The Self-Defense Dilemma: Blaming the Victim?

Things people have said about “rape prevention” in order to avoid confronting rapists and rape culture:

  • Don’t dress like a slut
  • Dress attractively
  • Dress in boring conservative styles
  • Don’t go out after dark
  • Live your life freely and don’t let the danger intimidate you
  • Don’t drink ever
  • Only drink one drink
  • Take a friend if you plan to drink
  • Don’t go to parties ever
  • Go to parties, but keep your drink covered
  • Go to parties, but keep your drink in your hand
  • Go to parties, but bring your own drink
  • Go to parties, but bring a friend
  • If you can’t function because of drinking too much, then the rape is your fault
  • If you went home with a guy, then the rape is your fault
  • If you approached him (instead of him approaching you), then the rape is your fault
  • If he approached you and you smiled at him, then the rape is your fault
  • If you said yes to any sexual activity at all, then the rape is your fault
  • If you were drugged, you were just stupid, and the rape is your fault
  • Always fight back
  • Never fight back
  • Be pleasant and sweet
  • Be loud and confrontational

Any of you could add items to this list. We’ll talk about why these are thought to be effective. What is the one item that actually belongs on a rape prevention list?

  • Don’t rape people.

People think these items are effective because we still think of rape as a wild-eyed stranger dragging a woman behind some bushes in a public place and raping her while she fights back and yells “No.” This scenario actually represents only a very small percentage of rapes. What are most rapes like?

  • Most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.
  • Most rapes are committed in a woman’s home.

If a woman followed all these rules, she’d stay home and only see men in her family. (Does anyone else get a sudden mental picture of Saudi Arabia?) And yet, given the reality of rape, this woman is more likely to be raped than a woman who simply goes about her life as she chooses, which is the natural right of any human being.

Self-defense and the million other methods society wants women (and those of sexual persuasions that society finds less acceptable) to deploy in order to save themselves from rape — for which they bear no responsibility whatsoever — are much debated. My own bottom line is that if we concentrated all the energy and blame on rapists that we now concentrate on victim-blaming, there would be a real dent in the rape rate in the United States. What you choose to do for yourself is your own choice. Even if you choose to do nothing, and are raped, it doesn’t change the rapist’s entire responsibility for raping you.

People have been raped while taking what society calls “risks” (these are usually a list of behaviors that limit women, but don’t curtail men’s freedoms), and people have been raped while being extra-careful. They’ve been raped while wearing tight or revealing clothes, and they’ve been raped dressed in a nun’s habit. Clearly it was nothing they did or didn’t do. It was the decision of the rapist alone that made the difference. So make your own choices about how to live your life, knowing that you’re not to blame for being raped. I will completely support you.

Martial arts have generally not been helpful to women in real-life fighting situations, so look for programs specifically targeted to women in real life. Wing Chun may possibly be an exception to the rule since it is based on a low, solid, centered stance that’s much easier for women than for a man of average height.

Self-defense programs created by men are helpful in providing women with insights into male behavior — very valuable. But be sure they provide verbal strategies as well as physical fighting skills, and be sure those fighting skills are of any use to women. Men teaching physical fighting skills may unintentionally teach skills that play to the physical strengths of men, not the strengths of women. Programs by women are helpful in that the physical fighting strategies capitalize on the strengths of the female body specifically.

If you’re raped, whatever your gender, sexual orientation, or however you present, the rapist is entirely culpable. Only the rapist could have prevented the rape — by not doing it. You don’t bear any responsibility. Society, one day, may grow up and mature enough to stop judging the victim instead of going after rapists and changing a culture that approves of blaming the victim more than of confronting cultural standards that support rape.

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