The Truth and Lies about Women's Self-Defense
by Lorne Coleman
Like most of the media messages targeted at women, the messages women receive about self-defense contain myths designed to perpetuate our rape culture, a culture which accepts male violence against women as the norm. Since men usually write these messages, there is a problem with the very language of women's self-defense. Even the phrase "women's self-defense," implies that it is, in essence, somehow different from men's self-defense. Do you ever see ads for men's self-defense classes or media pieces on men's self-defense? The reason you do not is that our patriarchal society automatically acknowledges that men have a "self" worth defending, and, rest assured, they will defend it (see Schwarzenegger, Snipes, Stallone, Van Damme, Willis, ad nauseum.) Rape culture dictates that men are entitled to their space in the world, and pity the fool (or the culture) that "threatens" their space or thwarts their efforts to take women's space.
Men manipulate the language of self-defense to their advantage, and to women's disadvantage. In Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense, Martha McCaughey discusses how self-defense law (language written by men) usually works against women who successfully defend themselves against male violence. When a man victimizes a woman, she is often blamed for using bad judgment or accused of actually desiring the victimization. When a woman successfully defends herself against a male attacker, she is often accused of employing inappropriate and/or premeditated aggression.
When the media presents news coverage about a man being robbed at an ATM at night, do you ever hear anyone questioning what the man was doing at an ATM at night by himself, or suggesting that men should carry a pepper spray, a chemical agent, a stun gun, or any of the other personal safety devices which are heavily marketed to women? Clearly, you do not need the assistance of a self-defense expert to identify the message which underlies the following "commandments" of women's self-defense: women should always vary their daily routine, in case they are being watched; "women should never run alone in the park"; "women should arrange to do all their shopping and errands during daylight hours"; "women should never go out alone after dark"; "women should/women should not..." ad infinitum.
OUR RAPE CULTURE'S MESSAGE TO WOMEN IS: ALL SPACE, AT ALL TIMES, BELONGS TO MEN!
With their proclamation that "women should never go out alone after dark," men hope to make you believe that you can keep male violence at bay with a dead bolt. "I'll just stay home tonight," you might rationalize, but what you would actually be agreeing to is a restriction of your personal freedom. In return for this loss of freedom, men offer you the false hope that locking yourself inside after dark will prevent them from beating you, raping you, or killing you. The United States Department of Justice documents that eight out of ten women recognize the face of their attacker, a man they trust enough to allow into their home or someone who already shares their home. According to the latest FBI statistics, one out of every four women will be targeted for sexual assault, and a woman is beaten every nine seconds. Oops, there's that language manipulation trick again! Let's state the truth more clearly:
AMERICAN MEN RAPE ONE OUT OF EVERY FOUR AMERICAN WOMEN.
A MAN BEATS A WOMAN EVERY NINE SECONDS IN THIS COUNTRY.
The truth is that the men in your life are more likely to verbally/emotionally abuse you, harass you, stalk you, beat you, rape you, and murder you than the men locked outside your door (Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Female Victims of Violent Crime," 1996). For further insight into the way men manipulate language to avoid accountability for their violence against women, please see Talking Back, by bell hooks, and Fugitive Information, by Kay Hagen.
RAPE CULTURE MYTH:
WOMEN ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MEN'S VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM.
It is no accident that you are led to believe that you are somehow responsible for men's violence against you. The language is intended to perpetuate the myth: "Why did you accept a ride from him?"; "Why did you allow yourself to get drunk at that frat party?"; "Why did you wear that short skirt?"; "Why did you agree to let him walk you back to your apartment?"; "The bitch had it coming!"; "You know she really wanted it!" This language is meant to promote protectionism, the "women should/women should not" school of sexist thought. Protectionism is most men's idea of women's self-defense. Protectionism is one of our rape culture's most effective means of imposing misplaced shame, blame, and guilt onto women so that men will suffer very few negative consequences for their choice to use violence against women. The FBI documents that rape is the most underreported of all violent crimes. Many women reporting assault fear they will be disbelieved or blamed for the violence that men have inflicted upon them. The question should not be, "Why did you allow him to drive you home?"
THE REAL QUESTION IS:
WHY WOULD HE CHOOSE TO RAPE YOU?
The answer, sadly, is because he knows that he will most likely get away with it. About half of rape defendants are released prior to trial, and only about two-thirds of convicted rapists ever receive a prison sentence (Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Sex Offenses and Offenders," 1997).
