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Self-Defense Training: Does It Prevent Violence?

In violence prevention on August 26, 2009 at 01:30

Israeli Teen Performing Hands-On Violence Prevention

An interview with researcher Jocelyn Hollander

Special Thanks to the IMPACT-Boston Blog for publishing and sharing this article

Jocelyn Hollander has been an advocate for women’s self-defense for more than 20 years. As a researcher she conducted one of the only systematic studies of why those who advocate women’s empowerment and sexual violence prevention struggle embrace the work of IMPACT and other similar organizations.

IMPACT: How did you initially become interested in self-defense as a response to violence against women and sexual violence in particular?

JOCELYN HOLLANDER: I took my first self-defense class more or less by accident. My college roommate became interested in women’s self-defense and talked me into taking a class with her. I was actually quite reluctant to take that class – little did I know that it would transform my life and direct my career path for the next two decades. I probably wouldn’t be a sociologist, and I certainly wouldn’t be studying violence against women, if it weren’t for that class. My college roommate has a lot to answer for!

Once I overcame my initial resistance to taking that class, I fell in love with self-defense. I suddenly understood the world around me in a new way. For example, I realized how much my life had been governed by fear, and I stopped taking that fear for granted. Why should I feel afraid? Why should I have to rely on others for protection? I realized that I had the ability to protect myself, and that realization was life-changing.

IMPACT: What are some of the positive outcomes you’ve observed in women as they participate in self-defense training programs?

JH: I’ve studied women who have taken a class much like the first one I took – an intensive, feminist class offered on a college campus. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that learning self-defense increases women’s confidence in their ability to defend themselves. They feel stronger, they know a range of verbal and physical strategies they could use if confronted with an assault, and they feel confident that they’d be able to actually use these strategies.

Even more importantly, my research has found that learning self-defense also empowers women in many other areas of their lives. They feel better about themselves and their bodies. For example, they say things like, “I feel more comfortable in my own skin,” or “I see my own power and strength.” They report feeling more comfortable interacting with everyone from family to friends to partners to strangers. They develop more self-confidence, and they no longer see women as weak and men as inevitably more powerful. Perhaps most importantly, they have an increased sense of self-worth – they believe that they are worth defending. These are huge changes; they affect virtually every aspect of women’s lives.

IMPACT:  You’ve done and excellent systematic analysis of why people struggle with or object to self-defense training as a strategy for preventing sexual violence.  More specifically you’ve addressed the struggles of feminists and sexual violence prevention advocates. What are the most common reasons for resistance?

JH: I’ve encountered three types of resistance. First, some people believe that women are fundamentally incapable of defending themselves. I’ve called this the “it’s impossible” reaction: why encourage (or teach or study or fund) women’s self-defense if women are simply too weak to be effective?

Second, some people argue that teaching women self-defense is too dangerous. The argument here is that if women learn self-defense, they’ll become over-confident – or foolhardy or even aggressive – and go out looking for fights, which of course (buying into the “it’s impossible” theme) they’ll inevitably lose.

Finally, some people argue that teaching and advocating women’s self-defense is victim-blaming, because it can imply that women are responsible for controlling men’s violence.  Perhaps, they argue, learning about the effectiveness of self-defense will encourage survivors to blame themselves – if they’d only fought back, or fought back more effectively, then the assault would not have happened.

There’s also been another argument recently that says that self-defense training should not be a priority because our main focus should be on “primary prevention” – that is, on the root causes of violence. Self-defense training, these folks says, is nothing more than a band-aid that doesn’t do anything to reduce the incidence of violence.

IMPACT: How have you responded to these objections?

JH: The “it’s impossible” response just isn’t supported by the evidence. There’s quite a bit of research now that shows that women often do resist when they are attacked, and that when they do resist, they are often successful in preventing sexual assault – even when they are not trained in self-defense. We don’t yet have any research on whether self-defense training makes them more successful; I’m in the middle of some research now which I hope will help us answer that question. But the research we have so far is pretty unequivocal: women can defend themselves, and can do so successfully. (Of course, it’s also important to say that this conclusion is based on the examination of large numbers of incidents, and that in any particular situation self-defense may be more or less possible.)

As far as the “it’s too dangerous” response, I’ve asked the women I’ve studied whether they feel learning self-defense has made them overconfident. So far, not a single person has said that it has. They still have a healthy fear of violence; the difference now is that they feel like they have some strategies to prevent it and cope with it if it happens.

The “it’s victim-blaming” response is in some ways the most difficult. I have a lot of sympathy for this position – women are blamed for their own victimization in a variety of ways, and I don’t want my research to contribute to that. But I think it’s possible to say that women can defend themselves without implying that they are responsible for the violence against them. Just because women can fight back doesn’t mean that it is their responsibility to fight back, or that they should do so in every situation. Responsibility for violence always lies with the perpetrator. Sometimes compliance is the safest choice, and women shouldn’t be blamed if they choose not to resist – or if they do resist and are unsuccessful.

The main point I make in my research, however, is that the real root of all these different types of resistance is our societal beliefs about gender – our beliefs about what women and men are and should be like. These ideas keep us from being able to see women as strong and capable and men as potentially vulnerable (the “it’s impossible” reaction). They encourage us to think that women will become overconfident or foolhardy (the “it’s too dangerous” reaction), by suggesting that women aren’t capable and/or that they somehow aren’t rational enough to use self-defense tools wisely. Finally, the “it’s victim-blaming” response sees women as incapable of understanding complex ideas, such as the fact that perpetrators are responsible for violence whether or not women employ self-defense strategies. As I say in a recent article, “Would anyone seriously suggest that men be shielded from information about how to deter muggers because it
might make them blame themselves for past muggings?” Of course not, but somehow we think that women are so emotionally vulnerable that they will be devastated by the knowledge of self-defense.

Women’s self-defense training is dangerous because it challenges these deeply-held beliefs – and because in doing so, it challenges gender inequality. In the end, I think that’s why many people are resistant to the idea of women defending themselves.


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  1. Awesome, I did not know about this topic until now. Thanx!!

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