The alarm bells have been ringing mutedly across college campuses for some time now. It has become a scarlet letter around the necks of administrators everywhere who know more than they let on and who do less than they both could and should. The heart-wrenching data have been collected and analysed. The results are rightfully shocking from the dual standpoints of justice and public safety. In short, colleges and universities are (ineffectively) struggling to come to grips with what can be aptly described as a rape epidemic. When an estimated one out of every five women is being raped during college (a figure recently verified by the U.S. Center for Disease Control), this suggests that the spaces on (and surrounding) campuses are predictably and demonstrably unsafe for women. This in turn suggests that existing preventive measures are falling woefully short both when it comes to keeping students safe and when it comes to preventing gender-based injustices. The prevalence of rape and the silencing influence of rape culture make it clear we are collectively and systematically failing women on campuses around the country. It’s also abundantly clear that more should be done.
In the following pages, I want to explore what role self-defence training ought to play (if any) as part of any comprehensive plan for addressing the multi-faceted problem of sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses. Because I believe that self-defence training should play an integral role, I will consider two feminist objections to self-defence training and try to show how these concerns are misplaced. In the final analysis, I agree with Ann Cahill, Grayson Hunt, Martha McCaughey, Jill Cermele, and others who suggest that so-called “feminist self-defence training” can be especially transformative and empowering.
So, while some forms of self-defence training may suffer from the defects that have been identified and attacked by feminists, other forms of self-defence training can empower women both by situating the training within a feminist framework and by providing techniques and skill sets that can work effectively against larger attackers. In short, not all self-defence training is created equally. So, we should not draw any universal conclusions about self-defence training per se, rather we have to ask whether there are some particular programs, styles, or traditions that empower women while at the same time making them safer. I am going to suggest that by wedding some traditional martial arts – e.g., Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a battle-tested form of ground fighting that relies on leverage to enable individuals to defend themselves against larger and stronger attackers – with feminist thought, a truly empowering and liberating women’s self-defence program can be developed that avoids the problems associated with traditional programs.
It’s not just that proper self-defence programs make women less likely to be targeted for sexual assault, it also provides them with the tools for counter-violence that may be needed to save their lives in the lamentable event that they are attacked. Moreover, approaches to self-defence that are overtly steeped in feminist theory can expand women’s self-efficacy and self-direction while at the same time avoiding victim blaming and curtailing women’s freedom. On this empowerment approach to feminist self-defence, the goal is liberation and control. The vehicle is effectively and efficiently learning to resist harassment and violence – which studies suggest make it between 85% and 90% less likely that a target of sexual assault will ultimately become a victim of sexual assault.
To learn the art of actively and effectively fighting back is not to acquiesce or concede ground to all of the moral indecencies and systemic injustices associated with rape culture. Rather, it is to learn to take a stand for (and actively insist upon) one’s own space, worth, and value. There is inherent and instrumental value in learning to stand one’s ground, to reclaim one’s space, and to fight back if necessary. These can be liberating and empowering experiences. And if the techniques are truly effective – as some of them are – then these self-defence programs can enhance women’s control over their lives, their self-determination, and their situatedeness in the world. In this sense, when done right, self-defence training can engender both self-respect and self-empowerment – which is why it ought to be included as part of any comprehensive approach to preventing sexual violence and combatting rape culture.
While one might expect feminists to applaud self-defence training, quite the contrary has traditionally been the case. While some of these objections are theoretical, others are more practical in detail. My goal in this section will be to discuss two common feminist objections to self-defence training and show why they fall short in undermining the value and importance of self-defence training for empowering women and keeping them safe. That said, I will start with the most common objection – namely, that self-defence programs are tantamount to victim blaming.
