Tuesday, January 7, 2014


The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear: Why I Teach Women Self-Defense

I took my first empowerment-model self-defense class in 1999, and I've been teaching it since 2000. For 14 years, I’ve been deeply invested in this way of helping women, children, and other targeted populations discover their power and reduce their risk of harm.

Empowerment self-defense, or ESD, was developed by feminist activists who rejected the old, male-designed-and-taught self-defense models of the '50s and '60s. They wanted a system that taught practical skills within the context of rape culture; one that addressed the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social/cultural components of self-defense. The ESD model is constantly fine-tuned by the people who teach it; today, for example, the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation curriculum for ESD requires instruction on the culture of violence, boundary setting, and physical skills (including awareness and escape). Built on an ethical framework developed by the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault, it states that “accountability for violence lies with the person who commits it and that everyone has the right to make choices about whether or not to fight back,” and that “good self-defense programs do not ‘tell’ an individual what she ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do,” but offer “options, techniques, and a way of analyzing situations.”

I learned ESD from the women who created it, and I teach it alongside those who have adapted and shaped it in response to the latest research about violence and trauma. For 15 years, I’ve lived by the ethics encoded in ESD—not only when I teach, but in my day-to-day life as well. Doing so made me stronger, more confident, more engaged in the fight to end violence. It reduced my fear and anxiety. It helped me make peace with my vulnerability.

So I was surprised to learn last month that my embrace of empowerment self-defense marked me as not only a shitty feminist, but a perpetuator of rape culture.

Lynne Marie Wanamaker, a nationally recognized expert with two decades’ experience teaching empowerment self-defense (and co-author of the NWMAF Core Competencies for ESD instructors), has identified something she calls the “self-defense paradox”:

One facet of this paradox is the fact that a single person—the perpetrator—holds sole responsibility for the decision to assault someone. The other is the fact that people at risk of violence can take effective steps to increase their own safety.

These facts seem contradictory, yet both are true:

  • No one but the attacker bears responsibility for an attack.
  • The attacker does not hold all the power. The person targeted has power, too.

If we become trapped in this paradox—if we insist on rejecting one half of it or the other—then we cannot make progress toward a safer world.

When I think of rape culture, I picture the teeth in a shark’s mouth: Sharp, serrated, and cruel; a vast array of lethality. Each lewd joke told at the expense of my gender, each discriminatory healthcare policy, each untested rape kit, is a separate keen-edged weapon in rape culture’s hunting and consumption of women.

The tools of rape culture, like a shark’s teeth, are highly evolved implements, honed for maximum efficiency in their work. They are numberless and endlessly replenished. Dislodge one from the ranks of like instruments and a new one grows to take its place: a new voter restriction or anti-abortion law, a new sexist internet meme, a new flurry of hatred against a female celebrity.

Another feature of sharks’ teeth is that they are raked backwards, their points slanting down into the depths of the animal’s throat. This arrangement makes prey easier to hold, guiding it relentlessly downward, gulletward—toward digestion.

The paradox of self-defense can paralyze us with doubt or lock us into conflict with people who share our goals but not our particular understanding of the problem. And in that instant, when our movement is frozen: Gulp.

Last month, the website Everyday Feminism published an article by Danica Johnson titled “Ways to Protect Yourself from a Possible Sexual Assault.” (The piece is no longer available online). Among the author’s bold claims and strident demands: “Education and Action Can Equal Prevention in Some Cases”; “Educate Yourself about Date Rape and Intimate Partner Rape”; “Learn the Power of Your Own Voice” and “Take a Self-Defense Class and Learn How to Fight Back.” The article also took pains to repudiate victim-blaming: “Rape—whether perpetrated by the young or old, by a man or woman, towards a man or towards a woman—is never, under any circumstance, the fault of the victim” (original emphasis).

Johnson’s piece was far from flawless. Some of the information it cites could be better sourced. The article makes a few recommendations that sound impractical at best—it touts a newly-invented drinking glass, for example, that changes color when exposed to date-rape drugs. Its tone drifts from helpful enthusiasm to something more like scolding. In fact it did many of the things that Everyday Feminism had cautioned against just a few weeks earlier, in an excellent article by ESD instructor Lauren Taylor.

Still, the majority of the information Johnson provided was practical and evidence-based. Yet online reaction was swift and harsh. 

This was only the beginning of an onslaught of arguments arising from the paradox of self-defense: a logical Möbius strip that labels any discussion of women’s ability to thwart rape “victim-blaming.”

Some commenters felt that, instead of an article about reducing the risk of rape, Everyday Feminism should have published one about the psychology of rapists:

I love the idea of tasking men with the dismantling of rape culture. I’ve even read about the concept online, in fact. However, making that the only acceptable strategy for dealing with rape culture seems naive and, frankly, dangerous. It requires a faith in male chivalry that I’m afraid I don’t share, not to mention a firm belief in men’s competence at solving large-scale social problems. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure men can end rape culture eventually—maybe even before they abolish the military-industrial complex—but aren’t we allowed to have a back-up plan in the meantime? Can’t we, in other words, do both? Teach men not to rape, and teach women to fight back against rape?

One survivor of assault I know pointed out, “It takes all of 30 seconds to give a woman a self-defense tip. How long does it take to evangelize the world about violence against women?” The research backs her up. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence has a sobering comparison of the efficacy of men’s rape prevention programs versus women’s. There’s no contest: Women’s prevention programs, particularly those involving physical self-defense, reduce the risk of sexual assault. We know that. Men’s programs? We don’t even have a good way of measuring their effect yet.

Other critics on Twitter attacked Johnson’s article by dismissing practical self-defense instruction altogether. These voices variously derided Everyday Feminism for advocating “karate-chopping” classes, insisted that women cannot physically resist male rapists, or claimed that the possibility of armed attack negates any potential benefits of self-defense training:

One Twitter user called self-defense “illogical” because even if one woman fights off an attacker, he can just find a weaker woman to target:

Clearly, some of these respondents may be dealing with significant trauma of their own. Indeed, the fact that victims of assault may be traumatized merely by reading about preventive measures is a symptom of their trauma. The responsible and compassionate way to respond is to provide resources for their healing.

Not coincidentally, ESD experts have done exactly that. Many of the activities students engage in during an empowerment self-defense class are almost identical to somatic therapies recommended for trauma survivors. Wanamaker, herself a survivor, attests to the value of ESD training in her own healing: “The practice of being present in my body,” she says, “experiencing the neurobiological trauma-based fear response that is the after-effect of violence (call it PTSD, triggering, whatever), and being able to self-calm in the context of not being re-violated—in fact, in the context of having my boundaries affirmed and respected more radically than anywhere else in my life—is what enabled me to recover from trauma.”

