This post has been churning away in me for some time now. It is born partly of interactions I have had with a new online friend, Gaz Black, of The Best Defense Program.
You’re going to get a bit of stream-of-consciousness here. Being somewhat tired, this may not be the most organized post.
I have observed that the issue of women and self-defense is problematic for several reasons. Some of my sisters in feminism think that it should not be incumbent upon women to do something to stop rape; men need to stop raping. I agree with that, it is a most worthy ideal. Yet, while we are busy pursuing this ideal, are not we, our daughters and all of the women we love, worth having information that may stop a rapist from violating us? I believe that we are.
Raising the issue of resistance in rape situations may also be troubling for some survivors, who feel that it somehow condemns them for whatever they feel they didn’t do to stop the rape. So many of us survived by freezing or acquiescing because we were very naturally afraid of being harmed “worse” – as if rape isn’t being harmed badly enough.I did this too, for what were very good reasons at the time, and I don’t think any woman should feel a moment’s shame over what she feels she “should” have done to stop a rapist. Certainly, I no longer do – even as I understand that the dreadful syndrome “If only I had done this, that, or the other”, is something that plagues most survivors. Unfortunately we get plenty of help in that from a wider society that insists we must be beaten senseless to prove we didn’t consent. This is rubbish, of course. I do believe strongly though, that talk and activity around self-defense and resistance can be something that we use to empower us for the future – because we are worth defending.
Several years ago, I had occasion to read some studies on women and resistance strategies to rape, and their findings were, to say the least, compelling. It is a fact that many women fear fighting a rapist back, because they are afraid of being hurt “worse” (and in the words of Gaz, “Worse than what?”) or even killed. The studies were saying over and over again, however, that fighting back did NOT correlate with greater injury. Using strategies such as fighting and screaming also led to less rape completion, whereas strategies such as crying and pleading were far less successful. Women can statistically be more successful in thwarting rape if they are more worried about being raped than they are other forms of violence. Further, women who did actively fight back, tended to be less traumatized than women who did not, even if the rape was completed 1, 2. (See below for a list of studies).
Could I share something with you? The very last time that my ex-partner attempted to rape me, he had held me in my room and tormented me for two hours. We had broken up for good, and he didn’t want to accept it.He abused me in numerous ways, including digitally raping me. Then he threw me into the garish purple beanbag I had in my room, straddled me and started trying to pull off my underwear. Something in me snapped, it was like a point of critical mass. Having been raped again and again by him, and acquiescing because I knew he would beat me if I didn’t, I knew I could not stand one more time. I truly felt like I was teetering on the edge of a precipice. I screamed “no!” but silently because my children were in the house. And then my knee came up and smashed him in the nose, and my fist shot out and punched him in the balls. He staggered away from me, and I could not believe what I had done. I had really hurt him. I didn’t run, because I didn’t want to leave my babies. And he recovered, and beat me so badly he eventually had to help me to bed. But he did not complete the rape. It was terrible, absolutely, to be bashed. But I have to say that those studies resonate with me, because to this day, while I would acknowledge it was horrific to be beaten that way, I am still glad that he did not rape me in what I perceived then to be the fullest sense. I derive at least some triumph from that experience, and I do feel that it is somewhat less traumatic. I don’t know, maybe it’s all relative.
It feels really important and fair for me to say at this point that I am not suggesting that battered women let themselves in for more severe beatings. I am sharing one experience I had, and even so, I am not ashamed of other times where I didn’t fight because I knew for a fact he would beat me badly. It is just that with this one experience, it was being raped that I was more frightened of. Yes, he might have killed me. But he didn’t, and I feel lucky to be able to share this.
