The Problems with Female-Only Self-Defense Classes
Friday, September 6, 2013Tweet
Content Note: Sexual assault, victim-blaming, gender binary
Our school recently announced that a local martial arts place is going to offer free self-defense classes on campus. I think this is a great idea. I took a self-defense class in high school and I think another one through Girl Scouts. Just knowing that I have at least some tools at my disposal in the event that someone should ever try to attack me or take me somewhere against my will makes me feel more confident, which tends to be a big selling point for these types of classes.
Here's the problem: The classes are only offered to female students, faculty, and staff.
There are actually a number of problems with this, and I want to go through them just to put my thoughts out there. You may disagree with some of these, but I hope that overall you'll see that maybe this isn't the greatest idea.
1) This contributes to a culture of victim-blaming, particularly female victim-blaming.
When a self-defense class is offered to all genders (or to men), the tone tends to be, "Here are some skills so you'll know what to do if you're ever attacked." When a self-defense class is offered to women, the tone often is, "If we teach women self-defense, they won't get raped so much." The female self-defense classes I've attended before often include the standard "safety tips" like "Don't walk alone at night" that equate limiting women's freedom with keeping them safe. This is based on the problematic assumption that rape (or other violence against women) happens not because people choose to rape, but because women just don't know how to act. It's based on an assumption that if women just did something differently or learned more (putting the burden on the supposed potential-victims), there would be fewer assaults.
To be fair, our school has taken a proactive approach against sexual assault with a campaign that focuses on the responsibility of the entire community to prevent sexual assault. But I can't help but feel that whoever arranged for these female-only self-defense classes thought, "Maybe the number of incidents of sexual assault will go down if we can teach all the women on campus self-defense!"
2) This presumes that either men don't get attacked or that they can protect themselves if they do.
My husband does not have a great deal of physical strength. We have friendly arguments over who is stronger (I think he is, he thinks I am). His build is fairly skinny. If an intruder were to come into our apartment and we for some reason needed to fend them off physically, we'd be evenly matched -- except for the fact that I know more self-defense than he does. And ironically, because men generally are not warned constantly throughout their entire life that they're going to get attacked if they walk home alone at night, they may actually be more likely to be in a situation to get "jumped" by someone (which tends to be the focus of the self-defense classes I've attended) and thus in need of knowing how to defend themselves.
3) These self-defense classes tend to have an unhelpful "stranger in the bushes" focus.
Again, this is only based on my past experience, but the self-defense instructors I've had tend to present the material in a way that's like, "Here's what you should do if someone comes out of the shadows and tries to pull you into their car" (or some such scenario). If, as I suspect, the purpose of offering these classes is to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and violence against women, then it would be helpful to have them presented more realistically, with information about domestic violence and date rape, and without all the "keep your eyes up and don't walk alone and don't carry a purse" context. And given that domestic violence and date rape (as well as the less common "stranger in the bushes" attacks) affect men as well, there's no reason they shouldn't have the opportunity to learn these things.
4) The defining factor for inclusion is gender (rather than on a factor like bodily strength) and potentially erases non-gender-conforming individuals.
If classes are limited to women because of the idea that "women are weaker and need more skills to defend themselves," this is a case of letting an average drive a rule. If the school wants to empower its weakest members, it could do that most effectively by letting people self-select whether they feel they need self-defense skills rather than by allowing participation based on gender. There's also no indication of what the definition of female is. If someone was assigned female at birth but identifies as genderqueer or male, they have the same "biological disadvantage" that ciswomen do, but can they not attend?
I could see someone rationalizing grouping self-defense classes by gender if there is going to be partner practice, since men do have more bodily strength on average and some women might be intimidated by being paired with men. However, I think this is somewhat of a weak excuse because people of the same gender can still have vast disparities in size and strength (I would be intimidated being paired with a strong, athletic woman), there are no comparable classes offered for men, and the problem of a simplistic binary category is not addressed.
Also, people within the same class could be taught together and then paired for practice based on a particular factor (gender, strength, etc.) -- this doesn't require limiting the entire class to women. Not to mention, if I only ever practice releasing from a woman's hold, then how do I know I'm able to do the same on a large, strong man?
I think offering free self-defense classes is a great thing to do. I think limiting participation in those classes to females is problematic.
What do you think?