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.
In the dojo we imagined and rehearsed a different world. A world where “No” is a complete sentence. A world where women and girls are encouraged to be loud, strong, sweaty, and able to hurt the people who would hurt us. A world where racism, classism, and homophobia are actively resisted. A world where women’s agency and choices are championed. A world where all bodies are honored.
Were we perfect? No. We had to grow through ugly mistakes and political missteps. But the self-defense movement is no fly-by-night project. This is hard-core intersectional feminism, developed and practiced for over thirty years by some of the bravest, most progressive, most dedicated activists I know. My teaching apprenticeship found me martialing gay pride marches and pro-choice rallies; teaching riot grrrrls and queer neighborhood watch squads; leading discussions on gender socialization and debunking racist myths about who is dangerous and who is at risk of assault.
That’s why it’s been so painful for me to see self-defense under- and mis-represented in the current conversation about sexual violence. In the era of #YesAllWomen, we’ve reached a cultural watershed where the epidemic of sexual and gendered violence is an increasingly visible and collective concern. Yet, despite the robust evidence base attesting to the effectiveness of self-defense and the testimony of many self-defense instructors, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault failed to include self-defense in its recent recommendations. When recently-crowned Miss U.S.A. Nia Sanchez advocated self-defense as a prevention strategy, some anti-rape activists blasted her as misogynist and victim-blaming.
Self-defense gets discredited from both sides. Our culture still fears women’s power, and there’s a strong voice of denial that we could ever effectively protect ourselves—despite evidence that, trained or untrained, women avoid, interrupt and defend against assault all the time. In the valiant effort to hold perpetrators accountable, some activists reduce violence-prevention to a zero sum game where the only acceptable act is to demand that rapists stop raping. And some activists characterize all self-defense as inherently victim blaming. As a survivor, I find this crushing, because self-defense was the first place I learned that I wasn’t responsible for what was done to me. It has been an essential part of my healing journey.
For over twenty-five years, self-defense has stretched me. In this issue of Ms. Fit, I invite you to share this stretch.
Stretch what we mean by “self-defense.”
For some folks, “self-defense” brings to mind those scare-tactic emails that implore you to cover your drink at parties, check the undercarriage of your car for lurking attackers, and control every aspect of your behavior in fear of sexual violence. Others think any promotion of self-defense implies that women have no one to blame but themselves if they don’t learn how to fight back. Some of our critics claim that self-defense only addresses “stranger-danger” and has nothing to offer until a physical assault is underway. None of these accurately represent the discipline of empowerment self-defense developed and refined by feminists since the 1970s.
As an early self-defense student, I was surprised that so much class time was devoted to practicing awareness, intuition, and assertiveness. Like many of my students, I was even more surprised to discover that looking someone in the eye and speaking calmly, firmly, and clearly was harder for me to do than any of the kicks, blocks, or strikes I learned. Asserting my own desires and preferences went against every ounce of my socialization to be a modest, accommodating “nice girl.”
I was surprised to learn that women are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger, and that violent assault is often preceded by actions along a continuum of harm. I began to recognize how those warning signs were socially minimized or normalized, making it harder for women to trust their instincts if something didn’t feel right—and leaving a narrowed window in which to respond to serious threats.
Finally, I was most surprised to learn that we are under no obligation to learn or use self-defense–because no one should ever assault us in the first place.
Stretch our understanding of power and powerlessness.
The empowerment model self-defense that I have taught for over twenty-five years begins with a paradox. In any act of violence there is only one person at fault: the perpetrator. There is nothing any one of us could do or be that would warrant us being assaulted. And: In an epidemic of violence, there are things that every one of us can do to increase safety for ourselves and one another.
It’s a careful line to walk, at once holding perpetrators responsible for violence and championing the power of women. It’s like the question: “Are humans governed by fate, or do we have free will?” My answer is “Yes.” In any moment there are things we cannot control and things over which we have agency.
I can’t prevent someone’s attempt to hurt me, or anyone I love—only the person who means us harm can do that. That’s a sobering and sickening reality. But there are so many things I can do. I can:
Trust my intuition if something feels unsafe.
Reject unwanted touch.
Call out street harassment
Yell and run away from an assailant.
Strategically submit to an attack in order to preserve my life.
Fight back with every weapon available.
Commit to my own healing journey.
Work for peace and justice.
At its most practical level, self-defense encourages us to reframe any incident of violence according to the choices available, and in that moment, to ask, “What can I do?” As a philosophy, self-defense stretches us to ask that question on a meta-level.
Stretch your options for responding to violence.
Self-defense maximizes our choices through a toolkit of skills that are at once flexible and concrete. Skills like awareness, trusting your own instincts, and assertiveness. Skills like staying calm under stress, de-escalating conflict, and setting boundaries. And skills like falling, blocking, kicking, punching, and yelling.
Like any skills, these get better with practice. That’s why you’ll find my students generating and delivering responses to hate speech as often as you’ll see them striking a target pad. It’s why I give homework like, “If you have a very strong emotion like anger or sadness this week, notice what helps you calm down enough to think clearly.” Why my teen students can intone, “If it’s not OK with me, it’s not OK!” And why I’ve taught hundreds of students how to block their heads; get out of a choke hold; damage a knee-joint, windpipe, nose or groin; and put their hands through a pine board with focus, courage, and a resounding yell.
Stretch our definition of “prevention.”
There is only one person who can prevent an act of violence: the perpetrator. This is why anti-violence activists–including empowerment self-defense instructors–champion solutions that call on rapists to stop raping.
The problem with relying on perpetrator-based solutions alone is that they leave out the people most invested in ending violence: those of us at elevated risk of victimization, survivors of violence, and our many allies. And it implies that there’s nothing anyone else can do about violence except those who commit harm. That’s just not true.
Stretch our comfort zone.
Self-defense invites us to stretch our personal capacities. For the woman acculturated to consider the needs of others before her own it might mean asserting her own preferences about personal space or casual touch. For the non-athletic, it might mean mastering physical skills and demonstrating martial power. For all of us, it means acknowledging the epidemic of interpersonal violence that plagues our world and finding ways to combat the social norms that support it.
I believe that these stretches–and the still radical act of teaching women to fight–undermine the cultural scaffolding of sexual and gendered violence.
Feminist empowerment self-defense stretches us to imagine our own effectiveness within a complex system of oppression. It stretches us to stand squarely in paradox: holding perpetrators solely responsible for violence and believing in our own agency. In the face of the forces ranged against us, self-defense stretches us to take an active stance and ask, over and over, “What can I do?”