The patriarchal structure of society that we live in refuses to recognize rape as violence and often dismisses incidences of sexual abuse as the survivor’s fault – shifting the burden on them to protect themselves. This argument has many colors to it, and “Ladies, defend yourself!” has always been a message that has been misconstrued, time and again, as ‘women empowerment’ and ‘girl power’. The usual sign-up-for-self-defense-classes have also had some hilarious suggestions, including how women should call their rapists “bhaiya”, and how they should avoid wearing jeans to protect themselves from rape.
But let’s take a step back and get real. Self-defense is not a solution. It does not cure the toxic masculinity and lack of consideration for consent, which allows the crime of rape to continue in this regard. And sadly in this case, prevention is NOT better than cure.
Self-defenSe is not a solution.
As a kid, I was always very interested in martial arts. At the age of 9, I heard that someone was opening a Taekwondo academy in my local neighborhood, and I rushed home to tell my mother that I was joining, come what may. I learned Taekwondo for a few months, and after we moved to a new neighborhood, I signed up for Krav Maga classes too. When I look back on these classes, I realize that there is a particular fashion in which martial arts and self-defense are taught. It’s very mechanical – the instructor tells you what to do if someone attacks you, in different ways, and you accordingly hit him in particular places where it’ll hurt him and you’ll run away. During training, you know someone’s going to come for you and it’s easy for you to win the fight.
Real life is different. It’s not a predictable attack. Fear, panic and sheer shock all flow through you. Your body freezes. You can’t comprehend the attack because your brain stops working and all those swift moves you learnt during training either turn into you frantically doing whatever you can to prevent the attack or make you incapable of preventing it. The survivor feels worse after – guilty, even – that she couldn’t do anything to stop it.
The argument for self-defense also completely fails to account for the high incidences of domestic abuse. A regional survey report conducted in the greater Boston area by Anita Raj and Jay G. Silverman in 2002, held that from a pool of women aged from 18-62, about 65.2% of women reported being sexually abused as a part of domestic violence.
The high incidence of sexual abuse within the family means that exercising self-defense becomes a highly unlikely solution, considering the power-dynamics and family structures that compel women to stay. According to Dr Ishani Mukherjee, faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has worked on the intersection of digital advocacy and domestic violence against South Asian immigrant women; the power hierarchy present in a highly patriarchal social system, and the stigma of “shame” around familial sexual abuse, often makes female rape victims view the heinous act as their own fault/fate. This makes defending oneself either an impossibility to achieve, or something that only a few can achieve (physically, emotionally or socioeconomically speaking).
Is it possible to get out of the cycle of abuse and protect oneself? Dr Mukherjee elucidates that in culturally conservative families, extricating oneself from habitually occurring sexual abuse and/or learning self-defense mechanisms could often lead to ostracization from community and may even do more harm than good. “Many South Asian immigrant women in the US on dependent visas talked about a lack of support from within their community and their own families back home when told about their domestic/sexual abuse they were facing,” she says.
Fighting back and using self-defense becomes even lesser of an option in instances of child sexual abuse by family members. This is not an uncommon tragedy – RAINN suggests that about 93% of the time the abuser is known to the children. When survivors decide to speak out about the abuse, they are often not believed. Vartika Pande recounts how when she was sexually assaulted by her cousin, her aunt simply dismissed her complaints as fantasies and imaginations.
We often forget while talking about self-defense, that there are so many out there who cannot defend themselves. Swati Kankan from New Delhi, who has a connective tissue disorder called joint hypermobility syndrome, which makes it difficult for her to move her limbs, says “This defend-yourself logic does not at all take into account that many people just cannot fight back. People who are physically and mentally disabled are extremely vulnerable to sexual assault. I am personally unable to do most anything that would be effective self-defense (despite my condition’s ability to make me appear pretty normal) and I should be able to feel as safe on the road, out at night, wearing skirts or dresses, as anyone who knows what to do if they’re attacked.”
We often forget while talking about self-defense, that there are so many out there who cannot defend themselves.
Swati emphasizes that someone who does not take self-defense lessons should not be held responsible for whatever happens if there is an attack. “That goes back to victim-blaming and removes the responsibility from the attackers,” she says.
Not only is the self-defense argument ableist, it is also ageist. We forget that there have been cases of 80-year-old women being raped, and also of babies and children. Shreya*, 19, from New Delhi recounts the time that her most trusted aide, her house-help, had molested her when she was 7. “It hurts me so much every time someone says that women need to learn to defend themselves. I was a small child against a very strong man. I couldn’t move away. How does it help for me to thrash my arms around in a locked room?”
A conventional view of sexual harassment, rape, and molestation can be very narrow, but truthfully, sexual harassment experiences and possibilities are not limited to an unknown man raping a woman in a dark alley. Women all over the world are harassed in many ways – online, offline, and even anonymously. Approximately 13% of young adults on the internet receive unwanted sexual solicitations. There is no self-defense to people who sling foul language and demand sexual favours through online messaging. There is no self-defense against unsolicited dick pics. There is no self-defense to threatening calls and messages.
Yagya*, 23, Bengaluru, tells me “I spent all of my childhood at boarding school. In class 9th, a group of boys started harassing me and to this date, I cannot be sure of who they are. Every morning there would be used condoms on my desk. One or two times there was a disgusting note in red paper. How do you protect yourself from this kind of thing? I did tell my teachers. They said they’d do something about it but the boys did it so anonymously that we couldn’t find them out, and they kept on getting away with harassing me. It eventually stopped on its own, but the memories still irk me.”
When I was 16, one day, I was walking my pet dog. When I looked up from my phone, a man had come up to me and started masturbating. I shrieked, and he ran away. There was no way that I could’ve defended myself from this attack. I still feel violated every time I think about it. It’s unreasonable to expect people to be able to protect themselves against attacks like these because there is no measure of self-defense that can suffice.
In an ideally progressive society, we must come to terms with the fact that placing the onus of defending oneself on a survivor is highly unfair on them. The bottom-line is that defending oneself is a personal choice, and holding a survivor accountable for not reasonably exercising self-defense is problematic in that it contributes to rape culture. Every time that we tell someone to invest in self-defense, we reinforce victim-blaming and condone the sexual violation of a person by assuming the lack of retort as a free pass to take away bodily autonomy and agency. We also need to acknowledge that self-defense just may not be enough of a counter in many cases. Given the many instances of sexual violence that happen every day, self-defense cannot be a solution to the very problem of rape and sexual harassment.
Placing the onus of defending oneself on a survivor is highly unfair on them
There is also an urgent need to shift the onus for preventing rape on the State and other bodies who perform public functions, rather than place it on survivors. Not only must the State invest more in the implementation of the rape and sexual harassment laws of the land, but must constantly evolve and improve the laws as well. As a welfare state, there needs to be a higher investment in sex-education, which will not only open up the discussion on sex but will also improve the narrative about consent, and teaching children from the start ensures a better understanding of sexual relations as adults and reduces gender disparities. Private and public organizations, companies, and workplaces also need to take up a higher level of accountability for when there is sexual harassment at the workplace. There needs to be better sexual health and sex-ed programs at the workplace and a strengthening and strict implementation of the laws preventing harassment at the workplace.