“Don’t Be a Victim!”

This is, at least indirectly, a follow-up to my post from a week or so back about trusting your gut.

I’m a pretty strong supporter of the idea of self-defense. I enrolled my daughter in karate years ago. (This is how I ended up taking it as well.) She eventually dropped out, but I hope she retained at least some of the basics: things like a willingness to be loud, fight back, and raise a fuss.

I love working with the kids in class, teaching them to throw punches while at the same time yelling things like, “No! You’re not my Dad! Stranger!” I love when can show someone that even though I might be physically stronger, there are some pretty straightforward things they can do to put me on the ground.

But I have a problem with … let’s call it a certain philosophy about self-defense, one best summed up by the phrase, “Don’t be a victim!” The assumption being that if you follow all of this training, then you’ll be safe … and as a direct corollary, if you’re assaulted, then it’s because you didn’t remember your training. I.e., it’s your own fault.

How often have we seen and heard that phrase? Don’t be a victim! Like it’s all about the victim’s choice. “Gosh, I’m bored and there’s nothing good on TV. Guess I’ll go get myself assaulted.” Why the hell do we so rarely see, “Don’t be a rapist!” or “Don’t be a batterer!”

There are certainly things you can do to affect your chances of being victimized. A stranger is more likely to target someone whose body language projects nervousness and insecurity than someone who projects confidence. Learning to trust your gut, like my daughter did in the previous post, can help you avoid or escape a bad situation. Physically working with someone else, learning what it’s like to take a hit, to punch and kick and throw, can cut down on that moment of paralysis when and if something happens. All of these are good things.

Yet the majority of rapes are committed, not by strangers, but by friends and family members. (73% of rapes against women, according to one 2005 study.) Another study finds that more than half of all violent crime occurs between non-strangers. Self-defense programs often do a great job talking about strangers; how many prepare you to fight off a boyfriend, a relative, or a coworker? (Some do, and that’s great … but it’s nowhere near as common, in my experience.)

Even the best self-defense techniques aren’t perfect. After working with countless rape survivors, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no guaranteed way to be safe. I’ve been told many times in Sanchin-Ryu that no matter how good you are, you’re going to get hit. There is no perfect defense. Likewise, as long as there are individuals determined to commit rape and assault, there is no way to guarantee you won’t be a victim.

The other problem is that the “Don’t be a victim!” approach tends to put most or all of the responsibility on the potential victims. We’ll send girls to learn self-defense, and voila, we’ve solved rape and domestic violence! As opposed to emphasizing things like bystander intervention, or just addressing the myths and assumptions that teach people (primarily men) that it’s okay to commit these crimes in the first place. It came up a lot when I was working at MSU. I’d talk to groups about rapes on campus, and the first — sometimes the only — suggestion would be for self-defense training for girls.

Does anyone else see a problem with making women responsible for fixing crimes committed primarily by men?

There’s got to be more. Even something as simple as trusting your gut has to go further. It can’t just be about a girl turning back because a stopped car looks wrong. It has to be about the guy at a party who sees a couple and notices that the girl looks uncomfortable. It’s about that guy trusting his own gut and actually stepping in to ask if everything’s all right. It’s about everyone at World Fantasy Con who saw the famed “creeper” harassing women but did nothing, ignoring their own gut feelings, because they assumed someone else would intervene.

I wouldn’t be continuing my study of karate if I didn’t believe in the things I’m learning and teaching there. But self-defense can’t be the only solution. Nor can we allow it to shift the responsibility from the perpetrators onto the victims.