Response to the White House Task Force on Campus Assault

Us-whitehouse-logoThis year I’ve been working with colleagues in the violence prevention field to publicize the efficacy of self defense instruction in reducing sexual assault. This research bibliography was part of that effort–it was sent in support of a letter we wrote to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

That Task Force made its recommendations recently, and sadly, they completely ignore self defense instruction as a part of the solution to sexual assault. This is disheartening. Policies that don’t include self defense instruction will make our attempts to reduce assault less effective, creating more victims (and wasting taxpayer money).

Fortunately, there is a long road from the Task Force’s recommendations to actual policy. Moving forward, I’m delighted to see many experts weighing in to criticize the Task Force’s outdated approach. Here are some of the best responses I’ve seen so far—I’ve included excerpts below, but each piece is well worth reading in full:

Open Letter to Vice President Biden and the White House Task Force
Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, self-defense researchers and co-editors of the recent issue of Violence Against Women focused on self-defense:

We applaud the Task Force for underscoring the seriousness and prevalence of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, for highlighting the need for better data on the incidence rates, and for requiring colleges and universities to act.  However, it’s striking that the only people who can act, it seems, are men.  Men can stop raping. Men can serve as “bystanders” and stop their friends from raping.  And (mainly male) university administrators can implement programs to reach men, and to better serve the (mainly female) victims that men have raped.

College should offer women self defense training
Op-Ed by Jocelyn Hollander, associate professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Oregon:

Here is the problem: What is a woman to do when her friend, acquaintance, date or partner begins to assault her? Is she to sit and wait for a bystander to intervene, or for data to be collected? Or is there something she can do in that moment, or perhaps even earlier, to prevent the assault?

Falling Short: The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault
Martha Thompson, Professor Emeritus, Northeastern Illinois University:

The message of the White House Task Force that women should focus their attention on awareness of risks and avoiding danger because only men can stop another man from rape and sexual assault is an obsolete message. I was hoping for a contemporary evidence-based message that self-defense training is an important component of any plan to protect students from sexual assault.

Helping Women Overcome “The Self Defense Paradox” (Written prior to the Task Force report, but addressing the specific logical conflict they have attempted to avoid addressing.) By anti-violence educator Lynne Marie Wanamaker:

Far too many self defense classes reinforce the myth of stranger-danger and shade into victim-blaming, as if women’s behavior was the determinant factor in whether or not one was subject to sexual assault.

But in a world where as many as one in five women will be sexually assaulted, it is prudent and effective for us to build skills that promote our own safety. Until rapists stop raping, prevention education that empowers women to identify, interrupt and respond to sexual assault will be an essential part of the equation.

UPDATE: I’ve been asked to include a few more links here, so that this post can function as a sort of central collecting point for responses. Four more excellent commentaries on this issue by Drs. Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey can be found at See Jane Fight Back:

Lauren R. Taylor and Lynne Marie Wanamaker collaborated on this piece for Everyday Feminism: How to Exercise Our Right to Defend Ourselves without Victim-Blaming.

Beauty Bites Beast author Ellen Snortland has a piece in Pasadena Weekly on the long history of media backlash against women’s self defense: Fighting for Attention.

And finally, there is also my piece for the Hairpin, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear.