Five Reasons Why "Teach Women Self-Defense" Isn't a Comprehensive Solution to Rape

Before I start this post in earnest, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that women should not take self-defense courses, that women should not get involved in martial arts, or that there's no such thing as a woman who has successfully defended herself against assault, sexual or otherwise. What this post is intended to address is the exceedingly common recommendation in rape threads that women should "learn how to protect themselves" as the (one-and-only) solution to rape, and the equally frequent comment that people have enrolled their daughters in martial arts classes so they "will know how to take care of themselves."

Self-protection is, at best, one part of a comprehensive solution to rape—and it's not even as straightforward as it may seem. Looking at the complex and practical realities of what teaching women self-defense in regard to rape prevention really means is the focus of this post.

Its raison d'ĂȘtre is the progressively frequent references to rape's inevitability and women's need to learn self-defense as the only surefire way to prevent rape. (See An Angry Old Broad's comment here, in the Bob Herbert thread, as an example of how this meme is disseminated in the media.)

* * *

Reason #1 why self-defense isn't a comprehensive solution to rape: Self-defense instructors can be rapists, too.

Increasingly, martial arts classes are being marketed to young women and the parents of young girls as "self-defense," in which is implicit an unspoken narrative about the prevention of sexual assault. (They are also being sought after in the same way; see another comment from An Angry Old Broad, in the same thread.) The brutal irony is that, as ever, sexual predators endeavor to infiltrate programs where they will be given a trusted position and unsupervised contact with a steady stream of victims. And so we end up with stories like this (via Marcella):

A self-defense instructor in Forest Lake, Minnesota has been charged with having sex with a 15-year-old female student.

Ladislao Enriquez, 48, faces one count each of first-degree and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

According to the charges, the girl told police she took the class because she was sexually assaulted more than two years earlier.
And this (note that "having sex" is yet again used as a euphemism for rape):

A Yakima karate instructor has been accused of having sex with two underage girls.

Yakima Police say 44-year-old Paul Daniel Barr was charged last week with four counts of third-degree child rape for molesting and raping a 13-year-old girl after he met her while teaching at the Yakima School of Karate.

On Friday, Yakima Police questioned Barr about his relationship with another girl, who says she had sex with him when she was 14-years old. Barr has been charged with second-degree rape and sexual exploitation of a minor in the second case.
Those are just the stories I saw last week.

I am not citing them to try to discourage parents from enrolling daughters in self-defense or martial arts classes, but because they expose the inevitable problem with treating self-defense as the end-all-be-all of rape prevention. There have been fathers in various rape threads at Shakes who have pointedly said that they're taking their daughters to learn a martial art "so they won't ever have to worry about rape," men who absolutely refused to engage the point of this post, which is that such classes are not a panacea for the rape culture, which is vast and varied and—yes—capable of saturating even martial arts classes.

These stories underline why challenging and undermining the rape culture within your own community—including by insisting that criminal background checks and multiple-adult supervision are required by any instructor of children's extracurriculars—is at least as important as self-defense training (and probably more so).

Reason #2 why self-defense isn't a comprehensive solution to rape: Unconscious women can't fight back.

Given the plethora of posts to be found at Shakesville on date rape, gray rape, quality of assent, and enthusiastic consent, certainly most readers are already well aware that rape isn't just something that happens to conscious women, but to women who are inebriated, incapacitated, in comas, and in every other varied state of unconsciousness.

And, lest this disintegrate into yet another round of victim-blaming by people who can't seem to wrap their heads around the idea that tasking victims with being the gatekeepers of rape and sexual abuse, rather than the perpetrators, is predicated upon the fallacious assumption that any man is capable of such ugliness given the right circumstances—which is nasty, man-hating bullshit—there's absolutely no need whatsoever to point out that women need to be more responsible so they don't end up unconscious in the presence of a rapist.

For a start, it ignores the women who end up unconscious against their wills, by virtue of injury, disease, date rape drugs, or merely being inexperienced drinkers. Secondly, even if we're talking about the supposedly legions of women who deliberately choose to throw caution to the wind and purposefully drink themselves into oblivion in the presence of strangers, only in some parallel dimension where that equals consent does this discussion even matter.

The point is this: If a woman becomes incapacitated for any reason in the presence of a rapist, all the self-defense techniques in the world will not save her.

Reason #3 why self-defense isn't a comprehensive solution to rape: Women with self-defense training are still raped.

Even among women who are conscious, who do/can fight back, and have had self-defense training, its efficacy is not 100%. Depending on the source, anywhere from about 15 to >50% of women who are trained in self-defense techniques are still raped when in a situation where rape appears imminent. (Naturally, it's impossible to know whether a woman not trained in self-defense who managed to get off a swift kick to the googlies would have achieved the same result.)

The upside, however—and it's not a small one—is that women who are trained in self-defense and can/do fight back, but are still raped, are nonetheless more likely to feel less responsible, more angry, and more determined to pursue every legal avenue available.

Reason #4 why self-defense isn't a comprehensive solution to rape: Women who deter assaults with violent means are often punished.

This is where the vastly different cultural standards by which men and women are judged begin to rear their ugly heads. Although MRAs would have us believe that women can kill a man in cold blood and use "he looked at me cross-eyed" as a defense to get off scot-free, reality is ever-so-slightly different, especially for women of color. Even in cases of self-defense against an abusive male partner/spouse—in which upwards of 80% of cases have previous calls to police, and violence is usually a last resort (we'll come back to that, btw)—battered women who use violent means to defend themselves are being convicted or are accepting pleas at a rate of 75-83% nationwide.