You know what is not a reasonable or compassionate response to survivors’ trauma-based reactions to self-defense advice? Declaring all discussion off-limits. Joanne Factor, another veteran ESD instructor, says it this way:

It is critical that survivors be heard and acknowledged; they are speaking from their own experiences. It’s also critical to point out that they do not speak for all survivors. While they themselves may feel they would not benefit from self-defense as a healing path, there are many women and men who have—and who also should have their voices heard and respected.

When our conversation is allowed to include practical, proven information, things look less problematic. This brief summary of research on self-defense efficacy, compiled by Katy Mattingly, MSW, an empowerment self-defense instructor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, provides several good examples. Over and over again, formal studies show that “forceful verbal and physical resistance and fleeing [three of the most common strategies taught in ESD] have a proven association with rape avoidance in both reported and unreported crimes.”

Wanamaker likewise rejects the argument that self-defense doesn’t work. That argument “denies the reality that women fight back all the time. Women don’t need upstart feminists to tell them to fight back against rape. Untrained women fight back, and are frequently successful in fighting back.” Arguments against teaching self-defense, she says, imply that “the instinct to self protection is something self-defense instructors impose on helpless women, who otherwise wouldn’t have any impulse to defend themselves.”

I'd argue that most claims that “self-defense doesn’t work” assume that women are biologically weak, and instinctively passive. You may call that feminism, but to me it feels like a shark’s tooth.

Some Twitter users focused on the article’s advice about using one’s voice, implying that this was a silly or (even worse) not-properly-feminist approach:

How is yelling and eye-gouging feminism? Speaking as a feminist who has practiced and taught eye-gouging, and who has been stabbed in the eye with a metal-hafted practice knife, I feel well-qualified to speak to this question. Gouging someone’s eye is the most devastating way to disrupt an attack, and by far the easiest. Tell me, have you ever grabbed your own face with both hands to check if your eyeball is dangling outside its socket? I have. Feminism doesn’t get any more radical than that.

I also feel qualified to defend “yelling” as feminism. Our voices are one way we can define ourselves. They let us set boundaries. They project our power. They connect us with others who can help us escape harm, or heal from it. Communication skills are critical to transformation of all kinds: personal, interpersonal, political. The ESD instructors at Thousand Waves Martial Arts in Chicago teach an entire workshop devoted exclusively to communication skills. When I teach, I spend at least a quarter of every class on the concept of “Yell”—that’s how vital it is to empowerment and safety. Yelling is the opposite of silencing. Yelling stands at the very heart of feminism.

That’s a concept that, frankly, someone who is clacking away on Twitter, claiming to represent the true voice of feminism, really ought to think twice about before dismissing.

Someone at Everyday Feminism—whoever was handling their Twitter feed that fateful December morning—made a few fitful attempts to defend Johnson’s article, but paradox is a tough thing to explore in 140 characters. Especially when people smell blood in the water:


  • discussing women’s ability to defend themselves is, ipso facto, victim-blaming;
  • sharing information about reducing the risk of violence is anti-feminist;
  • “saying women have the power to avoid being raped” is forbidden;

then we cannot have a productive discussion about staying safe. We cannot take practical steps to improve women’s safety, no matter how much evidence we have that those steps work. We can only—and I find this odd, given that we are ostensibly fighting over women’s well-being—talk about men, and what they need to do.

Distorting the debate in this way doesn’t just affect the online chatter of American feminists. It affects the safety and health of women everywhere. Lee Sinclair, founder and program director of No Means No Worldwide, works tirelessly to bring empowerment training to girls in places like Nairobi, where one in four high school girls is raped each year. Recently, while speaking to several major international funding organizations, Sinclair was told, “The belief is that fighting back will only make the attacker more violent, that he’ll hurt her worse.” And there is “concern that if girls don’t take your classes and then they are raped that the blame is on them.”

When Sinclair offered evidence to counter these “beliefs,” the funders claimed they didn’t believe such things; of course not: “That’s just what’s being said out there.”

“What’s being said out there” is demonstrably wrong, and yet it’s choking off funding for programs that are reducing harm right now, for women at very high risk of violence. Remember, the shark’s teeth slant backwards: Patriarchal and male-dominated institutions are already less inclined to put money toward helping girls. These rumors and myths about women’s empowerment—the same ones being promulgated by self-proclaimed feminists on Twitter—provide a convenient excuse to re-direct funding. “We must teach boys not to rape,” after all. Where will we find the money to do that? Why, we’ll take it away from programs that serve girls. Programs like this one.


If we could defer our anxious need to resolve the self-defense paradox, we could have a conversation. We might share our understanding of responsibility and power, and examine where those concepts overlap. If we could live with a little cognitive discomfort for a while, we could all try to learn from each other. That would be an enlightened and brave and—to my mind—feminist thing to do. But it didn’t happen in this case, because Everyday Feminism, clearly stunned by the brutal response to its humdrum article, opted to resolve the paradox with an abject apology, for daring to advocate self-defense.

In a stand-alone page (which has also now been removed from its website), the “Everyday Feminism Team” expressed their desire to “to publicly and formally apologize” for Johnson’s article (Johnson was not identified by name in the apology).

“We want to be clear that we hear you,” the “team” assured the voices of outrage, “and that you’re right.” [Bold and italics are original.] Johnson’s article “was insensitive and ill-conceived, as it promoted many of the same victim-blaming arguments that we work so hard to dismantle.” They thanked readers for “speaking up about and calling out our harmful behavior,” and expressed appreciation for “being held accountable for an egregious error.” The mea culpa closed with an ambitious statement of feminist purity: “it’s important for the movement, in solidarity, to promote the right messages. We apologize for not being a part of that unified voice today.”

I asked some of my fellow self-defense instructors what they thought of this message. Many of their comments (especially from the over-60 set, the women who’ve been working on violence prevention for 40 years and more) were unprintable—and no wonder. These are teachers who have dedicated their lives to reducing violence and empowering women, and Everyday Feminism had just labeled them rape apologists and cast them out of the approved circle of feminist thought.

“Bizarre, cowardly and ill-informed,” was one of the tamer responses. “They’re making it impossible for any discussion to take place,” another pointed out. “How will a unified voice emerge?” “The patriarchy will not be overturned by people who just firmly know how right they are,” my friend Denise observed.

Mattingly professed to being “particularly confused by this line in the public apology: ‘People who have internalized society’s messages about not being good enough and deserving to be oppressed, violated, exploited, and discriminated against are not likely to rise up to change the system.’ [This statement also appears on Everyday Feminism’s About page] Are they saying that’s why self-defense will never work? Because it asks too much of the violated person? Because, that’s how ALL systems are changed—BY THE OPPRESSED RISING UP.”

“Suddenly, I want to punch people,” said my former instructor Jan.

Jan is also a survivor. She does not speak for all survivors, but she deserves to be heard.

