Monday, June 2, 2014

Women, Culture, and Self-Defense: What does #Yesallwomen mean for the self-defense community?

There has been a growing conversation on the internet surrounding issues of rape, sexual assault, and how we should deal with these things both legally and culturally. I say "growing" in the sense that the conversation has been taking up more bandwidth lately - driven both by more stories of sexual assault coming out into the open and by ongoing efforts to get institutions, especially colleges and universities, to do something about it. But it is also a "growing" conversation in the sense that it is getting more sophisticated, with more points of view being circulated. I think that this is a good thing, although like all important conversations it is uncomfortable and heated at times.

I wrote a blog post a year and a half ago in response to one of the early public stories of a rape survivor, this one at Amherst College. At the time, I tried to make what I thought was a somewhat novel argument: that the issue was fundamentally cultural and would require cultural solutions, and that men needed to be a big part of those solutions since the people creating the problem are overwhelmingly men. I summarized a lot of these ideas this way:
I applaud and support the conversations, public and private, that women are having about appropriate boundaries, respecting themselves, and being smart in self-protection. What we need along side those are men's conversations: what is appropriate sexual behavior? What does "respect" mean? What other kinds of attitudes and expectations do we carry around that, let loose in the atmosphere, encourage some men to push (and, ultimately, violate) those boundaries? And when guys do violate those boundaries, what do we do about it? (The answer to that last, historically, as been "nothing". That needs to stop.)
That post remains one of my most-read posts of all time. I guess it touched a nerve somewhere.

Fast forward 18 months - in fits and starts I appear to be getting my wish. The other day I read this excellent article on the Daily Beast calling out Nerd Culture and the kinds of narratives it creates that contribute to an "entitlement mentality" on the part of guys - just the sort of narrative that can lead to assaults. Yes, the UCSB killer is an extreme manifestation of that attitude - but the difference may be more one of quantity than of kind.

And since so much of our modern conversation is in Twitterspeak, we now have a pair of competing hashtags: #Notallmen and #Yesallwomen. The former appears to be a rearguard defense by some men who feel ... unjustly accused? tarred with the wrong brush? ... by a conversation that talks about men as the source of the problem. I actually anticipated that reaction in my 2012 post, so I guess I don't find it that surprising. Regardless, the former hashtag spawned the latter, the best discussion of which I found here (I'll leave aside the question of whether the title is appropriate or not; the article is an excellent one).

So far as I can tell, much of the point of #Yesallwomen is an insistence that women want to be treated decently as human beings, by all men. It is an effort to put the onus back on men to change their behavior so that women can enjoy the kind of basic personal security that most men take for granted. And though I used somewhat different language in my earlier article, I wholeheartedly agree.

But while I support the drive to get men to both behave better and to better police each other's behavior, this raises an interesting question for me from another facet of my life: what should happen to the cottage industry of self-defense training courses for women? I've blogged on this subject before, including here (also one of my most-read posts) and here (my highest hit count of all time). I have been supportive of good self-defense training and practice, and have even offered such courses myself from time to time.

So am I barking up the wrong tree? In light of #Yesallwomen and the focus on changing men's behavior, should we be talking at all about women learning to defend themselves against assault? I am sure that some in the #Yesallwomen camp would accuse me and others who teach self-defense of contributing to the problem by focusing on women, rather than men, as the source of the solution.

But as much as I support the argument that the best solution is to change male culture and behavior, I don't buy the notion that giving women self-defense tools makes matters worse. I agree that women shouldn't have to fend off a guy by yelling at him, much less by well-aimed punches and kicks. But so long as there are men who behave badly - and that will be true for some time - I think women are better off having those tools than not.

Moreover, there is a spillover effect from physical training to mental attitude and ability. There are a lot of variations on this theme in the martial arts world; here are two, from very different practitioner/teachers:

The point here is simple: when you gain confidence in your ability to defend yourself physically, that confidence works backwards to all stages of human interaction. The skill to strike, or throw, or disarm, or lock, is not just the ability to do that one thing. It also carries within it the ability to say "no", the ability to draw boundaries, the ability to walk away from a situation long before there is any need to engage in combat.

As I have argued before, this kind of ability doesn't come from taking an afternoon workshop or two. It comes from long and disciplined study. What art you study matters far less than making it a part of your life. But even a little exposure can have a significant impact on confidence and the ability to exert social control, set boundaries, and say "no" at a much earlier point.

So I believe there is still a place in the discussion for the martial arts and a focus on self-defense. Not all women will choose to make this a part of their own solution - although I think many more should consider it. But until we reach the day when #Notallmen becomes #Nomenatall, I will continue to teach and encourage women (and men) to learn to defend themselves, in body, mind, and spirit.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. Thanks for linking to my post on the subject as well. I hope it can add to this important discussion.

    My husband, our three daughters and I all study Shorin-Ryu karate. I think self-defense is important for all people, not just women, so I don't think encouraging women to take self-defense or martial arts is a bad thing. It builds a skill set that adds to nearly every facet of life, whether you're a man or woman. Having that confidence and ability to defend yourself or a loved one can not only prevent you from being targeted as a victim, but also gives you the skills you need to handle it if you are.

    That's valuable in this world, regardless. And yes, as women, we are going to be targeted. No matter how enlightened our society becomes, there will always be people out there intent on hurting others. I think the important issue is to make sure that's not ALL we're doing to address the rape culture. It's not enough to give women skills to defend themselves, we need to teach men not to treat women this way. So as long as that is being addressed, as long as men are entering into the discussion and owning their part in this relationship, then self-defense is something that serves everyone.