On Wednesday nights, I’ve been taking a Krav Maga class. It was actually billed as Women’s Self Defense, but I only took it because: a) it was free; and b) I was intrigued that the class description stated it would be based entirely on Krav Maga techniques. I don’t know what I was thinking that a women’s self defense class would be, but I had honestly always imagined such classes to be… wussy. Kind of like the way that the women’s kickboxing classes I took back in New York never actually involved hitting or kicking anything. Maybe I’d learn some crotch kicks, get a rape whistle, learn to shout and run away, but not anything that might genuinely overpower someone. Well, if you aren’t familiar with Krav Maga, here is a video you can watch to see just how un-wussy this stuff really is.
In two sessions, I have learned some moves that could actually do damage. Top of the list are how to throw a decent elbow, how to roll a person who is larger and heavier than me, how to fall in a way that prevents injury and allows a quick recovery, and vulnerable areas on which to land punches and kicks. I actually enjoy the class a lot. It is a good workout and a great stress reliever, and it even makes me feel more confident.
I am, however, aware of debates about women’s self defense classes as a response to rape culture. Do a search on “women’s self defense” online and you will find low-cost or free classes in almost every community and on almost every college campus. Now, try and find a class that teaches men not to rape and abuse women. Rehab programs? Maybe. But seminars on what consent is, or on preventing domestic violence or rape? Much harder to come by.
As someone in the field of gender studies and someone who has been a victim of rape myself, I always see the subtext of this. Such classes are an admission that violence by men against women is a consistent threat in our society, and by teaching women self-defense we are admitting we can’t eliminate this threat completely. We are placing the burden on the potential victim to defend themselves, not on the potential perpetrators to adhere to a higher standard of behavior. Critics argue that we start from the assumption that women are threatened whenever they are in the public space, and that they do not have the same mobility or access to the public sphere as men. Is this a fact, or is this just how we have constructed our society?
I’m torn between wanting the world to be as it should be—free of violence against women—and how it is—a world where violence against women is a reality. The reality that, in the U.S., one in every five women, and one in four on college campuses, will be the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault. A reality where, when we discuss consent in my classes, students admit that they know what “consent” means but, “you know, when everyone’s been drinking, maybe different rules apply…” And even Krav Maga isn’t enough when you’re already wounded, or when you’ve been drugged (which, incidentally, is what happened to me). So what is the solution for combating rape culture?
I do think self-defense classes like the one I’m taking have value. I think what I’ve learned could be helpful in some situations. There are also the outside benefits of fitness and confidence, which would be of value to women or to anyone at all. But teaching women self defense is not the only answer. For every class teaching us self-defense, there needs to be a corresponding class aimed at preventing violence by men. Teach what consent is. Make it clear to men how their lives will change when they are faced with a rape charge, and what punishments they face for assault in school and in the real world. Offer men a safe space to talk and ask questions. Discuss what they should do if they know a man who has “taken advantage” of someone—because many young men know someone who has sexually assaulted someone else, even if they haven’t done it themselves. I get it, no one likes to be blamed or profiled, but if we women have to accept the reality that we’re constantly under threat, men should have to accept the reality that they constitute the overwhelming majority of perpetrators.
Will such a plan ever be implemented? Highly doubtful, and it’s our society that will suffer for it. But I can dream, can’t I?