According to those who raise the first type of objection such as Carine Mardorossian and others, self-defence programs send the wrong message and place the burden of proof on the wrong shoulders. After all, the blame for sexual violence and rape culture lies with the offenders not the victims and would-be victims. On this view, telling potential victims that they should learn to protect themselves is tantamount to blaming them for their status as victims. But this is misguided, so the objection goes. It’s not that would-be victims need to learn self-defence. It’s that would-be offenders need to learn self-restraint. According to this line of criticism, by focusing on self-defence, we purportedly place at least part of the burden on the victims and would-be victims – which is purportedly victim blaming plain and simple. As if often the case, however, upon closer inspection, we find that things are neither as plain nor as simple as assumed.
Obviously, in an ideal world, men would not be sexual offenders. Furthermore, we would not live in a culture wherein men find it acceptable to devalue, exploit, objectify, or assault women. If one were rational and self-interested and behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, one would not agree to live in a world where women were treated unfairly. Indeed, men who appreciate this obvious fact bear a special burden to combat the misogynistic and sexist attitudes and behaviours that normalise these attitudes and behaviours and lay the foundation for rape culture. And hopefully, moving forward, rape culture will erode away and would-be offenders will take proper responsibility for their actions, curb their behaviour, revise and update their belief and choice architecture, and the like. This process is going to take time as moral progress often moves at a snail’s pace. And who knows, perhaps one day we’ll live in this utopic world. We may also continually fall short of this ideal – no matter how much progress we make in our efforts to move forward.
But in the here and now and for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with the unfortunate reality of sexual violence. Indeed, in the world we actually inhabit, rape culture is real and women are regularly harassed, stalked, assaulted, battered, raped, and even killed. And while all right-thinking individuals should be committed to combatting rape culture and the problems associated with it – especially by challenging and changing the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of would-be offenders – in the interim we are left navigating a world that can often be as dangerous to women as it is cruel and unfair. The question we face is: What strategies should we adopt as part of a comprehensive plan to prevent sexual abuse and combat rape culture in the world as it is – that is, as we find it, with patriarchal and misogynistic warts and all? My claim is that teaching women how to defend themselves is not tantamount to blaming them for being victims or would-be victims. It is instead a concerted attempt to give women the power to actively resist victimhood – that is, to teach women how to defend themselves is to empower them with the knowledge and skills of counter-violence. It is not to make them complicit in the violence itself.
This is where the all-important distinction between self-defence per se and feminist (or empowerment) self-defence comes into play. While some forms of self-defence training might send the wrong victim-blaming message while at the same time curbing and constraining women’s liberties and freedoms – e.g. by telling them what to wear (or not) or when it is safe for them to drink alcohol or walk alone at night – a self-defence program that is steeped in feminist ideology and geared toward empowering women will do none of these things. After all, it is perfectly consistent for someone to be a victim of assault through positively no fault of her own and yet still have the power to prevent the assault. That one has the latter power does not burden one with the former responsibility – which resides with the attacker alone (fuelled perhaps by the pernicious effects of rape culture). This makes it clear, at least in my mind, that self-defence need not inherently involve victim blaming. Just because some forms of self-defence have some property – e.g. the tendency to blame victims – it need not and does not follow that all forms of self-defence training suffer this same shortcoming.
What we need at the present moment – in the here and now – is to strike a balance between ideal theory and non-ideal theory. This is not to somehow shamefully strike a deal with the devil of patriarchy. Moreover, this does not require one to sacrifice one’s feminist principles and values. Rather, the present circumstances merely require us to accept the obvious fact that, counter-factually speaking, a number of the assaults against women could have been prevented if they were fully empowered rather than primed to be victims by a society and culture that have conspired to fail them. The main point is that sometimes we must focus on practice and not just theory when philosophising. Women’s self-defence is a case in point. The issue isn’t how we should address the problem of sexual violence in some idealised world. Rather, the question is how to most effectively and efficiently address the problem given the feasibility constraints facing us and given the morally imperfect world we lamentably have to navigate as justly and safely as possible while we inch our way toward a better future. This seems to me to be the best response to the first feminist objection to women’s self-defence training.
