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Uncharted Waters of Self-defense for Women

When the world was still largely unexplored and considered “flat,” ancient maps marked uncharted, dangerous territory with the words “Here Be Dragons.” The words were usually accompanied by illustrations of undulating and serpentine snake-like monsters in the waters of Terra Incognita. The explorers of the day, who knew the risks, convinced national treasuries to back them and said, “Monsters be damned, we’re forging ahead and we’ve got the tools to do it.” I’m here to talk about tools to stop today’s “monsters” as often as we can, right now and going forward.

Instead of a dragon, maps of our modern collective psyche could have a Trump-head at the edge. However, casting Trump and his supporters as monsters glosses over a major monster-fighting secret: they are not monsters; they are profoundly human, expressing out loud often unspoken, dark and archaic attitudes about the “proper” roles of women and men.

The Second Wave of Women’s Liberation

The rallying cry of the movement that started in the late 60s was “The Personal IS the Political.” For the first time, the entrenched beliefs of male superiority and female inferiority became a political issue when women realized it was mostly men who determined what’s valued, what’s believed and what gets legislated and funded in our society. From there came a burning desire to shift the paradigm of gender customs, which continues today. For example, these deep-seated, often unexamined gender biases still determine what gets “green-lighted” at the studios or even which guests appear on talk shows — and what gender continues to be the dominant choice for talk show hosts.

Recall the panel of older white men intimidating, threatening and demeaning Anita Hill during her hearings in Washington DC. Monsters? No. Monstrous behavior, yes. And, again, still indicative of unconscious beliefs that underpin much of our legislative process and leadership as exemplified by Paul Ryan’s recent statementthat women are to be “championed and revered.” Which is code for “women are chattel: possessions who can’t protect themselves.”

Women are not valued as witnesses, regarded like Eve as evil liars who cause their own attacks. Regardless of right or left-leaning politics, when it comes to personal safety and gender relations we have our own forms of “the earth is flat” in varying degrees.

As much as the men in my life would be willing to protect me, the days of chaperones are over. We need to be our own bodyguards because we can’t depend on protection from others nor the civil behavior of all men.

Like it or not, gender-based violence is being exposed at record levels. Kelly Oxford’s Twitter campaign, inviting people to tweet their first sexual assault, now has over 9.7 million responses in just two weeks. The monsters are out of the water. Our politics are at the heart of solutions at every level: in the family, society, and government. Gloria Steinem says it beautifully, “However sugar-coated and ambiguous, every form of authoritarianism must start with a belief in some group’s greater right to power, whether that right is justified by sex, race, class, religion, or all four. However far it may expand, the progression inevitably rests on unequal power and airtight roles within the family.”

There are also monsters lurking in our unconscious. These monsters often attack us at even the thought of teaching women, or any at-risk groups — the disabled, LGBTQ, non-conforming gender folks, gentle men, ethnic and religious minorities — how to defend themselves against harassers, gropers, fondlers, rapists: the actual 2-legged bogie men in our real lives. I will use female as a placeholder for targeted groups in general.

My colleagues and I teach girls and women to protect themselves from emotional, verbal and physical assault WHILE it’s happening. Over the years, I have heard most of the unconscious, unexamined fears that prevent females from learning to fight back, both from the women themselves and the men in their lives. Once exposed to light, these dark fears melt away.

The kicker? Providing tools to handle the threat of force in the moment is of prime importance to fighting for emotional, intellectual, verbal, artistic, political and public space. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, says it beautifully in our movie Beauty Bites Beast: “Once women know that they can defend themselves in a physical way, they can defend themselves emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, economically, politically.” If we ignore the threat of force — a very real threat for millions of women every day — we sustain denial. The good news? Men are merely human beings, not cyborgs or dragons. But our news, movies, and literature would have us believe that setting boundaries is a dangerous, ludicrous and useless thing to do.

The Monster of Binary Thinking

Our culture is plagued by binary thinking! As in male vs. female; young is good / old is bad; white vs. black; either / or; us vs. them thinking. It is the central pillar of 5000 years of dominant culture that puts men on a pedestal. In what is really only a blip on humankind’s timeline, we are suffering from cemented and unsustainable gender roles that bind everyone into traps. These roles are really “made up,” and not inherent in biology. (Race is also scientifically simply a matter of melanin, a whole other topic.)

Women and men both have an often unconscious fear that if women learn how to fight from a young age on, they will “unsex” themselves; that one is either “feminine,” (weak and helpless) or one is “masculine,” (strong and powerful). These arguments have been used at every step of female progress: learning to read, riding bicycles, voting! I’m not kidding: less than a century ago anti-suffrage advocates warned women that if they won the vote, their reproductive organs would dry up. Of course, when you have 9 children that sounds like a good plan, not a threat!

The glory of the moment is that so many of us are throwing off the chains of binary thinking as it relates to being a “real” woman or a “real” man. Truthfully, we are all capable of all sorts of things. There is pathological masculinity at one end, personified by “action heroes,” and at the other end of the spectrum pathological femininity, depicted by damsels that need saving. Most of us flop around in the middle of the gender scale.

How that relates to defending oneself is multi-layered. Putting it simply, many women fear that if they learn how to fight, they will no longer be “nice.” That’s important to recognize, as “nice” is how many of us have survived and gotten by in life. As famous psychologist Abraham Maslow said, if the only tool you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail. Predators count on women being too nice to intervene on their own behalf. Guess what? You can be nice, not nice, or anything else as the occasion warrants. There’s no bowl of “nice” that gets displaced by setting a boundary, using assertive language, and when push comes to shove physical actions that are persuasive. Gavin de Becker, author of Gift of Fear says, “My over-arching recommendation for women is to recognize that it is not a requirement that you be nice.”

Binary thinking also has people assume that self-defense is all or nothing; either going ballistic or being ultra-passive. Au contraire! There are many low-level physical actions that can make a perpetrator decide they don’t want to mess with you. If I’d known in the past what I know now, I could have removed a “groping” hand at a dinner party with a smile while grabbing the hand and loudly saying, “I think you’ve lost your hand. Let’s put it on the table where you can find it.” Maybe it’s time to revive the hat-pin as a mid-level, “pointed” reminder to keep your damn hands to yourself.

That women and girls are not equipped to deal with predators is part and parcel of the male dominant culture of our time. The only people who benefit from a female’s ignorance regarding simple boundary setting are the perpetrators. They want us fearful.

That said, it is never a survivor’s fault for not knowing what she didn’t know. NEVER. It is always, only and ever the perpetrator’s fault. And yes, forewarning is integral to “forearming.”

The world is round, not flat, and the new territories to explore lie within us. There are many empowerment self-defense providers who will help you not only swim but sail into new waters, free of the traumatizing, paralyzing experience and future fear of “monsters.”

This was first published in the Huffington Post. Permission to publish on the SVRI Blog was given by the author.

Written by Ellen Snortland


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Ellen Snortland

Lawyer | Activist | Author | Playwright

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Address: Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI)
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