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Actually, Miss USA is right: Self-defense can prevent sexual assaults

Nia Sanchez, Miss USA, says women should learn self defense to stay safe. Some people didn’t like that so much. (Greg Harbaugh/Miss Universe/EPA)
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In the days after Nia Sanchez of Nevada was crowned Miss USA, she was called everything from a misogynist to an idiot on social media. Did she suggest women shouldn’t have careers, or access to birth control? Did she suggest that walking in high heels while wearing a bikini should be the only measure of worth?

No. She simply urged women to take up self-defense.

Sanchez, a black belt in taekwondo, waded into fraught waters when she told judge Rumer Willis that teaching women self-defense could help reduce sexual assaults on college campuses.

Within hours, some anti-rape activists were blasting Sanchez — and self-defense — as victim-blaming and anti-feminist.

As instructors of self-defense for more than 25 years, we’ve heard this before, and we reject it. Our approach to self-defense is based on empowerment; we focus on expanding women’s choices in response to harassment, abuse and assault.

Of course we believe that only one person is responsible for any act of violation: the perpetrator. But we also believe in the power and agency of women. In a dangerous world — in the face of what the American Medical Association has called an “epidemic” of sexual violence — there are things all people can do to increase safety for ourselves and for one another.

This is why we believe the White House was wrong to omit self-defense from its prevention recommendations to college campuses. And why we think Miss USA was right to endorse it.

Empowerment self-defense teaches skills that are both concrete and flexible. These include interpersonal and environmental awareness, assertiveness, boundary-setting, physical strikes and community-building. These tools can help women ward off sexual predators and deal with harassment and bullying.

This matters because interpersonal violence frequently occurs as series of incidents of escalating intensity. If we can interrupt violence in its early stages, we can decrease the harm it causes.

Our students tell us that self-defense helps them stand up for themselves in all kinds of situations: from consumer conflicts to unwanted touching, from workplace bullying to pay negotiations, from street harassment to family friction. Students say they are better able to assess situations because they know more about the behaviors that may signal violence. Survivors of sexual violence often tell us that self-defense class affirmed that they were not to blame for what had happened to them, and that it increased their options for dealing with possible future attack.

And some of our students tell us they believe self-defense saved their lives. Like the young woman who learned a strike one morning and used it to defend herself against the former intimate partner who assaulted her that evening. The ability to smash her attacker’s face with her hand — and the confidence to do so — protected her in a way no bystander could have.

According to sociologist Jocelyn Hollander, self-defense “fills the gap” between the current state of affairs and the time when rapists stop raping. Further, Hollander says, “self-defense training challenges the implication that women are inherently vulnerable and in need of protection – from bystanders, law enforcement, universities, and the state.”

We would never tell women that they “should” take a self-defense class: Prescribing behavior is the very opposite of empowerment. The only thing we’d say women “should” do is feel free to move in both the public and private spheres without fear. In the absence of such freedom, we believe that women’s self-defense is a valuable — and increasingly proven — tool to prevent sexual assault.

Over the next two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Education Department  and the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women will be exploring “emerging, promising practices to prevent sexual assault on campus.” The CDC specifically will seek to advance the evidence base for what works to prevent sexual violence. Interventions that empower female students while holding perpetrators solely responsible — and that speak to the need for immediate action to interrupt assaults — should be given preference. Empowerment self-defense is such an intervention.

Lynne Marie Wanamaker and Lauren R. Taylor are self-defense instructors and anti-violence educators based in, respectively, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Taylor is also a member of the editorial page staff.