whether we can achieve success depends on what you do, right now.

Will you help us fight for equal rights for women and girls by supporting self-defense training? Pitch in to start by including self-defense training in the recommendations of the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault on College Campuses.

[Okay, here, you ask for donations.  If you are interested in donating money in support of women’s and girls’ self-defense training, we will happily direct you to a number of excellent organizations.]

There’s a choice to be made: We can empower girls and women, remind them they have selves worth fighting for and give them the skills and tools they need so self-defense is an option when they are faced with rape and sexual assault – or we can continue, however inadvertently, to perpetuate the rape culture that says that women and girls are there for men’s taking, that men and not women are the ones with power.

What’ll it be? Your actions right now can help determine the outcome.

Want to make sure that women and girls have the same rights as men and boys to? Then offer women the same rights to securing their own safety that you have suggested in other interviews that men should enforce for women – the right to “kick the living crap” out of someone who is trying to rape them. Because you’re right, Vice President Biden.  It’s on all of us.  

Thank you,
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey



Consent Education for K-12 Students: Not Enough

On December 27, the Huffington Post published a piece on the call by California college students for consent education for K-12 students.

That will not solve the crisis of rape on college campuses.  Instead, we call for empowerment self-defense training for all K-12 students.

Because consent education, while valuable, is not enough.  What individuals and institutions mean by “consent” varies, depending on terminology (consent v affirmative consent v effective consent vs mutual consent vs legal consent) and specificity of the definitions.  For example, the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault on College Campuses describes consent as the “voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity”, and posits that silence, lack of resistance, and past consent do not constitute consent as they define it.  Other definitions require active, enthusiastic, uncoerced, and ongoing affirmation that the sexual activity is desired.

The discourse on consent education seems to focus on the use of clear language to communicate exactly what is acceptable, and not acceptable, in mutually desired and consented sexual activity, whether that is by the person “initiating” sexual activity (e.g., “Is it okay if I do ____?”, or “Are you liking this?”), or by the person who is the recipient of someone else initiating sexual activity (e.g., “Yes, I want you to do ___.”, or “I’m not comfortable with this and I want you to stop.”).  These conversations take consent past the legal definition, seeking sexual relationships that are democratic, free, and mutually pleasurable, rather than legal-but-yucky.

Without question, consent to mutually agreed-upon sexual activity, freely given, is critical.  And regardless of the specific definition of consent in play in any particular setting or institution, it is critical to educate people about what we mean by consent, and how to give it or obtain it.

Sex that is democratic, free, and mutually pleasurable is likely to result from affirmative consent.  But neither understanding what consent means, or the language of giving or getting consent, will stop sexual assault.  Because clearly understanding a definition, and having the script to ask or respond, clearly and directly, about sexual intentions and desires, does not mean that someone won’t try to rape someone else.  Rape is not a misunderstanding solved by knowing the right answer on a vocabulary test.

What is required to stop rape and assault is for individuals to understand that they are not entitled to sexual activity with another person just because they want it.

And what is critical in enforcing that understanding is what empowerment self-defense training offers:  the belief that we are entitled to our own sexual agency and bodily integrity, and the skills to enforce that right.

Consent education is a component of an empowerment self-defense model, where women, girls, men and boys are taught, and reminded, through the enactment of physical and verbal boundary setting and self-defense skills, that they – not their partners, their parents, their acquaintances, or strangers – get to say what they will and will not do with their bodies.   It provides the skills to maintain the boundaries they have set when another person is not interested, not informed, or actively seeking to overstep those boundaries.

So yes, by all means, let’s start early.  Let’s teach young girls and boys what rape means, and what consent means.  Let’s teach them the language to communicate clearly and effectively.  But more importantly, let’s teach girls and boys that girls’ bodies are not there for the taking, and that girls are capable of more than just saying that.  Let’s teach girls and women how to protect themselves, to maintain the rights we are telling them they have.


An open letter to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Dear Your Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:

We applaud your recommending last week, in conjunction with your attendance at an interfaith meeting in India, that girls learn martial arts self-defense against sexual assaults.  In your interview with One World South Asia, you said that women and men should be equally valued in society, and when asked if you had any message you’d like to give to the young girls in India, you answered that “the idea of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to train school girls in martial arts seems a practical solution. For self defence, young girls in India should learn martial arts like Karate. In the long run, education can be an effective tool in helping girls to stand up against sexual crimes.”  To this you added that “lower castes should pay more attention in education. They should particularly educate their girls. People who are well off should help the poor people in getting education.”

You didn’t say that girls shouldn’t put themselves in risky situations, Your Holiness, because you know what we know – that sexual assault is not about what women targeted for sexual assault do to “increase” their risk.

You didn’t say that girls are responsible for preventing sexual assault, because you know what we know – that the responsibility lies with perpetrators, not with targets and victims.

We agree wholeheartedly with this agenda for young girls and believe this should be our message to girls in the U.S. as well.


