Let me begin with a story about why I first took self-defense classes.
In 1984 I was an undergraduate student at Dalhousie University. I was attacked in Halifax on a crowded street during the day. I wasn’t hurt and in a way it wasn’t a big deal. The guy was likely drunk, and given that it was a busy street in broad daylight, I don’t think he’d have gotten away with very much. My response, or lack thereof, really bothered me more than anything.
What shocked me was that I was silent while being held against a car on a crowded street. There were police officers across the street and I could see them but I didn’t yell to get their attention. Not even a “Hello” or “Over here.” I don’t know if 19 year old me was scared that the man holding me against a car would hit me if I yelled. I don’t know. I didn’t think about it. I just froze.
The police saw me and rescued me. Thank you. After, while getting a lecture from the police about being in that neighbourhood (I lived there!) I felt so stupid and so angry with myself.
So I did something about it. Along with a group of young women I spent a weekend learning some self-defense basics. It was an explicitly feminist course, focused on teaching women some self-protection basics. I learned to get up quickly from the ground, to break a board into two pieces, and most importantly, to yell. I used the broken board as a cutting board for years. The class I took was called Wen-do.
Those of us taking the class were all surprised at how hard it was to yell loudly.
It’s still hard. Read more about that here.
Yelling is a feminist act, writes Susan Schorn for the Hairpin. Schorn is defending teaching women’s self-defense in her piece, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear: Why I Teach Women Self-Defense.
“I also feel qualified to defend “yelling” as feminism. Our voices are one way we can define ourselves. They let us set boundaries. They project our power. They connect us with others who can help us escape harm, or heal from it. Communication skills are critical to transformation of all kinds: personal, interpersonal, political. The ESD instructors at Thousand Waves Martial Arts in Chicago teach an entire workshopdevoted exclusively to communication skills. When I teach, I spend at least a quarter of every class on the concept of “Yell”—that’s how vital it is to empowerment and safety. Yelling is the opposite of silencing. Yelling stands at the very heart of feminism.”
Yes, yelling is a feminist issue, so to is looking large, taking up space, and looking tough and confident. That’s far removed the way women are socialized to look and act.
See Lisa Wade’s Gender and the Body Language of Power for a nice discussion of the ways women are socialized to be quiet, demure, and not take up space.
“Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky once observed that being feminine often means using one’s body to portray powerlessness. Consider: A feminine person keeps her body small and contained; she makes sure that it doesn’t take up to much space or impose itself. She walks and sits in tightly packaged ways. She doesn’t cover the breadth of the sidewalk or expand herself beyond the chair she occupies.”
There is also a new tumblr about men taking up space called Move The Fuck Over, Bro that’s worth having a look at.
I’m always surprised when I hear other feminists upset at women’s self defense training. I don’t think it’s my responsibility that I was attacked. It seemed clear that it wasn’t my fault. But in a world in which women face the risk of assault, I want to be able to respond a little better than I did. Acquiring those skills doesn’t make me any less a feminist.
I think there are two very different worries about self-defense classes for aimed at women.
The first is practical. They worry that a few classes won’t do any good and that they might merely build a false sense of confidence. When you’re actually attacked, they worry, you won’t remember any of it. A friend says she worries that she’ll feel like Buffy after she’s taken the class but really she won’t be able to execute any of it.
I can say that for me, I didn’t feel invincible after the taking the class. I was more alert and aware of my surroundings and I probably took fewer risks not more. Even now, after 6 years of martial arts training, I don’t feel invincible. I do know that i can yell loudly. In Aikido there is even a name for the yell you make when striking. It’s called a “kiai” and is a self-defense technique in its own right.
I know I can engage physically with another person without freezing in panic. And I think I walk with confidence, eyes up and alert. I do believe that my martial arts training makes me much less likely to be attacked in the first place. I’m going to post later about some of the things Aikido has taught me.
When I say that I’m not saying I won’t ever be attacked again, nor am I blaming women who are attacked. I am not blaming the victim but that leads to the second worry.
