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“Rape Culture” and Empowerment Self-Defense

09.15.17 by Amy Jones

In August, I had the honor of participating in a week-long strategy discussion concerning the development of the field of Empowerment Self-Defense. One of my contributions was to talk about rape culture – what it is, and how Empowerment Self-Defense works to change it. This is an adaptation of those remarks.

Rape culture refers to the ways that sexual violence is normalized and trivialized in our culture – from scantily-clad backup dancers to rape jokes. A recent, infamous example is the recording of then-candidate Trump’s comments to Billy Bush that was released in 2016.

I don’t personally love the term ‘rape culture’, because I think when people first hear it, they think about a culture of rapists, and it’s more subtle than that. Rape culture is insidious because it is largely invisible – it’s like the old saying, “A fish doesn’t know what water is.”

Empowerment self-defense recognizes a rape joke as a form of violence. It’s not overt physical violence, and it doesn’t warrant an overt physical response, but nonetheless it is something that causes harm, and can be defended against. And ESD teaches that small forms of violence can build into overt physical violence, so those small forms can function as an early warning system. Physical and sexual violence doesn’t erupt out of nowhere; even strangers will go through a testing process before aggressing on a victim. And of course we know that the vast majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the victim – which would be terrifying if it meant that one day someone can be perfectly normal and the next day they’re a rapist.

Fortunately that’s not how it works. Empowerment self-defense teaches people to notice and respond to small forms of violence – rape jokes, for example, or seemingly minor boundary violations. Someone who texts me 300 times a day may just be overly enthusiastic and clueless, but if I tell them to stop and they don’t, I now know that they’re not very good at respecting limits that someone sets for them. Someone who tells a rape joke may just be going for shock value and the cheap laugh, but if I tell them it makes me uncomfortable and they react with defensiveness or dismissal, I know that they care more about their own agenda than respecting my wishes – and that therefore they’re not a safe person for me to spend time with.

And the really powerful aspect of empowerment self-defense is that it teaches people to attend to the meta-conversations – to notice when someone is trying to manipulate them rather than just responding to the manipulation; to notice who is in charge of the energy in an interaction, and to take charge of that energy as a way of increasing their safety.

And yes, sometimes it doesn’t work. Nothing works 100% of the time. So ESD also teaches easy ways to hurt people who are bigger and stronger than you enough for you to get away from them.

One of the realities that ESD contends with is that, because so many assaults come from known attackers, defenders can be unwilling to use physical defense because they aren’t willing to hurt their attacker. So ESD reminds them that strategic compliance is a valid option, and nothing that they do or don’t do makes it their fault that someone else chose to attack them. Increasing options and increasing choices also increases resilience. Maybe the most important thing empowerment self-defense does is to teach that no matter what happens, we have choices in how we respond.

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