The issue of sexual assault on college campuses came up on Sunday night’s Miss USA pageant. When Nia Sanchez, who ultimately won the contest, was asked about the problem in the interview portion of the program, she said, “More awareness [of the issue] is very important so that women can learn to protect themselves,” and then brought up her black belt in taekwondo to say, “You need to be confident and be able to defend yourself.”
The implication, though Sanchez likely didn’t intend it this way, is that women who do suffer rape are not confident and are insufficiently interested in their own safety. Like Rebecca Rose at Jezebel said, “Why the hell should I have to become Bruce Lee just because I want to get an advanced degree?”
Teaching women that self-defense is the key to avoiding rape has many drawbacks, not the least being that it is no guarantee against an attacker who likely has a size advantage and the element of surprise on his side. Also, most rapists don’t use violent force and instead prey on women who are too drunk to fight back, black belt or not. Most disturbingly, the focus on self-defense allows some to argue that a rape doesn’t count as a rape unless the woman attempted to use violence in self-defense.
Take, for instance, George Will’s obnoxious Washington Post column from Saturday, where he openly accuses women of wanting the “coveted status” of “victimhood” because it “confers privileges.” In order to get the great honor of having everyone think you’re a rape victim, he argues, women are rounding up nonrape to rape. One of his examples is described in this Philadelphia Magazine piece:
They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. “I basically said, ‘No, I don’t want to have sex with you.’ And then he said, ‘OK, that’s fine’ and stopped. … And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.”
Will does not believe this could be sexual assault, presumably because the woman in the story did not back her refusal to have sex with a kick to her alleged assailant’s groin. But there are plenty of good reasons women have for not responding with violence. Some freeze up. Some are afraid the rapist will become violent, or more violent, if they resist. It really shouldn’t matter. What makes a rape a rape is not what the victim does, but what the rapist does. It’s telling that Will is more outraged at women self-identifying as victims than he is at a man hearing a woman say “no” and having sex with her anyway.
In a society where women are urged to take on the responsibility for stopping rape through self-defense, it becomes incredibly easy to start to see rape not as a matter of the rapist’s choices, but of the victim’s. Which, in turn, becomes an excuse to let rapists off the hook, as Will is doing here. It also discourages reporting because victims understandably don’t want to be told they didn’t do enough to stop what happened to them. Taekwondo is fun and a good way to stay physically fit. It is not, however, a workable solution to quell the problem of campus rape.