TEDx, Innovation, and Vitriol

TEDx 3
Professor Holtzman presents at TEDx Ball State University, November 2015

Recently, we were invited to present a TEDx talk wherein we posed a “What if…?” question. Our question was, “What if sexual assault self protection could be nonviolent?” (A video of the talk can be found here.)

As is the case with TED talks in general, our goal was to transcend conventional thinking and, in our case, reimagine a solution to a pressing problem. Because we have been developing and testing an integrated set of scientifically-grounded responses to sexual assault that include nonviolent options, we jumped at the opportunity to share that perspective and a very small sampling of these nonviolent responses with a larger audience.

As one might expect, new solutions to old problems bring a mixture of reactions, even if those solutions are demonstrably effective. A great many people were enthusiastic and supportive, and appreciated the fresh approach. A small minority shared skepticism and even hatred, comparing a nonviolent, self-protective solution to “victim shaming,” and openly criticizing the message as “pathetic,” “ridiculous,” “disgusting,” and suggesting that we should “become pen pals with child molesters.”

This is not the first time that this approach has been attacked. (Indeed, we received an angry message within the first months of the program’s development from a person who was disgusted that Elemental was specifically inclusive of the needs of sexual minorities.) We have addressed the victim blaming argument in a previous post, as have other authors. Reasonable skepticism is healthy, and we always welcome the opportunity to present our evidence. The vitriolic response is another matter, and it could easily be dismissed as the irrational, knee-jerk reactions of a person who carries a great deal of pain inside.

We disagree that dismissiveness is the best approach, however, because every experience has the potential to take us to an improved understanding. This experience reminds us of three things:

(1) It is common to cling to the belief that all violence must be met with violence of equal or greater magnitude in order for a response to be effective in ending the initial violence. Although violence may ultimately end violence in some cases, nonviolent tactics have also been an effective tool against violence and subjugation in other contexts (e.g., the civil rights movement, Indian independence). The evidence we have suggests that it can be effective for people faced with awkward or dangerous and sexually charged situations, too. Both violence and nonviolence can work. Whether students pick a violent solution, a nonviolent solution, or start with one and transition to the other is not up to program administrators or instructors. It is up to the people who face such situations every day. We give them choices. They select based on what they believe is best for them.

(2) It is common to have great difficulty imagining that other people would have responded differently than oneself. This has much to do with the bubble of personal experience that encloses each of us. Our colleagues in psychology remind us that people tend to assume that others experience the world as they do, subject to the same inputs and same priorities in making decisions. This leads us to imagine that others agree with our conclusions, and often we are surprised when they do not. One of the jobs of good science is to transcend that bubble and, ultimately, to give credence to the lives of those who experience the world differently from ourselves. In our case, this means presenting solutions that work for people who have different backgrounds and who come to different conclusions about their contexts and relationships, what they hope to achieve when faced with challenging situations, and how they wish to go about achieving those goals. Understanding this variety requires that we engage in study—an “ology” (e.g., sociology, psychology, anthropology). Ignoring evidence from a broader world while simultaneously claiming that the solution one prefers for oneself should be imposed upon others crosses a dangerous border. Therefore, the choice of a violent solution, a nonviolent solution, or some combination thereof is therefore also not a decision of a peer (survivor or otherwise), a political movement, or a collection of outside adherents to a particular belief system. It is up to the people who face such situations every day, within the context of their roles, their relationships, and their realities.

(3) It is common to have a limited understanding of the great variety of contexts and situations that fall under a single label (in this case, “rape” or “sexual assault”). The common denominator for these labels is that unwanted (or nonconsensual) sexual contact or activity is involved. Beyond this, the tactics, motivations, goals, differences is size and strength, relationship combinations, and other contextual factors can and do vary tremendously. It could involve an angry or sadistic stranger; it is more likely to be an acquaintance or friend. It is often an intentional violation of trust by someone who wants power, but it may evolve from poor communication and inexperience. These expectations set the stage for different reactions from those who experience these situations and tend to require different kinds of preparation. This, in combination with the misunderstandings noted in point (2), further complicates the responses that come from a well-meaning public, including some of those who have experienced an assault. Because assaults span such a wide spectrum, it is beneficial not to assume that any one particular assault matches the default in one’s imagination. An outside observer must therefore approach the question of whether a particular solution would or would not “work” in any specific circumstance with great care. Again, this is why it is important to provide a spectrum of potentially effective choices—and to refrain from passing judgment on those who take a path that we ourselves might not.