Johnson’s article is not the hill upon which I’d choose to plant my battle flag in the war over ESD. I feel bad, even, for singling out Everyday Feminism for this particular discussion. They’re hardly alone in oversimplifying the problems and solutions associated with violence against women, or in underestimating the anger and discomfort that the self-defense paradox can arouse. But Everyday Feminism is, I think, conspicuous for the speed with which they surrendered any pretense at editorial backbone in the face of criticism; for the craven nature of their apology; and for the cheerful willingness with which they threw a significant portion of their own feminist lineage under the bus.

To be fair, they have a brand to build.

“Join a supportive community of feminists who are developing greater self-love to heal from and stand up to oppression in their everyday life,” says the description for Everyday Feminism’s online course, Everyday Self-Love. “Find validation within you and prioritize your own truth.” (The description has been removed from that page; the cached signup page is here). For only $97—marked down from $200—students can learn to “be resilient to toxic messages” and “honor and communicate your needs and wants.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, it could have been lifted straight out of the standard ESD curriculum, which teaches students to believe they are worth defending, and gives them concrete tools for setting limits, and enforcing personal boundaries. Everyday Feminism’s version just leaves out all the messy stuff about rape culture and physical resistance and being a good ally to others who experience violence.

The women I learned ESD from, who created it out of necessity and worked all their lives to share it, do not teach online modules about self-love at $97 a pop. They teach a complete range of empowerment skills, and they do it in church basements and gay bars, in homeless shelters, elementary schools, addiction counseling centers. They teach for $25 or $10 or for whatever people in the community can pay; they teach for free when people can’t afford to pay. They listen to all of their students, honor their experiences, and use that knowledge to improve their classes.

Their work is the foundation upon which Everyday Feminism has built its brand of feminism, one which promises to show us “how to work through issues, stand up for yourself, live your truth, and take collective action.” According to Everyday Feminism, the women—my teachers—who have been doing that work for decades, for little or no profit, are unfit to be part of feminism’s “unified voice.” Their work, and their sacrifice, is being commodified: the inconvenient parts of it disparaged and discarded, the warm and fuzzy parts packaged up for handy online delivery. Perhaps this kind of feminism is profitable, but I don’t see it doing much real good for women. In fact I see the potential for it to do real harm.

Everyday Feminism presents an attractive image of female empowerment, one that flashes a brilliant, Photoshopped smile. The teeth are white and lovely and even, but when I look closely, I detect a serrated edge; a backward slant.

I will not be swallowed. I’ll keep teaching, and advocating, self-defense. And if you don’t like it?

Bite me.


Note: Danica Johnson did not reply to an email query regarding this article.

Photo via altuwa/flickr.

Susan Schorn is the author of Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly; she also writes the column Bitchslap for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. 

71 Comments / Post A Comment


I travelled solo in Mongolia and China last year, so I took a half day krav maga course with a friend who had been assaulted on the metro a few weeks earlier during commuting time (no one came to her aid. They just sat and watched as a guy knocked her down and choked her.)

We had wicked fun. It was only a beginning – it's hard to overcome the reserve about really hitting back and you need serious muscle memory for many moves – but it WAS empowering. And the dirtiest fighting imaginable. I've been recommending it to all the women I know.

Every time I read Everyday Sexism's feed I wish that girls were all taught something like ESD or krav maga. Just something to make them feel less threatened. Yes, I know it's not just girls who get assaulted, but still. Thanks for this and your work.


This is gonna be a little thread jack-y but:
On a martial arts note- don't trust Krav Maga, there's a solid fighting system in there but a lot of the Krav Maga that gets taught is basically nonsense perpetuated by ISD fetishists.

Boxing and Judo are probably the most reliably bullshit free martial arts you can learn because they're international sports and so have relatively standardized coaching and curricula. Judo particularly is great because in the event that you get arrested for fucking somebody up 'My Client tripped him and he fell poorly' is a lot easier for a public defender to argue as self defense. Plus stats show most fight go to the ground really quickly so a wrestling discipline is a good idea.

That said if you can't find or just don't want to do Boxing or Judo the most important thing to look for in a school is whether they spar at full resistance/force, if they only spar against compliant partners: leave; it will not teach and/or prepare you to fight.


Whoa, that is really interesting!



Oops, I meant IDF fetishists.



Must respectfully disagree with you here. I don't really have an opinion re: the merits of Krav Maga, but the rest of your comments aren't really accurate in terms of teaching short-term, empowerment-based self-defense to women. Just a few reasons why:

* "Sparring at full resistance/force" may be a great way to learn to box for those who want to do so, but it's a myth that that is required to learn to defend oneself.

* Full-contact sparring will put many people off entering a school entirely, and as I learned from my teacher, we don't learn best from being frightened and/or hurt. At the very least, full-force is not the *only* way to learn.

* Women's bodies are different from men's. Techniques that men may be more likely to choose, e.g. pitting strength vs. strength, are not necessarily going to be the best choice for a woman, especially one with limited training. They may not even be relevant to her situation at all, e.g. she is unlikely to encounter an attacker who wants to box with her. This does NOT mean there's nothing she can do to defend herself.

* Proficiency in boxing and judo takes years. It's important to be able to provide training that does not require any particular athleticism, nor years of commitment to be effective.

* Full-force sparring can be intimidating and triggering for survivors of violence, and it's wrong to indicate to them that that is the ONLY way to learn how to fight.

* Lastly, with many women, half the battle is emotional and psychological; we lack the sense that we're entitled to take care of ourselves, the daily visual/verbal/physical assertiveness skills to express that entitlement, and the belief that we'll be successful if we try. Self-defense training that just focuses on fighting techniques but ignores this crucial element is what gives SD a bad name.

Again, I say this with respect because I know your comment was well-intended, and because I'm a big fan of martial arts training. The author of this article gives links to loads of research informing a different approach to women's self defense -- interesting to read if you're so inclined.


There was a reason I prefaced it with "kinda thread jack-y" which I probably should have been a bit more specific about. I was talking about Martial Arts as a hobby/exercise/ with a side motive of being able to fight -as distinct from- something specifically for self defense, which no martial art will teach in a reality-applicable-manner the short term anyway. Self Defense is/should be a different curriculum.


@Miss_T These include many of the reasons why I chose KM. I have a connective tissue disorder and cannot do judo/boxing type training. I also wanted something that felt instinctive and didn't require months or even years of training.

Graydon Gordian

@Onymous Just wanted to say that, as a former boxing trainer who had several female students, I discouraged them from thinking of boxing as self defense or believing that, if threatened physically, they should rely upon what I taught them.

Boxing is a craft. It is occurs in a confined space, under a specific set of rules, which include which parts of the body can strike and be struck. That in no way mimics the reality of an attack. There may be elements of boxing involved in practical self defense, but the two are not equivalent.

