After almost half a century of research, advocacy and policy, tried-and-tested strategies that successfully prevent sexual violence remain frustratingly elusive.
Most programs targeting perpetrators show no solid evidence of actually reducing the rate at which men rape. And a recent turn to “bystander interventions”, lauded by President Obama’s White House Task Force on Sexual Assault in 2014, has reaped only modest results. But the problem of sexual violence remains at epidemic proportions: nearly one in five women in the US has been raped at some point during her lifetime.
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Now, a growing coalition of researchers and activists are calling for a return to one of the 1970s feminist movements’ most strident tactics: feminist self-defence training. Bolstered by a trio of evaluations in 2014 that showed both “large and immediate” reduction in sexual violence rates, self-defence could become a vital tool in the fight against sexual violence.
Empowerment Self-Defence (ESD) is an explicitly feminist set of self-defence principles pioneered by grassroots women’s movements in the 1960s and 70s but with much earlier roots in the women’s movements of the early 20th century. Unlike most martial arts, the focus is not solely on repelling an attacker in the street: ESD most often includes training on assertiveness, consent, de-escalation, a range of physical strategies to rebuff without injuring, as well as harder physical resistance strategies. Teaching an array of strategies — not just fighting skills — is vital when seven in every 10 rapes is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and when few sexual assaults occur as surprise attacks in public spaces.
Feminist teaching content on the gendered inequality of power, owning one’s body and assertiveness are as important as the physical skills acquired.
The return of the tactic has been bolstered by three rigorous evaluations of ESD programs in the US, Canada and Kenya. In one, women in an ESD course on a college campus in the Pacific Northwest “reported significantly fewer sexual assaults during the subsequent year” than women in a control group, and improved confidence levels in being able to repel attackers.
“Women’s self-defense training is the only sexual violence prevention strategy with solid evidence of effectiveness at reducing rates of victimization”
A large-scale evaluation of three sexual assault resistance courses at Canadian universities showed that participants were almost half as likely to report being raped in the year following the course than women who did not receive the training.
And the benefits of ESD aren’t limited to the global north. In Kenya, an ESD training program for adolescent girls, run in tandem with a bystander intervention program for teenage boys, halved the incidence of rape among participants in the slums of Nairobi. In addition, female participants were 63% less likely to have experienced a sexual assault a year later compared to those who did not receive ESD training.
According to Jocelyn Hollander, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon and author of the most recent systematic review of the field, “Women’s self-defense training is the only sexual violence prevention strategy with solid evidence of effectiveness at reducing rates of victimization.”
But its absence from many programs and policy discussions is not merely an oversight. ESD remains controversial, among feminists and policymakers alike.
Critique or myth?
The case against ESD usually revolves around three claims: first, that expecting women to fight unfairly shifts the onus for stopping sexual violence on to female victims, not male perpetrators. Second, detractors argue that physical resistance can exacerbate the risk of severe injury during an assault. And finally, that fighting violence with violence is unlikely to effect any structural change to the norms that perpetuate violence against women.
According to Hollander, each claim fundamentally misunderstands ESD.
Nearly one in five women in the US has been raped at some point during her lifetime
ESD, she argues, is often explicit in laying the blame on perpetrators, and training women to defend themselves does not replace or exclude work to challenge power inequalities that fuel sexual violence. While much public advice to women in the 70s and 80s did effectively blame women — encouraging them not to walk alone at night, or discouraging them from drinking — ESD is “explicitly designed not to restrict women’s choices”, but to help them feel safe when living lives as they wish.
On the question of injury, research suggests that women tend to mirror the level of violence experienced from their attacker, not exacerbate it, and that any form of resistance significantly reduces the likelihood of a perpetrator completing a rape — 87% on average by one calculation. And, according to Hollander, arguing that resistance causes injury mistakes the chronology of assault: “Women resist because they’re being injured, rather than being injured because of the resistance,” she said.
“It can be politically and ideologically difficult to advocate for women using physical resistance strategies against men”
The question of norms change is perhaps the hardest to concretely rebut, but Hollander’s latest paper is unequivocal, arguing that by empowering women to be assertive and ready to resist, ESD is an important inroad to changing everyday norms that render women as passive or vulnerable.
“ESD sees violence within a system of gender inequality,” she said. “In some ways it’s a consciousness-raising experience for women, talking about the social reproduction of violence and why women are at much more risk than men.”
Prevention through policy
For Hollander, and ESD advocates worldwide, the mounting evidence base behind ESD should be translating into policy changes, in the way that bystander interventions caught the attention of the White House Task Force in 2014.
Hollander wants to see ESD integrated into national school curricula at regular intervals in age-appropriate ways. While ESD classes are available on many university campuses, one in nine girls in the US experiences sexual assault or abuse before the age of 18. Early intervention might be the key to prevention.
Getting behind ESD is unlikely to happen quickly. “It can be politically and ideologically difficult to advocate for women using physical resistance strategies against men,” Hollander said. “It doesn’t fit with our idea of what women are or should be like.” But with the strongest outcomes of any intervention to date, ESD might yet have its day. — Edward Siddons
(Picture credit: Flickr/AMISOM Public Information)