Sexism, self defense, blame and responsibility

Recently an article on ‘Staying safe I Paris’ I wrote for a magazine was criticized on facebook. You can find the original and comments here.

The criticism varied, some parts more interesting that other parts.

For example  “I’m sorry, but this is bullshit…” could have been a bit more specific – even if it ran counter to the ‘this is just obvious big city living’ which acknowledged some value in the article.

The thing is what is obvious to some, is not obvious to others. The ones to whom it is not obvious are at greatest risk.

Thomas wrote:

“this is sexist, and not good for women. Women can dress like they want, and it is NEVER their fault if they get agressed*. It’s the fault of the agressor. Women also do not necessarily “dress to attract”, maybe they dress just because they feel like it.. Just saying and stating the obvious from a feminist perspective.”

This is something that I believe does need addressing. The first part is personal, the second part is more important.

It assumes that I blame women if they are attacked. I do not. I believe who have been victimized need to get beyond both self blame, and any blame pushed on them by their aggressor. I believe the only thing that can justify violence is physical danger to the self or dependent others.

In theory I agree that everyone should be able to wear whatever they like, whether that is formal clothes, or naked, whether it is to feel comfy, for aesthetic reasons, to show off or blend in. Legally in most countries public nudity is not accepted.

I also want to be clear. I believe violence against women is not a women’s problem, it is a male problem and a cultural problem.

It is men who perpetrate the vast majority of violence against women. As a man it is my role to say that it is not acceptable to other men and be part of a culture that does not tolerate it.

I dislike all kinds of non consensual violence, whatever the gender of the people involved. It need not be physical violence, threat, intimidation, and other attempts at emotional control are horrible to me. Violence is a very poor solution to most problems, and leaves in it’s wake many undesirable consequences.

A little aside: I consider martial arts to include but not be limited to ‘recreational violence between consenting adults’, and I like martial arts. I hope that through my classes I contribute to a culture where there is more respect and safety for people to express themselves freely.

So ideally we can wear what we want, no problem.

That’s the first part. Here is the important part.

Paris is not an ideal culture or society.

If you think that it is, you may be living in a different city to me. Compared to London, where I grew up, there is far less diversity of dress and style, partly because of social pressure that borders on intimidation.

Generally I think that most men in most circumstances treat women with respect. However there will probably always be a percentage of men and contexts in which that will not be the case. Sexism is probably inherent in all cultures. It is worth celebrating that in most Western culture it is questioned and not condoned, though it still exists.

‘Rights’ are only universal by definition if they exist in the mind of everyone. The right of a woman to control her own body is not universal, yet. It gets forgotten, if it was ever learned by some people.

Let me offer a thought experiment. It is so ridiculous as to be laughable, please consider the sense of the ridiculous an attempt to make a painful subject more bearable.

You are in a Taliban controlled part of Afghanistan with a female friend. She says she wants to go down to the local market in a bikini/short skirt and sun hat (hey it’s hot out there).

Would you say ‘Go girl! You have every right to do that! I’m right behind you.’

Would it be sexist to say ‘It might be safer to cover up’?

As I said, it is a ridiculous, horrible and extreme example.

Sadly the forces that make the bikini in a Taliban market risky also exist here in Paris, though happily they do not run the show.

It is not a question of whether you have the ‘right’ it is a question of risk and consequence.

Now if you want to call me sexist this is your chance.

You see I have these views about men…

Many men want sex, and status in a hierarchy.

Some men will use violence to achieve both of these.

The fewer the perceived consequences, the more likely they will be to use violence. Isolation, or a peer group that condones violence reduce the perceived consequences.

Perceived vulnerability of a potential victim is another factor.

Other factors that multiply risk include the age of the men involved. Groups of young men are just generally more dangerous. They have just the right mix of hormones, and desire to fit in and desire prove things to each other as well as themselves.

Alcohol and some other drugs also multiply risks – under the influence people forget the possible consequences. Sociopaths just don’t care about consequences, and this makes them more dangerous if they decide to do you harm.

Please excuse me if all of this is as obvious to you as it is to me.

And beyond sexist, I am going be speciesist.

We cannot, and should not reduce humans to be entirely animals, but we must not forget that however worthy the aspirations of some humans, we all still live in primate bodies, susceptible to urges and instincts, some dangerous.

Of course we can learn to deal with dangerous animals.

There are people who swim with great white sharks, who hang out with grizzly bears, who free handle venomous snakes, become accepted into wolf packs.

Some of these people do it for years, no problem.

They manage this through skilled observation of body language and other cues, where someone less experienced would not survive (Also some of these species have reputations that are worse than what they deserve).

Still, sometimes even the skilled cross species adventurers get bitten, some survive, some learn and go back. Others die.

