Growing up as a young cisgender woman in America, we are raised with every “to-do” list of how to keep from being a victim of sexual assault. The memes are everywhere – “College Move-In Day: you buy your son condoms, and your daughter a rape whistle/pepper spray”. The market for rape prevention tools has grown significantly – from internal devices meant to maim attackers, to nail polish that can detect a roofie in your drink, to specialized clothing that can’t be ripped or cut off.
But in the world that expects women to protect themselves from sexual violence, the idea of physical self-defense seems to lead to the most controversy.
- Women’s self-defense courses are nothing more than victim-blaming disguised as self-empowerment.
This is the main critique of women who seek out self-defense and martial arts in an attempt to feel safe. It does have its merits though; as with anything that can make money, there are organizations out there with dollar-signs in their eyes and lesson plans that don’t surmount to much more than “don’t act like a slut”. But to say that the entire idea of a woman seeking out something to make herself more comfortable in public is wrong because it is abused by big businesses seeking a profit is wrong.
Fix the system, don’t just trash it all.
Make sure that there are strict standards for licensed self-defense programs.
Give women the choice to decide what makes them feel safe.
- The push for women’s self-defense is blaming every woman who couldn’t fight back.
As I mentioned before, there are many people like this – even people leading these courses in self-defense. But it is never the individual’s fault that someone attacked them, regardless of whether they fought back.
It is a valid concern to be afraid that these classes do nothing but ensure that the other girl (who is too drunk or out too late) is the one who is attacked instead. But these classes don’t make their students superhuman. The good courses – such as those approved by the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation (NWMAF) – will give a balance between the physical defense portion of the curriculum and mental/emotional exercises that help to build confidence and awareness. This is where they teach their students how to react to situations, how to remove themselves from a tense situation, and how to diffuse any hostility without violence if at all possible. These courses also have modifications to show women with disabilities how to play to their strengths in hopes of giving some sense of comfort. In these classes there is the emphasis of all choices made by the individual about how to react – to fight or not – are considered equally valid.
These classes give women the strength to trust themselves and their bodies – something many women struggle with.
- Teaching women that they must always be on the defensive is teaching women to be prisoners of rape culture, instead of changing what makes the rapists rape.
I will admit that even I have thought this. But I have also decided that, in my own life, the best way for me to feel safe is to do both. I am a proponent of women having every possible resource available to make her feel safe as we reach out and educate society more about sexual violence and proper consent.
For some women (survivors and women who have never experienced assault alike), self-defense becomes a form of self-care and self-love. In a world where women are constantly fighting their bodies and nitpicking at every flaw or defect, self-defense courses allow them to learn their bodies intimately. They witness their strength growing. These women become more confident and sure of themselves. For some survivors, this can be all the more helpful to their healing experiences when they feel the most beat down.
- Fighting back will just make things worse. (Mostly referring to WOC and trans women of all ethnicities.)
We all read the news and see the headlines that show us people of color are facing serious violence because of their race and because of the belief that no one will care about their pain.
It stands to reason that a woman (more so for a woman of color – especially when facing a white assailant) might feel that she cannot fight back without escalating the situation and raising her chances of being killed. But women of color banded together in the 1960s and 1970s to create a movement within the general feminist movement for women’s self-defense. These women, knowing that society saw them as lesser, decided that they would put their trust in themselves for safety.
As a white Latina, I cannot make any comments on what women of color should do with their bodies – especially with regards to their safety. But I can encourage them to do what they deem best and provide them any support I can.
I know that many of those who are critical of women’s self-defense do so from a place of concern for people’s well-being. But to say that women making the choice to do something for themselves are wrong is to deny women the choice.
It is true, not all women are comfortable with the idea of self-defense – be it martial arts or a weapon.
But, as that is their choice, the choice to learn skills that could help in a violent situation is the right choice for other women. Neither of them are more to blame if someone were to attack them, neither of them are the more sympathetic victim.
So I propose that, instead of policing how women cope with the reality that the world is not a safe place, we strive to make those changes in society. It doesn’t matter whether a woman is carrying pepper spray in her purse or she takes Tae Kwon Do three times a week, the people we need to concern ourselves with are those who prey on these women. We can work on giving women the right tools to feel safe – ensuring that any self-defense is more than just “make the other girl a target instead” – while removing the tools rapists use to terrorize their targets. This is not an “either/or” situation, we can do both.