I love boxing. I think it's great for fitness and, like anything that requires dedication, focus and study, can be really rewarding. But if you wish to learn to defend yourself, I imagine classes explicitly aimed at such things are the way to go.


@Onymous Respectfully, as an Old I'd have to say full-force training is pretty damaging to people over time. After your twenties, your joints become less forgiving. Women's self-defense in my line can't be taught full-force anyway, since someone would have his eyes gouged out.


@Onymous I agree with your points about krav maga versus boxing/judo wholeheartedly. The self defense thing is complicated for me, as a pretty serious amateur fighter and a sexual assault victim/survivor whatever you wanna call it. On the one hand, as a practitioner of the sport I kind of hate the "women's self-defense" stuff--it doesn't get taken seriously by fighters and is often annoyingly seen as women's motivation to fight when it's not. As a martial artist, I'm pretty skeptical of the techniques shown in a lot of SD classes, and without long periods of practice or any kind of real sparring, I have serious doubts about how effective those classes are for fighting skills, and most importantly for the number one lesson sparring teaches you--how to remain calm and clearheaded in a situation where someone is trying to hurt you (and sparring with men is also really important IMO though I get how that is triggering for some). On the other hand, as an assault survivor I understand the emotional and psychological benefit any form of defense training has...fighting has made me way more confident just being out and about in the world. I wish more women would be encouraged to do real martial arts at a younger age...yes, it takes time and dedication and pain and can't be taught in one nice succinct class, but I much prefer that women be learning those skills as a general way to feel capable and confident (and to have fun!), and not out of fear of being assaulted.


siccckkkkkkkk!!! @k


I agree wholeheartedly with this--empowerment should not be situational.


Oh man, when I saw the shark metaphor, I thought it was going to be something else entirely: just like with a shark, there's no reasoning with a rapist and you have to be prepared to gouge at his eyes. Which is a point that the writer gets to, later on!

Great piece.


This piece is right on! A well-designed self-defense course has nothing to do with blame, and nothing to do with rigid rules as to how to respond in a life-threatening attack. It is about finding your own voice, your self-worth, and your strength. It's about being aware of a "toolbox" of various options that *might* be helpful in difficult situations (from the everyday to the scary), granting yourself permission to take care of yourself, and creating solidarity with other women.

In short, speaking of someone who came of age in a supportive community of empowerment self-defense students and teachers, ESD is basically the polar opposite of what those Twitter commenters have claimed. In fact, it's MORE than the opposite: it's an active opponent of victim-blaming and the oppression of women.



I call bullshit. Just like the reality of rape is complicated (as the author states: rapists are responsible for rape but victims are not powerless), the discussion of self-defense is complicated. The people who are conscious of this discussion in the context of a culture that blames women for their own rapes are not wrong. Talking about self-defense techniques as a response to sexual assault is a reinforcement of rape culture if it's not done carefully. Pretending like that's not true is playing dumb.

These self-defense classes sound fantastic. But conversations about reducing rape that include issues of self-defense, but do not include issues of rape culture, of teaching "yes means yes" consent practices, of making rapists accountable for their actions, and so on? THOSE are the problem. It's not the discussion of self-defense that's wrong--it's the discussion of self-defense to the exclusion of every other aspect.



There are obviously some poorly-designed self-defense courses out there. No one has pretended otherwise. However, this piece, and my response to it, were specifically directed at Twitter commenters who dog-piled a relatively inoffensive article and, in so doing, claimed unequivocally that advocating self-defense training = victim blaming. That response is equally simplistic, and equally dangerous.


Isn't the writer correct that one's view on this subject is driven largely by the extent of one's optimism about vanquishing rape culture?


@peasofmind I suppose I just find it difficult to suggest that every article, every piece of thought that gets published, anywhere, is necessarily going to address every single point that makes up the vast morass of rape culture (though frankly, I think this piece tackles that nicely up-front, and then gets to its primary focus: self defense).



I mean, I sympathize with the plight of the self-defense instructor who can't talk about what she does and all its positive aspects without being called a victim-blamer and/or rape apologist. I think that's ridiculous. But I don't think the vitriol is really being directed at self-defense classes and instructors. It's a response to the conspicuous lack of other responses to the issue of rape. It's a response to the use of self-defense classes as justification for not talking about ways to prevent sexual violence in the first place.

And I really don't think it's that hard to talk about things other than self-defense when the context is sexual assault. It's not the responsibility of the self-defense instructor, but it is the responsibility of the people and the venues for discussion, if they're going to talk about violence prevention and solutions to rape culture.

It's inarguable that women's self-defense classes are used as a tool of rape culture to reframe discussions about sexual violence as something that's a given, as something that women bear the burden of preventing and the blame when it does occur. That's not the fault of self-defense classes, but it is a reality. I think the minor inconvenience of being careful when we talk about the benefits of self-defense is worth not contributing to rape culture.

I also think it's just a liiiiiittle bit disingenuous to take tweets as really representative of the criticism of the self-defense discussion. Twitter is not exactly a great medium for conveying nuanced ideas with clarity.



Believe me, I find Twitter insipid, but unfortunately those tweets motivated the very incident we are talking about here. (At least, it's what *I* am talking about here). EverydayFeminism took a string of tweeted objections equating SD with victim blaming and support of rape culture seriously enough to remove the article in question and post the disturbing apology that motivated both this piece and my comment.

That being said, I don't disagree with you one bit about the necessity of being very mindful of how we frame self-defense classes. Being careful when we talk about this stuff is no inconvenience for any good teacher; it's a requirement. I don't know whether or not you are familiar with self-defense training, but -- as this article points out -- there are so many well-informed, well-qualified, female instructors out there, some of whom basically wrote the book on fighting rape culture and worked tirelessly to create a curriculum that incorporates just these considerations into every. single. class. So it's more than a liiiiiitle bit insulting for people who may have no idea what material their classes actually include to accuse them of victim-blaming -- in some cases, no less, using the same language that's proudly supported rape culture for years, e.g. "Self-defense doesn't work!!!11!"

So, yeah. My beef is not that people want us to be careful with our language and how we approach topics. My beef is with people who are, through their own ignorance of the work of female self-defense pioneers, belittling that work and dismissing a great tool at womens' disposal.



Yeah, I think we mostly agree. It seems there's some misplaced blame on people who advocate for women's self-defense classes, but mostly I think there's a lot of misinterpreting the criticism of rape culture as criticism of self-defense. Context is everything, and looks like the criticism (at least the criticism that's reasonable) is criticism of the framing of the discussion, not a criticism of self-defense classes.

It just seems like there's something going on here that feels a little bit like a bunch of people saying "hey, the way this discussion around self-defense and sexual assault happens reinforces rape culture and patterns of victim-blaming" and a bunch of people responding "self-defense is great and feminist, and totally not victim-blaming!" Sometimes the first side isn't the most eloquent, but I'm not sure I believe that the second side there is honestly not understanding the complaint. It reeks a little bit of anti-feminist rhetorical tactics that seek to make feminists look like a bunch of oversensitive squabblers who don't know what's good for them. You know?



