Empowering Women, Not Just Protecting Them

by Jocelyn Hollander

Womanpower_logoEarlier this month, three University of Oregon basketball players were accused of gang raping a fellow student at a party, shortly before their appearance in the NCAA tournament. The young woman told the police that she was intoxicated and that she “just gave up…I let them do whatever they wanted. I just wanted it to be over and to go to sleep.”

This is only the latest of a long series of sexual assault scandals to rock U.S. universities, and of course, only the most sensational are reported in the news. It’s estimated that one in five young women will survive a sexual assault during her college years.

President Obama took a hopeful step recently with his creation of a task force on college sexual assault, which released its first report last month. The report recommends that colleges and universities:

1)    conduct surveys to identify the extent of sexual assault on their campuses,

2)    implement evidence-based prevention programs (especially healthy relationships education, bystander intervention education, and other programs that enlist men as allies),

3)    ensure that schools respond effectively to survivors, and

4)    improve enforcement procedures.

These are all important and long-overdue steps.

But here’s the problem. What is a woman to do while waiting for these strategies to work? Changing relationship norms and training bystanders to intervene may reduce violence in the long run, but they have nothing to offer the young woman who will go to a party this weekend and find herself being pressured to participate in sexual acts by someone she thought was her friend. Focusing only on long-term prevention – while crucially important – cannot be our only strategy. After all, feminists have been trying for decades to change the social norms that facilitate sexual assault – and sexual assault is still very much with us. Structural and cultural changes take time, but the need is immediate.

So what would help the young woman at this weekend’s party? Women’s self-defense training. Recent research has demonstrated that holistic, empowerment-based self-defense training is an effective, immediate, and inexpensive way to prevent and respond to sexual assault. My own research with college students, for example, has found that women who complete a self-defense class are significantly less likely to be sexually assaulted in the following year than similar women with no self-defense training. Self-defense training has also been found to increase women’s confidence, shift their understanding of their own bodies, and change gender expectations and interactions.

Self-defense training solves two problems with the Task Force’s recommendations. First, it provides a short-term strategy that fills the gap between the current situation and the day when bystanders reliably intervene or, better yet, perpetrators reconsider their behavior. (It also gives women tools to use when there are no bystanders, as we know that perpetrators prefer to isolate their victims before assaulting them.) Unlike many of the other things that colleges and universities typically do to prevent sexual assault – classes, visiting speakers, online trainings – there is good evidence that self-defense training actually works.

Second, self-defense training challenges the implication that women are inherently vulnerable and in need of protection – from bystanders, law enforcement, universities, and the state. (Even the name of the task force reinforces this notion – it is not the Task Force to End Sexual Assault, or even to Reduce Sexual Assault, but to Protect Students from Sexual Assault – and we all know that by “students,” they mean women.) The White House’s much-touted PSA video, in which a series of male celebrities, along with the President and Vice President, speak directly to men to enlist them as allies, also constructs women as vulnerable and men – good men, anyway – as potential protectors. This focus on men is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is crucial for men to take responsibility for the problem of sexual assault. But at the same time, this strengthens the notion that women are not able to protect themselves, but must look to others, and especially men, to protect them.

Some people argue that only perpetrator-focused interventions are appropriate, and that any suggestion that women can influence the outcome of an assault is victim-blaming. But we know that women’s resistance can stop assault, and that self-defense training enhances women’s ability to resist – and, incidentally, is enormously empowering to women. While we wait for long-term, perpetrator-focused strategies to work, shouldn’t all women have access to this information?

Jocelyn Hollander is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. Her article, “Vulnerability and Dangerousness: The Construction of Gender Through Conversation About Violence,” was published in the February 2001 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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