~The Directors



Pursuing the outcome you want, not fighting the one you don’t

Self-protection programming—even those programs derived from a martial arts background—need not focus on learning to be violent. Let’s talk about violence for a bit, watch a couple of short videos of conflicts, ask what good martial artists (and ninjas) train to do, and discuss the way that Elemental accomplishes those goals.

The Japanese term “budo” is often crudely translated as “martial arts,” and is an umbrella term for a wide array of practice systems: karate-do, judo, kendo, iaido, etc. To-shin Do, the ninjutsu-based art from which Elemental is strongly derived, is one of these systems. When most people think of these arts, they think of violence and war—which is understandable, given the common translation. A better translation of budo, however, might be “way to end violence.” Ways to stop violent situations vary by time and circumstance; some are not inherently “right” or “wrong,” but might be better or worse for a given context, or simply different. Solutions need not always involve escalation and further violence, which can be inefficient and increase the risk of outcomes that are contrary to our goals—which might include peace, order, and compassion.

Let’s compare a couple of examples of how violence might be stopped. Imagine a fight taking place inside of an enclosed space with lots of bystanders—say, inside of a subway or light rail car. Imagine that you want to stop the fight. Which of the following examples would be closer to what you would choose? Why? (Warning, videos contain strong language. Also note that this is meant as a heuristic exercise in resolving violence; the initial fights themselves are by no means equivalent to each other.)

Example #1

Example #2

The ninja way includes keeping your ultimate goal in mind and making sure that all of your actions are ideally congruent with that goal. Threats are often not confronted directly; after all, why block a violent act—like a punch—when there are so many “safe spaces” to create and to occupy that will allow the attack to fail? Why not choose a subtle approach if a subtle approach is better? Why focus on beating an attacker when the real goal is to win?

In the case of Elemental, the analogous threat is sexual (or gender-based) violence. We must recognize the availability and importance of all of the desirable outcomes that do not constitute sexual violence, and the different paths that can lead us there. Those are our safe spaces. Given the circumstances, what are our goals? To get to lights and people in a public space? To bring in a bystander? To meet people and be friendly, but not physically intimate? To preserve a friendship or other relationship? To defuse an awkward situation and still feel good about how things went the next day? To stop the manipulative pressure that someone is applying? To have a particular kind of consensual sexual encounter?

All of these constitute different kinds of “safe spaces,” many of which can be reached with the right attention, timing, positioning, and words. Many may never require a knee strike or a palm-heel to the nose. Elemental focuses on training in the former while acknowledging that, for some people in some circumstances, the latter may be the best option. All can be effective; peer-reviewed evidence for our own program and others suggests so. However, we are far more interested in what can be gained through approaches like eating chips (well, other than additional pounds) than by drawing a katana in a crowded rail car.

That is one path to ending violence—and that is good budo. We aren’t fighting the threat. We are achieving our own goals. Rather than making knee-jerk destructive reactions, we make choices that get us to safe space. That is the difference between creating weapons and empowering champions.

~The Directors


Our Namesake’s Roots in a Flexible, Unorthodox Art

If you have wondered why our program is named “Elemental” and what that means, you are not alone. Many of you who read these posts have a background in martial arts from the east Asian traditions, and, although you may know how elements play into understanding of problem-solving strategies, may wonder why it would be important for a sexual assault protection program to carry that title. In contrast, those who have interest and expertise in the science of sexual assault understanding and prevention may wonder what “elements” are and why we have found the model useful.