While we are talking about women who fight back in some way to resist rape, how does that apply to partner rape and domestic violence? Finkelhor and Yllo, in their study License to Rape, 3 looked at strategies women use to avoid marital rape. These strategies might involve sleeping with children – or other ways of avoiding going to bed with the perpetrator. Some women made threats to kill the perpetrator, or to leave him, which were perceived by him as credible. But these researchers were very cautious, because while they mentioned the compelling study findings of the like of Pauline Bart, 4 it was also evident that battered women who fought back did actually quite often sustain high degrees of injury. We also know that partner rape tends to occasion the highest degree of physical injury 5. So, perhaps this is a whole other area that, in my experience, few self-defense programs are scoped to take into account, focusing as they generally do on stranger, date or acquaintance rape. It’s okay that they have a specific focus, but perhaps other contexts and possible limitations could be acknowledged.
And now on with the generalities of women’s resistance.
According to Brent Sanders, facilitator of Winning Edge Strategies, rapists have a script. They expect you to be intimidated by them; when you are not – when for example, you scream and fight rather than freezing – you change their script and it confuses them. Evidently, some rapists are apt to decide that a fighting woman is not worth the trouble, because they’re basically cowards who prefer easier prey.
Anyway, all of this reading was enough to cause me to check into a self-defense course, where I found out I could hit really REALLY hard.
And is resisting sexual assaults all about physical fighting? No. The best programs will teach us that our minds, or instincts, and listening to them, may just be our best weapons. I have witnessed the terrible pain of countless women who have said to me “Louise, I knew there was time where something wasn’t quite right. But I ignored it because he hadn’t actually done anything.”
Society teaches us that women are overly hysterical about rape (and that we are wishful thinking, yuk yuk) even when rape is a goddamn fact of life for too many women. We should avoid it at all costs, because if it does happen we’ll be blamed for not avoiding it, but if we do confess that we are afraid of it we get sneered at! It is typical for women to ignore and discount themselves precisely because that is what we have been taught to do, emotional non-rational little flowers that we are (snort). So, many of us, when we sense something is wrong, ignore it because we are afraid of over-reacting and being silly. But really, if we think somebody may be following us and we summon help, so what if we’re wrong? It’s a lot better than having been right and having feared looking silly. Women should feel much more free to take care of themselves on the grounds of what might happen to them. Rape is a reality that we live cheek-to-jowl with.
One of my favourite feminists writers, Diana E.H. Russell, makes the point that women need to spend more time taking care of their safety than they do men’s egos 6. And the thing is, we are socialized to be nice, aren’t we? We will dance with that creepy guy at a party instead of telling him to piss off, because we don’t want to be seen as an unpleasant bitch. It is rooted so deeply in us, when the fact of the matter is that his feelings matter far less than OUR rights, OUR integrity.
Sisters, if you feel something is wrong, it doesn’t matter if he hasn’t done anything. Please, put yourself first and act on that feeling. Our minds, our instincts and our power are a lot more switched on than we may think they are.
A problem I have observed in many survivors is that they tend to think they’re being “paranoid about what happened” if they feel uneasy with certain people or situations. But our experiences can be guides; that is not paranoia – it is a good thing for us to learn to listen to ourselves.
Resistance to rape may also involve how we use our voices. Studies also show that women who are okay with being “rude and unfriendly” to men who approach them stand a good chance of not being assaulted 7. Sharing again: Some ten years ago, I was approached by a man in a car-park who asked me for a cigarette. I gave him one, and he immediately put it in his pocket. This, coupled with the intense stare on his face made my instincts go crazy. And I was right. He said, “I’ve been watching you inside the shopping center. You’re really beautiful. I want to fuck you. Can we go somewhere?” I told him he had to be joking, and ran around my car and jumped in. But before I could slam the door, he wedged himself between me and the car door and said, “At least let me touch your breasts.” At this point I was terrified and whimpered “Please don’t hurt me.” Then all of a sudden it occurred to me that my new training and knowledge was going to waste. I thought, “Louise! You sound like a victim!” And I straightened up and yelled, “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME, YOU ASSHOLE! RIGHT NOW! How DARE you threaten me like this? You have no right!” He backed off as if I had produced a blowtorch and threatened to set fire to him. He even said sorry! I went to the police and warned them about a man accosting women in this way, because I was afraid of what he might to to a woman who didn’t yell.
