Ever since the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released the names of the now close to 100 institutions under investigation for Title IX sexual assault violations, rape on campus has been the kind of news story that is long on horrific detail and short on clarity. The overwhelming sense is that there is a lot to be done—but no one knows quite what to do curb the high numbers of women who are sexually assaulted in this country. As Jennifer Hirsh, a Columbia University public health professor pointed out in a recent Time magazine article, “while debate rages over how to respond to sexual assault claims, there’s been an almost deafening silence around the critical issue of effective prevention. How do we stop campus rapes from happening in the first place?” Hirsh’s frustrating conclusion? Nobody knows.
This isn’t to say federal administrations haven’t at least attempted to solve the problem. Between 1999 and 2013, the federal government’s Campus Grant Program has given more than $139 million to 388 projects to reduce sexual violence. The majority of those funds have gone to hiring victim advocates and counselors who can handle all the accusations. The rest appears to be supporting two main preventative measures: affirmative consent (now law in California and proposed law in New York) and bystander education. But according to a 2014 CDC report prepared for the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, there is not much evidence yet to prove bystander intervention or affirmative consent effectively prevent rape among college-age students. And obviously, post-rape counselors and administrators are not a preventative tactic.
There is, however, another method to prevent rape that some researchers believe is effective. Called “empowerment self-defense,” this strategy teaches psychological awareness, verbal assertiveness, and female self-defense over a series of classes. Relying on data and scholarship, the female-led courses teach young women that most assaults come from acquaintances, not strangers. They also teach women how to identify sexually coercive and predatory behavior, and how to deflect that behavior. The last part of the class teaches women physical maneuvers designed to incapacitate a man (i.e., targeting men’s weak spots—the groin, eyes, neck, and kneecaps). The course advises that women be cognizant of their surroundings and avoid becoming incapacitated through drugs or alcohol, but underscores the fact that rape is never the fault of the victim, whether she is able to fight back or not.
While the program has so far failed to attract mainstream attention, that may be changing. On June 11, University of Windsor Professor Charlene Senn published the results of a $1.3 million randomized control trial assessing 893 first-year female students from three Canadian universities who completed a 12-hour empowerment self-defense program.
The results, logged a year after the course’s completion, are notable: a 46% reduction in completed rape and a 63% reduction in attempted sexual assault. Senn, like other empowerment self-defense teachers throughout North America and Europe, sees her program as “resistance education”—not as a way of promoting abstinence or puritanism. Senn’s results will bolster the work of University of Oregon professor Jocelyn Hollander, who completed a similar study of empowerment self-defense course takers in 2014. Hollander’s study is not randomized or as large, but the results are very similar. A half dozen other, smaller studies also corroborate these findings.
The strategy isn’t just effective in North America. A San Francisco- and Kenya-based nonprofit called No Means No Worldwide is already successfully teaching empowerment self-defense to girls and women in the slums of Nairobi (where three in ten women report being sexually assaulted before the age of 18). In a 2014 Journal of Pediatrics study of 1,978 adolescents, Stanford University researchers found this nonprofit’s 12-hour empowerment self-defense program resulted in 52 percent of course-takers warding off attacks using skills learned. Come 2017, every high school female in Nairobi government schools will be required to take the courses designed by Lee Paiva.
Senn, the author of the Canadian study, says empowerment self-defense works because it dispels myths about how females should protect themselves. “Women are socialized to restrict their behavior, to not go out at night, and to fear the outside and strangers,” she said. “One of the key messages is that hyper-vigilance on those fronts is not very useful. What’s useful is assessing risk in men’s behaviors, recognizing coercive situations, and coming up with ways to resist their behavior quickly and effectively. The focus here is on empowerment and justified anger, not fear.”
Senn, Paiva, and Hollander—and their international network of empowerment self-defense advocates—repeatedly note that the training is by no means the only answer to the problem of sexual assault. But they say empowerment self-defense deserves attention and funding, especially because it is a strategy that can be effective almost immediately. They also say it should be considered “primary prevention” against rape, because it has been proven to work. Primary prevention is the term used by public health professionals to describe the primary methods to avoid occurrence of a disease or any kind of physical trauma; breastfeeding, for example, is considered primary prevention for a range of infant maladies.
