Journalist Mac McClelland recently wrote a piece describing her time at a self defense seminar on protecting yourself from unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault. McClelland observed the women in her class simulating attack scenarios and learning to combat potential assailants. She writes, “according to some studies, a woman who fights back against sexual assault has a much higher chance of not getting raped. The folks at Impact Bay Area, who run this course, and other experts say that forceful engagement can be applied to many situations with a potential enemy.”
While self defense classes that teach women to fight back against assaults can be empowering, they often send the mixed message that victims who do not fight back are doing something wrong. The “fighting back” mentality also perpetuates the “stranger danger” myth i.e. that women should be prepared for an attacker to jump out at them from the bushes in the dead of night, instead of preparing themselves for the more likely reality that they will know their abuser. 73% of sexual assault victims know their attacker. The notion that victims should fight back also excludes individuals with physical or mental disabilities who may be physically unable to retaliate against an assailant.
Additionally, while there is nothing wrong with taking self defense classes to feel safer, teaching women how to “fight back” does nothing to challenge a culture that condones sexual assault. Our culture glorifies and sexualizes violence against women as evidenced by exceedingly violent “gonzo” porn“, the objectification of women in Playboy and Hustler magazines, and that proliferation of strip clubs and sex work industry. We also see men encouraged to stay within the “man box” where violence, emotional restriction and commodification and objectifying of women are lauded as the characteristics of real men.
Perhaps instead of encouraging *women* (and what about the men and boys who are assaulted?) to just take self defense classes, we should all work harder to be active bystanders. Since most sexual assaults (73%) occur between individuals who know each other we need to be more prepared to handle these situations than a “stranger danger” attack. If you’re at a party with friends, make plans before you go out to ensure nobody is leaving the party without informing their friends of doing so. Walk people who’ve had too much to drink home. If you’re already in a relationship, be aware of what some of the warning signs of abusive partners are including wanting to control you, isolating you, or speaking disrespectfully you or family and friends (click here for a more comprehensive list of relationship red flags).
While these action steps can play an important for lowering the risk of sexual assault it is important to remember that no one deserves to be violated or hurt and abuse of any kind is never a victim’s fault. If you or a friend have been a victim of violence call our hotline at 919-929-7122 to speak with a trained advocate.