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

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.

Bennett Raglin / Getty
Show Hide image

How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones