Monday, July 21, 2014

Falling Short: The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

I have been thinking about “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault” since it was released last week. To help me sort through my complicated reactions, I turned to Martha McCaughey’s and Jill Cermele’s introduction to the March 2014 Violence Against Women Special Issue: Self-Defense Against Sexual Assault. When examined side by side, it is as if the White House Task Force repeated what McCaughey and Cermel identify as the inadequacies of contemporary rape prevention programming—a focus on information about rape, rape avoidance with special attention to empowering men to step in when someone is at risk, after-assault support, and state regulation and punishment of sexual violence . When I view the White House Report through McCaughey’s and Cermele’s lens, I can better understand my disappointment with the report: it falls short, it breaks no new ground, and it sustains the status quo of treating college women as helpless victims.
         So what is wrong with the White House Task Force Report? What is missing that contributes to my disappointment? To help me explain it, I will use an analogy. Imagine that you live in a city on a large body of water and people know the risks of drowning down to the decimal point. Imagine there are all kinds of systems in place to keep people from falling into the water plus lifeguards and emergency services are located in key places, support personnel are highly skilled in helping people recover from near-drowning experiences, and law enforcement excels at locating and bringing to justice people who push others into the water. I do not want to eliminate these structural supports for minimizing drowning, but I want to add the possibility that people have opportunities to learn how to swim. It does not mean that knowing how to swim will eliminate drowning or that people who can swim are at fault if they are suddenly at risk. It just means recognizing that most people are capable of learning how to swim and participating in keeping themselves safe if they are in the water.
       What McCaughey and Cermele identify as missing in current rape prevention programming is also missing in the White House Report: self-defense training. Instead, just like in our mythical city on a lake, the focus is on experts and bystanders saving people in danger without any mention of the considerable body of evidence demonstrating that women who have self-defense training are more likely to resist sexual violence than those who do not have the training. The message of the White House Task Force that women should focus their attention on awareness of risks and avoiding danger because only men can stop another man from rape and sexual assault is an obsolete message. I was hoping for a contemporary evidence-based message that self-defense training is an important component of any plan to protect students from sexual assault.

Martha Thompson, IMPACT Chicago Instructor and Director Emeritus
National Women's Martial Arts Certified Self-Defense Instructor
Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Women's Studies, Northeastern Illinois University

McCaughey, Martha and Jill Cermele. March 2014. Guest Editors’ Introduction. Violence Against Women Special Issue: Self-Defense Against Sexual Assault 20 (3):247-251.

The White House. April 2014. “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.”

Originally published May 2, 2014 on The Mindful Professor.

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