What (Feminist) Self-Defense Courses Can Do (Guest Post)

(Note: many of the points I make here are developed more fully – and in acadamese – in “In Defense of Self-Defense,” Philosophical Papers Vol. 38, No. 3 (November 2009): 363-380)


As Sam B. mentioned in a recent blog post, self-defense is a controversial topic, particularly among anti sexual violence activists. There are several concerns about recommending self-defense as a way to combat rape culture. Probably the most commonly voiced one has to do with misplacing the burden of fighting that fight: rather than insisting that women use precious resources of time, money, and energy to protect themselves against an unjust threat, we should insist that men take responsibility for not posing that threat in the first place. But there are also concerns about whether self-defense really protects women against sexual violence. After all, most self-defense courses teach women to protect themselves against attacks by strangers, which are the rarest form of sexual violence. It seems they would be pretty ineffective in cases of violence perpetuated by an acquaintance, partner, or family member.

My take is that the first concern can be pretty well addressed if the self-defense course is explicitly feminist in its approach. Not all self-defense is created equal, and some approaches tend to naturalize the threat of sexual violence, as if it were a necessary part of human society (which it is not). Feminist self-defense courses, by contrast, present sexual violence as an example of injustice, a form of gender inequality that should cause us to be angry. In fact, part of feminist self-defense courses (at least the good ones) is to tap into that anger and give it expression. Such a course would never imply that such a complex social and political situation can be remedied by any one response, and wouldn’t present self-defense as the only or even primary way of counteracting the threat of sexual violence.

But it’s the second one that Sam’s blog focused on, and that’s the one that I want to respond to more fully here. I worry that when we evaluate self-defense primarily in terms of how effective it is in preventing specific instances of sexual violence, we miss some of its broader possible effects. For me, one of the crucial elements of feminist self-defense courses is that they target, explicitly and concretely, some of the bodily habits that a rape culture imposes on femininely gendered bodies. I don’t think it’s an accident that a rape culture like ours teaches feminine bodies to take up less space, to react to physical attacks with paralysis, and to underutilize their vocal capacities. These bodily habits are so deeply ingrained that they are often difficult to perceive (my students are still stunned when I point out gendered differences in how they sit, although the tumblr about men taking up space in trains has helped!).

Iris Marion Young analyzed feminine bodily comportment in her great article, “Throwing Like a Girl,” so if you want to read more about how feminine bodily habits reflect a sexist society, go check that out. I’m particularly interested in how those habits not only reflect, but actually perpetuate, rape culture by encouraging women to experience their bodies as weak, fragile, and expected targets of sexualized violence. All the common ways that women are encouraged to protect themselves against sexual violence – don’t go to certain places at certain times, don’t walk alone, that sort of thing – frame the problem of sexual violence as a problem of women’s bodies. It’s as if when those bodies are in the wrong places, or do the wrong things, suddenly this threat materializes out of thin air. And really, that feminine body should have known better than to cause that threat to show up.

So normative feminine bodily comportment not only renders women’s bodies less likely to be able to respond effectively to an actual assault, but encourages women to see their own bodies as the source of the threat of assault itself. And here’s my general point: this imposition of this kind of bodily comportment is harmful to all women, regardless of whether they are ever actually sexually assaulted. It limits their experience, alienates them from the full range of their bodily capacities, and pits their sense of self against their own body.

When feminist self-defense is done well, it takes this problem of feminine bodily comportment head-on. And it doesn’t do so cognitively, which is how I primarily teach this stuff. In my philosophy classes (although I try to involve at least some bodily experiences), we mostly talk about ideas, read texts, and write papers. But feminist self-defense classes teach women how to move differently. It’s a muscular pedagogy, one that creates new corporeal habits. And these new habits – the ability to kick, or to yell, or to become familiar with the sensation of feeling one’s fist meet someone else’s body with force – contradict what women are usually told about what their body can do and be. And that, in my mind, is what makes it such a powerful tool against rape culture.

Our bodies, as the book title goes, are our selves. So when we change our bodily habits and capacities, we change our way of being in the world (and maybe even the world itself). Now there’s no doubt that a single feminist self-defense course isn’t sufficient to undermine or transform a lifetime of corporeal socialization. And even if one has more extensive training, there’s no guarantee that those skills or habits will be accessible in every instance of sexual assault. But I don’t think that’s where the definition of success should be focused. Feminist self-defense courses shouldn’t aim primarily at reducing incidents of sexual violence (although if they do that, it’s great, of course). They should aim to thwart the cultural forces that keep women from experiencing their bodies as powerful, capable, resilient aspects of their being that do not deserve to be the targets of violence.

Sometimes the political struggle is in our muscles, our tendons and ligaments, and our vocal chords. What I love about feminist self-defense courses is how they take the political fight right to the body. Of course, that fight needs to be taken to the masculine body as well – but that would be the subject of another post.


 Ann J. Cahill teaches philosophy at Elon University in North Carolina. She likes baking a lot more than running.