Philosopher Susan Brison’s story of resistance and recovery after a violent sexual assault reveals the therapeutic significance of anger learned through self-defense training. Ten years after her attack, Brison wrote _Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self_, describing the effect sexual violence had on her capacity to think and feel at home in the world. Brison spoke of the incredible difficulty she had in learning how to be angry at the man who sexually assaulted her and attempted to kill her (an attack she calls her “attempted sexual murder”). Rediscovering that anger became a matter of re-learning how to defend her body. Physical self-defense courses taught Brison how to resent what had happened to her. Here is a quote:
“One might think it would be easier, and it certainly would be more appropriate, for victims of violence to blame their assailants…. I was stunned to discover that the other women in my rape survivor’s support group were, like me, unable to feel anger toward their assailants, and I was surprised to learn later that this was not unusual. It was not until after I had taken a self-defense course that I was able to get angry with the man who had almost killed me.”
Ultimately, Brison recounts that she was able to break the double bind of self-blame and powerlessness by performing a kind of self-empowered bodily existence. “We had to learn to feel entitled to occupy space, to defend ourselves,” Brison recounts in reference to her self-defense training, adding that, “the hardest thing for most of the women in my class to do was simply to yell ‘No!’.” The ability to refuse another person’s claim upon one’s body by yelling “No” was re-learned through talk therapy and self-defense training, taught alongside kicks and punches.
Brison’s account demonstrates the therapeutic value of feminist self-defense training. It (re)instills in survivors a sense of entitlement to occupy space in the world. Linking self-defense training to recovery and therapy also creates a positive feedback loop. Having more empowered female and feminine bodies in the world communicates the value of women’s lives and livelihood. When we measure the value of self-defense training merely by its ability to prevent an attack, we lose sight of the therapeutic and political value feminist self-defense training can have.
Grayson Hunt is a professor of philosophy at Western Kentucky University and an avid cyclist.
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.
(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.
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.