Recently the Guardian published a column by feminist author Jessica Valenti with the brow-furrowing title, “We need to stop rapists, not change who gets raped.” In it, Valenti critiques a New England Journal of Medicine article by professor Charlene Senn, who conducted a randomized control trial assessing the impact of a 12-hour empowerment self-defense program on female students at three Canadian universities. Compared to a control group, women who completed Senn’s training experienced a staggering 46% reduction in completed rape and a 63% reduction in attempted sexual assault.
That is not a typo: These classes cut the rate of rape and assault in half.
As the New York Times coverage of the study noted, other researchers in the field are lauding Senn’s work as "an important, rigorous study that shows that resistance and self-defense training needs to be part of college sexual assault prevention.” The Times article also mentions that some stakeholders “took issue with the philosophy underlying the program’s focus.” Who takes issue with a program that cuts assault in half, you ask? The federal government, as it turns out. The two researchers quoted in the article casting doubt on the value of Senn’s findings are both employed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), whose sexual assault prevention budget in 2014 was close to $50 million.
I suspect Valenti wrote her column after reading only the Times coverage, and not the original NEJM article, because she initially confused a key quote in the story. Valenti wrote,
As lead researcher Charlene Y Senn of the University of Windsor told the New York Times, as a sole solution this program “places the onus for prevention on potential victims, possibly obscuring the responsibility of perpetrators and others”.
The New York Times article makes it quite clear that this quote is actually from a response to Senn’s study, written by the CDC’s Kathleen Basile (I emailed the Guardian‘s Reader’s Editor to point out the error, and it was eventually corrected). The quote’s source is important for reasons that go beyond accuracy alone: The CDC, with its gigantic budget, has a history of obstructing funding for the kind of training Senn studies (recall that this new research was funded and conducted in Canada, not the U.S.). The CDC has long marginalized empowerment self-defense by questioning its efficacy and disparaging it as “victim-blaming.” As Senn’s data make clear, the efficacy issue is no longer in doubt, and, as the Times’ coverage of the new study stressed, prior victims of sexual assault who undergo this kind of training typically find that it reduces trauma. Yet the CDC spokeswomen persist in trying to undermine self-defense as a viable tool for addressing sexual assault. And Valenti, in her column, is providing cover for their efforts.
I would have hoped Valenti, as a feminist who writes extensively about rape culture, would have some awareness of the historical tension between the CDC and rape prevention researchers. At the very least I’d hope she wouldn’t confuse voices from opposites sides of the debate. It’s very disappointing when a critic won’t even take the trouble to thoroughly read an important article about a two-year-long study, by respected researchers, in the nation’s leading medical journal, before poo-pooing it. And as a feminist, I find it mildly embarrassing when someone touted as a leader of our movement fails to show basic respect for the women doing this work (earning PhDs, developing curricula, teaching, securing grant funding, conducting detailed and painstaking research—would it sound more exciting to third-wave feminists if we called it “leaning in”?). Valenti waves all of that expertise aside to ask breathlessly, “What if rape reduction programs are actually just redirecting assault?”
This purely hypothetical question implies that teaching women to set boundaries and use their own power (that’s what the program in Senn’s study—called Assess, Acknowledge, Act—does) is “dangerous,” because rapists will just go find other women who haven’t had the training. As Jill Cermele, a psychology professor and self-defense instructor, puts it, “There is no data to support the claim that women using self-defense to thwart an attack puts other women at risk; moreover, perpetuating that myth is to suggest a new twist on victim blaming: that other women are now responsible for rapists’ behavior.”
Why does Valenti think that women who defend themselves are victimizing other women? She credits the idea in part to Jaclyn Friedman, a “writer, performer, and activist” (according to her website) who told Valenti, “Rapes are perpetrated by a tiny percentage of men who know what they’re doing and who rape again and again—they’re just going to find another target.” Presumably Friedman is referring to research showing that a disproportionate number of sexual assaults are committed by a small percentage of male offenders. Friedman interprets that finding to mean that rapists, if thwarted by an intended victim, will then immediately target another victim.
There’s no evidence that this is true. On the contrary, what the research shows is that serial rapists will target additional women after they have successfully raped others. That being the case, how can it make the situation any worse if some women thwart some attacks?
Yet Valenti privileges the conjectures of Friedman, who has an MFA in creative writing, over the findings of Senn, a Professor of Applied Social Psychology and Women’s Studies who has spent a decade combining theory and empirical work to build sexual assault resistance education programs. Well, people believe what they want to believe. Maybe Valenti has doubts about climate change too. But while valuing Friedman’s bad blend of scholarship and melodrama over Senn’s years of peer-reviewed research may make for a snappier Guardian column, it perpetuates a deeply dysfunctional cultural attitude toward sexual assault.
Arguments like Valenti’s and Friedman’s have helped the CDC insist for years that self-defense training isn’t “primary” prevention and thus is ineligible for the bulk of federal rape-reduction funding. Just last year, the CDC’s Sue DeGue told the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault that there are very few proven methods of preventing sexual assault—and self-defense training wasn’t one of them. That in turn may explain why the task force went on to make recommendations that completely ignored programs like Senn’s. In other words, the CDC purposefully led the task force to ignore the single most effective method we have so far for reducing rape and sexual assault.
Your tax dollars at work, folks.
