Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

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.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/empowering-women-not-just-protecting-them/) is grinding my gears to the extreme - I am wondering if she views her ‘passivity’ in the same way as the researcher, and if she consented to this quote being used. And again, here we are apparently removing this coping strategy of all power, for some reason, and disempowering women who make the choice to shut down to the violence they are experiencing. Sounds like the opposite of the point, to me – and the idea that physical resistance is somehow so elevated over shutting down / shutting off as a ‘choice’ response seems to reflect the old and obviously misogynist idea that rape is an irreversible degradation, somehow worse than death. Of course increasing women’s options to resist is of benefit to all women. But can we accept that in some situations coping is the better option than resistance? Does our unwillingness to do so reflect our own horror around sexual violence?

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/institute/pubs/resreport18/rr18.pdf. With respect to how known the perpetrator is, and the neurobiology of trauma, I would imagine it’s fair to say that with a known perpetrator, the woman’s instinctive defence mechanism is far more likely to lean towards ‘friend’ than ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, no matter how much self-defence training she has done. As humans, we aren’t ‘wired’ to be prepared for attack, especially sexual assault which doesn’t, in most situations, begin with typical markers of physical violence, from people we know. But for women this is the reality. Whether we can do a little something about that with self-defence training is up for debate, despite my gripes in this article. But let’s not ignore the differences between multiple elements on the spectrum of sexual violence and pretend we have a one size fits all here.

(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)

, , , , ,

Comments are currently closed.

7 thoughts on “This thing about feminist self-defence

  • @psycho_claire says:

    Thank-you for writing this. I too have been somewhat angered by the self defence narrative. For me it is the complete disregard to sexual violence within relationships within this narrative that makes me angry. My abuser was my “partner”. Any type of resistance, even non-verbal, produced escalation. If I had tried to “fight” him, he would possibly have killed me (this is not an exaggeration).
    Not to mention the differences in physicality between us: I was 16, five foot five and slight. He was 42, over six foot tall and broad. How would I have “defended” myself against EVERY attack?!
    I think self defence has it’s place. And it’s great for women, because it gives us confidence and helps us feel more powerful and connected to our bodies. But it is not a strategy to avoid sexual violence. And telling women it is is just plain victim blaming.

  • Louise says:

    Hi there,

    I was just wondering if you had ever read any of Zoe Lodericks work around her theory of the psychological trauma of sexual assaults, and if so, what are your thoughts?


  • Liz Kelly says:

    Here is a link to a study of feminist self-defence across Europe. It makes clear that it not just about ‘fighting back’, and makes reference to courses developed specifically for women with disabilities.

  • Mary says:

    Just wanted to comment something I wanted to state when this debate was raging, but felt unable to. I am a martial artist and had been training for many years before I was raped. I still train, perhaps a little bit harder now than then. My fighting skills were no defence against Rohypnol. The physical training post-rape helped in exactly all the ways you’ve stated.

  • Admin says:

    Just a quick reply from the post author 🙂

    Claire – thank you for sharing with us and yes, I think it’s really important that these discussions remember the significant proportion of sexual violence that is perpetrated by intimate partners.

    Louise – YES! Her work on the neurobiology of trauma and instinctive responses to it is behind a lot of the ideas in this post. I’m just going to link something in case it’s helpful or of interest to any of our readers – http://www.zoelodrick.co.uk/training/article-1

    Liz – thank you! when I was reading the debate I was looking all over for that article because I remembered reading and liking it, and thinking that some of what feminist self-defence meant there had been lost. unfortunately I kept trying to Google ‘against the…’ with various endings but couldn’t pin it down!

    Mary – absolutely. I’m really glad that the training you did subsequently helped you and you make a good point in that sometimes that benefit is unconnected to whether it would have had any effect during the assault or not.

  • Gina says:

    It’s difficult to say what I went through is the same as sexual violence in order of severity, but I was sexually harassed on the bus by an older, high school boy in my middle school years. This included, trapping me in a seat by wrapping his arm around my shoulders, unwanted touch, and insults that were often in a sexual nature.
    My responses often verbally refused him, however since he was much bigger and stronger I couldn’t physically resist. No matter what I said, it barely made a mark on how he treated me and if anything escalated my situation. Even the bus driver ignored me. This went on for two years, all through my middle school career. I was too scared to truly plea for help and those that I did look to where less than sympathetic, even claiming that I ‘liked’ the attention that the older boy gave me.
    That was until I took desperate measures in the second semester of my eight grade year. I started a karate class at a local dojo, because I was afraid of the day that I started high school (I would attend the same school as the older boy) and than I would really be in hot water. I was afraid of rape. Clearly, I needed to be prepared. I was too afraid to look for help… too cynical to look for help and at the time I was the only I felt like I could trust. I had to take the first step.
    So I went to my parents and asked to start a marital arts, just as spring was starting. I took at a dojo just inside a nearby town. What I found there completely changed my life. I found a renewed sense of confidence, well being, a positive environment that had been sorely missed almost my entire life, roll models to look up to , and a physical strength that came from the skills I learned. There I learned I had far more control than I expected or saw, it was just up to me to take it.
    I never directly confronted him, instead I stopped riding the bus and the almost crazy anger that I had been experiencing those past two years faded away to a calculated calm as I changed my life for the better. I applied and was accepted into an honor’s high school, where things are so much better, there I have many friends and a great education with fine teachers. I left that boy behind forever. In my second semester of high school. I joined the JROTC program, where I learned even more about myself, how to handle problems, gained a stronger sense of responsibility and confidence.
    My life took a surprising turn for the better when I joined that class, it has taught me something very important. You are never out of control.
    Even after the abuse and assault we should never forget to tell the victims (male or female) that they do have control. I don’t like the term victim truthfully, that implies I should pity them. They are not victims, but survivors and the amazing strength that it took to get through that is still there. I believe we should look up and not down. It would be a wonderful world if everyone can defend themselves from assault and abuse, but that is not a reality.
    So I propose this.
    They don’t have to struggle against their attacker.
    They don’t have to sit down and take it, they can change their own lives, even if it’s just crying out for help. That cry for help can change their situation if the right ears hear and we should always be listening. We should always be ready with the right response so we can encourage others to respond correctly too.
    Passivity is not the answer and I don’t want anymore middle school girls feel like their fighting alone against a superior entity. I want them to understand… that in reality, they are just as strong as their attacker and that it will always get better. They just have to take the first step and either they’ll get where they have to go. Humans are tough like that.
    What happened still affects me, as is natural but I have gotten steadily better. Recently I earned my blue belt in the style I take, halfway to black. Oddly enough, I would never be here without him.