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How to Teach Girls How Not to Get Raped

Posted Jan 10 2013 11:15am



If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s pretty awesome.

Eyes! EYES! Nose! NOSE! Ears! EARS! 

The roar of teenage girls filled the small room at my church last night as we ended our seminar on self-defense. I wish I could say that their roar was defiant, strong, a unified cacophony of empowered (pre) women. But that’s a lot to expect from young girls who’ve just had a lesson on a very uncomfortable subject that skirted all the uncomfortable parts. There was a lot of giggling, play fighting, teasing, bluster and, to my chagrin, very little questioning.

The teacher, a 4th degree black belt from a local martial arts studio, did a great job in the limited amount of time he had. One hour is a pitifully small amount of time to cover something with the implications to be so life changing.  (But one hour is better than nothing, yes?) He was better than most I’ve seen. He was smart, funny, and gave some great tips for physically defending oneself. But as I  stood back and watched – my eyes less on the teacher and more on the faces of the girls watching,  scanning them for any sign of panic or shutting down (there’s usually one set of eyes in every group that looks a little too cynical or a little too wise) – I couldn’t help but be disappointed. It was your standard self-defense for women class. And that’s a shame.

In such a sex-saturated culture, you would think  that having a conversation about relational abuse, sexual assault and how to defend oneself against it wouldn’t be a hard subject to broach. And yet it is. Even  when we’re talking about it,  like last night, we’re not talking about it. We frame the discussion in terms of knees to the groin, keys clenched in fists and rape whistles. We lose so much when we do that. We do our girls a grave disservice when we do that.

Yet I didn’t speak up. I’ve learned from past experience that I’m exactly who they don’t want to hear from. Because I’m evidence that this plan can fail . To survivors of abuse I can sometimes be a symbol of hope – she got through it and has a good life, I can do this too! – but to people for whom this nightmare has not yet entered their waking consciousness, I’m the proof that nightmares sometimes do come true. I’ve found that the girls however are far less reticent to hearing my story than the adults are.  I so rarely talk about my story in a public situation (other than this blog) because generally the grown-ups don’t want me to. I’ve had people tell me “We don’t want to take away their innocence  yet!” (And yet we’re teaching them to kick men in the crotch? For what purpose then?) or “We don’t want to frighten them with things that probably won’t happen.” (So that if it does happen to them they’ll feel like a freak?) or even “We don’t want them to think about it like that.” (Like… the fact that you can do  everything “right” and still have it all end so wrong?)

Besides, we live in an age where two of the biggest new stories over the past month were the rape and murder of an Indian college student on a train and the protracted gang rape and online humiliation of a high school girl in Stubenville, Ohio. Our girls already know these things happen. It’s up to us to teach them how to frame it. And we can’t do that if we don’t talk about it.

But the thing that most bothered me was when the instructor said, “… and then you run away. And you keep running until you get to the authorities and report it. Because if you don’t report it – what if your best friend comes walking along that same path 2 weeks later and gets raped? If you don’t report it then it’s your fault if other girls get hurt.”

I immediately turned to the woman next to me and hissed, “No it isn’t! It’s the attacker’s fault if he hurts someone else!!” I’ve spoken a lot about this before so I won’t rehash my mixed feelings about when I reported my assault to the police and the subsequent trial and aftermath ( you can read about it here ) but “reporting it” is not as simple as we make it sound. By telling a girl that if she doesn’t report then it’s her fault when someone else gets hurt assumes a lot about the crime that may not be true. At the very least it misses one major thing: it’s a sexual crime. It’s innately humiliating in a way that other crimes aren’t. Reporting what he did also means reporting what happened to you, to your body, inside your body.

