Self-Defense and Victim Blaming

At my university, all undergrads had to take two physical education classes in order to graduate.  I had a good friend who was on the fencing team and took a fencing class as my first requirement, since I knew little about the sport and was intrigued by her love of it, and for my second credit I signed up for a self-defense class in the fall of my senior year.  It was called something like “self-defense for women” and while I wasn’t particularly female-identified at that point, I was mostly ok with being in a women-only space and I was interested in the content of the class.  I didn’t generally feel unsafe in my daily life, but I knew that I was pretty clueless about fighting or defending myself, and I thought it would be useful information to learn.
The curriculum wound up being a mix of defensive maneuvers such as learning how to turn a fall into a roll, escape from different types of grips, and flip an attacker over your shoulder, a few offensive ones mostly based on pressure points and quick attacks that give you a chance to run, and a list of tips we could follow to make attacks less likely.  This last part seemed out of place with the rest of the class.  I enjoyed escaping while a classmate was dragging me by the ankle and learning the best ways and places to kick an attacker, but when we sat on the mats and talked about ways to stay safe, the tone changed from one of empowerment and encouragement to one of fear and apprehension.  It didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what we were learning.

We were given a long list, containing such classics as:

  • Don’t wear high-heeled shoes or restrictive clothing when you’re out at night, because you can’t run from an attacker in them.
  • Don’t ever walk alone at night, particularly in an area that might be dark or have few people around.
  • Carry your keys between your fingers because you can swipe at someone’s face!
  • Don’t carry your keys between your fingers because an assailant can grab them and use them to crush your fingers!
  • Don’t ever go you your car alone at night, because someone might be hiding underneath it waiting to grab your ankles.
  • If you have to walk alone, make sure to talk on your cell phone so a potential attacker knows you’re in contact with someone.
  • If you have to walk alone, NEVER be on your cell phone because a potential attacker knows you’re distracted and therefore easier to target.
  • Don’t ever leave a drink unattended at a bar or party.
  • Don’t get drunk around strangers.

[For those of you who want to take these lessons to heart, try the Challenge Mode in which you follow all of them at once, disregarding any contradictory instructions.]

Discomfort crept up on me slowly – at first it seemed reasonable to say that it’s dangerous to walk alone at night.   I regularly did so on campus, and continued this habit during and after the class, but it still made sense to me that walking alone at night might be riskier than it would be during the day.  But still, it felt wrong.  How would it be my fault if I got attacked at night?  If someone really wanted to hurt me or someone else, wouldn’t they find a way to do so no matter what I had to drink or where I held my phone or keys?  I couldn’t quite articulate why this wasn’t sitting well with me, so I never brought up my concerns during class, but this feeling of discomfort grew as the semester went on.  It seemed like the lesson I was supposed to learn was that it was my responsibility to keep myself from being attacked or assaulted, and that the physical part of the class was only for those times when I hadn’t adequately factored in how my body language, location, or level of intoxication or flirtation might make me look like an appealing target.  Nothing the instructor said was explicitly blaming victims for their assaults, but this was implied on several occasions.

Partway through the semester, a good friend of mine had a date attempt to sexually assault her in her dorm room.  Without going into too much detail, she was able to convince him to leave her alone before any sexual contact took place, but he did not respect her clear statements that she was not consenting and it was only after she continued to say “no” several times and fight back that he left her alone.  She was very shaken after this event and, since she knew I was in this self-defense class, thought it might be worth sitting in on some classes in order to learn some techniques that might make her feel safer and more in control if she was ever in a similar position again.