Empowerment self-defense is not new. In 1974, two black belts in karate, Nadia Telsey and Annie Ellman, began experimenting with their defense training in an apartment in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Central to their approach was the belief that women needed to train women. By 1975, Telsey was teaching her first self-defense course with a female empowerment message at Barnard College. “That was before people were talking about rape openly,” Telsey tells Quartz. “The term sexual harassment hadn’t been coined yet.”
Nonetheless, Telsey and her fellow practitioners at Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts found themselves in discussions about what they could do physically to defend themselves if they came up against a male aggressor, even one who was an acquaintance or friend. “Much of what we developed was internal, psychological skills,” she explained. “We did a lot of role-playing, to think about how you give or refuse consent and how you deescalate to get the man to back off.” At the time, “there wasn’t as much confusion about what self-defense is, and it wasn’t associated with ‘victim blaming’”—the idea that if you give a woman self-defense training and she still gets raped, it’s her fault.
“I wish I knew why the opposition has become so ugly,” she said. “I think there’s a deep, deep unease with women being physically powerful—even among the feminists. There seems to be a buy-in to women being victims.” Telsey went on to become a women’s studies instructor at University of Oregon, where she taught an empowerment self-defense course; Telsey estimates she trained about 1,700 college students between 1990 and 2007.
But while empowerment self-defense courses experienced some popularity at Stanford and other universities over the past couple of decades, they have never gone mainstream.
There are at least three possible reasons for this hesitance. The first has to do with socialization—girls are often raised to please others, to be nurturing, and to expect protection from males. Empowerment self-defense teaches assertive verbal and physical skills, a stance of self-reliance that cuts away at traditional norms.
The there’s the skepticism. Males are stronger than females, the thinking goes, so concentrating on resistance is a futile endeavor. But there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. A 2005 report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, The Impact of Victim Self-Protections on Rape, found that personal safety education skills reduce the risk of rape by more than 80 percent (compared with non-resistance) and that self-defense did not significantly increase the risk of serious injury to the defender.
The third reason has to do with prevention trends that assign responsibility to males. Right now, bystander intervention, which instructs males to be on the lookout for and prevent assault, is attracting a large share of funding and educational emphasis. Supporters of this approach, such as Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler and anti-sexism activist Jackson Katz, argue the only true way to prevent rape is to stop men from raping. This is also the opinion of Paul Schewe, director of University of Illinois-Chicago’s Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence, who notes that studies like Senn’s, although statistically and clinically significant, “are probably not going to radically change what sexual assault looks like on college campuses. Because if you train hundreds or thousands of women in this technique, perpetrators are just going to find weaker, more suitable targets.” Schewe added, “From a human rights standpoint, it just seems to make sense to focus on the male side of equation.”
Female self-defense advocates, however, argue that this focus on men, at least in the short-term, makes less sense—and certainly should not be the only prevention strategy. “Bystander intervention is very intriguing, but we don’t have the evidence that says: this is where we should be putting all our money,” said Hollander. “Bystander education is a long-term project—it’s about training others to intervene and changing the whole culture; whereas, I could teach someone empowerment self-defense today and they could use it at the party tonight. I don’t think we should wait for these more structural, preventative measures to take effect, because they are going to take a while.”
What is fairly obvious is that empowerment self-defense challenges societal norms; the method posits that society can’t properly defend girls and women, so it’s up to them to strike back. Many people would rather this not be true. When Nia Sanchez, a 24-year-old black belt from Nevada who had just been crowned Miss USA 2014, said last June that teaching women self-defense could reduce sexual assaults on college campuses, she was angrily rebutted by men and women alike. Sanchez was accused of victim blaming and anti-feminism. “Unfortunately, the world we live in is not always as safe as we hope it could be,” she said at the time. “Just feeling confident to escape a scary situation is on women’s side.”
Interestingly, it is this cautionary perspective that has helped empowerment self-defense get a foothold in Kenya and Malawi. Brendan Ross, a UNICEF child protection specialist who is rolling out No Means No programs in Malawi with UKAID funds, said he has not experienced any community or government pushback to the courses.
“Honestly, if anyone wanted to come here and tell a 13-year-old girl in a house that can’t be locked, on a street with three or four bars on it, that she shouldn’t have the skills or tools to defend herself, they’d get laughed at,” said Ross. “Nobody has ever said: ‘We shouldn’t be teaching the girls these skills.’”
Will empowerment self-defense be embraced in the US or will it continue to be ignored? The courses are certainly cheaper for colleges than a Title IX lawsuit. But if the method goes mainstream, it will be because students, not administrators, demand it.