Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Cure for sexual assaults lies within prevention, not self defense

It's always nice to hear reactions and feedback to something you've written. I've received a number of e-mails about my columns on sexual violence. Most have been fairly positive. And then, of course, there are the e-mails and letters that read, "If you cared enough to actually solve the crime, you'd teach women to be loud and clear when they say 'NO' and then kick the balls."

Silly me, trying to educate people about the ingrained sexual violence of our society when the whole thing could be resolved with a few quick kicks to the balls.

Seriously, I do understand the questions behind those e-mails. It's great to teach people, particularly men, about rape and violence, but doesn't it make more sense to teach women to protect themselves? Wouldn't a few good self-defense classes go a lot farther than some preachy column about rape culture?

Personally, I have nothing against self-defense. I earned a black belt when I was younger (and in far better shape). I have a 4-year-old daughter, and I've already begun to teach her how to break free of certain holds and grabs. I will do everything in my power to make sure my little girl is able to protect herself to the best of her ability.

So why not put all women through self-defense courses as a way to end rape? Forget a mandatory rape-education class for incoming freshmen, let's do mandatory self-defense for women.

Problem one: It doesn't fix the problem. Unless we find a way eliminate the rapists, rape will continue. Self-defense may help people escape certain kinds of attacks, but there are no guarantees - especially if your attacker has also studied self-defense or other martial arts. And remember, 80-90 percent of all rapes are committed by friends, family members and lovers. Women might learn to fight back against an armed attacker leaping from the bushes, but do they learn to protect themselves against someone they love and trust?

Problem two: Imagine you're a survivor of rape attending this class, and the instructor steps forward to say, "I'm going to teach you how to keep yourself from getting raped." Sounds good, right? That's why you're here, after all. But as a survivor, the odds are good that you already feel ashamed and guilty, blaming yourself for what was done to you. Now you're being told that if you had only acted differently, if you had only known what to do, none of this would have happened. It's often unintentional, but many of these classes end up reinforcing guilt and victim-blaming.

There are exceptions. There are classes where the instructors understand and address the unique issues surrounding sexual violence. The problems I present can be fixed, but that still won't fix the underlying problem. We treat self-defense as a Band-Aid, a way to cover up the deeper issues. And we use it as a way to make it woman's job to end rape.

As I said, I believe in self-defense as a useful tool. Yet as I sit there showing my little girl how to twist free of a wrist grab, I sometimes find myself getting angry. Why is it, when we talk about a crime that has affected 17.7 million women in this country, we immediately turn around and burden women with the task of solving it? "Women are getting raped? Well, women should learn to protect themselves better, and then it won't be a problem."

The vast majority of rapists are men, just as the majority of victims are women. When we look at racism and racial violence, do we examine the things blacks and Hispanics and other historically oppressed groups need to do to stop white people from harassing them? When we think about the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, do we ask how we can teach people to avoid likely targets of terrorism, or do we aggressively attack and root out the perpetrators of that terror? So why, when we talk about rape, do we talk about self-defense as a quick and easy way for women to solve the problem?

Maybe it's a father thing, but every time I work with my daughter on self-defense, I know it's not enough. I know it can't protect her. I can't guarantee she'll be safe, and that rips me apart inside.

It's not the job of a 4-year-old girl to stop a crime committed overwhelmingly by men. But when so many men refuse to speak up or claim some responsibility, that's where the burden falls. Women don't learn self-defense to end rape. They learn self-defense to make up for our society's failure to do so.

Jim Hines is the male outreach coordinator at MSU Safe Place. Reach him at jchines@sff.net.

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