Yes, I have encountered those tactics, and have been frustrated by them many times. :( However, that's honestly not what I saw happening in this case. I was startled by the whole Twitter reaction when the article first appeared. It wasn't that the comments were clumsy; on the whole, they were clearly stated. A large number of them were very bluntly taking issue with the suggestion of any violence prevention strategy other than "teach men not to rape." I do think it worked up into an attack on the concept of self-defense itself, and that needed to be addressed.

Incidentally, a few days later, I was reading an article about a young woman who successfully fought off an attacker here in the UK. They had a few brief quotes from her (including one where she said she fought partly because she knew that if she didn't, he could do this again to some other woman, or maybe a child). Apparently in one quote she said something to the effect of "...women should know they can fight back," (can't remember the exact quote), and the first few commenters took her to task for it! I was mortified. Here was this survivor who had fought for her life and been successful, and you had people saying, "She did a great job. The only thing she did WRONG was to tell other women they should fight back."

Seeing those comments so soon after the Everyday Feminism thing was really troubling to me. Rape culture is real, our complicity in it must be checked, but honestly, if there needs to be a backlash against something, it is NOT against womens' agency. We have the right to physical resistance to bodily harm.

I guess what I'm trying to express, in so many words, is that the people saying "the way this discussion around self-defense and sexual assault happens reinforces rape culture and patterns of victim-blaming" also need to be careful of the language they use and the blame they place, lest they do harm to some of their great allies. :(





I highly enjoyed this piece. Well written and well reasoned. Makes me want to take a class for myself. I must say I agree with the author it makes more sense to me to learn to protect myself now instead of hoping someone else will learn to do the right thing in the future.

Story #2

I think the part about stressing that the blame doesn't fall on you *regardless of whether or not you defend yourself and regardless of whether you could*, and that self-defense involves an ethical choice is a really, really important part of teaching self-defense responsibly. In my high school, we were given the old "yell or gouge his eyes out" thing, and those were the only two options, and I wasn't sure I would be ready to blind somebody, even in self-defense. And years later I found myself in a position where my choice seemed to be between enduring a sexual assault without fighting, and pushing a man I didn't know out of a moving vehicle and into heavy traffic. I didn't defend myself, because I didn't want to be responsible if he died, or was hurt, and it's really hard for me not to think that I "tolerated" it, that I allowed it, that I'm a bad feminist for not hurting him when I could have.

I'm not even sure what exactly I'm trying to say, but I guess, yes, it is good to have the choice to be able to fight back, and it would be good to recognize it as a choice which is morally independent from the choice someone else made to assault you.


@Story #2 "it would be good to recognize it as a choice which is morally independent from the choice someone else made to assault you." <--yes! The rape-apologist line is "well, if it's EVER possible in ANY situation to defend yourself, then someone who could not defend herself was somehow complicit in her own assault." We should be responding to that by saying that that is 100% not logic, but instead we say, "let's avoid saying that it is ever possible to defend yourself." That's a foolproof way to not victim-blame, but it plays into the same assumption that's troubling us in the first place. (AND it's a frightening message, but those are just my own feelings.)


@Story #2 So sorry for your experience. I took a self defense class which stressed evaluating your options and doing what you feel comfortable doing. Which is what you did. It might be cold comfort, but you absolutely did what was right for you. You are not to blame for the choice you made in that horrible situation.

Story #2

Yeah -- I guess you just have to train yourself to think, "I chose not to hurt the person who hurt me," not "I chose to let the person hurt me," which can feel like a pretty fine distinction. I move to open all self-defense courses with a brief crash course in ethical philosophy, I guess!


@Story #2 You are not a bad feminist because you chose not to meet violence with violence. You made what you felt was the best available choice to you at the time, when you were presented with two shitty choices.

Springtime for Voldemort

"Tell me, have you ever grabbed your own face with both hands to check if your eyeball is dangling outside its socket? I have. Feminism doesn’t get any more radical than that."

I dunno, tearing down capitalism, the State, and patriarchy still seem more radical to me than examining your own wounds. The latter is really just the basic human instinct for self-preservation.

In general, I think feminism could stand to be a little bit more about teaching women practical skills, and a little bit less t~h~e~o~r~y! and waiting for people who oppose us to change. But defending that Everyday Sexism piece, even while calling it "far from flawless", really undercuts that message. If defending that piece *isn't* actually the hill you want to die on, don't spend most of your article defending it.

Jennifer Hargis@facebook

@Springtime for Voldemort I am glad you agree with the message. I disagree with your assessment that she was defending the article for most of the piece. I saw only 2 or 3 sentences to that effect.


@Springtime for Voldemort I just figured it was the latest article of the sort to get that reaction, so made for a convenient reference point in writing this article.

Jennifer Hargis@facebook

You made your own empowering choice. I doubt seriously that what you endured could be called tolerating it. I completely understand your point of view. During my assault I felt the best thing to do was make sure I lived and he was caught. I had no opportunity to take control during the assault itself because I was asleep in my home when it began, however, I protected myself from the nightmare of seeing his face in my dreams by never looking at him, and I took control by feigning sympathy and engaging him in conversation. He left in tears, but not by my physicality. It was my "compassion" and his own guilt that made him cry. That is what worked for me with that man. It may not work for me again.

The thing about feeling empowered is that you are more able to keep thinking. That's what keeps you alive. The fact that you remember that you had choices shows that you were thinking. You are clearly a strong woman.


Also, assuming your eyeball is dangling outside the socket, what do you do about that?

Gef the Talking Mongoose

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll : According to the trusty field manual,

1. DO NOT ATTEMPT to push the eyeball back in. If entirely enucleated, the eyeball will remain attached by the optic nerve.

2. Cover the eye with a moist dressing and a protective cup. DO NOT apply pressure to the eye.

3. Apply a bandage compress or roller bandage to cover BOTH eyes.

4. Evacuate the patient to a medical treatment facility.

Quoth semi-personal experience : most of the time, the eyeball has not been fully removed from the socket; rather, the eyelid has closed behind the eyeball. As long as you don't mess with it, the eyelid will often slide back into place on its own. The bandage over both eyes is basically so you relax and don't do any extra damage to your eye.

And now you know! (and knowing is half the battle, etc. etc.)


@Gef the Talking Mongoose
BRB, fainting for a moment

Also, good lord how do you know this??


@Rock and Roll Ken Doll Yeah but what does it look like, from the eyeball-haver's perspective??


Well, if the eyeball-haver is me, a fairly speedy fade-to-black.


@Gef the Talking Mongoose Never before has the D: emoticon been closer to how my face actually looks when reading something.

