Self-defence training should be about more than just rape prevention

OPINION: The idea that women must learn to protect themselves from rape is controversial — but Lauren McKeon argues self-defence training can empower survivors
By Lauren McKeon - Published on August 16, 2017
a person in a boxing stance
Women who learn self-defence combined with consent-based strategies are much less likely to be raped, according to a 2015 New England Journal of Medicine study. (innovatedcaptures/iStock)

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I know the end of summer is here when I start seeing back-to-school promotions: Dorm room decoration! Backpacks! Trendy clothes I’m not cool enough to wear! It’s around this time I prepare myself for the now-annual (and less fun) media discussion of campus rape prevention, during which someone inevitably advocates more self-defence training for women. As if we could simply karate chop our way to safer schools.

The idea is controversial; critics say it puts the onus on women to protect themselves, rather than on society to create a culture of consent. The ability to do a knee strike, the argument goes, should not be a prerequisite for women to access higher education. Still, self-defence proponents aren’t wrong: learning how to do a knee strike is not not a good skill to have, given more than 20 per cent of undergraduate women will be raped or sexually assaulted on campus.

Most post-secondary schools in Ontario have adopted an American training program called Rape Aggression Defense — RAD — which a former police officer slash ex-Marine developed in 1989 and makes available to institutions for US$9,500. My alma mater, Ryerson University, offers the course. So does Brock, Carleton, Ottawa, Queen’s, Western, Windsor — you get the idea.

The RAD manual, of which every participant receives a copy, is a strange and dismaying mix of archaisms, unhelpful advice, and textbook victim-blaming. I recently tracked down a copy of my own, dated 2006, to uncomfortably guffaw at. I appreciate that it tries to dispel ancient rape myths (like that women “secretly” want to be raped, that “only young, attractive women are raped,” etc.) — but then it dedicates an entire section to drapery. For real.

“Draw the drapes and pull the shades,” the manual advises, in a section on risk-reduction strategies. “If drapes are thin and worn, you may want to consider investing in heavier fabric to prevent silhouetting.” And: “Try to keep the bushes and shrubs trimmed for consistent shape, which will make it easier to detect motion near windows.” When a woman returns home she’s advised to “be cautious.” She is also to park in a well-lit area, to be aware of other people on elevators, to sit near the driver when riding a bus, and to “consider wearing clothing that is non-restrictive or athletic.” Plus, always carry two pairs of shoes — you know, so you’ve got a pair comfy enough to aid you in your desperate flee from would-be rapists.

Basically, if you are a woman, you are required to practise constant vigilance. Which (a) most women already do and (b) is also dispiriting advice. And yet, studies show that women’s self-defence classes can reduce sexual assault on campus. A 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine of nearly 900 female first-year students found the risk of completed rape was significantly lower for women who’d participated in a “sexual assault resistance program” — combining self-defence and consent-based strategies — compared to those who’d been merely given brochures on prevention.

Some feminists call such training “empowerment self-defence.” University of Oregon professor Jocelyn Hollander is one of them: “When I discuss self-defense training I do not mean a brief workshop that focuses on scare tactics, tells women to monitor their dress or their alcohol consumption, and/or directs them to limit their activities or to depend on men for protection,” she writes in a 2016 paper for Feminism & Psychology. “Rather, I mean a thoughtful process of empowering students through awareness of the realities both of assault and of their own abilities, both verbal and physical, to prevent and resist violence against them.”

Perhaps, then, we should focus on the intent of the training and the way it’s delivered — “empowerment self-defense” versus “buy better blinds” — rather than dismiss the concept entirely.


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Consider this pro-self-defence argument from Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey of the website See Jane Fight Back: “Self-defense challenges the notion that women’s bodies are inherently vulnerable to men’s and the notion that men’s bodies are unstoppable.” And how can we not gain from challenging the notion that women’s bodies are powerless?

Still, I worry that self-defence is never so simple in the moment as it is in the classroom. That knowing how to act and actually acting are not the same thing. That guilt and shame can overwhelm someone who knows how to fight, but instead freezes. I worry about those who can’t answer the question, “Well, why didn’t you fight back?” — because the answer will never be adequate.

I should know. When I was raped at 16, I was also training for a kickboxing match. I was good. But the thing is, you can never prepare for that kind of violation. The fight you train for is not always the fight you get. That’s not to say training was useless: after my assault, kickboxing helped me reclaim my body as something that could act, not just be acted upon. It helped me realize that I didn’t have to hate it for failing me — that I could like it, could make it mine again. More than 15 years later, I still do it. I still feel invincible when my fists hit the padded bag.

As Hollander concluded in a 2004 paper for Violence Against Women, “Self-defense training literally trains women to defend their selves — not only their physical and sexual selves, but their psychological and emotional selves as well.”

There’s something odious about the idea that we can fix the problem of rape with programs like RAD. Any self-defence program — even a feminist one that avoids the subject of window treatments entirely — can only ever be part of the solution. Women cannot defeat rape culture dancing with themselves, Billy Idol-style. But perhaps it’s time to shift the back-to-school conversation this year to what feminist empowerment self-defence might look like on campus — to create a program that promotes safety and well-being rather than fear.

Ultimately, though, the real victory would be for women to join self-defence classes not because they’re afraid of rape, but because learning how to fight back makes them feel powerful and in charge of themselves. Because with every kick comes a declaration: you cannot tell me what my body was made for.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus.

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