Different philosophical traditions—particularly those that are tied to ways of truth-seeking that predate modern scientific methods—have modeled the irreducibly fundamental components of the universe in different ways. For example, in the traditions of the ninja warriors of the Iga region of Japan, the energies of the universe could be conceptualized as five basic elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and “ku” (the last being a “great emptiness” from which the others are derived). For our purposes, each of these elements is associated with a different attitude and motion that is used in the course of solving a problem. If one is operating from the earth element, one is confident, commanding, and holds one’s ground. In contrast, if one is surprised, perhaps a bit unsure of oneself, and needs time to step back and strategize to respond to a problem, one is operating in water. If one is engaged, can see where things are headed, and knows what will happen next so well that moving forward and consuming space allows oneself to “snuff out” the problem before it grows, then one is operating in fire. If one is so compassionate that one is willing to abandon space in order to achieve one’s goals, then one is operating in wind. It is important to be able to pick the best solution to the problem based not only on one’s own feelings, but on the characteristics of the threat. After all, holding one’s ground (even if one’s usual, most comfortable operating mode is earth) would be a terrible idea when faced with a swinging wrecking ball or a speeding truck. Regardless of which element is chosen, the way in which that element is manifested need not be violent. The path to the ultimate goal may not require brutality, and, as such, focusing on the best way to attain that goal becomes most important. This makes right-mindedness—rather than physical technique—most critical.

One of the many things that we find fascinating about this is that, when it comes to teaching self-protection from sexual assault, we understand that students have different attitudes and the situations that they encounter have different requirements. Some students are confident, others need time to think and react, others are very engaged and are apt to recognize and shut down a problem early, and others just want to vanish in the breeze when trouble comes. An element-based art recognizes that all of these responses are valid and potentially effective. As such, both in word and in action, we feel that students are more apt to find parts of the curriculum that resonate with them (and with the needs of the situations that they face) when they are afforded flexibility and choice in response mode instead of being told that they must do defense “B” when faced with situation “A.” Moreover, because we focus on giving students the tools to accomplish their own ultimate objectives using nonviolent response options, they are empowered to try things that they are more likely to use. Moreover, they develop the sensitivity to deploy tactics earlier in interactions in order to avoid escalation to emergency levels. The goal, after all, is to empower students to find consent in their relationships and, when that is not possible, still return home happy, healthy, and safe.

~The Directors


Spectrum of Assault: Why Inclusivity is Critical in Sexual Assault Prevention

On June 26, 2015 in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on gay marriage. Although this was a victory in the recent push for marriage equality specifically and GLBTQ rights more generally, much work remains to be done within the arena of gay rights. One area that is of particular concern is the alarmingly high rate of sexual assault within this population. To illustrate this fact, let’s start with the comparison point—data on assaults within the heterosexual population.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSVS). The data in the corresponding report, suggest that nearly 20% of all women experience a rape across their lifetime (defined as forcibly completed or attempted vaginal, oral, or anal penetration), 13% of women experience sexual coercion (unwanted sexual penetration after being verbally, but not physically, pressured to engage in sex) and nearly 30% experience unwanted sexual contact, such as kissing, fondling, or groping.  Among men, the corresponding figures are 1.4%, 6%, and 11.7%, respectively. These data draw much needed attention to the issue of sexual assault and they illustrate that assault is a social problem for both women and men. In this initial report, however, the effects of sexual orientation on assault rates were not considered. As a consequence, it falls short of offering a complete picture of sexual violence.

The CDC filled in this gap in 2013 when they released a report accounting for sexual orientation. Unfortunately, the data are alarming. The report notes that nearly half of lesbians and gay and bisexual men experience some form of sexual violence during their lives and that rate goes to 75% for bisexual women. In fact, being bisexual, whether a person is male or female, is associated with significantly higher risk of assault. In other words, sexual orientation matters, but it is not something that is often addressed in sexual assault protection programs.