The second worry is more political. The worry is that teaching self-defense to women shifts the burden on to women to protect themselves and off the men who are the attackers. We should stop writing lists of how to protect yourself from rape and start writing lists that tell men not to rape. But I don’t see this as an either/or thing.
It reminds me of the debate in political theory about the distinction between ideal theory versus non-ideal theory. Yes, in an ideal world we’d have successfully taught young men not to hurt women. In this world, we ought to try to pass that lesson along, but we also ought to teach women to react in a way that is most likely to lead to a better outcome. Yes, men have the greater responsibility but it’s also feminist to defend a women’s right to self-defense.
I cheer when I read stories like this one–“An off-duty US Navy sailor stopped a Dubai bus driver from raping her at knifepoint by breaking his knife in two, biting him and putting him in a stranglehold between her thighs,” (see rest here)–while at the same time wishing I didn’t live in such a world filled with violence and hate.
On the Ms Blog Meg Stone writes in favour of women’s self-defense classes as empowering women. In A Call for Self-Defense Against Victim-Blaming AND Against Rape, she writes,
“Self-defense training with a social justice perspective should be embraced, not dismissed, for three main reasons:
1. It Works
In a recent review of the state of research on strategies that are effective at stopping rape, the Violence Against Women Network (VAWnet) identified self-defense as one of the most promising practices. More than ten years of data collected by people of multiple political persuasions (or no apparent political persuasion) shows that women who forcefully resist attempted rapes can stop them effectively and can do so without increasing their risk of injury.
2. Instant Accountability
The ability to protect our bodily integrity gives women and others targeted by rapists the opportunity to right an injustice as it is happening. It means not having to depend on others (men) to keep us safe.
3. It Doesn’t Require Women to Diminish Our Lives.
Most advice women get about how to reduce our risk of rape is also advice about how to reduce ourselves. It’s about places we shouldn’t go, clothes we shouldn’t wear, times we shouldn’t be alone. The message of feminist self-defense is just the opposite: Use common sense, sure, but if you have the skills to verbally and physically protect yourself, you can live your life fully and safely in a rape culture.”
Here’s some further reading:
1. “Protecting One’s Commitments: Integrity and Self-Defense,” by Sylvia Burrow, International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Spring 2012
Abstract: Living in a culture of violence against women leads women to employ any number of avoidance and defensive strategies on a daily basis. Such strategies may be self protective but do little to counter women’s fear of violence. A pervasive fear of violence comes with a cost to integrity not addressed in moral philosophy. Restricting choice and action to avoid possibility of harm compromises the ability to stand for one’s commitments before others. If Calhoun is right that integrity is a matter of standing for one’s commitments then fear for safety undermines integrity. This paper extends Calhoun’s view through arguing that integrity further requires resiliency to protect one’s commitments. My account shows that self-defense training is a key source of this resiliency because it cultivates self-confidence. The practical point is that self-defense training directly counters fear and other passive responses to violence that undermine integrity. The theoretical significance is that violence against women is a social condition threatening integrity. Hence, integrity requires self-protection for more socially minded reasons than moral theorists have previously recognized.
2. Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense
by Martha McCaughey, New York University Press (1997)
Abstract: An examination of women’s self-defense culture and its relationship to feminism. I was once a frightened feminist. So begins Martha McCaughey’s odyssey into the dynamic world of women’s self- defense, a culture which transforms women involved with it and which has equally profound implications for feminist theory and activism. Unprecedented numbers of American women are learning how to knock out, maim, even kill men who assault them. Sales of mace and pepper spray have skyrocketed. Some 14 million women own handguns. From behind the scenes at gun ranges, martial arts dojos, fitness centers offering Cardio Combat, and in padded attacker courses like Model Mugging, Real Knockouts demonstrates how self-defense trains women out of the femininity that makes them easy targets for men’s abuse. And yet much feminist thought, like the broader American culture, seems deeply ambivalent about women’s embrace of violence, even in self-defense. Investigating the connection between feminist theory and women physically fighting back, McCaughey found self-defense culture to embody, literally, a new brand of feminism.