I was just invited to a free self-defence class, held by my old university’s Judo Club in tandem with the Dublin University Gender Equality Society. The purpose is to “help people learn some basic pointers to defend themselves against physical and sexual assault.” While the organiser went out of his way to specify that these classes are open to men and women, they’re clearly primarily intended for women, as are most self-defence classes.
Although I know their intentions are good, I find the idea of a feminist society promoting the self-defence market a bit unsettling. I object for two reasons.
Firstly, I think that a self-defence myth has been created, and a considerable market has grown from that myth. If you think a bit more about the nature of sexual assault, the idea that some “basic pointers” in martial arts can prevent sexual assault is highly implausible. The vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by people known to the victim. Assessments of the processes of rapists show that they take care to isolate their victim, minimising the likelihood of being stopped or caught and punished. They use threats, fear, weapons, force, and often drugs or alcohol to restrict the victim’s ability to resist. Most sexual assaults are also committed by men against women, therefore the attacker will almost always be naturally stronger than his victim. Taking all of this into account, a woman would need to be incredibly adept in self-defence or martial arts to stop her attacker. Your basic self-defence class (particularly a once-off hour-long class) won’t provide that kind of proficiency. It might allow you to get a few good hits in at your attacker, but that’s precious little consolation. I object to how the self-defence industry uses women’s fear of assault to sell an ineffective means of protection. It feels a bit exploitative.
Secondly, I think that the self-defence myth feeds into a seriously problematic social attitude towards rape and sexual assault. The painful reality we must face is that as long as there are men who want to rape, women will be victims of rape. We can take self-defence classes, we can never walk alone at night, we can watch our drinks, we can watch our backs, but there is no absolute protection. There is the guilt that comes with feeling that you could have done more, you could have been more careful. It’s not that those who provide self-defence training blame victims, but they do feed into the automatic tendency of victims to blame themselves. Who knows what they would have told you in that self-defence class if you hadn’t stupidly chosen to have a long lunch instead? There’s also a feeling of powerlessness that comes with paying the freedom tax, paying the class fees, taking all the precautions and still becoming a victim. For any woman there’s the fear that’s created and enhanced by being reminded that we’re at risk all the time, that we have to plan for the likely event of assault all the time.
And you know what, I love martial arts. I love most sports and exercise. But I love them because I like to feel strong and comfortable in my body, I like the endorphins, I like learning new things and I love competition. All of this is diminished when my participation is a constant reminder that I, along with all the other women, live under siege.