Another feminist objection that been raised, for instance, by Anne Campbell, Jane Caputi, and others, is that it is purportedly masculine and patriarchal to engage in violence per se. Given that self-defence training involves engaging in violence, it therefore drags women down to the very level they are trying to combat. On this view, to teach women self-defence is to play into the very hands of the enemy – namely, the men who advocate for (and benefit from) male domination, the subjugation and oppression of women, and gender inequality.
One problem with this objection is that it fails to draw an important distinction between violence and counter-violence. Even if one had an air-tight argument showing that the former is problematic (because patriarchal), it wouldn’t follow that the latter is similarly problematic. We are talking about self-defence, after all, and in most legal jurisdictions, defending oneself from an imminent threat is justified and not merely excusable. That is to say, under certain circumstances, defending oneself and fighting back are the right things to do, both morally and legally speaking. Notice that holding this common-sense view of self-defence is completely compatible with claiming at the same time that violence against innocent people is never justified. To the extent that defending oneself involves counter-violence rather than merely violence per se, it can be justified even when violence without justification is rightly prohibited. Now this is not to say that one couldn’t develop a feminist critique of counter-violence specifically rather than violence per se that shows that counter-violence, too, is patriarchal, fuels male domination, and the like.
But in the meantime, I have my suspicions. For one thing, the gathering empirical data suggest otherwise – namely, the data suggest that when women use counter-violence in exercising their broader right to self-defence, they are less likely to be victims of sexual assault and other forms of male domination. Surely no one other than the strictest pacifist will suggest that we shouldn’t fight back when attacked. But if you think women are justified in fighting back – that is, in using self-defence in the case of sexual assault – then why wouldn’t you want them to be trained to fight back as effectively and efficiently as possible?
Another problem with this particular feminist objection to women’s self-defence training is that it seems to be ironically (and perhaps dangerously) predicated on some sexist assumptions about the differences between men and women and the root causes of rape. On the one hand, the worry assumes rather than challenges the association between manhood and violence and women and passivity. This feeds into rape culture by further propagating an essentialist view about violence and gender. On the other hand, this objection is based on the view that rape is caused, at least in part, by the general size and strength differentials between men and women. But this, too, is untrue. Some martial arts like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu were specifically designed to nullify (as much as possible) the importance of size and strength. So, while it might be true that some forms of self-defence won’t help women overcome being generally smaller than men, this isn’t true of all forms of self-defence. Here again, once we draw some additional fine-grained distinctions, the concerns about women’s self-defence training lose some of their bite.
In closing, I want to highlight that the purported efficacy (or lack thereof) of feminist self-defence training to empower and protect women is ultimately an empirical question. So far, the general prognosis looks good, with evidence suggesting that self-defence training can empower women while also decreasing anxiety, depression, hostility, and fear and increasing assertiveness, self-esteem, perceived control, and global and physical self-efficacy. But what additive effects does training in feminism provide above and beyond self-defence training more generally? I set out to shed light on this issue with a team of colleagues here at my home institution. In our preliminary study, we had two groups of college students. The first group of women took a semester long class in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The second group of women took both a semester long class in Jiu Jitsu and a class in feminist theory (with a focus on rape culture and feminist self-defence). The women were given a battery of psychometric tests at the beginning and at the end of the semester.
Our findings suggest that women in both groups benefited, but the women who were trained both in self-defence and in feminist theory benefited even more – e.g. they demonstrated decreased anxiousness, feelings of powerlessness, and trauma memories and also increased self-esteem, self-efficacy, and perceived safety. Now this was admittedly a preliminary study. We plan to run some larger studies down the road. But for now, we think we have some promising evidence that feminist self-defence training can be an effective tool in rape prevention. We also think this evidence suggests that the worries raised by feminists when it comes to self-defence training are misplaced. Not only can feminist self-defence empower women by enabling them to defend themselves from would-be attackers, but it can also yield other important intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits. As such, it’s high time for feminist self-defence training to become part of any comprehensive plan to address the ongoing rape epidemic.