The New Statesman today had yet another run-in with Poe’s Law. Caroline Criado-Perez apparently thinks that suggesting women learn self defence is the opposite of victim blaming.
I happen to have some personal expertise on this matter, being both a survivor of several sexual assaults and the holder of several martial arts qualifications, including a black belt in kickboxing. For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that the assaults predate my learning martial arts, but there is no correlation, let alone causation here. So let me tell you a few of the things I’ve learned over ten years of practicing martial arts.
- I am not a small woman and I possess a fair amount of physical strength. Particularly when I’m training regularly, I have the muscle mass that allows me to pack quite a punch. Even when I’m not training regularly, my technique is good enough to make my kicks and punches quite effective. (This is something I am proud of.)
- Men tend to be stronger than me. Obviously, most of the men I practise martial arts with are likely to be stronger. But often even the newbies have more muscle mass and a stronger grip than me. I may be able to kick head-high, but if they really want to hurt me, they can easily do so. (This took me a while to realise, and still upsets me.)
- Martial arts is not the same as self defence. I have done both, and they are very different things. Self defence moves tend to be simpler and more practical (if your instructor is any good). Martial arts moves have more potential to truly hurt – if you can get them right. Having said that, sometimes the difference is as subtle as your hand position: a fist indicates an offensive move; a strike with an open hand is legally classed as a slap and is therefore defensive. If I actually landed a martial arts kick or punch, even in the heat of the moment of a self defence situation, I’d probably get done for assault. (The reader is invited to make their own comparisons to men who “in the heat of the moment” can’t stop themselves from raping.)
- While self defence moves are simpler, self defence is still fucking hard. Not the moves themselves – they tend to be straightforward. What’s hard about self defence is practising it to the point where it’s muscle memory – where you don’t think about it, you just react. Not only do you need to be able to just react, you need to be able to get yourself out of the situation. That means disable your attacker and either run or call the police. You need to be able to deal with all sorts of eventualities. How good’s your wrestling, if you both end up on the ground? How good are you at continuing to fight while injured? (I know for a fact that I’m not there.)
- And then there’s the small matter of the practicality of self defence when dressed for a night out. I have yet to see (and I have occasionally looked) a self defence class that asks participants to wear high heels and tight skirts; or for that matter to show up tipsy; or to practise in anything other than a safe, well-lit environment on a flat and even (and sometimes cushioned) floor. Any and all of these factors are likely to affect how you react, even if you have practised to the point where you can do the moves in your sleep. (Reality, alas, bites.)
Armed with this knowledge, let’s think our way through a few scenarios. [Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse]
You’re a 15-year-old girl. The man who’s abusing you is your uncle. You have trusted this man your entire life. He’s the one you ran to every time you had a fight with your parents as a child. “If you don’t like it,” he says, “all you have to do is slap me. I’ll stop.” Yes, that young woman is me, minus the martial arts training. But all that was “required” was a slap, right? You don’t need any training for that. I couldn’t do it – physically and mentally I couldn’t get myself to do it. And do you think he would have stopped if I had? Even if I had had any martial arts of self defence experience, my mind was so disassociated from my body I couldn’t actually feel anything, let alone lash out and hit him.
Let’s do another one. You’re a black belt in karate. The man forcing himself on you is your husband. Your children are in the next room. What do you do?
Another. You fall asleep at a party wedged on a sofa and wake up to someone pulling your underwear off and pushing your legs apart. What self defence techniques would you apply?
Another. You’re walking home from the bus stop after a night out. You’ve had a couple of drinks, you’re wearing high heels and a cocktail dress. Do you stop to take off your shoes before trying to kick the guy harassing you in the balls?
Another. You fight back. You use all your techniques, perfectly. You kick, you scream, you claw, you punch. You end up with a broken arm, broken jaw, and still raped, for all your trouble. How do you feel about yourself? At least you tried? Not good enough? All your fault?
I have days when I am so angry I imagine kicking in my abuser’s face – in defense or in revenge, I don’t particularly care. But I also know that is not an option – was never an option. I can see the attraction of trying to take control of a situation that’s beyond our control; of doing things that make us feel less at the mercy of others, even if it means investing two nights a week over years and years to learn and then keep up your self defence skills. But in a world where – as Ms Criado-Perez acknowledges – our attacker is much more likely to be our uncle, our father, our brother, our partner, our friend rather than a random stranger, let’s not kid ourselves that this actually makes us in any way safer.
By all means, take up martial arts. It’s a great way to learn to love your body, to stay fit and healthy, to learn how to kick in your front door when it’s jammed, to burn off excess energy and emotion. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. But don’t feel that it will make you safer from sexual assault and street harassment; don’t feel that if you are attacked you have to physically fight back for it to not be your fault; do not, even for a second, think that it is (in Ms Criado-Perez’s words) a solution. To suggest otherwise is, indeed, victim blaming.