Self Defence Classes? Really?

TW: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence, abuse, child abuse.

There’s a new campaign on the block and I want to start off by saying I support its aims. It’s a campaign about consent, I’d have to be a total fucking bastard not to. So why am I writing a post now that is going to criticise it? Because there are some aspects of this new campaign which, as a survivor, I feel present a simplistic, and problematic, approach to sexual violence and rape.

Cambridge for Consent is a new campaign which has gained ground rapidly in the last few weeks. It has over 800 likes on Facebook, and was recently publicly endorsed by the Labour PCC for Cambridge. It has a lot of good stuff on its website about consent being an issue for people of all genders and sexualities, and I suppose any initiative supporting a thorough understanding of consent is a good thing. That said, one thing leapt out at me as problematic: self defence classes.

Now, before we get ahead of myself, let me be clear. Plenty of feminist campaigns and women’s centres offer self defence classes as a means of empowerment – which is a fine idea in and of itself. However, what bothers me about Cambridge for Consent is the way that the self defence classes are  strongly implied to be a means for potential suvivors to defend themselves. There’s no clarification to suggest otherwise, and that’s rather problematic.  There was a heated discussion about this point in the CUSU Women’s Campaign Facebook group – you can go and see it for yourself here. It was quite legitimately pointed out that that surely the point of a consent campaign should be to teach people to respect consent, to put the onus on the perpetrator, rather than the survivor, and that self defence classes could, in this context, be read as perpetuating the “back alley rape myth.” This is a highly problematic myth about rape which sees rape only occurring in one context – a random attack by a man on a lone woman, who is out on her own. Granted, rapes like this do occur, and they are shocking. However, the majority of rapes take places behind closed doors. People are raped by boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, siblings, people who we welcome into our homes and safe spaces, people we might well be having consensual sex with until they attack us. According to the government’s own data, 90% of rapes are committed by a “known” person. Rape Crisis UK writes of this myth:

“People are raped in their homes, their workplaces and other settings where they have previously felt safe. Sometimes, the myth that rape is most commonly perpetrated by strangers can make the majority of survivors, who have been raped or sexually assaulted by someone they know, even less likely to report to the police or even confide in someone close about their experiences, for fear of not being believed, out of a sense of shame or self-blame, and/or because they have mixed feelings about getting the perpetrator ‘into trouble’. This myth can also control women’s movements and restrict their rights and freedom.”

As a survivor, the idea of self defence classes being offered as a defence to rape angers me because it offers a very simplistic and harmful idea of how rape happens. This is even more worrying when you consider the fact that this isn’t a suggestion made by a Tabloid newspaper, or an idiotic tutor in a college, but by a campaign aiming to promote consent. Surely, given the statistics quoted above, some sort of emphasis on spotting signs of partner abuse would be more appropriate?

As a survivor, this whole thing bugs me because, like many survivors, I blame myself, and the suggestion that I might have avoided what happened to me because of self defence classes is just another reason to turn my anger from my abusers onto myself.

I’ll be expressly blunt here – the first time I was raped, I was 9. I was attacked by a much older man in a position of power and authority. If I had been a Karate Black Belt, would that have prevented that rape? No, it wouldn’t have. Only in a movie can a child fight off a grown man, and then raise the alarm and have the good citizens of his town drag the pervert away to face justice.

The second time I was raped, I was at University, and my attacker was a woman I was have a sexual relationship with. Would self defence classes have helped me then? No. I was manipulated emotionally into sex acts I was not ready for. What was I supposed to do, put her an arm lock? To suggest that I should have used force in self defence in the face of emotional manipulation and coercion is to add an extra level of victim blaming to the mountain of victim blaming I already deal with as a male survivor.

I’m not saying that the Cambridge for Consent campaign is awful. It definitely isn’t. What I am saying is that it isn’t nit picky to criticise aspects of what they are doing. Consent is a complex issue, and offering self defence classes as a means of heading off sexual assault implies a very simple, normative model of how rape happens. My experiences as a survivor show me that isn’t the case. Offer self defence as a means of empowerment, sure, but don’t try to imply to me that if I’d known a few punches and armlocks, I wouldn’t have been raped. I have enough self loathing as it is.


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