None of them blame the animals since they walked/swam into the situation willingly.

We have power. We affect people around us.

When Thomas said my article was sexist it pissed me off. I do not like sexism, I don’t want to be called sexist. Thomas you affected me, you exercised power!

In my personal and cultural code sexism is not desirable. Sexism has a meaning. I hope that the power that Thomas exercised results in something positive.

Our appearance also has a meaning, and it is constantly being assessed and interpreted according to the codes and filters of the people around us – attractive, friendly, dangerous, interesting, similar, different, useful, mood, available…

The meaning received is not necessarily the same as the meaning intended. The more different the culture and codes of the people around us, the greater the risk of mis-communication. This city is multicultural.

The way we dress is part of how we communicate. We can be attacked because we look different, because our appearance gives a ‘hook’ an excuse, a justification. Unwanted attention from men, including aggression is not limited to the narrow cultural definitions of beauty or sexiness.

Some people need very little justification, the wrong table, the wrong voice tone, the wrong eye contact, accidental physical contact – can you recognize this kind of person? Please learn to.

Look at this kind of person the wrong way and they will feel compelled to hurt you.

The violence was there waiting to happen, the victim did not cause it, simply became the focus of it.

If the victim had not been there, had walked away, had acted differently it may have been avoided. Are they to blame? No. Did they play apart in the situation? Yes.

If you deny that certain people represent a danger, and that certain behaviours exacerbate the danger then I believe that you encourage irresponsible and dangerous behaviour.

Getting personal. I have an adolescent daughter, do I believe she is amazing? Yes.

Do I believe she should be able to take her life wherever she wants it (within certain ethical guidelines)? Yes!

Do I tell her she can wear whatever she wants wherever she wants? No! I teach her about context and risk.

If bad stuff happens to her will I blame her? No. My job is to love her and help her learn.

It’s up to individuals to assess and learn to manage the risks. The first step is to realize that there are risks.

A bad situation may not turn out terrible, and it is possible to survive, recover, learn and develop positively even from terrible situations.

That does not mean we should seek them out, or wander into them blindly.

Adam’s comment interests me – and I consider his advice sound.

“Well besides work that has shown that self-defense classes have practically no effect in helping those in dangerous situations,staying safe in Paris requires skills that you learn in any city. Don’t count cash at the ATM. Don’t walk alone in a park at night. Don’t drink a lot and walk down an alleyway alone. Rules we all break but most of us get away with most of the time. How to stay the safest? Travel in groups and when accosted, give them your wallet and file a police report.”

I’m curious about the work you mention. I’d just like to know more. How long were the courses, who were they for, and taught by, and does it include the dangerous situations that were avoided rather than entered into? If you can send me a link to the study I’d appreciate it.

I certainly know that many people’s idea of self defense classes is ‘Asian martial art based technique’ with an emphasis on ‘kicking ass and taking names’. People don’t want to feel insecure, and cartoon kungfu promises invincibility.

Of course invincibilty does not exist. The best chance at real safety comes from acknowledging insecurity.

What I teach includes physical, but is really about avoiding trouble and getting home. I cannot claim any statistics on the survival of my students in dangerous situations. What I can claim is that on leaving they feel glad that they came, because:

  • Their eyes were opened to things that they had not noticed before
  • They learned a little more about how their bodies react under stress
  • They got to laugh as well be stressed
  • Some students get to reintegrate difficult experiences that bother them

I think that my main responsibility as self defense teacher is simply not to make things worse. Not to teach unworkable techniques, not to blunt natural instincts, not to encourage a sense of justification in the use of violence. Not a very grand goal I admit, but the foundation for everything else, which has the dream of making Paris a little safer, for everyone.

Perhaps I should leave this well alone, but today I saw a sexily shot youtube clip that is a catalogue of things that annoy me about martial arts. It is essentially an adolescent fantasy, and I guess is probably advertising for adolescents who want to be heroes and get the girl. I might make a list of how it is dumb as an example of real self defense. I’ll just say ‘why didn’t he start by calling the police?’

You won’t learn this with me!

To finish with some free long, happy life suggestions.

  • Look after your body, eat well, get strong (very few reasons not to be able to squat or at least deadlift your body weight, regardless of age)
  • Know how to be polite to various cultures, even if you choose not to be sometimes
  • Be aware of what’s happening around you, if you don’t you miss your life
  • Be aware of what’s happening inside you, if you don’t want to be a slave to your past
  • Don’t be paranoid, don’t deny bad things happen, be grateful for the good things
  • Be kind to animals, including the human ones

They may be obvious, do you follow them?

* aggression is spelled with a double g. Same for passive aggression 😉