Gef the Talking Mongoose

@Jinxie, Rock and Roll Ken Doll : At least the topic wasn't "what do you do about a ring avulsion" because the answer is OH GOD NOW THE IMAGE IS IN MY HEAD AND I WILL NEVER WEAR JEWELRY AGAIN.

Jennifer Hargis@facebook

I would also like to say that there is a difference between "shouldn't have to" and "shouldn't".


@Jennifer Hargis@facebook Exactly. The backlash against the ESD sounds dangerously close to suggesting that women should get raped ON PRINCIPLE, because women shouldn't "have to" physically defend themselves.

Ramona Skriiko@facebook

I have a hard time even comprehending the backlash against Empowerment Self-Defense. It just seems obvious to me that a great way to stop people from being victimized is to empower them to stand up for themselves. I feel like the people who are so vehemently against that are the ones who are really perpetuating rape culture - that they are fundamentally uncomfortable with women standing up for themselves in ways that aren't "feminine." "Let's all be nice about it, let's change men, let's be a unified collective" - stereotypical feminine attitudes in our culture. Also, as an aside, I feel uncomfortable with the "let's change men" attitude because men aren't the only ones who rape. The majority, yes, but not exclusively. Rape culture is about cultural attitudes and values that apply to all genders.


I think it would be interesting to compare the article referenced here (which I didn't read) to Emily Yoffe's binge drinking thing -- I would think there must be a big difference between suggesting that some women may want to take self-defense classes and suggesting that all women should live their lives differently from men due to the specter of rape.


@stuffisthings I was about to write this. Knowing I can defend myself would make me feel empowered and strong; not wearing short skirts or not drinking alcohol for fear of rape would just make me feel shitty, even if doing so were effective in preventing rape. Which, I'm pretty sure they're not.

Sirene-Rose Lipschutz@facebook

one of my biggest problems with anti self defense "logic" is that it is completely black or white. we are a LONG way from "teaching rapists not to rape." though i wish i didn't feel that way, i don't think that will ever happen completely. learning self defense is empowering and fulfilling and translates to so many other aspects of life - standing up to your boss, saying no and setting boundaries, etc. and good self defense helps us manage in myriad situations, especially with people we know.

my other problem is telling people what is feminist and what is not. if you don't think self defense is feminist and that is important to you, then don't do it, but we need to stop telling people they are not feminists...that's not a very feminist thing to do!

anywho...i loved your piece, it was the perfect, well rounded response:)


I teach empowering self-defense from a radical, feminist perspective. I do NOT teach "don't walk alone" or "why didn't you fight back?" or "you should have done something differently." Those statements (which I know are used by some instructors of non-feminist, non-empowering, status quo so-called self-defense) can be read as victim blaming.

I agree with the author, it's NOT victim blaming for us to say - until rape culture is entirely dismantled, we need to organize on ALL fronts. Teaching women, girls, and other targeted people how to physically defend themselves in an emergency, how to use awareness to notice when they aren't being respected, and how to get help from bystanders and others is NOT victim blaming. It's realism!

As she writes - there's a paradox here - - perpetrators are 100% *responsible* but that does not mean that intended victims and survivors are 100% POWERLESS.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@Radical_Feminist I can't speak from any specific experience, so I'm glad that you (and this article) have articulated how I've felt all along.

If we believe the oft-repeated line that rape is about power, WHY would anyone not believe in empowering potential victims and taking some of that power away from the attacker? I believe in trying anything necessary to prevent something terrible from happening - eradicating rape culture would be great, but it's not going to happen overnight, so we all need to do whatever it takes to keep potential victims safe.


Loved this article. Great response to a difficult-to-fathom EDF article-apology.

I'd studied traditional martial arts for a long time when a man approached me one Sunday morning years ago on a downtown street, tried to make conversation, and then rushed toward me in an attempted assault. He had a teardrop tattoo under his eye; I suspected he carried a weapon. Instead of unleashing a flurry of kicks and punches, I poked him in the chest with two fingers as I stepped forward and told him that it was time for him to leave. He stumbled backward, stunned. I was stunned too. (No one had ever taught me that “move”.) He ultimately backed off and I did, too.

This is not complicated. Learning self-defense does not equal victim blaming. Period. And empowerment isn’t a dirty word.


I want to chime in to demonstrate my support for this wonderful article. Walk in dark alleys alone! Do not live in fear.


Is it victim-blaming to teach defensive driving? If I can avoid an accident because of something I learned and practiced, isn't that better than saying "well, not all accidents can be prevented, so we'll just not bother"?
I have in my head this (admittedly imperfect) analogy of rape and drunk driving.
We have waged a full-on cultural campaign against drunk driving. It seems to be working. At the same time, there will always be people who get behind the wheel when they shouldn't. I can't stop them; I can't make their choices. What I can do is learn how to handle my vehicle confidently and competently and how to avoid accidents when possible. That still won't stop me from getting t-boned by a drunk driver, and if I do, it will be that driver's fault.
We can teach "yes means yes" all day long, we can shout it from the rooftops, proclaim it in the pulpits, and make a million very special episodes about it. There will still be people who commit rape. Teaching me how to stop an attempted rape when it is possible isn't saying "all rape is preventable", it's saying "some rape can be stopped, here's how". Some rapes can be stopped. Some can't. Some can, but at a price the victim isn't willing to pay (e.g. shooting the rapist).
I'm not in favor of an attitude that teaches women to live in fear. teaching women that they are WORTH defending and that they are capable of doing so is a lot more feminist than teaching women to live in fear or to accept rape as a fact of life.


As someone who uses the hell out of analogies to think/talk about the world, I mostly really like this one.

Of course, I also think that it does a great job of making clear what makes these two cases so different: If you were t-boned by a drunk driver one night... the cops would believe you, no one would say you were 'asking for it', your previous record of bad driving wouldn't be hauled through court as 'evidence', and all-around, your defensive-or-not driving wouldn't be hashed over a thousand times by people who weren't there.

I loved this article's ability to articulate both sides of the debate, and I'm mostly on the side of 'let's not condemn self-defense as a whole', so I think we mostly agree. This analogy just works really well as a way to talk for both sides, imho.


@Blushingflwr I also really like this analogy for exactly this reason! God, could you imagine if there were a "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" or "Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving" type campaign for rape? Like, "Lack of Yes is a No." Or if it was common to have huge schoolwide rape education campaigns (maybe focusing on, don't have sex with drunk people) during the week leading up to prom?


Thank you so much for this piece. It is so right-on and eloquent. The self-defense paradox has troubled me for a long time. I am pretty dismayed to hear people say that training to defend oneself is somehow not feminist. No one is saying it's obligatory--it's a useful tool to add to our Empowerment Toolkit, is all. This response mystifies me.