Because of the nature of rape and sexual assault, it’s often assumed that you, as the victim, were doing something “wrong”. And, saddest of all, statistics say you probably were. You were in the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes, at the wrong time of night, drinking the wrong type of beverage, were participating in the wrong kind of sexual activity etc. But there is a difference between doing something that may not be the smartest choice and doing something criminal! You may have made a mistake (or maybe you didn’t) but you didn’t commit a criminal act against someone else. Your attacker did. By teaching girls they are responsible for “saving” others, we’re giving them more responsibility than they truly have. By teaching them only physical self-defense tactics we’re giving them more power over a situation than they likely have. We are making them complicit in the crime against them. “If only you had…” And I cannot abide that.

Am I saying we shouldn’t teach girls self defense? Absolutely not. Heck, I’ve been taking Krav Maga classes for two months now. There is a lot of value in  teaching girls and women fighting skills. But our current method of doing so leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion. I know that it’s much easier to find fault with something than to build something and so I don’t say this with the intention of tearing anyone down or making anyone feel bad about the efforts they are making – anything is always better than nothing and we’re all learning together!

So in the spirit of being helpful, here’s what I wish were different in the way we teach girls self defense:

1. Teach a similar lesson to boys. Yes, I mean that I think we should teach them self-defense too – boys are also victims of assault and rape and generally bear a much higher stigma for it than girls. But I also wish we’d teach boys (and, like Jen pointed out, girls too) how not to rape someone. That sounds so self-evident but our current method of teaching/denial assumes all rape cases are black and white, which they so rarely are. We need to teach boys and girls that lack of consent does not equal consent. That verbally berating someone into doing something they don’t want to do can be just as harmful as literally strong-arming them into it. That giving in is not the same thing as welcoming it and enjoying it. That sexual assault is not a joke, it’s not funny, and participating even as a voyeur by way of texts, e-mails or videos is not acceptable. That she’s still a person even if you don’t know her and even if you think she’s a “slut.” That date rape or marital rape is still rape-rape and rarely looks like the rapes you see on TV.

2. Stop  assuming all  rapes are violent stranger-in-the-alley scenarios. You are far likelier to be raped or hurt by someone you know than by someone you don’t. We know this! We tell them this! And yet we still teach self-defense classes as if stranger rapes are the only kind that happen. Instead of teaching our girls to punch someone in the eyes, what about teaching them to look into a person’s eyes – and if what they see freaks them out, then trust themselves enough to get out of there. Half the battle is giving girls permission to trust their own instincts. (And if you didn’t see it coming? Still not your fault.) Instead of focusing on teaching girls how to kick confidently, what if we teach them to start being confident a long time before a strike is ever needed? (And then if that kick is needed, to kick hard and not apologize!) It’s one thing to train your instincts to react in a sudden, violent attack situation. It’s entirely different to teach a girl how to overcome months (or years) of conditioning that she’s “bad” or “worthless” and “deserves” what is happening to her. It’s much harder to know when to punch someone in the nose when you’ve been dating them, kissing them and – hey – loving them.

3. Offer resources beyond “report it.” Let’s be honest: reporting it primarily serves the benefits of the State and of other potential victims. It rarely serves to benefit the current victim. She’s already been hurt in a very private way and guilting her to go public with it can be immensely painful. Especially when there is a good chance she won’t be entirely believed. But there are resources out there for victims to help with this process – RAINN, victim’s advocates, support groups, help lines, therapies, web sites – and we should make girls aware of them BEFORE they’re ever hurt, so they know they’re out there, and not just after. Let me be clear: I’m not telling any victim she should not report her assault. I did it. And given the situation again I’d probably make the same choice (which isn’t to say that it wasn’t awful and I don’t regret parts of it). But we’ve got to stop telling girls to “report it” like that’s the Happily Ever After ending to the story. It’s the beginning of another chapter and we need to help it not be a continuation of the nightmare. And,  let me say this again,  if you don’t report it and someone else gets hurt it is NOT YOUR FAULT. It’s his. Always was.