The first (and, as it turned out, only) day my friend came to class was one during which we took a different approach to these safety discussions – all of us were given index cards and asked to write down some sort of potentially dangerous or risky situation, and the instructor gathered them up, read them aloud, and had us discuss the best ways to handle the situation.  She suggested that we could write down versions of difficult situations we’d been in or potential situations we weren’t sure how to handle.
After a few cards had been read, the instructor got to a scenario that I instantly know must have been submitted by my friend: it described the exact events that took place in her dorm room during the attempted assault.  Classmates offered their input: “why did she have a date back to her room if she didn’t want to have sex?” “You can’t trust guys not to take advantage of you if you give them that opportunity.” “She shouldn’t have been alone with him.”  The instructor agreed with those comments and told us that she expected us to know better than to get into this sort of situation; I got the idea that she thought this had been an easy or unimaginative submission by someone who couldn’t think of a trickier situation to write down on her card.  It was an extremely uncomfortable moment for me, and I can only imagine how painful it was for my friend, who had already been struggling with feeling responsible for what had happened.

I don’t know why I didn’t say anything.  Maybe I protested and don’t even remember now, but my memory of that moment is all focused on how upset I felt on my friend’s behalf.  I know that at the end of the semester I wrote a long complaint about that day in particular, and that part of the curriculum overall, on the class evaluation form, but at the time I couldn’t quite articulate why it was so problematic and counter-productive to approach the issue of women’s safety and self-defense this way.

There’s not much analysis here, just a sad story that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  This incident was one of the driving forces behind my decision to apply for the volunteer program at the OCRCC in North Carolina.  I wish I’d known to give her their number back then, but it was the hope that I could help someone in the way I didn’t know to help her at the time that led me to volunteer there.  One of the worst parts of moving away from NC was leaving the rape crisis center only a few months after I finished my training.  I’d love to work with one here, but I was lucky enough to be able to rearrange my work schedule to attend training and I don’t think my current job can be as flexible.  It’s something I’m looking into, though.

As a final note, I’d love to replace every problematic “steps women can take to avoid being raped” list and replace it with these tips, which I find to be much more helpful.

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4 Responses to Self-Defense and Victim Blaming

  1. Em says:

    Very interesting article. I get e-mails all the time that read like this, and I’ve never thought of it from the perspective that it was consequently blaming the victim. If anything, it’s exacerbated my overall fear of doing things alone. I’m afraid to even walk around my neighborhood because as the news and self-defense paints it, everyone’s out for women alone.

    I’m sorry to hear your friend had to go through something like that. :(

    • Something that’s really frustrating AND important to note about these lists, which usually focus on rape/sexual assault as the goal of these “jump out of the bushes late at night” sort of attackers, have nothing to do with the overwhelming majority of rapists. Most rapes are perpetrated by people who are known to the victim – acquaintances, friends, romantic partners, and family members. And all of these lists tell women to be terrified of strangers and never be alone (or tipsy) around people they don’t trust, but the people who rape? They usually manage to rape because their victims trust them!

      Oh my goodness, I can go on like this for hours. I loved my volunteer training class for the rape crisis center but it did serve to make this part of my brain more alert than it was before.

  2. I am so sorry to hear of your experiences in self-defence classes and the blaming your friend had to endure. While I like the idea of the index cards, such an exercise can easily lead an inexperienced or uneducated instructor toward victim-blaming rather than an open & honest discussion about the risks, the trauma, and the realities of such events as your friend experienced.

    An instructor should know what the real risks are, and address dealing with those risks in ways that address awareness & risk-reduction, physical defence tactics, the realities of a traumatic invasion of our personal space, and the aftermath of an assault that includes dealing with any post-traumatic stress & hyper-vigilance as well as self-blame.

    Self-defence lessons should be more about self than about defence, lest we lose ourselves to defensiveness. The entire class should feel empowering, not just the physical part. There is no such thing as “prevention” (at least, nothing reliable yet), and all of us second-guess ourselves when things go bad.

    We teach about reducing your risk of assault, but we do so honestly and without subscription to the mythologies many instructors (though, hopefully fewer than before) place stock in.

    I do hope you won’t paint all of us with the same brush on this; many instructors are aware of the damage victim-blaming does and have educated ourselves on the subject in order to avoid it.

  3. Pingback: LADIES! It’s up you YOU to end rape! | The Accidental Beard

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