As a teacher and longtime practitioner of martial arts, I have always felt conflicted about self-defense. Studying martial arts--even very direct arts like karate and boxing--does not prepare anyone for the violence of a real assault, and in some ways I feel the rules inherent to a dojo/gym environment can hinder a good defensive response. I also struggle with the fact that the majority of assailants are known to their victims. It's not merely a question of being able to respond physically with some technique, there's a deep psychological component that I believe has to be addressed if self-defense is to be taught effectively. Especially as women, we are taught to put others' well-being before our own...all this conditioning has to be overcome to actually be able to hurt someone.

I have had people ask me to teach their daughter/sister/wife self-defense, and I always have to explain that I am not equipped to do so, which makes me feel bad. This piece made me want to look into becoming an EDF instructor so I can maybe offer the tools that traditional martial arts training leaves out. Thanks again.

Melissa Soalt@facebook

You nailed it about the conditioning and internal emotional realities being critical to SD. (I'm a 28 year WSD teacher / advocate, with background in MA and psychotherapy.) While not directly part of the discussion here, I absolutely attest: when we women learn how to liberate fire from fear, that is to say, tap fear's hidden ferocity, clear the psychological obstacles, and summon the WILL to self defend ... we can be downright dangerous. Which isn't to say fighting back is always effective or the best or only option. It isn't. And there's this: A bigger stronger pumped up guy COULD kill me by accident-- hence the need to be fully committed and armed with the best, surliest tools IF we elect to go physical.

But the permission piece is critical. To me, it all gets very primal; an inside-out job: once that instinct and (female animal) mojo is back online- unencumbered or LESS encumbered by conditioning and the disabling effects of fear-- it becomes easier and in some sense far more effective to click into and internalize self protection skills and methods - be it to detect and deter, assert boundaries, break away, or fight back like a motherf to enable escape. At least have these options "at the ready."

There are SO many pieces of this-- the psychological, emotional and spiritual (life force) components. Perhaps deepest of all IMO is knowing where we draw the line: what is non-negotiable? Uncompromising? To which there is no cookie cutter answer- and that can also change over time.

But your background in hard style ARTS are a great value, should not ever be demoted to or thought of as little sister status-- which can happen amidst the rah-rah of WSD. The power, focus, internalized strengths and Martial Mindset you- and others sisters in MA- have developed are a powerful, and potentially life saving asset.


@Melissa Soalt@facebook
Thanks very much for saying that, it's really nice to hear.

Yeah, I think the answer to "What is non-negotiable" is completely personal and situational. But SD skills may give you the ability to choose your response. Choice is power.

Man, I want to pick your brain about the psychological component, too. I would really like to work with survivors of abuse--in my mind when I think of self-defense, those are the people who need tools the most. But that shit is a minefield. Do you know Ellis Amdur's work, and if so, what you think of it?
[@All: Sorry for threadjack!]

glow bug

Just reading this article is empowering. Now, where can I find an ESD class?


@glow bug

This is a great place to start! http://www.nwmaf.org/find-a-self-defense-instructor


The somewhat awkwardly titled modelmugging.org teaches a very natural technique for self-defense, emphasizing moves to use when pinned on the ground or grabbed from behind. Lots of knee-to-groin, clasped-hands-as-weapon moves. And shouting No! The book had a section on avoiding panic if one is shot, and what to say to police or rescuers to show you're not the attacker. As I think about it, there was a very canny section on explaining one's perhaps- excessive use of force to a judge, if one is later sued by the attacker. Need to read that book again myself.


On another tack, I welcome men who will speak out against Domestic Violence. If you have not experienced the power of human compassion and a call to reason against rape culture, please watch Sir Patrick Stewart, (here and many others) http://youtu.be/TqFaiVNuy1k


@Myrtle That speech is stirring.


I need to chime in AGAIN to point out how happy I am that this community still exists and comes out strongly in favor of carrying one's own.


The other part about this is that... I think a rapist should live in fear of consequences. This isn't to say that there should be an obligation of the part of the assaulted to solve the problem of the assault, but the whole idea that the person who is attacked is easy prey is a big part of the whole thing. If you think outward to other ways that sexual and romantic relationships suffer from abuses and exploitation, in pick-up "artists" the whole concept of negging is about finding someone who, when insulted, doesn't get offended and walk away, but works harder to get approval. In domestic violence cases, the abuse escalates up, testing always if the victim will resist, gradually heating up the water so the victim loses a sense of normal, etc. Bullies are often cowardly, they're looking to find unguarded spots and exploit them. Which I want to emphasize again, doesn't mean they can't get really scary or explosive when thwarted, but that people who prey on other people are looking for people they feel like they can get away with hurting.

And women are that group of people that it seems easier to hurt. Along with children and elderly people and disabled people and minorities, basically anyone who has some disadvantage in being taken seriously.

If it were a well known fact that up to 10% of all women can dislocate their jaws during assaults and eat their attacker I'm guessing rape would be less common because every rapist would be like, hmm, "what if she's one of the 10 preying mantis women? Hmm.." I think rape would still happen, but less.

The Hollaback movement is a resistance to street harassment movement. It includes talking about all kinds of things that you can do, starting with sharing stories and supporting people who you see getting harassed, etc. But also once or twice, when I felt it was mostly safe to do so (AKA I could get away quickly or was somewhere where there were a lot of people around), I have yelled back at a street harasser or flipped them off, or gone mean, and they have responded with COMPLETE SHOCK. Sometimes then anger, but usually I'm out of there before they even recover from the total shock of being treated with clear, LOUD resistance. When I get that reaction, I think there's a guy who never NOT ONCE had an experience where his sleezy way was met with an equal negative reaction.I have once been mugged after yelling at someone, but also, I think they would have mugged us anyway. Harassers are enjoying the sensation of power when they manage to get the person they go after to shut down and try to get away. Disrupting that really fucks them up. My friend once laughed and pointed at a flasher and it really destroyed him. She said it was a total shock, weird response, but when you think about how he was going to enjoy her disgust, it turned the tables around completely when she was so dismissive of him.

It's not that it's an obligation for someone who is assaulted to fight back, but the idea that it's somehow wrong to maybe make rapists worry that the thing they think is lamb is actually a wolf is NUTS. For me, being able to think, "ok this bad thing happened to me, but next time, I'll maybe be able to react with more information, and maybe even scare the shit out of that guy if I can?" is healing. I know that if I can make even one out of 10 guys feel uncomfortable when he's making me uncomfortable, it's going to make me feel better about the other 9 times I just pretend to be reading my book/didn't hear him.

Guys don't start shit with other guys a lot of the time I think because they know that a fight is potentially in the cards and they're wary. When you watch two male strangers piss each other off they usually give each other a lot of outs unless they both really want to fight. Like, they keep yelling at each other but also they are walking away, or letting their friends talk them down. I've seen a lot of situations where I think, "ok they're going to fight maybe?" and then they don't. I think that comes from a basic uncertainty on each person's part of, "will I win this? Will I lose? maybe just yelling is enough", and that comes out of seeing another guy as an equal opponent.

