Where Logic Meets Love

The Problems with Female-Only Self-Defense Classes

Friday, September 6, 2013

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The Problems with Female-Only Self-Defense Classes | Faith Permeating Life

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?


  1. You make a lot of great points here!

    I think the most helpful "self-defense class" I ever had was in Girl Scouts when an interest project (badge for teen Scouts) activity required us to role-play a number of peer pressure situations, one of which was, "You are sitting in a park with a boy who wants to go farther than you do." At the time (1986) it seemed that an advantage of the all-female group was that the girl pretending to be a boy could actually touch the other girl without being perceived as genuinely sexual--that seems crazy to me from today's perspective! After the first round, the leader decided this particular scenario was so important that every troop member (only about 6 of us) was going to have a turn in each role. Because most of the girls in my troop were older than me and had some experience with dating, I learned a wide variety of strategies, both physical and verbal.

    As a crime researcher, I have to say that "Don't carry a purse" is pretty dumb advice unless you personally find that a purse hampers your movement. Theft of a purse from a person carrying it is a) not a very common crime, b) not connected to rape, or to any assault other than as necessary to get the purse off you, because the thief will want to get away ASAP, and c) committed mostly by boys between 10 and 13, an age at which sexual assault of a stranger is very uncommon. If you are going to be in a crowd in a high-crime area, fine, don't carry a purse, or carry it with the strap across your body and pay attention to it, and watch out for young boys. But if your concern is a risk of sexual assault, a purse has nothing to do with it. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the intent of the advice?

    1. Even though it feeds into the whole "it's the girl's job to protect her purity from the sex-crazed boys!" idea, I like that you actually had to practice a realistic dating-based situation. Even though they make me nervous to do, I am a big fan of role plays. We have all of our RAs role play potential scenarios in training and people say it's the most helpful part.

      The "don't carry a purse" advice I heard was actually "don't carry a purse that goes across your body" because that could make it easier for someone to grab it and then drag you into a car or something. So yeah, it was pretty stupid.

    2. There really wasn't a tone of "protecting purity" or "all boys are sex-crazed" or specific gender roles--it was like all the other scenarios in that your peer was pressuring you to do something you did not want to do; this one was sexual, while the others were about drugs, crime, bullying a third party, defying parents, etc. It was because it was written for Girl Scouts that the scenario was a girl resisting a boy, I felt, whereas all the others were a girl resisting pressure from another girl, because that's who was available to act it out. I wonder if these days, anyone would dare suggest the scenario, "You are with another girl who wants to have sex with you, but you don't want to," or that's too prone to accusations of homophobia?

      I can't say for sure without testing the physics, but I bet it would be difficult to drag someone using a purse that's diagonally across her body--almost as difficult as lying under a parked car and reaching out to grab someone's ankle and drag her under the car and rape her there, which is a scenario I've seen warned against in a number of "self-defense" emails! You just do not have much leverage when you're lying on the ground, and then how is there enough space under a car to do much of anything?!

  2. I think you've taken the wrong kind of self-defense class in the past and it's shaped your opinion of what this one will be like. I took a class three years ago with the Fight The Fear campaign in Seattle (long story, but you should check them out) and it had nothing to do with "strangers in the bushes" and everything to do with listening to your gut, using your voice to yell "NO!" and being aware of your surroundings (which is a good idea no matter what your gender). It was empowering to women. And I'm sorry, but there is something special that happens when a bunch of women come together to learn how to defend themselves, especially when it's other women teaching the class. It's empowering and confidence-boosting. Maybe I'm just tired of my "straight, white male" coworkers whining about how bad they have it, so you might have hit a nerve saying males should have the option to attend a class. I don't think they should. Men should have to attend a class on how NOT to rape women (I can think of a judge in MT who should attend so he can learn what rape is and isn't). Did I also mention I've been reading "Half The Sky"? Yeah. Women and the empowerment and education of women has been heavy on my heart lately.

    I respect your opinion, but might I suggest you attend one of these classes and see if your assumptions are correct? We do things a little different out West. :) And if you really want to help, we are always looking for volunteers for Q Patrol...

  3. I went to the first class tonight. Here's what I "learned":
    -Don't ever go downtown by yourself
    -Don't go downtown at night, ever
    -Don't go anywhere by yourself at night
    -If you're going to get on an elevator by yourself and someone else is already on the elevator, don't get on
    -If you see people who "look like thugs," cross the street to avoid them
    -Always be on the lookout for places people could be hiding, "like vans and bushes"
    All shared in a patronizing tone by the guy leading the class.

    There were 10 instructors, and 9 were men. We did some physical practice and learned releases from holds (except the ones that "we don't teach in women's self-defense"). I was paired with a girl who either wasn't very strong or was afraid of hurting me, so I could get out of her holds easily, but every time the instructor came over to check on me, I couldn't get out of his grip because my technique was all wrong. So my opportunities for learning muscle memory were unfortunately small.

    I haven't decided if I'll go back next week, but my opinion of women-only self-defense classes hasn't changed much.

    1. Wow. That sucks.

      Of that advice, the only point I think is truly useful is, "Always be on the lookout for places people could be hiding." Sure, be aware of those places and ready to react in case someone jumps out; because in many environments those places will basically surround you at all times, this will become a general alertness to your surroundings, which is a good thing.

      One of the first things I learned about personal safety was that "bad neighborhoods" and "night" don't automatically endanger you and that bad stuff CAN happen anywhere at any time. I've been attacked 3 times in my life, all between ages 14 and 18: once in a "good" neighborhood in broad daylight, once in a supermarket parking lot in a "good" neighborhood in daylight, once in my own dorm room by someone I thought was my friend. I've also spent many many hours walking alone in the dark, including downtown; exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods, some of which were lower-class and non-white; riding elevators and even (gasp!) unfamiliar public transit systems alone; and living in a place where I had to walk past a seedy strip club every time I walked to/from home--all without incident.

      As for people who "look like thugs," some are nice and just happen to look that way; some are evil, violent people but have victims in mind and no interest in you; and some might be dangerous. There are also many well-dressed people who might be dangerous. Better to rely on your sense of, "There's something wrong about the way that guy is looking at me," than to judge people by their appearance.

  4. Jess, I agree with your first statement to a point. I would just add that if someone can help prevent a crime, he/she is decreasing the opportunity for it to happen. Crime requires means, motive, and opportunity. Therefore, I don't think that any woman or man chooses to be raped (that contradicts the very definition), but can do some things to help prevent it, just like we can keep our doors locked, valuables hidden, etc.

  5. I think you've made some excellent points. As someone who has worked over 35 years in the security industry, and taught personal safety classes and am currently putting together a new safety class, I couldn't agree more. We all, whether male or female are subject to be victims of violence if we're not diligent about our surroundings some potential threats. Any sexually-based frames are horrendous but the reality is that's not the only threats we face in today's society. Many threats such as cyber related threats, physical violence, robbery, and burglary, to name just a few relate just as much to men as they do to women.


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