When a University of Chicago, USA student fought off a would-be sexual assault by biting her attacker recently, it was an encouraging example of female empowerment. It was also, in some ways, a sign of the times.
Discouraged by police in the 1980s and dismissed as victim-blaming in the 1990s, self-defence against sexual assault has gotten a big boost in the past five years, thanks to new studies showing a reduction in sexual assault among women who take courses on how to fend off unwanted advances.
“It’s very exciting to us,” said Martha Thompson, a senior instructor at the self-defence nonprofit Impact Chicago, which serves women and girls.
“There’s still research to be done, but these studies have really demonstrated using scientific methodology that women and girls who go through self-defence programming are much less likely to experience sexual violence.”
In a 2015 study of 893 college women published in The New England Journal Of Medicine, researchers found that women who took a 12-hour course that involved both education and self-defence experienced less rape than women randomly assigned to a control group.
While 10% of the women in the control group were raped over the next year, only 5% of the women assigned to the sexual assault resistance course were raped. Similarly, rates of attempted rape were lower for the women who took the course, with 3% experiencing attempted rape, compared with 9% of the women in the control group.
Authors of the study speculated that the reduction in attempted rape may have been due to an increased ability to detect and interrupt men’s unwanted behaviour at an early stage.
Thompson, whose organisation offers both long-term and short-term sexual assault defence programmes, said that it’s important to emphasise that victims are not responsible for sexual assault; the perpetrators are solely responsible.But, she said, if a woman chooses, she can do things to make herself safer.
In the 1980s, police often advised women not to fight back against sexual assault, fearing the additional violence that might result. And in the 1990s, women’s rights advocates pushed back hard against the notion that a woman is somehow responsible for the violence inflicted on her, and the related belief that it was a woman’s responsibility to protect herself.
Maria Balata, director of advocacy services at the Chicago rape crisis centre Resilience, expressed some reservations about self-defence classes for sexual assault, saying that the hard-wired biological response to sexual violence is very strong, with hormones causing some people to freeze and others to run or fight.
There are programmes that train you to bypass those responses, she said, but you’ll probably need more than one to three defence classes to learn how to do that.
She also said that some old-style defence classes place responsibility for staying safe on the victim, an approach that rape crisis centres strongly oppose. And she said that because most victims of sexual assault know their attackers, a “stranger danger” approach isn’t going to address the majority of rapes.
“We would rather spend our energy on prevention work, on teaching people how not to rape,” she said.
Thompson said Impact’s approach includes both prevention and self-defence, with many graduates saying the techniques they used the most involved setting boundaries and asserting themselves verbally.
For example, a woman might repeat a simple phrase such as “I don’t want to do this” or “I need to go home” a few times, a dozen times, or more. There’s no need to be creative with your wording, Thompson said. The idea is just to get the message across clearly and decisively.
“We teach that kicking and striking are tools of last resort,” said Thompson. “It’s not the go-to first thing unless, of course, you’re under immediate attack.”
That was reportedly the case on a recent Monday, when the University of Chicago student was approached by her attacker shortly after midnight in the 5600 block of South Drexel Avenue, according to Chicago and university police.
The 21-year-old student “was approached from behind by an unknown suspect who placed his arm around her torso, pushed her to the ground and attempted to place his hand up her skirt”, according to an alert from the University of Chicago Police.
When the man reached for the student, she bit his arm, and he ran off, going north on Drexel.
“It sounds as if she recognised the danger, she identified the tool that she had available to her, which in this case was her teeth, and she identified a vulnerable part of this person’s body,” Thompson said, adding that it’s a basic self-defence principle that you use strong parts of your body against vulnerable parts of your attacker’s body.
Thompson said that the outcome in this case was good, but the point isn’t that everyone should fight back all the time. “One of the general principles we have is no one knows the situation better than the person who is in it,” she said.
“We don’t say, ‘If this happens, do this.’ We really focus on people having an array of tools and that people need to rely on their own judgment and assessments and perceptions of what’s going on.” – Tribune News Service/Chicago Tribune/Nara Schoenberg