martial arts

Study shows self defense makes a difference but the issues are still complicated

This post discusses personal experiences of sexual assault.

We’ve had lots to say on this blog about self defense as a feminist issue. See Audrey’s guest post Self Defense and Sexual Assault and my post Self defense is a feminist issue. We both think it’s a complicated issue.

Audrey writes, “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.”

I write, “I can say that for me, I didn’t feel invincible after the taking (self defense) classes. 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 wi
th 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.”

Both of us agree that the focus shouldn’t just be on teaching women self defense. We also need to educate young men not to commit sexual assault and to be active bystanders.

But today the case for teaching women self defense as way to reduce sexual violence on university campuses made the news in Canada. See Teaching women self-defence still the best way to reduce sexual assaults: study and it even reached Boing Boing, Study: women trained to resist assault less likely to be victimized.

In the debate over how to reduce sexual assault on university campuses, proposing self-defence classes for women is controversial. Women aren’t the problem, the reasoning goes, so why is changing their behaviour the solution? Putting the onus on women to drop-kick rapists, map out safe walks home, or geo-track their drinks at parties, writes the rules in the wrong direction. And it swerves too easily into victim-blaming.

But, according to new landmark Canadian research, it works. The study, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the Canadian-designed intervention, which focuses on teaching women how to detect risk in situations that could lead to sexual assault and defend themselves when necessary, reduced the rate of rape among participants by nearly 50 per cent. At a time when universities are facing harsh criticism for mishandling sexual assault, when the White House has called for action to reduce sexual violence on campus, when it’s estimated that as many as one in four female university students may be assaulted before they finish their degree, is it responsible to deny young women access to a tried-and-tested program?

The four-year study tracked nearly 900 women at three Canadian universities, randomly selecting half to take the 12-hour “resistance” program, and compared them to a second group who received only brochures, similar to those available at a health clinic. One year later, the incidence of reported rape among women who took the program was 5.2 per cent, compared to 9.8 per cent in the control group; the gap in incidents of attempted rape was even wider.

While it’s terrific to see evidence that such classes make a difference, Marina Adshade asks why we focus on university students. They’re not the most at risk group of women. She also asks why the focus on women at all.

See Teenage boys not young women need sexual assault programs.

If women can be taught to recognize situations in which they are exposed to the risk of sexual assault, then men can be taught to recognize when they are about to become sexual offenders.

If women can be taught not to lead men on by letting them buy drinks, then men can be taught that women who let them buy drinks have not relinquished their right to refuse sex.

If women can be taught to stay together to provide protection, then men can be taught to challenge other men they see exposing women to risk of sexual violence.

Canadians don’t need to teach women to resist rape while we await cultural change that brings an end to violence against women. We need programs that bring about that cultural change starting with the men who are most likely to be sexual offenders – boys under the age of 18