Empowerment Self Defence and Victim Blaming

Are empowering self-defence practices and victim blaming the same thing or is empowerment self defence yet another way to blame a victim?

Some say yes. Some in the violence prevention community greet the idea of empowerment self-defence (ESD) or any type of personal self-defence (i.e., Feminist Self Defence) as a means of victim blaming. They say ESD programs are akin to victim-blaming by placing the burden of change (i.e., prevention) onto the victim when it is the offender who should be expected to practise self-restraint and not attack. In addition, self-defence critics believe that self-defence frames the sexual (or any other) assault as a women’s or victim’s problem, that knowing how to fight does not teach one to how deal with effects of real-life violence like adrenaline flooding the body, nor does it stop one from freezing up in an assault. Therefore, they conclude, teaching physical self-defence through martial arts or ESD is not enough to protect oneself or prevent violence.

While they are not wrong that adrenaline and fear can affect the way a person responds to an attack (practitioners of empowerment self-defence take this into consideration and teach to it), in fact, research consistently shows that ESD, including IMPACT, Women’s Self Defence, Feminist Self Defence, Sister Courage, and many more, addresses the adrenaline loop and is quite an effective tool for preventing interpersonal violence. One study showed that ESD training not only provided women with the skills to avoid, interrupt, and resist sexual violence, but the women put those skills to use successfully and incidents of violence decline community-wide.

In these and other studies, there is no mention of women being responsible for the violence inflicted upon them. To the contrary. In one of the most cited works on the subject, Jocelyn Hollander states clearly that these findings that self-defence training helps prevent violence “should not be taken to imply that the burden for preventing sexual assault should lie with women. It is important to state clearly that just because women can defend themselves against violence, they are not responsible for preventing that violence.”

To address the critics, we decided to examine this question of victim blaming by looking at similarities (one) and differences (quite a few).

The one similarity we found is that both ESD and victim blaming assume that a person has agency to defend themself, but the victim-blaming approach shuts down opportunities to explore options to navigate out of unwanted situations, or if that opportunity is there, the person is not supported in discovering it nor engaging with it.

In ESD, identifying that the person has agency is just the starting point of the journey. ESD instruction supports the person through training, makes them a part of a community of learners and practitioners, and equips them with multiple tools they can use to protect themself and advocate for their safety. These strategic tools can be used internally (i.e., mindfulness) and externally (i.e., setting boundaries with others). Victim blaming and ESD assume that victims have agency, but ESD takes it as the starting point whereas victim blaming stops there.

Let us now look at the several differences.

The first difference deals with the dependency on the actual assault.

Empowerment self-defence exists independent of assault—you don’t need an assault in order to learn and practice ESD—whereas victim-blaming is dependent on the existence of an assault as there can be no victim without one.

The second is related to the responsibility for an assault.

At the core of victim blaming is the claim that the victim is responsible for an attack. For example, that she was attacked because she was behaving in a certain way, wore a particular dress, or was just guilty of being female. This places the burden of responsibility, shame, and helplessness on survivors which often has the effect of silencing them.

On the other hand, ESD teaches repeatedly that the assailant is responsible for the attack. According to Lynne Marie Wanamaker, ESD “elevates the agency of women and others at risk of victimisation through skills for identifying, avoiding, interrupting, responding to and mitigating the effects of sexual violence.”

The third difference has to do with the effects on a person.

Victim blaming often leads to depression, anxiety, low self-worth, and low self-respect. Empowerment self-defence brings a sense of confidence and control, reduces anxiety, and teaches smart decision making.

The fourth considers the place both approaches take when it comes to violence prevention.

As we know, the violence prevention field is a curious and complex beast. There are many kinds of violence across society’s racial, religious, financial, educational, and cultural domains, across geographies, and across levels of privilege. There are many obstacles on the road to prevention. Third, there are many prejudices and cognitive dissonances about violence—for example, how it is inherently human (it is not) and how nothing can be done to change it (it can).

In such a complex environment, one might forget that prevention is an interplay of different approaches and there is no single miracle cure. It is not one person, one institution, or one policy that will fix it, but many efforts across multiple disciplines that complement each other as they work toward the same violence-prevention goals.

The victim-blaming approach seems to ignore these complexities and over-simplifies by advocating that there can be only one actor who is responsible for preventing violence (the victim).

Empowerment self-defence takes into account the complexity of violence prevention. It teaches how violence often works in parallel and intersectional ways, acknowledging that attackers are sometimes strangers but more often are known to their victims. With this knowledge, we can interrupt violence in real time and prevent further violence using a variety of strategies.

Finally, the way victim blaming and ESD approach personal safety and burden of change are very different. The critics who claim that ESD is the same as victim blaming and who refuse to engage with it seem to advocate outsourcing personal safety decisions to others, and very specific others: assailants.

We agree entirely that perpetrators who commit acts of violence should know better and not commit these acts, however, we also know that assaults are still happening and it is very difficult to control the actions of others, especially others who seem not to care about your wellbeing.

Now, critics will say that practicing self-defense changes the focus from rapist to someone else. There are two issues here: first, that this is not the only outcome, as ESD also empowers the person who is learning to defend herself and second, that there are initiatives in the violence prevention universe, such as the evidence-based perpetrator programme Maranguka Model in Australia, that focus on the perpetrators. The Maranguka Model in Australia shows that changing perpetrators is possible and creates community change. We believe this work needs to continue. The project is community-led and generates deep collaboration; they see perpetrators as individuals capable of rationality and redemption and, like ESD practitioners, make victim protection their number one priority.

Remember, violence prevention is the goal, and it can only be achieved by working on it simultaneously from many angles.

This short inquiry into the issues shows that the the underlying assumptions of ESD are those of empowering and giving agency, whereas victim-blaming disempowers.

Victim blaming is an inherently disempowering practice, waving the idea of agency in front of a person without telling them how that agency can be put to good use. It is used to justify violence, oppression, and disparities.

Empowering self-defence in its many forms is inherently empowering as it allows a person to live life more fully, gain knowledge and tools for their personal-safety toolbox, and take control of whether and how they use these tools. ESD does not justify violence in any way, repeatedly teaching that it is unacceptable.

So, are empowerment self-defence and victim blaming the same thing? Is empowerment self-defence another way to blame a victim?

We believe not.

This month’s blog authored by Association members Dr. Jelena Nolan-Roll and Antonella Spatola.

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