Valenti’s column gnaws another tired old bone the CDC has been worrying for years: She argues that instead of focusing rape prevention efforts on empowerment-based self-defense, we should prefer programs like Green Dot, a bystander intervention curriculum that has reported results similar to Senn’s in some Kentucky high schools. What Valenti doesn’t mention (and may not even realize, since she doesn’t seem to read research studies too deeply before choosing her favorites) is that the results in the Kentucky study are based on self-reported incidents of victimization and perpetration. In other words, the Green Dot study asked students to self-report how often they were victimizing other students. Since that number went down after Green Dot training, the study’s authors claim to have reduced the rate of victimization. But there’s a big difference between fewer men reporting perpetration and fewer women reporting assault.
Katy Mattingly, a violence prevention educator at the University of Michigan, sums up the problem with the Kentucky data this way: “Not to be a wet blanket, but what if Green Dot just teaches perpetrators not to admit it anymore?”
There are some good bystander intervention programs out there, and the research base on them is growing, slowly (“Your Moment of Truth,” a boys’ intervention in Kenya, taught in conjunction with an empowerment self-defense program for girls, is generating good data). Such programs will definitely be part of the solution to sexual assault. Which makes it all the more irritating when Valenti writes about bystander intervention as if she’s introducing the concept to self-defense advocates. In fact, bystander intervention training has its roots in feminist self-defense training. If Valenti had taken the trouble to look at Charlene Senn’s web page at the University of Windsor, she would have seen that Senn is the co-founder of the school’s Bystander Initiative, which embeds bystander intervention training into the college academic curriculum.
Senn understands both bystander intervention and self-defense, and I have no doubt she understands them far better than Valenti. She’s spent ten years working on her curricula and studying their effects. Her latest study has found the self-defense curriculum to be very efficacious. And yet Jessica Valenti, who from what I can tell has exactly zero years’ experience as a research scientist, and has never, to my knowledge, taught a self-defense class, presumes to tell us that Senn should focus on the other approach. Because “what if” the effective approach “just redirects rape?” And because teaching women to understand and use their own power is somehow “dangerous.”
Valenti’s preference for bystander intervention, with its much scantier research base, over self-defense, mimics that of the CDC, whose reports reflexively offer bystander intervention as the preferred approach to ending sexual assault. Lynne Marie Wanamaker, another long-time self-defense instructor, sees hypocrisy and latent sexism underlying this institutional fixation on bystander programs: “The premise behind bystander intervention is that individual encounters with a bystander who interrupts an incident of potential perpetration will eventually have the effect of changing social norms. So why is it inconceivable that individual interactions with potential victims who interrupt their own victimization couldn’t have an equal effect on social norms? In fact we have reason to believe that the latter would have more impact, because it undermines social expectations of female passivity.”
“Undermining social expectations of female passivity” sounds a lot like “cultural change” to me. But not to Valenti. She refers dismissively—and inaccurately—to the training Senn studied as “small, short-term solutions that work for some women,” though she magnanimously acknowledges that such efforts “are terrific and I hope we fund a lot of them. But,” she continues, “what we need more are lasting solutions for all of us—solutions that don’t just change statistics, but the culture.”
Of course, the “statistics” Valenti refers to so dismissively here are real, live women, who avoided being raped and assaulted. I’m not sure why she thinks “culture” is more important than their lives, or why not being assaulted isn’t a lasting solution to, you know, not being assaulted. Nor am I at all clear on what Valenti thinks cultural change is, or how it happens. If she were to actually look into what is taught in Senn’s classes, or similar ones, she might have a better grasp of the process. As Wanamaker puts it, “Practitioners, researchers, and participants understand self-defense is a broad based intervention with both individual and cultural impact.” Valenti doesn’t understand this—yet she’s presuming to guide policy.
All of which casts a lot of doubt on the sincerity of Valenti’s “hope” that programs like Senn’s will be funded, by someone, magically—even though the CDC has systematically denied funding for them by raising exactly the same bogus objections Valenti spouts in her column. If Valenti really thinks these programs deserve funding, maybe she should put her money where her mouth is, and fund some.
Valenti is a frequent speaker on college campuses (one of her “most popular college presentations,” according to her website, is titled, “Yes Means Yes: Battling Rape Culture and Moving Towards a Positive Sexuality”). I understand her typical speaking fee is around $12,500, and that she requires first-class travel accommodations. Many of the women I know who teach empowerment self-defense charge on a sliding scale, because they want to bring this training to as many women as possible. A lot of instructors, like me, volunteer our services to local non-profits. A quick poll of instructors around the country indicates that most programs could teach about 200 women for $12,500. So, I’d like to issue an invitation to Ms. Valenti: Call up some of these women. Sponsor some classes. As you travel around the country collecting speaking fees for telling young men and women how important it is to end rape culture, help the real workers of the sexual assault prevention movement give those young people the tools to reduce rape and assault on their own campuses, in their own lives, immediately.
Or better yet, Ms. Valenti, take a class yourself. Before you share more of your vague worries that an empowerment self-defense class might cause victims to feel bad, take one of those classes. See for yourself exactly how the instructors support and empower survivors. Before you repeat your claim that these classes don’t “change the culture,” take one, and see if the world doesn’t look a little different to you afterwards.
As I said, most of these hard-working teachers charge on a sliding scale. I’m sure they can accommodate your budget. They’ll even come to you, if you ask. And they fly coach.