I have blogged on these issues several times, including a response a couple of years ago to a highly-publicized case from Amherst College. More recently there was the hashtag battle between #Notallmen and #Yesallwomen, which served to illustrate some of the battle lines in the ongoing struggle to redefine the culture of sexuality and relationships on our campuses. This is a fluid discussion in which there are stops and starts, advances and retreats. Overall I think progress has been made, but there are still plenty of challenges ahead.
One of those challenges is the tendency for people who are really on the same side of the issue to get in fights with each other. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than the continuing battle between what might be called the "don't blame the victim" perspective and the self-defense perspective. An article in today's Inside Higher Ed showcases an excellent case of this:
So I understand both the legitimacy of concerns about victim-blaming, and the sensitivity to the issue. This can be a very touchy subject because real victim-blaming has been used to mask and protect rapists in much the same way that the Confederate battle flag was used to mask and rally racists in the 1950s and 1960s.
The problem is that this sensitivity is being turned against a different point of view altogether - the self-defense community. From the self-defense perspective, nothing that was on the now-removed U. Wisconsin website was problematic or controversial. Advice about awareness ("keep your head on a swivel") and forethought ("don't look like a victim", "make yourself a hard target") are stock in trade for a community of people who, in my experience, are both extremely well-meaning and extremely knowledgeable about what they deal in.
These are folks who study the problem (interpersonal violence) closely and understand it in ways the rest of us don't. Their advice is practical and effective. And many of them dispense this advice for free out of a sense of wanting to help people lead lives free from fear and victimization. In other words, they're on the same side of the issue as their critics - both sides want the incidence of sexual assault and rape to be reduced to zero.
Certainly there are elements of context which can help. Sexual assault awareness campaigns often point out - quite rightly - that the strong majority of such assaults are committed not by strangers attacking while you are out walking in the dark, but by acquaintances who are known to the victim and who gain the victim's trust first. That kind of assault calls for a whole different set of responses, chief among them teaching college men not to engage in assault and rape (and their peers to punish them when they do).
That said, there are sexual assaults and rapes by strangers, just as there are muggings and robberies by strangers. The kind of advice that the UW police put out is standard anti-mugging advice, which nobody questions. And while we also want to engage in other strategies that reduce the incidence of such stranger-based attacks, it makes sense to educate students about how to avoid them. With other kinds of crimes, this is not a controversial idea - but then, other kinds of crimes don't have the history that rape does.
This seems to be the real crux of the matter: how can we encourage women (and men too!) to learn to be smart and take basic steps to protect themselves without sending the message that we are blaming victims for what happens to them? This is a political and linguistic problem, not a real contradiction. There is no logical way to get from the statement "I am learning self-defense in order to better protect myself and my friends" to "it's my fault if someone else attacks me". In my field we call this a conflict of perception rather than a conflict of interests.
There's a side point here that illustrates the gap in perceptions and cultural misunderstanding between these two communities. It shows up nicely in this quote from the Inside Higher Ed article linked above:
Referring to the post's suggestion that a student should keep his or her "head on a swivel," one Jezebel commenter asked, "So literally live every moment like I'm an Army Ranger deployed to Afghanistan?"I have heard this same reaction from some folks I've trained in self-defense. They take advice about awareness to mean that they need to be afraid all the time in order to protect themselves. That's a real turn-off, and I can understand why untrained civilians would run away from that kind of "advice".
But the truth is very different. I do live with my "head on a swivel" most of the time, in that I try to be aware of the people around me at all times - where they are, which direction they're moving in, and some basic impression of who they are and what they're up to. The fact that I do this - and the fact that I have some physical training in the martial arts to receive and counter attacks - means that I am not afraid. Awareness doesn't create fear, it dispels it. It is part of a package of living in confidence that, I think, is a goal shared by nearly everybody.
But I also get that, until you have undergone some training and experienced this kind of confidence, it's counterintuitive. People outside that circle mistake awareness for hyper vigilance and decide they don't want any part of it. And because it is an experience that is difficult to convey solely with words, the words that the self-defense community (including the UW police department) uses are often inadequate to the task.
This is where we need something else I've written about recently: mutual respect. Rather than attacking each other, I hope that the self-defense community and the sexual assault awareness and advocacy community can come together for an open and honest dialogue that starts from a simple premise: they are both on the same side and they both want the same thing. Both sides need to understand the other better, and both need to recognize that the other has something important to bring to the table. If that happens, perhaps we can overcome this particular challenge and find a way to incorporate the wisdom of self-protection into our larger societal response to sexual assault and violence.