Our program team shared the goal of making Elemental explicitly inclusive of the needs of sexual minorities from the beginning of our development process. We reviewed others’ research on assault among sexual minorities and, when we did not find all of the answers that we needed, we conducted our own to find out more about the processes and patterns in assaults in the LGB community. We augmented this information with additional input and stories shared firsthand by local members of this community. The resulting program both speaks to the unique realities of LGB experiences and underscores common themes that cut across lines of gender and sexual orientation. We are proud to say that everyone is welcome—and everyone’s experiences acknowledged and respected—at an Elemental seminar.

Although this inclusivity is extremely rare among sexual assault self-protection programs, a truly comprehensive approach to prevention would be impossible without it. Some social norm projects, such as the Red Flag Campaign, now include messages designed to build awareness and foster bystander intervention when signs of dating violence in a friend’s same-sex relationship arise. It is time for effective self-protection programming to become equally inclusive—and it is necessary, because assaults happen so often in private, and because cultural change will not happen overnight. We hope that our model will serve as a template for others as we work together to achieve a more equal, just, and fair world. Everyone deserves safety as they seek intimacy.

~The Directors


Response Flexibility as Empowerment

When we were at the beginning of our development process, an acquaintance told us that she was particularly glad to hear that one of our goals was to develop a means of self-protection that included effective but non-violent defense options. She told a story about a friend of hers who arrived at college and took a standard self-defense course. She trained hard and internalized what she was taught. Her responses became reflexive. Some time later, a friend of hers attempted to assault her, and she responded as she had trained. She thwarted the attack as she had been taught to do, and seriously injured the aggressor. However, contrary to expectations, the defender felt far from empowered. Her very sense of identity—as a loving, nonviolent person who took care of others—was shattered. She fell into a depression and did not leave her room for weeks.

An ideal success should not cause more harm than good, even if the response is justifiable by some set of legal criteria or is satisfying to others who hear the story. Perhaps, had we been in her shoes, we would have damaged the aggressor as well, and perhaps we would have been elated with the result. But we are not her, and we were not there. That experience was hers. She owns it. It was still the aggressor’s fault, and most of us would say that he probably got what he deserved. However, she still paid a price for the manner in which the situation was resolved—a resolution that was imagined in someone else’s head and fit their ideas of what was appropriate and right, and was subsequently taught to her.

A student in one of our early seminars later found us at another event and took us aside afterward to get our opinion and reassurance. She had encountered a situation at a party where a young man had her pinned against the wall in a room that was so crowded that she was unable to move in any direction. He started tugging downward at the waistband of her pants. She asked him to stop several times, but he persisted. Nobody was intervening. She asked what we would have done. Mechanically, she had several options available to her; we all agreed that a knee shot to a sensitive area and some harsh words would probably have worked. Her response to these more violent options was thus:

“Yeah, I know, but I had class with him the next day and I did not want to hurt him.”

She did not want to escalate the situation and bring additional, unneeded complexity into her life. The best option for her, on that day, with that person, and in that situation, was to call out specifically to another person in the room and ask that individual to come over, i.e., to actively engage a bystander and bring them in. That is what she had done, and the problematic young man had disengaged. That was the success that she needed, and the verbal training in Elemental had helped her to develop the flexibility to use the resources in her environment and to solve the problem in a way that was consistent with her own goals.

We humbly suggest that success cannot be defined by others’ definitions of what it looks like, and that it would be irresponsible to mandate that the people we train in our programs always deploy Response B when confronted with Stimulus A. We should not make those decisions for them. Action and outcome should not be the pawn in another’s political game or limited by an instructor’s restricted imagination of a problem and a uniform resolution. It must be judged by the criteria for success that are set by the actors themselves. Every encounter is different. True empowerment provides a toolbox of choices and encourages people to make their own, sound decisions about what to use and when it is most appropriate to do so. Empowering programs and the instructors that teach them will be sensitive to these needs and stock the toolbox accordingly. In Elemental, we encourage students to select, polish, and use the responses that are right for them.

~The Directors


Does teaching self-protection blame the victim? And who is responsible for social change?

