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


athletes · sex · team sports · Uncategorized

Athletes Taking a Stand against Sexual Assault

Yes means yes, no means no.
Yes means yes, no means no.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talked of a new peer initiative springing up on campuses.  True, you can’t stop university students from drinking and you can’t stop them from having sex. But maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to make some inroads to protect intoxicated young women (who are most at risk) from sexual assault.

According to the article:

Hanging out, drinking, and hooking up are for many students just a part of life in college. They’re also a common backdrop for sexual assault. As many as four in five campus assaults involve drinking, studies have found. Plenty of those cases hinge on whether a woman was drunk or incapacitated, and therefore unable to give consent.

Messages about preventing sexual assault now come at students from many directions: campus and federal officials, the news media, their peers. And what students are hearing has started to influence their behavior. They’re paying more attention, and they’re looking out for one another.

The initiative is a response to Obama’s “It’s on us” campaign, asking people to look out for people in risky situations.  It’s taken an interesting form on campuses, and one reason it’s so interesting to me is that fraternities and athletes on school teams are two of the groups who are most active.

What are they doing to make a difference? At Union College, a campus initiative is training team members about how to intervene:

“I knew we had an opportunity with our hockey team,” says Jim McLaughlin, the athletic director. The team attended a half-day workshop in September on bystander intervention. Next in line are the women’s hockey team and the men’s and women’s basketball and swim teams.

“We are tough, bold women, and we would have the confidence to step into a bad situation,” says Christine Valente, captain of the women’s hockey team.

What’s great about this is that it’s opened up an important conversation about consent and also about masculinity:

Organizers are holding workshops with sports teams, fraternities, and sororities. But they don’t preach or try to give students all the answers. On a recent Thursday evening, the men’s lacrosse team packed into a dorm’s common area, where the group’s presenters, all women, tried to draw the athletes out. What does consent mean? How does sexual assault affect men? How do stereotypes of masculinity play into the problem?

“You should have consent before you go out and party and get drunk, instead of waking up the next day and regretting it,” one player said. “As a team, I want to win a national championship,” offered another. “I don’t want another player going out and touching a woman who doesn’t want to be touched and undermining our success.” Every time someone spoke up, the women tossed out packets of Sweet Tarts or Reese’s Pieces.

After such presentations, students sometimes approach members of the consent group, says Ms. Han, to say they’ve been applying its lessons. “I was having sex,” a student might report, “and I asked for consent!”

We’ve had our own conversation about consent here in Canada recently. I alluded to it briefly in my Mine all Mine post where I talked about how getting active gave me a new sense of being in my body.  There, I called it confident ownership.

That’s another reason why I think athletes are in a good position to have some influence in this area.  At Union, they’re involving not just the men’s teams, but also the women’s teams.  As the captain of the women’s hockey team said, they’re “tough, bold women” with confidence.

As Caitlin from Fit and Feminist said earlier this week in her post on confidence, her athletic achievements (her awesomeness really does know no bounds — she’s unstoppable!) has translated into something she never had before: she believes in herself.

So women who are athletes can play an important role in changing the culture of risk.  It’s a fine line, of course, between giving women tools that empower them, on the one hand, and blaming them when those tools fail them, on the other.  It’s realistic, of course, to want to protect ourselves.  At Union, the women

 they do two things to keep themselves and their friends safe from sexual assault. They never walk alone after dark, and they go to parties in groups. Some also bring their own alcohol—keeping their drinks covered and close at hand. Campus safety officers taught three self-defense classes this fall, and the Theta Delta Chi fraternity offered to buy women a new kind of nail polish that is supposed to change colors to detect the presence of common date-rape drugs.

It’s fantastic that these campus initiatives don’t stop there.  There’s a great “tipsheet” for preventing sexual assault that made the rounds a few years ago. It turns our usual suggestions about what women can do to keep themselves safe into suggestions for perpetrators instead. For example:

1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.

2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!

3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!

4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.

5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!

What these campus initiatives are getting right is that they are involving everyone.  That’s what’s required for a culture change.  Traditionally, sport (particularly men’s varsity sports) has been (and is) a sexist domain with a bad track record for treating women respectfully. It’s encouraging to see an initiative the takes advantage of the leadership potential of athletes on campuses and redefines the values we have come to associate with sports teams.

I hope to see more of this, including on my own campus where issues of date rape and sexual assault among the students need to be high on our list of priorities, and conversations about consent and respect need to stay on our radar even though our radio host scandal has fallen out of the news.


Guest Post · martial arts

Self Defense and Sexual Assault (Guest Post)

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.