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.
Today we are probably living in one the most women conscious decade in Indian women’s history because of the all-time high number of cases of domestic violence against women. From domestic violence to rape we hear cases being reported every day by prominent national and international media organizations. No government, NGO or any other relevant organisation have until now delivered a viable solution to stop this widespread problem in India.
If you are a woman who has a weak heart, you may likely experience the problem and become a cold statistics. Here is my personal experience.
It was a just another night, I was walking back home with my family after a party. We were all chatting and laughing. All of sudden I realized that my grandmother was missing, my heart literally skipped a heartbeat. Although she is old by age but she looks relatively young and something might have happened in between our laughter’s noise. Next second I scanned the road and there she was walking ahead of all of us already reached the end of the road. I quickly communicated to my grandfather to hurry up and what he said changed my outlook of the so-called “women empowerment”.
And he said “Do you think anybody can even touch her; she can herself beat four men at a time”
These were simple words, but they were uncommon to define a woman. I myself fear to walk alone on a deadly deserted road even in daylight. I am younger than her, have travelled half of the country by myself, but still got nothing in comparison to her.
At that moment, I learned a new thing, may be a secret for a lifetime.
The secret was the confidence she had in herself. So I spend a few days studying her days and getting to understand the source of this confidence and there it was loud and clear. She has a lifestyle which has defined her health and lead to a fit body even in her 60s. She has been forever active, carry out most of the household task herself. She has a mindset to take up the challenges and hunt them down.
It was getting wild for me as the intrigued about the subject more because I needed a solution for myself and for every girl (especially in Delhi) who was haunted by the recent women related crime around the country. Her time was different; the world was typically safer, healthier, easier and different in terms of lifestyle as it is today. So the search began for an answer, a face which has a parallel confidence like my grandmother but can deal and work out for modern scenarios. The answer was right in front of me. My YouTube account linked me to a video of Mary Kom. There she was speaking, portraying and living as a feminist we all might need to grow to. She has won in a men’s game in a world where very few girls want to go in and fewer than them succeed. On one particular interview, she gave a very strong comment “I have been confident about myself”. As I read more and more about her she calmed me down and seems to have a way out. There was this fire and self-belief which was common in both of these women.
And so the answer was her trick self-defence.
Now just hold up the thought and consider this, if all the young girls get an opportunity to be trained to some basic level like Mary Kom, if we make them ready with self-defence training, and if we do that for an elongated time stamp, then we might be able to hit them hard and change their psychic. Let they redefine their world and take charge of their life. So next time when she want to go out she may not need her father or uncle or her boyfriend to go with her. The story of domestic violence which resides inside those closed doors may also rest in peace because our girls will be ready to face it and kill the beast in his face and stay as happy as possible.
So I immediately reached out Google “my best friend”, and to my surprise when I checked Justdial for a self-defence training there were more than 85+ options available just in Delhi. I was in a shock, it was going all around and I seemed to be among the last few to know.
I soon came out of my panic attack, as they say in Hindi ”Der aye durust aye” i.e. better late than never. I signed up for a Karate course and will be soon receiving my completion certificate.
The moment has not come yet for me to use my skill, but now when I walk on the road alone my heartbeat do not shoot up with every passing by car or a noisy bike rider. This training, of course have not killed all my fear but certainly it has given me a confidence to give a tough fight, to stay calm even in crisis and above everything this created a belief in me that I can do it. So I am now a permanent devotee to this religion of “Self-Defence” because it has completely changed my outlook towards the social fear and at some level it has also changed the perception of the people around me. Many of my friends have already followed my footstep and are really happy with the choice they made. Try it girls, you will feel the difference.
We have a tendency to delay things till it finally hurt us. But is not our safety our first priority?
If you were waiting for a wake-up call, this is it! There are enormous options in the market. Get out of your comfort zone today, see what suits you and join thousands of others who have realised this solution and have already taken their first step to a safe future.
Hey Lady!! You know what YOU can do it! Cheers!
About the Author:
Shivangi Bansal is an avid writer and self-defence advocate against violence against women in New Delhi. She shares fitness tips through her fitness blog and helps girls access the best gym in Delhi for self-defence training.
