Monday, August 26, 2013

Addressing Mis-Perceptions About Self-Defense and Feminism: Reflections on the 2013 NOW Conference

It may surprise you to learn that many feminists don’t see self-defense as a feminist issue. Programs that focus on transmitting prevention skills to individual women tend to be dismissed as potentially “victim blaming” and rejected for foundation grants. Read on to hear how three self-defense instructors presented a panel at the annual NOW (National Organization for Women) conference to address these misunderstandings of our work and help feminist anti-violence advocates view self-defense providers as allies in the struggle to end violence against women.

“If we want to stop violence against women, we have to focus on men and stop asking women to do the work.” This was a common refrain voiced in the Violence Against Women Track of the 2013 National NOW Convention held in Chicago in July.  This mantra echoes a sentiment in the anti-violence field that presumes self-defense training places responsibility on women by supplying a list of don’ts—don’t wear that, don’t go there, don’t drink that—and ignores the responsibility of perpetrators. This sentiment was repeated enough times in the sessions preceding the panel “’If She Hadn’t Worn That:’ An Empowerment Model of Self-Defense” offered by NWMAF certified self-defense instructors Thousand Waves Violence Prevention Director Kate Webster, University of Michigan self-defense instructor Katy Mattingly, and me that we met over lunch to make adjustments to our presentations to address this issue head-on in our introductory remarks.

Kate, Katy, and I all agreed that for panel attendees to hear what we had to say about an empowerment model of self-defense that we had to challenge an “either/or” paradigm and offer “both/and,” stating the importance of providing people with tools to keep themselves safe while simultaneously working to change cultures and social structures that perpetuate violence. Addressing the need for both individual tools and social change and the complexities of responsibility and blame was well-received and resulted in our being able to share the roots of an empowerment model of self-defense in the feminist movement (Kate), the key elements of an empowerment approach to self-defense (Martha), and the powerful outcomes in preventing sexual assault and increasing women’s self-efficacy (Katy).

Addressing the complexities and then inviting participation from attendees resulted in people raising questions and making comments about their own struggles with how to frame violence and the role of self-defense.  For instance, one attendee said: “I know that blaming the victim is wrong, but I don’t know what to put in its place.” On the surface, the easy answer is the catchphrase about focusing on men’s responsibility. It is a comment, however, deserving serious consideration and discussion. Deming, Covan, Swan, and Billings (2013) have found that even with all the rape prevention work on college campuses, myths continue to shape college students’ reactions to rape, resulting in excusing men and blaming women.  So even among a population that has received the latest information about rape myths and facts, rape victims continue to be blamed if others perceive ambiguity or complexity (e.g. a woman was drinking alcohol).

Further, internationally-known and highly influential self-defense instructor Nadia Telsey (2007) urges us to distinguish regret and blame. She believes that by creating space for people to express regret for their behavior (e.g. being drunk, not listening to their instincts that someone meant them harm), we acknowledge individual agency which gives people hope and choices. The distinction between regret and blame is often blurred so we need to create space to allow people to work through the difference.

Participants responded positively to the messages we conveyed about an empowerment approach and the exercises they participated in as a way to experience our key points. An empowerment approach to violence offered a new framework for many and a way to begin to grapple with understanding the complexities of violence and self-defense. Our task, however, remains large: how to both continue to prepare individuals to keep themselves safe and simultaneously working to change cultures and social structures that perpetuate violence and blame victims.
Martha Thompson, IMPACT Chicago instructor

Deming, Michelle E., Eleanor Krassen Covan, Suzanne C. Swan, and Deborah L Billings. 2013. Exploring rape myths, gendered norms, group processing, and the social context of rape among college women: A qualitative analysis. Violence Against Women 19: 465-485.

Telsey, Nadia. 2007. Phone interview with Martha Thompson.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 Kiai: Newsletter of Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self-Defense Center.

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