The first time I drove my fist through a pine board I learned something about physical power that is almost indescribable. It stood stark against two decades of socialization telling me that, as a female, I was inherently weak and incapable. And it profoundly countered the repeated victimization I endured as an adolescent. Sexual violation, and a culture that objectifies women and dismisses our sexual agency, told me my body existed for the use or misuse of others. Self-defense taught me my body–my strong, capable, powerful body–was my own.
One in five women will experience a completed rape in her lifetime; over three quarters of these assaults occur when the victim/survivor is 25 or younger. One in two women will experience a non-rape sexual assault. That makes sexual violence a silent commonality among adult women.
But despite the fact that most of us already know survivors of sexual violence–or are survivors ourselves–it can be hard to know how best to respond when someone discloses an incident of violation. This is partly because these violations occur in a realm that is so deeply personal. It can feel like we are intruding on the survivor’s privacy. It can feel shameful to imagine—or remember–ourselves in a similarly vulnerable or exposed condition. We want to look away.
Empowerment, Victim Blaming, and Feminist Models of Self-Defense
Sometime in 1988, I found my way to a bare-bones studio over a discount store in Brooklyn and the practice of empowerment-model self-defense. I was a women’s studies undergrad at the time and—although I didn’t yet identify as such—a survivor of sexual trauma. Falling in with that sweaty group of feminists saved my life.
Self-defense was feminist theory come to life. An embodied practice, it introduced me to physical and emotional power—my own, and that of other women. It invited me to diverse community, to learn from and alongside women whose backgrounds were different from my own but who shared a common vision: a world free of violence and oppression.
Each week at my Unitarian Universalist church, the minister shares a “Story for All Ages.” This is the time that my daughter and the other children move to the front of the Great Hall to see the pictures and I let my head drop onto my wife’s shoulder at the exhale of another long week.
A few Sundays ago, the minister told a story about a man who’d passed on from this life and was given the choice to be reincarnated as any creature he wished. He observed animals of the earth, sea and sky before his eyes lit on the humans. “I want to be that kind of creature,” he said. “They are so beautiful.”
That observation penetrated my Sunday morning sleepiness. At best, I’m inclined to think of the human animal as ridiculously adorable—more baby hedgehog than magnificent peacock. I tend toward a functional, “feed-the-machine” perspective, celebrating the corporeal capacity for doing. I practice gratitude for my body’s gifts: sensuality and sexuality, movement, strength, and power; and more than anything, the child that grew inside me. But beautiful?
Halfway through our personal training session my client became disoriented, unfocused, and weepy. Before we began working together she told me that she was a trauma survivor. We were stretching in a peaceful studio when she became overwhelmed with emotion.
“I don’t understand why this is happening now,” she said.
“You brought your body with you,” I reminded her.