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



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