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.

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.