Do you dream that a man is attacking you and you try to scream, but no sound will come out, and you try to fight back, but your body will not move? This dream is universally reported among women who grow up in this society. It is a result of the constant negative, sexist conditioning that our society imposes upon you from infancy. Unlike G.I. Joe, Barbie is never allowed to fight with Ken; it would not be feminine! Every night on television, men objectify and brutalize countless women. If you walk through the horror film section of any video store, you will find that almost every cover depicts an act of male violence against women. Pornographic "snuff films" take men's violent fantasies to their ultimate conclusion: men literally rape, torture, and murder women on screen. Protectionist "self-defense experts" tell you that you should never go out alone after dark and suggest that you urinate and defecate on yourself should you be attacked (actions which can actually fuel the rapist's intention to terrorize and humiliate his victim). If you decide to buy a weapon for self-defense, these same "experts" advise you to select one which will not kill YOU when your male attacker turns the weapon against you!
ANOTHER RAPE CULTURE MYTH:
WOMEN ARE INCAPABLE OF DEFENDING THEMSELVES.
Television networks do their part to perpetuate this myth. "Watch it boys, she's a black belt!" scoffs the villain on a popular television series. The
woman he is attacking defends herself with numerous punches and kicks, but to no avail. He is too big, too tough, too strong! This message that men are invincible and that women are inherently vulnerable is designed to control and oppress women, to keep you available for male victimization. With their smoke screen myths of men's invincibility and women's incapability, what is it that our rape culture's propagandists are trying to conceal?
POLICE REPORTS DOCUMENT THAT WOMEN OF ALL AGES
SUCCESSFULLY DEFEND THEMSELVES AGAINST MALE ATTACKERS.
Women do have success stories to tell, despite the fact that the media rarely shares them with us. You can read women's self-defense success stories in the following books: Real Knockouts; Back Off! How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers; Her Wits About Her; The Gift of Fear; and Fight Back: Feminist Resistance to Male Violence. As you read women's stories, you will learn the truth about women's self-defense from the women who have done it successfully. You may decide to train with feminist self-defense instructors who will empower you with women's truths, authentic women's self-defense. Real Knockouts, Her Wits About Her, and Essence Magazine (January, 1996) provide information about empowering women's self-defense programs around the country. One of the most encouraging facts you will learn from women's success stories is that women who listen to, and act upon, their awareness and intuition, and who set strong verbal boundaries, have a very high success rate in defending themselves without fighting (see Back Off!) It is inspiring to report, however, that women who do choose to fight have an equally high success rate in defending themselves (see Stopping Rape: Successful Survival Strategies).
In the city of Los Angeles, the Model Mugging Women's Self-Defense & Empowerment Program has documented over one-thousand knockouts of men by women in self-defense scenarios. Graduates of empowering women's self-defense programs report a new awareness of options, both verbal and physical, and a new confidence in their ability to assert and defend themselves. It is important to keep in mind that self-defense training should never be about second guessing ourselves, or anyone else. There are no guarantees in self-defense. If you are the survivor of rape, or of abuse or violence of any other kind, please know that you did everything right. You are not responsible for another's choice to use violence against you.
MEN ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.
It is hopeful that groups like Men Stopping Violence, a program based in Atlanta, are finally holding men accountable. In their twenty-four week program, the male instructors of Men Stopping Violence confront men about their choice to use violence against women, and challenge them to make a different choice. But until men choose to stop using violence against women (see Transforming A Rape Culture), women need to have realistic options for defending themselves.
In Real Knockouts, Martha McCaughey describes empowering women's self-defense training as "physical feminism," because the training enables you to combat the myths which perpetuate rape culture. "I went through the self-defense metamorphosis," she explains. "I learned to jab, punch, poke, pull, kick, yell, stomp, shoot, and even kill with my bare hands. But the fighting spirit is much more than that: self-defense transforms the way it feels to inhabit a female body...Self-defense instruction shows women how to thwart assault aggressively, and in so doing throws open for critique the gender ideologies to which we have all become more or less habituated."
WOMEN HAVE A RIGHT TO THEIR SPACE!
WOMEN HAVE A RIGHT TO THEIR FREEDOM & AUTONOMY!
WE WILL DEFEND THESE RIGHTS...
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY!
Lorne Coleman is the founder and director of ESCAPE Women's Self-Defense & Empowerment Programs.
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