Self Defense for Women – Part 1 of 4
Strategies against Sexual Assault
With the increased attention to the potential for sexual assault, women are seeking answers. Self-defense courses for women abound, but are they meeting the needs of those who might someday rely on techniques to save their lives? In a four part series, Sergeant Cori Slaughter of the Ottawa Police Service presents an analysis of the profiles of rapists as well as the various considerations necessary to understand why blanket self defense strategies may not be sufficient for protecting potential victims.
Sexual assault is a societal problem. Research has failed to find a consistent pattern of personality type or character disorder that reliably discriminates the rapist from the non-rapist. Men who rape demonstrate their masculinity in ways that involve contempt for anything fragile or for females in general. It is well documented that power and control are the driving forces behind sexual abuse and the rape culture. Despite efforts to recognize violence against women in social and legal arenas as well as in the media, women continue to fear for their safety.
Supporting this argument, Kendall (1997:10) states that sexual conquest endures as a male domain and women are similarly regarded as objects to be conquered. Behaviour such as sexual aggression in male/female interaction is often not only encouraged but also condoned in certain social environments. To exacerbate this polarity, sexual assault is one of the most underreported of all violent crimes.
According to the 1993 Violence Against Women survey, only 6 percent of all sexual assaults were reported to the police and although the reporting of sexual assault has risen in recent years, these findings are consistent in many studies (1997:10).
Susan Smith reports, “known assailant assault is even less reported than stranger-rape”(1986:20). She argues that private violence and known-assailant attack have been virtually ignored in women’s self defense programs. However, the issues are far more complex than simply addressing de-escalation strategies for relationships. Men who rape do so for many reasons, notwithstanding the motives of power and control. Sex is the weapon of choice, and the rationale for sexual assault is often derived from a myriad of factors. It must be stressed that the cultural view of women as sexual commodities gives misguided credence to the belief that the victim is in some way responsible for her situation. The inception of training for women in strategies and tactics to avoid sexual assault has, in the past, stressed lifestyle modifications such as never going out alone, or never going out after dark. For a single woman to attend pubs or bars was, not that long ago, tantamount to a guarantee of an unwanted sexual incident.
Smith (1986:3-9) notes that historically, instructors of women’s self defense courses have stressed the importance of assault prevention and reducing risk while teaching that cooperation and submission were to be considered as the only viable rape resistance strategies. In some cases, women were taught to use any psychological ploy such as vomiting, defecating, feigning insanity, professing to have AIDS or venereal disease to make them as vulgar or unattractive as possible. This promotes the widely held perception that rape is driven by sexual desire and that if a woman debases herself in some physically revolting manner, she will escape the attentions of her assailant.
Likewise, the fallacy that provocative clothing will incite a man to rape has its basis in cultural mythology. A woman’s manner of dress is not a measure of ‘rape potential’ and is therefore not considered a strategy for avoiding rape.
The Streetproofing for Women course offered by the Ottawa Police Service has instructed hundreds of women in the practical aspects of sexual assault awareness and self-defense since 1991. The importance of recognizing the victim selection process is taught to participants, who come to understand that victims are targeted based on three criteria: availability, accessibility and vulnerability. The first two are ascertained insofar as the victim’s proximity to the attacker as well as to potential witnesses. Vulnerability is a subjective concept, centered on the rapist’s perception of his intended victim and how she fits his particular ‘checklist’ including her level of assertiveness and overall confidence. Participants are educated in the nuances of paralanguage including tone and pitch of the voice and how to alter these features in order to present a less likely target.
Kendall, Diana 1997 Sociology in Our Times, First Canadian Edition
Scarborough: International Thomson Publishing Company
Smith, Susan E. 1986 Fear or Freedom, A Woman’s Options in Social Survival and Physical Defense Racine: Mother Courage Press