We only wish that you had made this recommendation to U.S. President Barack Obama during your recent meeting with him at the White House.  We don’t think you did because they’d surely have put you in their  “It’s On Us” video.  The goal of that movement, they say, is to “…reframe the conversation surrounding sexual assault in a way that inspires everyone to see it as their responsibility to do something, big or small, to prevent it”.  And what you said, Your Holiness, reframes the conversation by suggesting that women don’t need to just hope that someone else gets that “it’s on them”; you reframe the conversation by taking a stance, as the most influential spiritual leader in the world today, that women as equal pillars of humanity, have the right to and capacity for self-defense.

So can you call President Obama back and tell him that?

For quite some time now we have followed your teachings with great interest.  We are, after all, among the many secular Americans who seek meaning in non-Western religious traditions such as Buddhism.  Sometimes we’ve even found ourselves in situations thinking, the Dalai Lamai would not pay full price for that skirt, and the Dalai Lama would probably prefer drinks without high fructose corn syrup.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, we have often thought that your wise comments on compassion, reproductive health, social justice, and inner peace are key to living lives that are meaningful.  We also advocate training girls and women in self-defense.

We know that you won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and that you call yourself a feminist.  We just hope that your recent recommendation to girls about self-defense is understood by others as not at all in contradiction with your being a Nobel laureate.  For we know of your teachings about compassion as well as women’s rights.

Overall, we love your messages, as well as how you offer them.  You not only speak, have f2f meetings, and write books; you also have your own Twitter (with 9 million followers!), Facebook, and Google Plus accounts.  We do too!  (Except we have about 8.9999999 million fewer followers.)


Martha McCaughey & Jill Cermele

PS: Is being the Dalai Lama a good job?

Open Letter to Vice President Biden and the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Dear Vice President Biden and the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault:

We’ve read the press release, explored the web site, and followed the mostly positive media coverage about the recommendations of the Task Force.  However, as feminist self-defense scholars and activists, and as college professors, we find it interesting, and problematic, that women in the 21st Century continue to be seen as damsels in distress.

We applaud the Task Force for underscoring the seriousness and prevalence of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, for highlighting the need for better data on the incidence rates, and for requiring colleges and universities to act.  However, it’s striking that the only people who can act, it seems, are men.  Men can stop raping. Men can serve as “bystanders” and stop their friends from raping.  And (mainly male) university administrators can implement programs to reach men, and to better serve the (mainly female) victims that men have raped.

That approach presumes that women are sitting ducks. Easy targets. Rapeable. The best we can hope for, we are being told, is that campuses will adopt better policies, in compliance with Title IX of the Educational Equity Act for reporting the already-completed rape of women, and teach the good guys—the knight-errants roving from party to party—to save the damsels in distress.

But that’s not the best we can hope for.  The highly regarded academic journal Violence Against Women just released an entire special issue in March 2014devoted to scholarship on self-defense against sexual assault, for which we served as the guest editors.  In that issue, scholars present data on how effective training in and using self-defense can be for women.  These scholars show that self-defense is usually effective in thwarting an attack (Dr. Sarah Ullman of the University of Illinois at Chicago); that self-defense typically results in no further injury to the women defending themselves(Drs. Jongyeon Tark and Gary Kleck of Hannem University in South Korea and Florida State University); that self-defense helps women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds (Dr. Lisa Speidel of University of Virginia) as well as women who have been previously victimized (Drs. Gia Rosenblum and Lynn Taska, trauma psychologists in Lawrenceville, NJ); that a good self-defense course is incredibly empowering in a number of ways for women, outside of their ability to thwart an actual attack (Dr. Martha Thompson of Northeastern Illinois University); and that because of the wide range of benefits self-defense training has, it actually helps change the gender norms and ultimately prevents sexual assault more broadly (Dr. Joceyln Hollander of University of Oregon).

We wish to be clear that women are not responsible for rape, no matter their behavior, their attire, or their level of intoxication; promoting self-defense training for women in no way suggests that the onus is now, or should be, onwomen alone to stop rape.  Nor would we want to suggest that men who rape can’t ever change their ways, or that college administrators shouldn’t do more to ensure that there is gender equity in all areas.

But we do note, and question, the absence of self-defense as a goal that is part of an overall sexual assault prevention approach.  Self-defense is no more individualistic than training individual bystanders to stop a guy before he rapes.  Self-defense is no more victim-blaming than suggesting women communicate clearly on dates.  Self-defense should be just as much a part of sexual assault prevention efforts as training bystanders and improving policies are. Besides, women really shouldn’t have to wait on government and university bureaucracies when, in a matter of weeks, they could learn the empowering, and effective, techniques of twisting the testicles, kneeing the groin, or gouging the eyes of Joe College Rapist.

Moreover, self-defense training doesn’t just teach women such physical techniques. It teaches women to take themselves more seriously, that they have bodies and lives worth defending, and that they are not pieces of meat, playthings, or pretty prizes of men.  That, it seems to us, is an incredibly important message to give to women and their co-eds who are supposed to be learning that men and women are equally deserving of the right to an education.  Practicing self-defense enables women to practice being taken seriously, in and out of a bedroom.

The White House Task Force urges colleges and universities to collect better data, to adopt better policies, and to protect the confidentiality of victims.  We agree.  But we argue that the Task Force must also urge college and universities to put into action what we know from the findings of decades of research:  that women can safely and effectively defend themselves against rape, and that self-defense training for women benefits everyone.   You want true educational equity?  Then teach self-defense.

Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele

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