by Grayson Hunt
Preamble/Warning: This is a post on the value of feminist self-defense training for survivors of sexual abuse. I will discuss in some detail a recent encounter I had with an abuser. I encourage readers of this blog to read my post alongside Ann Cahill’s recent post, “What (Feminist) Self-Defense Courses Can Do.”
Last month I went to Lake Cumberland in Kentucky for a day of boating and swimming with friends. At one end of the lake was an amazing waterfall. As I was swimming near the falls, I looked up and saw a man 30 feet above in the bushes on top of the falls. He waved. I waved back. I’m not up on “boating culture”, but apparently that’s what white people do when out boating: everyone waves to each other. Only he wasn’t boating; he had gotten to the falls by foot from the access road up top. So I stared at him, wondering what the hell he was doing up there. Then I realized he was masturbating. I was stunned. I turned away to swim back to the boat and I could feel shame sneaking into my chest and face. I began to feel responsible for what was happening to me, which was the very message I internalized after being sexually assaulted as a teen. But then something changed. As I was swimming away from this man I realized that if I wanted to say something I could, and that it would probably make things better for me. I needed my life to continue, and with as little shame and self-blame as possible. So I yelled. I yelled loudly, and he heard me. I pointed up at him and said three things:
1) “PUT YOUR DICK IN YOUR PANTS!”
The masturbating man retreated backwards away from the ledge, but was still in view.
2) “I CAN STILL SEE YOU!”
The man disappeared completely from view. Then, bizarrely, I finished with:
3) “GET A LIFE!” (Who says that?) As a recent transplant to the South I have learned that people down here don’t curse in public,, and I guess I didn’t want to attract any negative attention from the other boaters. I needed to keep my righteousness intact!
I swam back to the boat, and told my friends what had happened. They hadn’t heard me yelling.
What does this have to do with self-defense training? The encounter was a perfect example of “stranger danger.” It is an example of a woman defending herself in the face of a random attack, which is what self-defense training courses claim to teach women, where the value of defending yourself is to prevent the attack by a stranger. I took a self-defense training course when I was 7 years old. I thought we were learning to defend ourselves against robbers until it became clear that we were learning to defend ourselves against sexual predators (what a shameful realization to make in front of all your friends!). One of the things they tell you to do is to yell and make a scene, but also to kick, scratch, and gauge eyes (something I would have been too scared to do anyway).
Before I go further, I think we can and should distinguish between feminist and non-feminist self-defense approaches to sexual violence and abuse. Non-feminist self-defense courses actually communicate rather disempowering messages to women. The American Woman’s Self Defense Association, for example, communicates the message that an attack is inevitable, while The National Riffle Association’s “Refuse to be a Victim” training uses victim-blaming and rhetoric (are you the kind of woman who gets abused, or do you defend yourself?). Yikes. I’m not interested in the fantasy of single-handedly preventing rape, nor of possibly deflecting blame onto untrained women.
Feminist self-defense training is grounded in a political and social understanding of sexual violence. Feminists condemn the view that rape is a natural (if regrettable) phenomenon. One version of feminist self-defense training is called Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD). It is an alternative to the fear-mongering approaches espoused by non-feminist conservatives. Empowerment self-defense is informed by the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which states that “accountability for violence lies with the person who commits it and that everyone has the right to make choices about whether or not to fight back,” (my emphasis) and that “good self-defense programs do not ‘tell’ an individual what she ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do,” but offer “options, techniques, and a way of analyzing situations.” Feminist self-defense training rejects the inevitability of rape, the inherent aggressivity of the male body, and the inherent vulnerability of the feminine or female body. Feminist approaches to self-defense training view misogynist societal and institutional practices as the central causes of sexual violence, and offer options for acting within that reality. Feminist approaches recognize rape culture – the practice of shaming and doubting the testimonies and character of victims who seek criminal charges and police protection. So, what might a feminist, empowered self-defensive response look like? Well, I think my response is an example. Here’s why:
When I turned around and yelled at that masturbating man, I felt capable of externalizing my anger verbally, which left me feeling that I had a say in the matter; that I was not going to passively receive, but could active engage with, this man’s abuse. And the fact that I was able to act out of fear and anger at all (instead of shame) was different from when I was first assaulted by an acquaintance many years ago. That seems key – self-defense courses that teach you to kick and scream aren’t helpful when it comes to acquaintance rape, marital rape, date rape and family child abuse. (I really don’t think there is a form of self-defense training that can protect against those forms of abuse, which prey on intimacy.) Also notice that screaming at this man in the bushes *did not prevent* the abuse. But it did allow me to act and respond in ways that I couldn’t in the past (even after my initial self-defense training as a child). That’s what I would call its therapeutic value. Screaming this time meant that I was not paralyzed by a traumatic cycle of abuse.
I view the anger and resentment provoked in feminist self-defense training as accomplishments, not weaknesses. The value of feminist self-defense training is that it communicates the message that even within a culture of violence against women, you can act. As a survivor of violence, I find that message both therapeutic and empowering. Within a culture that silences victims’ and survivors’ stories, externalizing anger reverses the more common responses of self-blame and shame. It is in this sense, that I think feminist self-defense training should be measured. That is, for its ability to “thwart the cultural forces that keep women from experiencing their bodies as powerful” as Ann Cahill said in her recent post, and not merely by its preventative promise.
Grayson Hunt is a professor of philosophy at Western Kentucky University and an avid cyclist.