Women, Self-Defense, and Victim Blaming

There’s a new video making the social media rounds from Gracie Breakdown about women and self-defense.

In the description box for the video reads the following:

It is a man’s responsibility to respect women and their boundaries. But until this day comes, we encourage women to learn self defense; not because it’s their responsibility, but because it’s their reality.

This is invariably because of the likely blowback regarding both the video, and the underlying premise thereof.  In short, the blowback is that encouraging women to learn self-defense as means to defend themselves against attacks is seen as somehow perpetuating rape culture, victim-blaming, and so on.

A few years ago Nia Sanchez, the winner of the Miss USA bueaty pageant in 2014, came under fire for remarks she made about women and self-defense.

“I believe that some colleges may potentially be afraid of having a bad reputation and that would be a reason it could be swept under the rug, because they don’t want that to come out into the public,” Sanchez said during the competition. “But I think more awareness is very important so women can learn how to protect themselves. Myself, as a fourth-degree black belt, I learned from a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself. And I think that’s something that we should start to really implement for a lot of women.”

Those remarks ignited an online firestorm, as writers, bloggers and commentators on Facebook and Twitter roundly criticized her by saying women shouldn’t have to learn self-defense.

And here are some of those responses.  From Leah Roman:

The reason this response is so cringe worthy is that it completely puts the responsibility on women to prevent rape. In other words: If women are confident, learn self-defense, and fight back- rape will be prevented. On the flip side: If they DON’T fight back, somehow it is their fault that the assault occurred. This is a terrible message and one that goes against everything we know about effective prevention.

And Wendy Tuohy:

If, as stated, attacks such as the opportunistic murders of Melbourne schoolgirl Masa Vukotic and Jill Meagher have really made women feel frightened on the streets, isn’t there a need for more focus on stopping perpetrators via public education than on teaching women they are responsible to say constantly on guard?

The problem with the latter message is it sets up women as to blame or at fault if they are assaulted while doing something as simple as walking after dark. Doing that safely is a right, not a privilege, and any predator who violates it carries sole blame.

However, such sentiments have been countered by those who see such arguments as somewhat archaic.  From Cathy Young:

Meanwhile, what should we teach young women? In the bad old days, courts often required a rape victim to prove vigorous resistance. Feminists rightly argued that such standards were discriminatory: they were not applied, for instance, to victims of robbery. However, we should be able to hold the criminal accountable while also teaching people to avoid being victims. If you pass out at a party, that does not give anyone license to sexually assault you — or to rob you. But “don’t drink yourself into a stupor” is still excellent advice. Similarly, college women shouldn’t feel obliged to heed Nia Sanchez’s advice and learn self-defense techniques, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Jay and Beau discussed the Nia Sanchez controversy at the time, and came to largely the same conclusion as Cathy Young; yes, tell men not to rape, but also give women some tools to be able to help themselves should the former fail.

Yes, I know the statistics that most victims know their assailants, and that the stranger in a dark alley scenario is not as common as it might appear.  However, in this instance, I think Voltaire is right and that ‘better is the enemy of good’ here.  Yes, we should teach men not to rape (we should teach everyone not to rape), and that self-defense courses will not curtail all (or even most) rapes, by why should that alone be a preclusion to women learning self-defense?

As the father of a 17 month old daughter, I absolutely want her to train jiu-jitsu, for myriad reasons–one including the ability to defend herself?  Am I victim-blaming?  Am shifting all responsibility onto her?  No.  I am just not going to rely on other parents to adequately teach their children to not rape or otherwise assault other people.  Just as I am going to teach my daughter to lock the door and rely on other people not to steal, look for cars when crossing the road and not rely on people not drive like assholes around and pedestrians.

What happens when all of the lessons taught to boys not rape fail?  Then what?  We have to live with the reality that even those taught not to rape will rape (who does not know murder is wrong, yet in 2013 we had over 15,000 homicides in the U.S.).  Moreover, by turning this is into a social problem (and thus a social solution), in essence we are saying women are helpless to prevent this from happening.  How is that empowering, and not infantilizing, women?  I sincerely cringe at some of things that my daughter will be told in her life, and the notion that she is without choices to help minimize risk to her body is one of them.

It’s not victim blaming; it’s reacting to the realities that prevention can only go so far, and giving up the good in pursuit of the perfect is problematic.

 - John Haskell