How do I know my actions saved me from something worse? I don’t. The best self-defense courses will never promise any guarantees, because there are none. I just know that what I had learned, and the growing self–respect that came from healing, did help me that day. I’m glad I did it.
Have any of you ever had a chance to read D.A. Clarke’s essay, Justice is a Woman with a Sword: Some Thoughts on Women, Feminism and Violence? 8 This wonderful, worthwhile read pleads the case for women to stop being socialized as we are, and be prepared to use whatever violence necessary against those who would do us violence. Clarke says
It’s interesting – amusing in a bitter kind of way – maybe even liberating – to envision a slightly different world. The man limps into the emergency room with one ear half torn off and multiple bruises. As he gasps out his story, the doctor shakes his head. “You mean you grabbed at her breasts ands tried to pull her into your car? Well I mean, dummy, what did you expect? And he gets no sympathy, not a shred, from anyone.
Catharine MacKinnon once said that it is women’s inability to respond to sexual assault with anger, that ultimately destroys them. In my twenties, I felt only fear and terror around the possibility of further sexual assault. Now, I feel rage. I know what it is: It is somebody wiping his backside on me. It is not because I did the wrong thing by wearing a miniskirt, by being at home alone, or by existing. Rape means that some bastard wants to literally take a figurative shit on me. And my patience and my self-blame have given out – I’m so over that shit. It has given way to fury at the thought of being raped again. I am not some bastard’s garbage bin. Will that save me? Is it wise to rape-proof yourself with fantasies about a well-aimed kick to the nuts, or even killing the fool silly enough to try, appealing as that is? No, because we are all vulnerable. But that rage, and that knowledge that I don’t deserve to be somebody’s victim is a much better place to be in than the fear.
The title of this post asked if the message was getting through. I do hope so. I know that it is still so common for women to fear what would happen if they dare stand up for themselves. I know this is natural but it is also what too many rapists are banking on. Damn them.
- Bart, P. B. (1981), A Study of Women Who Both Were Raped and Avoided Rape. Journal of Social Issues, 37: 123–137.
- Fry, P., and L. Barker. ”Female Survivors of Violence and Abuse: Their Regrets of Action and Inaction in Coping.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 16 (2001)
- Finkelhor, D.and Yllo, K., License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives, The Free Press, New York 1985
- Bart, P. B. (1981), A Study of Women Who Both Were Raped and Avoided Rape. Journal of Social Issues, 37: 123–137.
- Myhill & Allen, Rape and Sexual Assault of Women: Findings from the British Crime Survey
- Russell, Diana E.H, The Politics of Rape, Stein and Day, USA (1975)
- Brodsky, S. Prevention of rape: Deterrance by the potential victim. In S. Brodsky Victim and rapist. Lexington: Lexington Books, 1976, 75-89.
- Clarke, D.A, Justice is a Woman with a Sword: Some Thoughts on Women, Feminism and Violence http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/Porn/Justice.html
- A 10-Year Update of “Review and Critique of Empirical Studies of Rape Avoidance”
- A Study of Women Who Both Were Raped and Avoided Rape
- Challenging Despair Teaching About Women’s Resistance to Violence
- Female Survivors of Violence and Abuse: Their Regrets of Action and Inaction in Coping
- “I Can Take Care of Myself”: The Impact of Self-Defense Training on Women’s Lives
- Latent Profiles Among Sexual Assault Survivors Implications for Defensive Coping and Resistance
- Prediction of Women’s Utilization of Resistance Strategies in a Sexual Assault Situation - A Prospective Study
- Resistance to Sexual Assault: Who Resists and What Happens?
- Self-Defense Assertiveness Training, Women’s Victimization History, and Psychological Characteristics
- Self-Defense or Assertiveness Training and Women’s Responses to Sexual Attacks
- The Effects of Resistance Strategies on Rape
- The efficacy of resistance strategies in rape situations
- The Roots of Resistance to Women’s Self-Defense
- Victim Responses by Rapist Type : An Empirical and Clinical Analysis
- Women’s Use of Physical and Nonphysical Self-Defense Strategies During Incidents of Partner Violence
Good Self-Defense Resources: