Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) can play a role in reducing violence against boys and men and improve community safety.
ESD Instructors care about everyone’s experiences and believe everyone has the right to live free from violence. Self-defense has mistakenly come to be understood as solely a women’s issue and as primarily focused on physical responses. Interpersonal violence is a societal problem that affects all genders. Physical resistance is only one of many possible options for response. Men (from here forward men is inclusive of male-identified people of any age) have their own challenges to practicing and using behaviors that can increase their safety, make it more likely they will be believed and supported, and improve access to recovery. It is critical to address situations such as sexual assault and rape, bar fights and schoolyard conflicts, hazing and bullying, abusive parents and abusive partners - both for ones’ safety as an individual and to interrupt the cycle of interpersonal violence.
Our programs are guided by ESD principles. This includes examining the social and cultural norms that create vulnerabilities for specific populations, such as men, to be targeted for violence. Social norms can also be an influence when committing acts of abuse and violence. Men’s safety may be at risk when they act out violence as well. They may experience physical injury even if they were the aggressor and they could be criminalized and/or face other consequences if they victimize others.
Men sometimes face choosing between being victimized, being an active bystander, or siding with the aggressor. For example, witnesses to bullying may be forced to decide whether to ignore the bully’s actions or speak up and risk becoming the next target. An individual may find themselves being both a target of violence as well as an aggressor. In situations such as fraternity pledging, someone may be the target of tests of bravery, pain tolerance, and humiliation freshman year. Once a member, they may then test freshman in following years.
Space to be more authentic apart from adherence to gender scripts helps interrupt the cycle of violence
A classroom based on ESD principles facilitates an environment where men and boys can learn safety skills without the pressures of hierarchy and competition. ESD programs:
· Examine the utility of gender scripts and “guy code” for responding to violence and reframe strength (not just brute force) and “winning” (anything to end or interrupt the encounter, including walking away and de-escalation).
· Provide skills and tools where size, weight class, athleticism, and previous combative experience are not relevant.
· Decouple fighting arts/self-defense from masculine culture and masculine spaces.
· Minimize intra-student competition through practice and role-play only with instructors. Additionally, participants don’t receive rankings.
· Make no assumptions about gender and previous knowledge - everyone gets to learn together.
· Provide opportunities for participants to talk about their responses to this material, such as acknowledging that one doesn't like fighting, or that it is hard/scary/triggering to be on the receiving end of aggression, even simulated aggression.
· Create space to connect with other men and explore emotions without reacting to them with anger, pride, need for control.
· Provide a safer space to ask for and give support to others. This can be especially valuable for men who face constraints about reporting and asking for help, such as internalized shame and blame.
· Value participants for who they are, regardless of their social status, money, success, or looks.
· Honor choices about participation and limits.
Space to reflect on the lived experiences and abilities of oneself and others helps interrupt the cycle of violence
ESD programs explicitly provide opportunities for participants to share their own history of violent or abusive experiences and/or to hear about classmates’ lived experiences. For men it might be the first time that they share what it felt like to be targeted for violence. Many experience relief to learn they aren’t alone in their experiences and emotions.
In all gender or mixed gender classes, it might be the first time they become aware of the way people with different genders experience abuse and violence. They may learn how other people daily address safety concerns and how they organize and limit their lives to reduce their risk of being targeted.
In ESD programs staffed by mixed gender teaching teams, men get to experience being taught and coached by women as leaders in the class - an explicit choice to model less traditional gender roles. Observation of mixed gender instructors and mixed gender co-students invites men to expand their view of women’s capacity to resist violence, to lead, and to be strong in a variety of different ways. Many men leave class committed to be better allies to people of all genders.
Space to heal from experiences of violence such as abuse and neglect helps interrupt the cycle of violence
ESD programs teach valuable tools that may prevent interpersonal violence and help people heal. Research suggests a statistically significant connection between experiencing abuse and neglect as a child and being charged with criminal offenses as an adult. Participants may connect how their early experiences shape who they are now and provide insights into how they respond to triggers such as stress, verbal aggression, and intense emotions such as anger or rejection. Classes offer support, new skills, and alternatives to violence when aroused/adrenalized through grounding exercises, breath control and pacing. Role plays provide opportunities to explore strategic responses designed to match levels of response to levels of threat. Participants experience an embodied sense of power and safety that isn’t defined by control or domination of another person.
ESD programs examine gender role messages and how those messages may have influenced past behavior or beliefs. Young people socialized into hyper-masculinity and beliefs about distinct, binary, gender roles may perpetuate hierarchical systems that condone or encourage violent behaviors (sports team hazing) and may commit violence, sexual assault, and /or relationship abuse. Research suggests that fear of emotions, gender role stress, and gender role enforcement are connected to violence against gay men and women.
Restrictive social and cultural norms are challenged as students learn and practice a spectrum of avoidance strategies and verbal skills. Expanding response choices beyond all or nothing (punk out and cower or come back hard and go to blows) is critical for trauma survivors, for folks who might face unfair and severe consequences for self-defense, and for those who don’t want to use physical self-defense as a means to counter violence.
ESD and Impact Instructor
Baugher, Amy R. and Julie A.Gazmararian. 2015. Masculine gender role stress and violence: A literature review and future directions. Aggression and Violent Behavior 24: 107-112
Jakupcak, Matthew. 2003. Masculine Gender Role Stress and Men's Fear of Emotions as Predictors of Self-Reported Aggression and Violence. Violence and Victims 18 (5)5 : 533-41.
Moore, Todd M., Stuart, Gregory L., McNulty, James K., Addis, Michael E., Cordova, James V., Temple, Jeff R. 2008. Domains of masculine gender role stress and intimate partner violence in a clinical sample of violent men., Psychology of Men & Masculinity 9(2): 82-89
Parrott, Dominic J. 2009. Aggression Toward Gay Men as Gender Role Enforcement: Effects of Male Role Norms, Sexual Prejudice, and Masculine Gender Role Stress Journal of Personality 77(4): 1137-1166.
Widom, Cathy Spatz. 1989. The Cycle of Violence. Science 244 (April): 160-166.