4. Focus more on the situation but without assigning blame. Many instructors seem hesitant to tell girls about how the choices they make before a situation occurs can affect how it ends up. To be clear: Nothing you do or don’t do makes being assaulted your fault. It doesn’t mean “you asked for it” or you “deserved it.” But if we move past the assignation of blame, we can do a lot to teach our girls to be safer. Responsible alcohol use, for example. According to the National Institute of Health, over 50% of sexual assaults involve alcohol use - either by the victim, perpetrator or both. And it’s not enough to just tell girls to have a buddy look out for them if they pass out.  We also need to teach girls to control the situation – by refusing to go somewhere they don’t feel safe, by not going out with someone with whom they don’t feel good about, by not being pressured to eat, drink or do something they don’t want to. Teach them what they do have control over and teach them how to make smart choices. It’s not fool-proof but it’s a first step.

5. You can be “not raped” and it can still hurt a lot.  And it’s still a crime. Rape is seen as the worst thing that can happen to you when in reality it’s only one of many things that can happen to you and even if something doesn’t meet the technical definition of rape or seems a lot “less than” rape  or doesn’t result in blood and bruises, it can still hurt a lot. It is still a violation. Tell the girls this. Tell them they’re allowed to their own feelings about what happened to them – that just because someone else tells them “it’s not a big deal” doesn’t mean that’s true. And never, ever say “Well, at least X didn’t happen! It could have been worse.” Yeah, we know that. Still hurts. I remember one of the most frightening situations I’ve been in was one night out at a club with some girlfriends, a man grabbed me by my upper arms and slammed me against a wall when I declined (politely, even) to dance with him. There was only a minute of panic while he was grinding against me and I struggled to get away (but without making a scene! ‘Cause, you know, I’m a good girl! Or whatever!) before the bouncer, alerted by my friend, pulled him off me. But that minute was enough to leave me shaky for the rest of the night and in tears on the car ride home. At home, it wasn’t until I stopped telling myself “You’re fine! Nothing happened! What are you so upset about?!” and instead whispered “It’s okay you were scared. You had a right to be.” that I was able to unclench and fall asleep.

6. Don’t assume that no one in the class has ever been a victim. With rape and assault statistics being what they are, it’s hard to get a definitive number but one generally accepted stat is that 1 in 4 women  in the US will be the victim of rape or sexual assault. That’s a lot. And sexual assault crosses all boundaries of age, race, social status, nationality and religion. There is a certain pain in participating in a class where the overall message is teaching the other girls not to end up like you. I know that’s not the intended message but as a girl who’s often felt like an outsider at these things, I can tell you that all it takes is just acknowledging that chances are someone in your audience has already experienced your “worst case scenario” and that we are not bad or dumb or slutty – we’re just people, just like you. I think just that little bit of compassion will go a long way in changing the discussion.

7. Teach them that how they talk about others shapes how they feel about themselves. Calling other girls “bitches” or “sluts” may make you feel cool in front of the guys and it may even give you a certain feeling of safety by distancing yourself from them – Well I’m not like her so that could never happen to me! – but using those epithets at all gives them legitimacy. And once you believe they’re true – about anyone – then it opens up the possibility that if something similar were to happen to you then it becomes valid for you as well. We would all so well to remember that “There but for the grace of God go I”.

I’m not saying the class last night was a waste – either for those teenage girls or for me. I’m also not saying that the teacher did a bad job. He did what he was expected to do and what they’d brought him there to do. (And like I said, he was better than most.) But that’s the problem. There is so much more to teaching girls how to defend themselves from sexual assault than knee strikes and biting (although those are good skills to have). Which is why it’s up to those of us leaders, sisters, mothers, friends – all the women who surround them – to teach them.

I feel like this is especially important, and poignant, right now as congress failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act for the first time since it was enacted in 1994. A reader e-mailed me a month ago to write about this act and link to an online petition lobbying for it but I didn’t realize the time frame was so short and when I went to look for the link today, it was too late. I’m so so sorry for that. We need to step up now more than ever.

What about you – how did you learn about self-defense or how not to get raped? Have you ever taken a self-defense class? If so, was there anything you would change?

Note: As always, this is my personal opinion based on my personal experience and I don’t want to take away from your opinions or experience if they differ from mine. ALL are welcome here. All opinions are valuable to this discussion:)


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