Attackers think about women they assault as, "I'm going to win this, it will be easy". Anything that disrupts that is a net good to my mind. If self defense is something all women learned, if rapists and pre rapists were like, "oh no there's a 15 year old with big boobs, I bet she's got bass knuckles and goes for the eyes, and look her boots look like they can give a good kicking", we'll that would help. If negging didn't work, then that would help. If everytime some guy sidled up to a woman and said, "I just want you to know you are so beautiful" she said, "ok if we're talking about what we think of each other, I think you must be a real creep to come bother me with your opinions"....it would help. It wouldn't stop everything, and in some cases, yes, that act of resistance might get met with violence, but it's not that we aren't met with violence anyway, so it's not like you are going from a place of complete safety to a place of complete risk. You are in a place of risk now.

Melissa Soalt@facebook

One final comment. To those who lump the learning and teaching of all self defense into the shit heap of victim blaming, is to insult all of us who have worked and do work tirelessly to help combat rape and empower women. Work which has and does literally save (many) women's lives. If not physically or via an active strategy, than by increasing women's fighting spirit, changing self (and other) perceptions and by reshifting power back onto women. By enlarging women's lives. And passing this pwoer to our young.

I consider myself to be a warrior - and I don't mean a faux fuzzy warrior. To denigrate the female warrior's tools of self defense is frankly dishonorable.


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I'm afraid I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to 'Women should learn self-defense to avoid being raped', and your article made me examine it more fully.
I realise now that my reaction is probably rooted in the fact that suggestion is usually offered as part of a set that includes gems like 'dress appropriately' and 'avoid going out alone late at night' and all those other damned platitudes that are dribbled out as 'simple common sense'. Shark's teeth is such a perfect description.
Thank you for so clearly defining the paradox, and pulling my mind away from this particular shark.


I am one of those who saw the way Everday Feminism handled the controversy as an attack. 

It’s an attack on the very concept of self-defense, my fellow Chimera, Inc., Self-Defense for Women instructors, and every woman we taught and learned from for the last 40 years and who told us, “It changed my life.” Of the students who disclosed they were rape survivors, many become self-defense instructors. Our Success Stories (first-hand accounts of victories small or large) made up much of our core curriculum. There was never an “us”(instructor) v “them” (students) mentality. It was alway “we.” There was only support, no “blame.” 

It's an affront to the women’s voices in Chicago in the '70s:  Pauline Bart (author of the groundbreaking study on successful survival strategies); Kathleen Thompson and Andra Medea (co-authors of Against Rape, the first book to address the “little rapes” that women endure.); Roxanne Taylor, a 16 year-old brown belt kid teaching women’s karate, who is responsible for my love of martial arts. 

There were dedicated men, too: Louis R. Vitullo, chief microanalyst for the Chicago crime lab, who developed and fiercely fought for a standard evidence kit for cases of sexual assault, and Ken Goldberg, Chimera’s only male instructor, who taught men self-defense.

You betcha, it’s personal.

The women's community in Chicago was extremely supportive of Chimera and women's self-defense. Chimera’s first office was in a renovated closet in the back of the women’s locker room at the Chicago YWCA. We were in the good company of Rape Victims Advocates and Chicago National Organization for Women. They fought hard for our right to do public lectures and demonstrations. 

At that time in Chicago, the only voices deemed qualified to teach women were male Chicago cops and convicted rapists. Their expert public advice was: Be A Good Victim, and “Don’t Fight Back,” and “Just Relax and Enjoy It.” When Chimera started making in-roads into their territory, the next thing objection was, “Yes, but, the officer is a black belt.” (That one we foresaw coming, and we were soon able to say, “Gee! Our instructors are, too!”)

Statistics, studies and student success stories from 40 years of teaching is what I would have liked to add to the Everday Feminism discussion, but it was gone the very day I heard about the article. They could have had this discussion on their own pages. I guess they thought it would just go away. But nothing goes away just because you close *your* eyes.

Everday Feminism’s cheerful response of  “We want to be clear that we hear you, and that you’re right.” sounded to me like what you say to a complaint about a faulty toaster, not a discussion on one the most serious issues facing women. 

Silencing women’s voices to “protect” them, and in the name of feminism? That’s a twist I did not see coming. 


I agree with "susmart." I am not a self-defense expert, but I am a survivor. I read the original article and this article. I want to learn all the self-defense techniques that I can to avoid being the victim again. I cannot control the thinking or the actions of the rapist, I can only control my own. So reading about what we can do to "change" the rapist's actions is great...in a different article set aside to tackle that topic. What I want to know is what *I* can do to protect myself in the meantime.

Children are taught about "Stranger Danger" in school and how to avoid being a victim. That doesn't mean that we're blaming them for getting themselves into a situation that could be life-threatening. We're trying to explain how to avoid being duped into them. We're trying to teach them what to do in these situations, we're not interested in getting into the psyche of the child molester at this point...we just want our kids safe. Likewise, I want to know how *I* can be safe. The original article did just that.

Janice Boughton@facebook

Thanks for writing this. I did rape research a few decades ago when I was an undergraduate, looking at what factors lead to reporting a rape. I got to talk with lots of women who had been assaulted and read about what happened. The biggest variable in whether they reported the rape was self esteem. I have taken martial arts classes and women's self defense classes and I notice that in addition to practical tips about gouging out eyes and stomping insteps, self esteem was taught. Women were not only taught what they could do, but that they had every right to do it. The last class I attended was taught by a couple of guys who did Aikido as their main martial arts gig. I attended with my daughter and a couple of her friends. The feeling in the car as we drove back was excellent, and the conversations it brought up were great. The studies of women's self defense teaching in Kenya, mentioned above, showed some of this same issue on a large scale. There were significantly less rapes in the women who attended the class, but even the women who were raped anyway had less internal trauma and were more likely to report the rape to the authorities. The aggressors were more likely to be caught. The guys who taught the class can't get the university to sponsor them now because self defense is no longer acceptable. Instead we have to tell men and boys to be nice and not rape people. The other thing I noticed when I did my research those many years ago was that the rapists were in general stupid or drunk or both. Not cold, calculating criminals. We will have to come a lot further in dismantling rape culture for stupid drunk guys to respond to ad campaigns to be more compassionate to women. I think that when it comes to date and acquaintance rape on college campuses, large scale programs to convince guys that raping their fellow students is totally uncool might have an impact.

I have seen what looks to me like a cultural shift among high achieving female students to act passive and non-threatening. This whole shift in rape prevention toward educating men rather than empowering women goes along with that disheartening trend. I'm feeling like the patriarchy is winning this round.

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