Gender violence is back in the headlines after Utah state police drew criticism for their lackluster response to the cyber harassment of feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian last week. Scheduled to speak at a Utah State University, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel her address when the police decided they would do nothing to respond to a threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” This drama comes mere weeks after the saga of the Ray Rice video showing him knocking his now wife unconscious in an elevator. Both of these incidents feel sadly familiar to those of us who work in the self-defense industry. The country watches while a seemingly defenseless female is assaulted or threatened, everyone gets enraged, then the spotlight passes and the country forgets to take any preventative action.
Wait, you might say, action was taken. There’s been serious talk of strengthening the laws that punish people like Ray Rice. And the NFL and the Utah state police are being held accountable – at least in the public eye.
Here’s the problem: In the white-hot heat of an assault, few women are considering Congressional resolutions, punitive damages or the legal system at all. They certainly aren’t thinking about the media. They are too focused on one thing and one thing alone: how to prevent themselves from being maimed or killed.
Let’s briefly consider the facts: Violence against women remains one of the most common human rights abuses in the world. Women ages 15 through 44 worldwide are more likely to die or be injured by male violence than from of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. A study commissioned by the National Justice Institute (NIJ) stated that approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the U.S.
And yet, in the face of all that, the best response we can muster is, essentially, a collective shrug of the shoulders. These things happen, we say. The government and other organizations will step in, we hope.
This isn’t enough. It’s time for this country to commit to teaching women how to defend themselves against attack. This is an effort that should begin in our homes, spread to our schools and involve entire communities. It should be a nationwide effort, and it should be mounted with urgency and energy.
Arguing that women should learn how to defend themselves isn’t a popular opinion. Self-defense for women is seldom discussed in the aftermath of these incidents, at least in part because the people who suggest it are accused of blaming the victims. Or worse, they are accused of indifference to the systemic issues that lead to violence in the first place.
After Nia Sanchez, the newly crowned Miss America, commented that she believed women should learn self-defense, social media erupted.
Sanchez’s comments came from a deep well of experience in the martial arts, years spent training on the mat and sparring with opponents. Yet to listen to some of her critics, you’d think she’d offered some kind of wholesale defense of rapists and predators.
Some of the commentary is even more galling. These days, you’ll find even law enforcement commentators arguing that women can’t protect themselves from male attackers, that they ought to simply scream at attackers, cooperate with them, or – if worst comes to worst -- simply submit to force used against them. A self-defense pamphlet at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina – yes, a military base -- suggested that often it is better for the woman to submit to rape rather than resist. University of Colorado at Colorado Springs offered women this gem: they should vomit or urinate to discourage attackers.
The critics and the cynics couldn’t be more wrong. Women need to be taught how to fight in their own defense should the need arise. And believing that women shouldn’t be harmed and teaching them to defend themselves when they are in danger are not inconsistent. In fact, there are plenty of male and female trainers who want to see violence against women disappear, but who also want to make sure that women are prepared in those regrettable instances where violence occurs.
We need to have a more sober discussion about this issue. If we give women the necessary tools to protect themselves in situations where self-protection becomes unavoidable, we will make them safer. Our daughters, our sisters and our mothers deserve a fighting chance. And until we abandon the idea that women are simply victims at the mercy of their attackers, another generation of women will be forced to live in fear, rather than walk with strength.
Tim Larkin is the founder of Target Focus Training and author of the New York Times bestselling book Survive the Unthinkable: A Total Guide to Women’s Self-Protection.