I didn’t see it on Superbowl Sunday because I didn’t watch the Superbowl. But I was intrigued when I heard on the Friday morning news that the NFL was sponsoring a Public Service Announcement by a group called No More. No More’s website describes it as a movement designed to end domestic violence and sexual assault:
NO MORE is a movement to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault launched in 2013 by a coalition of leading corporations, advocacy and service organizations. NO MORE is supported by hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault organizations at the local, state and national levels that are using its signature blue symbol to increase visibility and funding to address these critical issues. Any individual, organization, or corporation that wants to end domestic violence and sexual assault can use the NO MORE symbol to show their commitment to this cause.
The Superbowl is known for its big production ads, and the spot donated to the PSA was worth $5,000,000.00.
The chilling ad is based on a real 911 phone call in which a woman pretends to order a pizza so that her abuser, who is in the room, doesn’t know that she’s calling for help. Here’s the psa:
Over a hundred million people tuned in the game yesterday, so that’s a lot of exposure for a campaign against domestic violence — an issue that rarely gets its due.
But the ad is not without its critics. First of all, the league responded minimally to the Ray Rice incident. In a sickening video that went viral last summer, player Ray Rice punched his then fiance (now spouse) in an elevator so hard he knocked her out. A video surveillance camera caught the entire appalling incident on film, including Rice subsequently dragging his partner out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes.
But there’s more: “Rice also was fined an additional regular-season game check but is eligible to participate in training camp and all of Baltimore’s preseason games, the NFL announced.”
After saying how disappointed he was to be missing out on some games, Rice said:
My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that.
His coach said:
It’s not a big deal. It’s just part of the process. We said from the beginning that the circumstances would determine the consequences. There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake. He’s going to have to pay a consequence.
Airing the No More PSA is one tiny step in the direction of repairing its reputation for tolerating this kind of violence.
In an article in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti notes that “a 30-second spot doesn’t undo the years of damage the NFL has wrought on domestic violence issues, nor does it change the culture of violence and coverups that plague the league.”
And in an article onFeministing, Mychal Denzel Smith talks about the type of masculinity the NFL promotes. That, he says, is what we need to be talking about. That is what the NFL could take a lead role in re-shaping:
The NFL is in a unique position, as one of the most visible arbiters of the cultural definition of masculinity. That definition of masculinity as dominant, violent, and controlling contributes to a culture in which violence against women is not regarded as a serious enough issue to warrant collective outrage. The NFL could be fostering a dialogue with men about how and why this definition of masculinity is dangerous and oppressive. It could be engaging boys and young men in an unlearning process and re-education around the values embedded in these archaic forms of masculinity, and questioning the health and vitality of those models. It should be starting that engagement and dialogue with its players and personnel.
Not wanting to be completely negative, he says:
Again, I don’t want to completely shit on this ad. Millions upon millions of people are going to see it and be forced to reckon with it during a time in which they’d like to run away from the issue. They will have to remember that some people don’t have the privilege of turning away. Conversations will be had.
However, this ad also doesn’t really demand anything more from us than the status quo. At the end, it says “When it’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen.” But if the only thing we’re being asked to do is have compassion after someone has already experienced violence, we’re accepting that violence as a part of culture. We’re conceding something I’d rather not — that we can’t prevent men from beating women. We can only care for these women’s wounds.
That’s an important observation. We don’t just need to have compassion for women who experience domestic violence, we need to address the cultural assumptions about masculinity that are at the root of violence against women to begin with. Violence does not need to be part of our culture.
This eye-opening book links gender-based pay and scholarship inequity with male violence and male domination in sports and society at large. As this book points out, athletes who rape and male coaches who brag of beating their wives are often dismissed by our culture with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Formerly competitive co-ed sports have been replaced with sex-segregated sports after a woman wins against male competitors. Those dubious signals sent to boys such as “don’t throw like a girl” are all designed to glorify masculinity and keep it safe from so-called female interference and contamination.
When did that book come out? Twenty years ago, in 1995.
I heard today that last night’s game was the most watched event in television history, breaking records for tv and social media. You might say that’s a lot of people getting exposed to the 30-second version of the No More PSA. And that’s true.
But the game is a lot longer than 30 seconds. And what it represents in the fabric of North America society is a fairly entrenched tradition that embraces, with very little critical commentary, a mainstream and disturbing view of masculinity.
It’s that very understanding of masculinity that contributes to a culture in which women count for less and where a first reasonable response to knocking your fiance unconscious is a three-game suspension.