When women use self-defense measures against strangers, their odds of getting the A-OK on that decision is not any better. Take, for example, the case of the Jersey 4:

On June 14, four African-American women—Venice Brown (19), Terrain Dandridge (20), Patreese Johnson (20) and Renata Hill (24)—received sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to 11 years in prison. None of them had previous criminal records. Two of them are parents of small children.

Their crime? Defending themselves from a physical attack by a man who held them down and choked them, ripped hair from their scalps, spat on them, and threatened to sexually assault them

…As they passed the Independent Film Cinema, 29-year-old Dwayne Buckle, an African-American vendor selling DVDs, sexually propositioned one of the women. They rebuffed his advances and kept walking.

"I'll f— you straight, sweetheart!" Buckle shouted. A video camera from a nearby store shows the women walking away. He followed them, all the while hurling anti-lesbian slurs, grabbing his genitals and making explicitly obscene remarks. The women finally stopped and confronted him. A heated argument ensued. Buckle spat in the face of one of the women and threw his lit cigarette at them, escalating the verbal attack into a physical one.

Buckle is seen on the video grabbing and pulling out large patches of hair from one of the young women. When Buckle ended up on top of one of the women, choking her, Johnson pulled a small steak knife out of her purse. She aimed for his arm to stop him from killing her friend.

The video captures two men finally running over to help the women and beating Buckle. At some point he was stabbed in the abdomen. The women were already walking away across the street by the time the police arrived.

Buckle was hospitalized for five days after surgery for a lacerated liver and stomach. When asked at the hospital, he responded at least twice that men had attacked him.

There was no evidence that Johnson's kitchen knife was the weapon that penetrated his abdomen, nor was there any blood visible on it. In fact, there was never any forensics testing done on her knife. On the night they were arrested, the police told the women that there would be a search by the New York Police Department for the two men—which to date has not happened.

After almost a year of trial, four of the seven were convicted in April. Johnson was sentenced to 11 years on June 14.
Why did these women, like many others, fare so poorly in what was clearly a case of self-defense? Well, it might have a little something to do with the cognitive dissonance between what we say we want women to do to take care of themselves, and what we actually want women to do to take care of themselves.

To wit: About a year ago, Jessica posted a picture of a German warning sign noting that men who harass and/or grope women risk a slap in the face—and that people who see men harassing women (along with disproportionately targeted "migrants, homeless people, transgender people, gays") should get involved to stop it. Go on and just guess what the comments were.

If you guessed "totally missing the point about men doing something to warrant getting slapped, in order to shame teh ladiez for celebrating violence against men," give yourself 1,000 points.

As Ginmar noted in regard to this post (emphasis mine):

It's a common technique of whiny dipshits who are usually complaining about uppity women when they're not complaining aout how women just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fight rape: get a gun. To that, I offer this response: men whining about how you can't trust women because they'll actually defend themselves! With slaps! Oh, God, the horror! The sheer horror of it all!

Pay special attention, in the second link, to the guy who says: "Nice poster. Next time a woman annoys me, I'll smack her. Hard. Great message. I don't see what's to like."

Remember, this is giving men what they claim they think is a great idea: women defending themselves.
Exactly right. Ginmar also pinpoints another problem with exhortations to women to utilize self-defense methods, and why we should be suspicious of them, noting that there are men who "make suggestions about womens' self defense that they know are useless and hopeless, safe in the knowledge that women will always be resented for any act of self defense." Admonishing women to learn self-defense in a culture where a cheeky sign about women slapping harassers is greeted with outraged fury and charges of misandry is misguided at best and willfully disingenuous at worst.

The whole idea that a woman can use self-defense to deter a man she presumes is intent on raping her is predicated on (as all rape scenarios are) a very specific set of circumstances—that she is capable of fighting back, that she successfully does fight back, and that she hurts the potential rapist only enough to get away, but not so much that he ends up in the hospital (or morgue), lest she face charges, and that all of this happens in front of witnesses who will corroborate her story, just in case. And even then, as the Jersey 4 case illustrates, that still doesn't mean she won't be convicted.

Suddenly self-defense doesn't seem like quite the cure-all it is repeatedly suggested to be.

And that brings me to:

Reason #5 why self-defense isn't a comprehensive solution to rape: Lots of women know their rapists.

Remember when I mentioned we'd come back to that whole violence-as-a-last-resort thing? Okay, here we are. There are a couple of reasons that most victims of sustained abuse don't haul off and physically self-defend right from the get-go—including a general instinctual reluctance to hurt people we know (even if they're hurting us) and the very rational and reasonable calculation that retribution for self-defense may be intolerable, possibly life-threatening.

Remember, women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than a stranger, and nine times more likely to be raped in their home, the home of someone they know, or anywhere else than being raped on the street, making what we commonly refer to as "date rape" by far the most prevalent "type" of rape. It's one thing to talk about using self-defense when you're picturing the typically (if erroneously) conjured rape scenario—a psychopathic stranger jumping out of the bushes and trying to rape you. It's quite another proposition altogether to think about trying to incapacitate your date, your boyfriend, your husband, your boss, your friend—someone you trust.

I'm not saying there aren't women who can and would do it; there certainly are. But it's not as easy. The incidents of well-trained and even armed military women, policewomen, self-defense instructors, etc. being raped by someone they know speaks to that difficulty. Women (and men) who should be able to, and are able to, overcome their attackers don't/can't always do so. That's not meant to impugn women. It's a statement on the disposition of humans.

As I said above, the rape culture, with all its manifestations and narratives and accoutrements, is vast and varied, necessarily making rape prevention more complex than any one solution. There's no silver bullet.

By all means, support women learning self-defense. Just don't let your thoughts about rape prevention end there.

[UPDATE: Echidne has related and complementary thoughts here. It's an excellent post. Go read!]

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