This week we are happy to feature a guest post from Jocelyn Hollander. Jocelyn Hollander is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon whose work focuses on gender and women’s resistance to violence.
The new Miss USA, Nia Sanchez, has been roundly criticized this week for daring to advocate that women learn to defend themselves against violence. As this argument goes, any anti-violence strategy that focuses on what women can do to keep themselves safe is women-blaming. Instead, we should focus all our resources on preventing perpetrators from assaulting women. As one Twitter user wrote, “Hey Miss Nevada- how about instead of woman learning to protect themselves, men learn to not rape women?” (@CaitCremeens, June 09, 2014)
In an ideal world, this would be the right strategy. We would teach perpetrators not to commit violence, they would see the error of their ways, and poof! Violence against women disappears. And if a few perpetrators remain unconvinced, well, we’ll teach bystanders to intervene, and they’ll step in to stop these assaults.
But we do not live in that world. Feminists have been trying to convince perpetrators not to assault women for more than 30 years now, and these problems are still with us. Perpetrators frequently isolate their targets before assaulting them, making bystander intervention dicey, at best. Research on frequently-used prevention strategies finds that most of them either haven’t been systematically evaluated or simply don’t work. While the focus on perpetrators is long overdue, we can’t rely on it as our only strategy for preventing violence.
Moreover, even if perpetrator-focused prevention strategies did work, they would take time to be effective. Many of these strategies rely on major changes in social and interactional norms, and this kind of change is a slow (and usually incomplete) process. If those are our only strategies, what are we asking women to do in the meantime? Suffer through sexual assault while we wait for the knights in shining armor to save them? On my college campus of 25,000, even if we were to implement a prevention program that would be completely effective at the end of one year, 625 women would be sexually assaulted in the meantime. Is that really acceptable?
Women have been told for years that they are weak, that they are vulnerable, and that they need to look to someone else (fathers, boyfriends, husbands, the police, the state) to protect them from violence. When we say that perpetrator-focused strategies are the only legitimate approach, we inadvertently reinforce these stereotypes. What if instead we acknowledge that women are strong and smart enough to protect themselves, rather than waiting for someone else to rescue them?
In the 1970s, women who were tired of waiting for the social system to change took matters into their own hands, developed feminist programs of self-defense, and taught them to thousands of other women. These same programs have recently been shown to be highly effective in preventing sexual assault. Self-defense training is effective, it is immediate, and it is empowering to women.
These programs have been widely misunderstood. Empowering self-defense classes do not simply repeat the tired old advice (don’t walk alone, don’t drink too much, carry your keys in your hand) that reinforces women’s fear and vulnerability and constrains women’s lives. Rather, they help women develop the awareness and verbal skills to stop assaults before they begin – and if that fails, to powerfully resist. They give women more choices, not fewer. Yes, ending sexual assault is not women’s responsibility. But advocating self-defense training is not victim-blaming; it is a realistic strategy for a world in which sexual violence is very much still with us, and will be for the foreseeable future.
I have a young daughter who will soon be growing into adolescence. I am not willing to wait for the day that perpetrators to stop attacking, or that bystanders intervene. I will work tirelessly toward those goals, but in the meantime, I will teach her the skills she needs to protect herself, so that she can act on her own behalf, rather than waiting for some savior-prince who may or may not arrive – and if he does, may or may not be willing or able to save her. I will hope for that ideal world, but in the meantime, I will teach her to save herself, and her sisters. That, to me, is real feminism.