Women Don’t Need Self-Defense: Men Need to Stop Assaulting Women

Conversations about assault often seem to end up looping back on the idea that women should be taught self-defense, so that they can better counter assailants. Martial arts dojos and gyms across the US and the world offer a score of classes aimed specifically at women, providing them with a quick rundown of self-defense tactics to help them escape assailants long enough to run and/or get help. Women martial artists are praised for pursuing a skill that is both beautiful and practical, living the real-world version of the ‘strong female character’ because they’re capable, potentially, of getting the upper hand in a fight.

Martial arts is indeed an ancient and amazing practice, and women who are interested in studying it because they feel empowered by it, or because they think it’s fascinating, or because they want to use it for fitness, or any other number of reasons, absolutely should. Especially in a world that insists on a demure, compliant version of femininity, a physically assertive tradition can be huge for women, especially those encountering it for the first time. Martial arts isn’t just about learning the art of movement, too, but also about the ethical and honourable application of martial arts skills, and about when the voice is better than the fist — deescalation tactics are an important part of martial arts training.

But women aren’t required to learn martial arts, nor should they be. Because the burden here is not on women and girls to learn how to defend themselves, but on men to stop assaulting women. As soon as society positions the responsibility here on women, it allows men to escape without accountability, and it further reinforces the idea that victims are to blame for what happens to them — she wouldn’t have been raped if she’d known kendo, if she’s been studying karate she could have thrown off her attacker. This is a fundamentally wrong approach.

It’s a complex doublebind, because we don’t live in an ideal world where we can abruptly say one day that it’s time to put the responsibility on men and train men in the apparently extremely difficult art of not assaulting women. Thus, we want to empower women and provide them with tools they can use in the event they are assaulted, because assault is extremely likely, but we need to find a way to frame this that doesn’t create a social obligation or a divide between women who study martial arts and women who don’t (or can’t).

The problem with assaults on women isn’t that lots of women don’t know martial arts or other self-defense tactics, but that lots of men think it’s acceptable to assault women. And that comes from deeply engrained social attitudes that need to be addressed before we can move forward as a society, because otherwise, we’re going to keep coming back to the same busted building blocks. Telling women to learn self-defense creates a feedback loop — because women need self-defense to protect themselves from men, who thus escape responsibility for the fact that they’re assaulting women, and keep doing it because no efforts are made to change the way they view, talk about, and interact with women, which means women need to learn self-defense to protect themselves from assault.

What if men were instead learning respect for women, and being forced to explore the motivations behind assault? What if instead we were raising a generation of men better than the one before — while also pushing to shape this generation, working to change the ways and beliefs of men who don’t necessarily have to be trapped in an adversarial relationship with women? What if we talked about the male origins of misogyny and other oppressive ways of thought, instead of always putting the burden on women when it comes to identifying problems and developing solutions?

Learning martial arts can be an amazing experience, and it’s something that many women practitioners credit as an important part of their lives. It can help people achieve physical and mental discipline, provide people with useful tools for interactions with those around them, and, yes, offer opportunities for self-defense in the event of an assault. The value of martial arts shouldn’t be underestimated, but at the same time, insisting that all women need to learn self-defense is a defeatist way of viewing the world, tantamount to giving up and saying that all men are always going to assault women, so it’s up to women to preemptively learn to defend themselves so they don’t end up in trouble.

Where’s the responsibility for men in this equation? People who identify themselves as working in solidarity with women who insist that self-defense is a solution — or a necessity — for women’s fraught interactions with men are poking at the wrong end of the stick. The problem here isn’t that women don’t learn krav maga during a mandatory class in high school. It’s that men are rarely, if ever, taught to examine their relationships with women, do better, and create a world that is safe for women — so that women martial artists can revel in the practice of their art as an art form, rather than potential grim necessity.

Women who learn martial arts aren’t better than those who don’t. Women who don’t aren’t hapless victims who didn’t take basic measures to protect themselves. Men who assault women, as ever, are misogynists who need to be taught that the way they interact with women is socially unacceptable, and repulsive.

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Image: Kyudo girls going through the motions, Vernon Fowler, Flickr.