I’m in the process of writing a book on self defense that emphasizes the ability of women to protect themselves, focuses on the non-fighting skills that everyone can develop, and addresses the larger picture of attacks on women. Which is to say, I’m writing a feminist self defense book.
It goes without saying that I’ve been devouring the articles and essays – and Facebook posts and tweets – discussing the host of issues arising from the revelations about Harvey Weinstein et al.
But I’ve also noticed some things that trouble me in many of these pieces. Arwa Mahdawi’s piece in the Nov. 9 issue of The Guardian provides a good example. It’s not her overall point that bothers me; she’s absolutely correct about the internalized misogyny and the effect it has had on women. “Not me” has, up to now, been a lot more common than “me, too.”
Rather, it is her side comment in which she admits she does certain things because she lives in a misogynistic world that gives me pause.
And yet I put in headphones every time I leave the house, even if I’m not listening to anything, so I don’t have to hear gross comments from men on the street; I keep my keys clutched like a weapon in my hand when I walk home alone in the dark, wary of strange men.
First off, wearing headphones is a way to make yourself more vulnerable, not less. Hearing is a useful sense, one that is incredibly valuable in keeping us safe on the street, regardless of whether we are protecting ourselves from assault or from accident. If we’re not listening, we don’t know that someone is coming up behind us, whether it’s a mugger or an out-of-control kid on a skateboard.
Awful as some of the comments directed at women can be – and I’ve suffered through plenty of them – hearing them is important. Otherwise, you aren’t in a good position to evaluate whether the person calling you names is a real danger or just an asshole. That’s important information.
You can ignore the asshole or get in his face and tell him to shut up. But if the man is dangerous, you will want to take other action to protect yourself.
I realize that the wearing of headphones and earbuds is widespread, and not just for purposes of shutting out cat-calls. Every day I walk past people with their ears blocked, some of them staring down at their phones as well. But that doesn’t make it a good practice. Crime may be down, but accidents aren’t. 6,000 pedestrians died in traffic accidents in 2016 – a sizable increase over previous years. And crime isn’t down so much that people can afford to stop keeping an eye and an ear tuned for troublemakers.
Practical advice for staying safe on the street is important – I’m devoting a lot of my book to it and have lectured about it for years – but referring to that in an essay on sexual abuse and harassment by powerful men focuses our attention on the wrong part of the problem. While both street attacks and assaults by the powerful are part and parcel of our misogynistic culture that says women are infinitely available for male use and abuse, there are some important differences.
For one thing, the street attack by a stranger is the story women have been told all our lives, the one that’s supposed to keep us scared, to make us turn to the powerful men so they can “protect” us (and collect their reward). But in the case of rape and sexual assault, the risk of attack by a stranger is considerably lower than the risk of attack by someone known to the victim.
Recent Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that only about 22 percent of such attacks are committed by strangers. And while a significant number are committed by intimate partners or relatives, 38 percent are by acquaintances. That obviously includes powerful men.
The practical skills of self defense can be used against the boss or Hollywood producer or other powerful man who is trying to force sex on a woman. But while kneeing such a man in the groin or laughing when he pulls out his penis may forestall the attack, it won’t necessarily protect a woman against the damage he can – and likely will – do to her career. A woman’s instincts may well warn her she shouldn’t be alone with this man, but she may not have a choice if she wants a good role or to keep her job.
All the street attacker has is his misogyny and the idea that men can always do what they want with women. The guy who signs the paychecks or hires the actors has money and power as well. That’s a harder thing to fight. If you want to be a star, you have to deal with the people who make the star-driven movies. And those people are mostly men. The same thing is true in all too many work situations.
Self defense skills – including, but not limited to, fighting – can protect you against street harassers. They’re also useful in dealing with so-called “date rape” – attacks by acquaintances growing out of social interactions – or in any situation in which a woman doesn’t need to consider the repercussions of offending the attacker.
But while those skills may well help women come up with a practical response when they’re assaulted by a powerful man, they aren’t the perfect solution to that problem. Right now a lot of women are speaking out and, for once, things are happening. That needs to continue, but there’s always the possibility of a backlash. Some women are going to suffer a lot for speaking out.
Among other things, we need a lot more women in positions of power. Several years ago, the U.S. Senate held hearings on sexual assault against women in the military. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand asked a lot of very pointed questions and, for once, nobody made jokes about the subject. But the efforts to change the policies were unsuccessful.
Right now there are 21 women senators – enough to ensure that the discussion of the problem was respectful, if not successful. Perhaps when we have more than fifty, we’ll get significant improvements in the military policies. And in a lot of other ones as well.