Not long ago, we attended a conference at which a number of researcher-practitioners described their project assessments and outcomes. Programs to reduce and treat the consequences of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth were all well represented, and our sexual assault program fit in quite nicely. Or so we thought.

During Q and A, one of the other speakers in our session (who had just discussed her own work to move people out of poverty), complained that self-defense approaches to sexual assault protection “blamed the victim.” The unspoken double-standard was stark: Her program empowered the poor by working to raise their awareness and build tools for financial success, but nobody suggested that her efforts to empower should be abandoned because they blamed people for their poverty.

To someone working outside of this particular subfield, such an accusation may seem bizarre. However, it is extremely common: A firestorm of complaints was leveled at Miss USA Nia Sanchez, who said during the 2014 competition that women should learn to protect themselves from sexual assault and could find such training empowering. The same critique was aimed at Ankesh Madan, Stephen Grey, Tasso Van Windheim, and Tyler Confrey-Maloney—undergraduate students at North Carolina State University who invented a nail polish designed to detect date-rape drugs (other than alcohol). Most recently, it has been directed against the work of Canadian researchers who demonstrated that self-defense training—as part of a broad package of programs in awareness and sexual boundary-setting—is effective in reducing long-term assault risk.

These critiques stem from at least two sources. Historically, women have been routinely blamed for their own assaults based on what they had been wearing, how much they had to drink, and any other of a litany of items that indicated that rape avoidance was a matter of behaving better and fighting harder. The message from society has too often been that, if potential victims didn’t police their own behavior and that of their partners, then they must have been “asking for it.” The message has very seldom been that men should bear responsibility for their own behavior and keep their own aggression in check. It is no wonder that many activists and practitioners bristle when people start to talk about yet one more thing that women can do to protect themselves. Moreover, there are real problems with the way that sexual assault self-protection—usually conceived of as elbows and knees against a grabbing stranger—has been taught. As the real assailants are usually friends, romantic partners, and acquaintances—people we are supposed to be able to trust—standard self-defense awareness strategies and tactics are often ill suited to addressing the problem. Without careful adaptation, they build the wrong awareness and teach techniques that people are unlikely to deploy against those whom they care about and do not want to damage. We in the martial arts/self defense community have too often and for too long focused on preparing people to face a version of sexual assault that is less likely. (We have thoughts about how this may have come to be, but we’ll save that for another post.)

In light of these problems, it is not surprising that there is strong sentiment in some segments of the sexual assault reduction community that self-protection programming is not desirable, does not work, and that cultural change should be pursued instead. We disagree. The evidence shows that self-protection does work when the program is crafted in a way that prepares people to face the realities of assault. (See citations below for a sample of work that demonstrates this.) And, moreover, since cultural change occurs slowly and because sex is treated as a private matter in our culture, it is critical to have a last line of defense that works in conjunction with efforts to change social norms and to bring in bystanders. It is not a matter of “either-or,” but rather a matter of “and”: comprehensive, effective programming that addresses everything from culture down to the nitty-gritty of face-to-face interaction in private, does not blame victims, and does not categorically require specific groups of people to avoid the rich experiences of life in order to be safe. That is empowerment. And that power and privilege to improve the world in this way—as well as the accompanying responsibility to do so—is within our collective reach. But it requires us to work together.

~The Directors



2014       Hollander, Jocelyn A. “Does Self-Defense Training Prevent Sexual Violence Against Women?” Violence Against Women 20, 252-269. DOI: 10.1177/1077801214526046

2014       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick L. Menning. “A New Model for Sexual Assault Protection: Creation and Initial Testing of Elemental.Journal of Applied Social Sciences DOI: 10.1177/1936724414536394.  Online first at: http://jax.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/06/11/1936724414536394

2015       Menning, Chadwick and Mellisa Holtzman.  “Combining Primary Prevention and Risk Reduction Approaches in Sexual Assault Programming.” Journal of American College Health. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881 Online first at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881

