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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.

Nia Sanchez, winner of Miss USA 2014, is a black belt in taekwondo and has suggested women learn to defend themselves. Photo: Getty
Nia Sanchez, winner of Miss USA 2014, is a black belt in taekwondo and has suggested women learn to defend themselves. Photo: Getty

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.