This thing about feminist self-defence
Ok, so I have to admit I’ve been watching Twitter blow up about feminist self-defence with growing irritation and frustration over the past couple of weeks. As I suppose 140 characters lends itself to, it seems to fast be becoming an argument with an ‘innovative’ ‘new idea’ and the suggestion that anyone questioning it holds a ridiculous straw woman view – that they are incapable of or unwilling to see the benefits in feminist self defence a) because they are too stubborn or b) too distressed about their own experiences of sexual violence.
So feminist self defence as a concept has been around a long time, right? The idea, as far as I’m aware (I’m quite young!) came from the fact that actually many women DO resist sexual violence. However, that resistance is not necessarily physical. It may be physical, verbal or involve dissociating and shutting off to control the damage done by the assault, either physically or psychologically. When supporting survivors of sexual violence, one of the things I’ve frequently said to other women is ‘however you reacted at the time was the best way to react’. Surprisingly enough, these are not actually just fluffy empty words that I bother to say just to make someone feel better (that would be kind of disrespectful, right?). I say them because of the staggering fucking arrogance of thinking you can better assess the best response in a terrifying situation which you *weren’t in* than another woman who has lived through that situation.
That rant aside – as I understand it feminist self-defence has a lot of awesome positive benefits that have very little to do with resisting sexual violence – for example increased sense of belonging in your body, physical exercise, confidence, even just endorphins! And where it does have a role to play in resisting sexual violence, my standard assumption would be that it increases the coping strategies available to women if they face attempted assault. As in, to repeat, it increases their OPTIONS. It doesn’t provide women with a magic wand that will always be the best option or will always be an option they want to use.
I’ve read some interesting things about women’s successful resistance to rape and assault in the past and how this can be enabled by self defence training before. It’s not actually a conversation I’m not prepared to have. What’s bothering me at the minute is the disrespect for survivors whose experiences don’t fit a narrative where self-defence is or has been a helpful idea, and the massive generalising I’m seeing going on. The inclusion of a young woman’s description of her experience of gang rape (I think it’s from her statement!) in the abstract for this research (http://gendersociety.
The suggestion that passivity will increase trauma post assault is valid and interesting, but in my view very one dimensional. Certainly peri-traumatic dissociation is associated with poor outcome and also with ‘shutting off’ as a coping strategy. However, the presumption that passivity equals loss of power ignores the complexities of sexual violence. Passivity may be the best choice available. Physical or verbal resistance may lead to escalation. I pointed this out on Twitter a few weeks ago and did not enjoy reading a tweet telling me that this is a ‘myth’. I’m aware of some research contesting that resistance *always* leads to an escalation in physical violence. Again this comes down to – trust the judgement of the woman who is disclosing to you, because you weren’t fucking there. When I suggested that physical resistance may lead to escalation, I was suggesting that this may happen and it may not, and in fact probably the best person to judge that is not the person sitting on Twitter making generalisations. Furthermore, escalation isn’t necessarily in terms of physical violence (and the assumption that it is is very telling!). With respect to my own experiences, my memory of physical resistance ‘making it worse’ was in terms of leading to increased verbal abuse and being forced into more degrading sexual acts. I can absolutely promise you that the consequences of my resistance did not make me feel more ‘empowered’ or less ‘like a victim’.
The final thing that is really grinding my gears about this debate is the blanket way it is being used to talk about all types of sexual violence as though self-defence were an equal tool in relation to each. I genuinely do think increasing women’s confidence to physically resist, as long as we entrust them with the choice about whether to do so, is a damn good idea. However, we have to recognise that having the confidence to resist an attack is only relevant at the point at which you realise you are being attacked in time to do something about it. Sounds obvious, but is a huge gaping hole in the dialogue when you consider that the normalisation of male sexual entitlement often actually doesn’t require perpetrators to break social norms until they actually carry out the assault. It’s only in pretty specific forms of sexual violence, e.g. those perpetrated by someone less known to the victim and/or in a public place (and not all of these), where typical social codes will be ‘broken’ early enough for a woman to feel justified in breaking out the taekwondo if it seems the best option for her to do so. This paper on perpetrator strategies is a great read which I recommend anyway, but it really breaks down this idea that in most assault scenarios, social codes and the perpetrator’s manipulation will keep the victim convinced either that everything is ok, or that she is being paranoid and shouldn’t resist, until it’s effectively too late http://www.aifs.gov.au/
(This post is likely to be one in a series - we are aware that women with disabilities will be unable to 'fight back', the institutional racism within the police means that women of colour who fight back run the real risk of facing a criminal charge for doing so, and we are also concerned about young people - at what age do we start 'fighting back'? 25? 19? 12? 4? All of these issues will hopefully be covered in successive posts, and if you'd like to write about them, you can do so via this link)