It probably goes without saying that this blog post contains potentially triggering discussions of sexual assault.
I was recently sent this article by my friend Tom. It has to do with Miss USA 2014, Nia Sanchez, who has a black belt in taekwondo, and the response she got when she was asked about the prevalence of campus rape. Miss Sanchez was heavily criticized for answering by talking about role that her martial arts training played in her life and the idea that this is something that more young women should have in their lives. The article defends her and makes several compelling points, but I admit that I’m conflicted.
I’m conflicted as someone who’s taught self-defense workshops (women only as well as co-ed), and who has a lot of martial arts experience. This is something I’m pretty good at. I’ve done over 25 years of taekwondo, several years each of wushu and capoeira, and about 4 years of high school wrestling, not to mention bits and pieces of other cross-training here and there. I’m not particularly big, but I’m definitely not delicate and I can use my weight pretty well. I can take a solid hit and keep fighting. These are all things I know about myself. If I’m out late at night, I walk with good posture and confidence, and stay aware of my surroundings. I know I can defend myself in a lot of situations.
I’ve still been raped. More than once.
The last time that it happened, the man told me that he couldn’t possibly have raped me – that is, I must have consented, because he couldn’t have successfully raped someone like me. Who can defend myself. Who can teach self-defense workshops. Who has surely got the physical skills to prevent herself from being raped. So regardless of whether or not I said no and clearly did not want what was happening, my black belt meant that I couldn’t be raped, because I would have been able to stop him had I put up serious physical resistance. That latter bit is most likely true, but does that really mean physically strong women are implicitly consenting when they’re not throwing elbows? Let’s hope not.
This happened when I was in my early 30s. The first time I was raped, I was 16. I got my black belt in taekwondo when I was 11. I have always been physically capable of defending myself. But I have, on several occasions, been emotionally incapable of defending myself against attacks from people I cared about. I don’t know that anything in martial arts prepared me for being abused by someone close to me. Maybe my training should have given me more confidence in my everyday life to be able to walk away from that person earlier. But it didn’t. Or at least, it has never been something I have been willing to use seriously against people in my life, even to defend my own body. But the idea that all the things I learn at taekwondo should only be used in the dojang is something that has been drilled into me since I was 7. Of course we tell the kids that if they get attacked, they should defend themselves and escape – but our typical images of what counts as this kind of dangerous situation are pretty narrow in range, and tend to fall within the “dark alley” scenario.
And this is one of the great difficulties with self-defense and sexual assault. The stats show that crime TV is not the norm, that you’re more likely to be raped by someone you know, and that intimate partner violence is alive and well. And in this latter case, self-defense is only one tiny piece of the answer. You also have to be willing to use those physical skills against another human being who you have feelings for. And while you surely have the right to use those skills against someone who is attacking you, it’s honestly not always that simple. How many of us could really, honestly, punch someone we love in the face?
I don’t think there is a bottom line here, or a takeaway message besides the fact that sexual assault is complicated and varied, as is its relationship to self-defense. To be clear, I agree that women should know how to defend themselves. I agree that being fit, strong, and physically capable is a positive thing. I feel grateful for the martial arts training that makes me more confident walking downtown by myself at night. But this training did not stop me from getting assaulted. It did not give me the desire to escalate already bad situations into potentially worse fist fights, or risk physically injuring someone already in emotional pain, struggling with addiction, who I then deeply cared about.
As the writer of the article that prompted this post pointed out, there is no reason to expect one single correct answer to the problem of sexual assault. And one reason for this is that there is no one single story of sexual assault. I told mine because it complicates the role that self-defense plays. But one of the strengths of this blog generally, I think, is the way in which it fights against the single story. So I’ll end this post with a quote from a talk by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie:
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.