Nia Sanchez, winner of Miss USA 2014, is a black belt in taekwondo and has suggested women learn to defend themselves. Photo: Getty
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Suggesting women learn self-defence is the opposite of victim-blaming

In a perfect world, no woman would need to defend herself from attack. But until that world arrives, learning self-defence is a solution that defies the patriarchy’s attempt to impose passivity and blame on women.

It was getting dark. I was walking home alone. A man came up to me and started walking close to me. Too close. I stopped. He stopped. I crossed the road. He crossed. I turned round and started walking in the other direction. So did he. In the end I ran as fast as I could out of the residential area and sought refuge in a nearby shop. He waited for me outside, for a long time. I’ve never stopped feeling angry and ashamed.

I was in a club. My friends left me with a friend of theirs who was going to give me a ride home. I was in a strange city. Instead of taking me home, he took me to his flat. I went upstairs with him – I didn’t know where I was. And I trusted him. He tried to undress me. I said no. He didn’t listen. When he was finished, he drove me home. I never told anyone. I thought it was my fault.

Although these are not the only times I’ve been threatened with, or actually sexually assaulted, they are the two occasions I think back on most often. Like many victims, I relive them and experience that hot shame that never seems to get any easier to bear – and I daydream about how they might have been different. To the man who followed me, who enjoyed and smirked at my fear, I wish I could have turned and faced him, called his bluff, knowing I had the skills to fight him if he intended to do more than show me he could drive me off the street with his mere presence. To the man who assaulted me: I wish I’d felt I could push him off and keep him off. That I didn’t just have to stay there and let him do what he wanted.

Let him do it. I know that’s not the politically correct, the fashionably feminist way of looking at it. I know that technically, they did it to me. My consent, coerced, unwilling, terrified out of me as it was, had nothing to do with what happened to me. But that doesn’t get rid of the rage and the shame. The sense that I gave them what they wanted. The sense that I was weak. I know (rationally) that it was their fault, that my actions are irrelevant. But I never remember these incidents without wishing it had been different. Wishing I had been different.

On Sunday, Miss Nevada was crowned Miss USA. Nia Sanchez is a black belt in taekwondo, and, in answer to a question about sexual assaults on campus, she suggested that women learn to defend themselves. Cue social media outrage. Don’t teach women to defend themselves; teach men not to rape, went the general refrain.

Well, yes. We do need to teach men not to rape. Obviously we need to teach men not to rape. We need to teach men that women’s bodies are not their rightful property: we are not there to be leered at, to be wanked over, to to be violated. To be beaten and killed for refusing. But, and this is a big but, this is what is happening, and slogans are not enough. When we live in a world where a man who went on to kill six people in a shooting spree can write a 141-page manifesto about the dumb blonde sluts he intends to kill, who denied him his rightful access to their bodies; when we live in a world where other men will, instead of outright condemning his action, hedge their comments with implications that they understand where he’s coming from, that they, too, have been relegated to the dreaded “friendzone”; when we live in such a world, and we do, we need more than slogans. We need solutions.

Before sexists all over the country throw up their hands in joy at a feminist finally agreeing that men are slavering fools who simply can’t control their lust, and that women should not wear short skirts and go out alone in public for fear of “tempting” their blameless rapists, that women should indeed be seen as objects like laptops and wallets left lying about in unlocked cars, or houses with their doors left open, that is not the solution I am proposing. For a start, those are not solutions, since the vast majority of victims are raped by someone they know, in their own home. The stranger myth is exactly that: a myth. And a damaging one.

Advocating that women learn self-defence, on the other hand, is not only a solution, but it is the exact opposite of saying women should stay at home. It is the exact opposite of telling women how to dress. And it is the exact opposite of how patriarchy tells women to behave: nice girls take our subjugating violation and perhaps shed a quiet tear about it afterwards. They simply do not go around punching the hell out of their assailants. But my god I wish I could go back in time and do that.

To advocate self-defence is not to say, as critics of Sanchez imply, that a victim of a sexual assault is to blame for her assault. I know that there is nothing I could or should have done differently at the time. I protected myself as best as I could. I know that it was not my fault I couldn’t fight back – in a perfect world, I shouldn’t have to. It is also not to say that self-defence is the full solution – or the only solution. I too want to fight for that perfect world. I want to fight for proper sex education. I want to fight against the blanket portrayal of women as nothing more than the sum of their sexyfied parts and holes. But you know what? Until that world comes, I also intend to arm myself with the ability to fight for my right to go out, to get drunk, to wear and do whatever the hell I want, with a well-directed knock-out blow.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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