2015       Senn, Charlene Y., Misha Eliasziw, Paula C. Barata, Wilfreda E. Thurston, Ian R. Newby-Clark, Lorraine Radtke, and Karen L. Hobden. “Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women.” New England Journal of Medicine 372, 2326-2335. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa1411131

2007       Ullman, Sarah E. “A 10-Year Update of ‘Review and Critique of Empirical Studies of Rape Avoidance.’” Criminal Justice and Behavior 34, 411-429. DOI: 10.1177/0093854806297117

Elemental: We are not your mother’s sexual assault self-protection program

When you think about sexual assault self-protection, what comes to mind? Elbow strikes? Knees to the groin? Padded suits? Instructors advising women to carry their keys defensively, to watch their drinks, and not to walk alone at night? Preparation to confront a faceless attacker who emerges from the shadows—or a windowless white van—just long enough to impose his will on an unsuspecting victim? Such approaches have been common for years, but they have limited utility.

Assaults by strangers are devastating and inspire great fear, but they are rare. The vast majority of sexual assaults are between people who know each other, and—at least on college campuses—they tend to happen on dates. Because people are less likely to use violence to defend themselves against those they care about, standard self defense approaches are limited in their effectiveness. Students are unlikely to use them, in part because there is a mismatch between their training and the realities that they encounter. Sexual assault encompasses a broader range of experiences and is more complicated than the stereotyped image of women confronting strange men who lurk in the shadows.

These challenges are best met through greater inclusivity and flexibility: Training must simulate a more inclusive set of scenarios—dating, long-term partnerships, friendships, and hookups. It must also be inclusive in terms of the population it serves, both because sexual assault is everyone’s concern, and because assault rates among gender and sexual minorities is high. It must teach a broad and flexible set of strategies and tactics that can be tailored to fit the situation, and include non-violent physical and verbal responses that demonstrate a tried-and-true record of effectiveness.

Our philosophy at Elemental is that violence is not the only option. Since 2011, we have built, tested, and refined an efficient training program that is consistent with this philosophy and makes a critical, evolutionary step forward in reducing sexual assault rates. We are a synthesis of some of the best risk-reduction and primary prevention strategies—a combination that has a demonstrated record of long-term effectiveness in our peer-reviewed research publications (see the citations below for a sample of our latest work). As noted in a recent New York Times article, such verified successes are extraordinarily rare. We may not yet have international recognition; we are relatively new and small, but our results are promising and we are growing. Moreover, our programming dovetails particularly well with the social norming and bystander intervention approaches that have become so popular on college campuses and that are doing the important work of shifting campus culture.

Where do we fit in? We are the micro-level last line of defense within culture as it stands today, with current beliefs and values, current gender norms, and current behavior. We are the private decisions, words, and actions taken when bystanders are not around, the communication between partners that helps us judge intent and find consent, and the means of promoting broader social change by shifting the way that face-to-face interactions unfold. We are a method of achieving safety when situations become surprising, chaotic, and awkward or dangerous. We are flexible, yet simple. We are inclusive.

We invite you to become acquainted with the path of our program through this blog, and to find inspiration to join this growing movement to make the world a little safer than we found it. In the near future, we’ll be exploring a wide variety of topics, including the importance of early intervention, the divisions between primary prevention and risk reduction strategies, victim blaming and responsibility for social change, the importance of considering gender and context in unraveling this problem, and related issues.

~The Directors

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2015       Menning, Chadwick and Mellisa Holtzman.  “Combining Primary Prevention and Risk Reduction Approaches in Sexual Assault Programming.” Journal of American College Health. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881 Online first at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881

2015       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick Menning.  “Integrating Experiential Learning and Applied Research to Promote Student Learning and Faculty Research.”  College Teaching 63: 112-118. DOI:  10.1080/87567555.2015.1019825  Online first at: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/XKib3DspBp9PhxKY2CM4/full

2014       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick L. Menning. “A New Model for Sexual Assault Protection: Creation and Initial Testing of Elemental.Journal of Applied Social Sciences DOI: 10.1177/1936724414536394.  Online first at: http://jax.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/06/11/1936724414536394