Upstream vs. Downstream

By Martha McCaughey *

It’s amazing what we learn when we read outside our field.  A 2015 article by William Scott (here), reveals that those engaged with sustainable development efforts face many of the challenges those of us doing sexual assault prevention face.

Specifically, Scott and his colleagues feel that they’ve done too much “downstream remedial” work (measures that deal with the consequences of harm) and not enough “upstream prevention” work (interventions to address the underlying causes of problems).  Sound familiar?

Scott describes an N.E.F. report, which “argues for prevention, and says that bottom-up prevention is best, with people and organisations becoming more resilient: building up their own immune systems, both literally and metaphorically, so that they become less susceptible to harm, changing attitudes and capabilities so that they are better able to take positive actions themselves.”

This is very much our approach with empowerment-based self-defense training. But just as with the other SD (sustainable development), with SD (self-defense) we find rather dramatic disagreement over whether it’s downstream remedial or upstream prevention. In fact, many feminists who are strongly interested in dismantling our rape culture do not emphasize SD on the grounds that it’s downstream remedial. We have long argued that SD can best be understood as upstream preventative.

According to Scott, that logic of prevention in sustainability education contradicts the “rescue principle” of so much philanthropy, charity, and health care.  Rescuing people downstream can feel good but does not do the upstream prevention we need done.  In that same way, bystander intervention programs, counseling services for victims, and training people to emphasize reporting on campus or in the workplace embody the rescue principle in rape prevention and education work.

Interestingly, Scott points out that many individuals and families are making efforts for sustainability, for instance by setting up a solar PV system.  At the same time, only government can bring about macro-level change through “policy shifts, regulatory change, economic levers, and investment activity, for example.”

We, too, want macro-level change to the rape culture, and yet we also think individuals and groups practicing empowerment-based self-defense move us beyond the rescue principle and serves the effort of upstream prevention.  Training women in self-defense may not be like taking the carbon out of electricity production, but it is at least as compelling as setting up your own solar PV system.  We must do both for true prevention and social change.  Self-defense training builds women up so that they are less susceptible to harm.  Surely there’s no harm in that, other than to the rape culture.

* Cross-posted with permission from See Jane Fight Back!

Martha McCaughey is Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State University. She is the author of several books and articles concerning the intersections between gender, sexuality, science, technology, social movements, and the media. Martha is currently writing a book called Sexy Knowledge, an autobiographical account of the tensions in women’s studies. She is also writing, with Neva Specht, Greater Expectations, a study of women’s changing expectations and experiences of male co-parents. 

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