I emerged from the woods, intending to follow a secluded laneway to the next trail, when I noticed a white van parked about 100m behind me on the laneway. There was a man in the driver’s seat. I paused imperceptibly, then walked in the opposite direction. As I trudged through the deep snow beside the lane, I could hear the van’s motor running behind me. The van was slowing driving closer. The hairs raised on the back of my neck. Without moving my head, I eyed my surroundings. There were no other hikers nearby, this time of day. After all, I liked to hike in solitude. There was plenty of open space if I needed to run, and I was about 800m away from some buildings that should have people in them. My heart started beating rapidly, and I stiffened as the van passed me. It drove on down the lane, around a bend to a parking lot out of sight. As soon as it disappeared, I ducked back into the woods, striding quickly in the opposite direction, down a steep incline towards the pond. I made sure I couldn’t be easily tracked if I were followed, and I only stopped when I was certain any danger was past.
As much as I enjoy hiking in the woods alone, there’s one aspect that makes me incredibly nervous: the fear of being assaulted. If I dwell on it too much, I start to get righteously pissed off that I’m a woman who has to worry about such things. But I do worry. The scenario above? It actually happened, just a few weeks ago. The man in the van was probably harmless, but when I’m alone in a semi-secluded area, every man is a possible threat.
I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse from a distant male relative, and I suffer from mild PTSD related to my experiences. In the past I’ve also had a couple of close calls that have kept me from walking alone for months. The first happened when I was a young teenager. I’d decided to walk in my suburban neighbourhood early one summer morning before dawn. An older man in his 50s passed me on a bicycle, then circled back, quietly catcalling to me. I immediately ran to the nearest house and pounded on the front door, waking the inhabitants and scaring the man off. Then, in my late 20s, I was walking alone by the university on a weekend morning, and a man exposed himself to me near the river.
A quick online search on the subject of running safety (the closest thing to hiking safety that I could find) turned up repeated admonitions never to run alone. This frustrates me to no end, because I don’t want to have to depend on someone else’s schedule to get my exercise. Besides which, I enjoy exploring the natural world at my own pace, stopping often to take photographs. In my experience, this doesn’t make me a great hiking partner. More importantly, I feel less free when I have to curtail my activities because of the implied vulnerability of my gender. This is not cool.
So I compromise. I may go alone, but I try to be as conscious as I can of any possible threats to my safety. I try not to be predictable. I vary my locations, as well as times and days of the week. I “check in” my location on Facebook when I arrive. (My mom once asked why I always identified my location on Facebook when I went for a hike. “Um, so you know where to start looking if I disappear, Mom.”) I watch for other hikers – or other people, period. I plan escape routes. I don’t listen to music while I hike. I stay aware of my surroundings – I’m alert to every twig cracking, every leaf rustling. And if I get a bad feeling about a secluded area before I enter it, I immediately turn around and go somewhere else.
I still make poor judgements, though. Like the time I went hiking alone at the Sifton Bog early one morning. I had never been there before, and didn’t know what to expect. There were signs posted in the parking lot, warning of a local thief who was repeatedly breaking into parked cars. That should have given me pause. The trail map showed long trails circling the bog, and a single trail going right in to its centre. I chose the latter, because I wanted to see the bog itself. The landscape was amazing; the boardwalk made me claustrophobic. At the end of the trail I quickly snapped a few pictures and then turned around to leave. I was startled by another woman walking towards me with a large dog.
“I didn’t know if this was a good idea,” she said. “I’ve never walked here alone here, this time of day.” I admitted that I’d felt uneasy, too. Our hushed, embarrassed laughter revealed our unspoken fears. I made a decision: I wouldn’t be taking that particular trail alone again. And maybe I should finally look into those Aikido classes that Sam is always recommending. This article suggests that learning even a basic martial arts fighting stance could deter a potential attacker:
“A woman’s immediate reaction is going to determine her fate…If I’m an attacker and I run towards a woman and she steps back and gets into a martial arts fighting stance I’m going to say ‘This woman is crazy or knows what she is doing and I’m going to find someone else to mess with.'”
I so want to be someone who an attacker wouldn’t dare mess with.
[Author update, July 2016: I started studying the martial art of aikido in early 2014, and am currently about half-way to achieving my black belt. I was also diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2015, and both aikido and cancer have shifted my perspective on fear. Aikido taught me to “enter” when I’m being attacked, and cancer proved to me that I could fight. Martial arts may not be the answer for every survivor of abuse or trauma, but I would highly recommend aikido to anyone. MLG]