I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a brilliant professor, Kathleen Tarr, about the need for women to develop a capacity for violence in a violent world. We had independently reach this conclusion based on personal experience and decades of intersectional gender justice work. This article explores the controversial premise that women need to be more violent.
The #MeToo Movement revealed to some people what many of us already knew: that women live in a violent world. Women face sexual violence in the workplace, on the streets, in most public spaces, and at home. This violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. Women experience a spectrum of sexual violence that shapes our everyday lives in fundamental ways.
On the far end of the spectrum, one-in-three women in the U.S. will experience domestic violence, and women of color experience it more than white women. One-in-five women experience sexual assault, about 90% of which is perpetrated by people they know, with Native American women facing the highest rates. In 2015, 3,519 women were killed in the U.S., most by an intimate partner.
I'm not suggesting that women are to blame for violence against them if they don’t fight back, or glorifying the violence that is rampant in our culture. Instead, I focus on women’s precarious place in a violent world and urge every girl/woman to cultivate the capacity for violence against both strangers and people she knows.
When it comes to stranger violence, women typically override their instinct to fight back due to social conditioning. Gavin de Becker penned a national bestseller back in 1998 called The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence that presents evidence that many humans ignore precursors to violence because of polite socialization. He urges women to learn to trust their “gut instinct” that something is not right if it doesn’t feel right. In situations of discomfort, the most effective way to avoid violence is to respond with verbal and physical aggressiveness.
Girls and women are particularly susceptible to ignoring our “gift of fear” because we are socialized to be pleasing. This gendered expectation is reinforced through subtle social policing, for example, being told to “smile,” a simple action that reminds us that we exist to please others. Contrary to the (rare) “stranger jumping out of the bushes” scenario, predatory strangers often use unwanted flirtation to establish a connection with potential victims, which plays into established gender expectations of men validating women’s bodies and women seeking that validation. In short, the ways we raise girls and boys makes it difficult for women to be “rude” when we need to be for self-protection.
Gendered socialization against being rude is so powerful that, despite years of martial arts training, I ignored my “gift of fear” when a stranger attacked me in broad daylight at an ATM my first year of graduate school. I saw him come up behind me and felt him get too close, and in the two seconds I debated being rude, he slammed my head against the metal money dispenser, giving me a concussion. Then, he was so confident in my female passivity that he took the time to scoop up the contents of my wallet that had scattered on the sidewalk. Dazed from the blow, it took me a few seconds to get my bearings before I jumped on his back and proceeded to break his nose with rapid punches. He then choked me with the strap of my book bag and ran, but I followed on foot and chased him to an alley where a plainclothes police officer apprehended him. Had I listened to my “gift of fear,” I could have interrupted the attack before it started. And had he expected me (and most women) to be violent, he would have thought twice about attacking me in the first place, and certainly would not have taken the time to scoop up my credit cards.
So ingrained is the expectation of female passivity and gendered ideas of who gets to be violent that, as I recounted the attack in a courtroom, the jurors grew concerned that I was the aggressor. Despite multiple eye witness accounts, the jury requested additional video footage of the incident to confirm that he jumped me, and not the other way around. In other words, we don’t expect women to fight back, and when they do, we hold it against them as though they have done something wrong.
When it comes to violence from people we know, women face other mental barriers to fighting back. It is hard to imagine kicking or punching a spouse, parent, clergy, teacher, or friend because we like or love these people. It is further complicated by the fact that women have been socialized to take care of the men in our lives; to make sacrifices for them. To hurt them, even if they are hurting us, runs counter to core gender expectations in relationships. Abusers know this and they use it against us.
Some people think that women have few options in the face of violence, or that we are better off if we remain passive. Neither is true. Colette Dowling has written extensively about the female frailty myth, using data and science to debunk the idea that women are vulnerable and men are invulnerable. As any trained fighter can attest, all bodies can inflict pain and all bodies are vulnerable to pain. And it pays off to fight back.
At a micro-level, fighting back may bring an end to an attack. Researcher Sharon Marcus finds that women can reduce their chances of a completed rape by interrupting the rape script that casts men as physically dominant and women as passive. The rape script can be interrupted verbally or physically by making noise or fighting back, and doing so doesnot increase the level of violence from the perpetrator. In other words, fighting back does not cause the attacker to be more violent, but it might stop the attack.
The first step for women who want to develop a capacity for violence is to recognize that we live in a world with high rates of violence against us. The second step is to truly believe that we do not deserve this violence, ever.
On a macro-level, if most women embraced their human capacity for violence, this would reduce overall rates of violence from strangers, “friends,” and family members. If men lived in a world where most women had developed their capacity for violence, men would think twice before attacking for fear of being physically harmed in return.
I was forced to develop a capacity for violence early in life because I grew up in a violent home. At 14, I took up the Korean martial art of Taekwondo so I could protect myself from frequent blows, but I had to hide my training from my father, a religious man who frowned upon girls engaging in masculine activities. When I secretly enrolled in a Taekwondo class, I expected a magic bullet of sorts – physical skills that could take down any attacker, no matter their size. Instead, I gained an understanding of what bodies can endure. I learned to how take a hit, to override my fight/flight/freeze response, to keep a cool head in situations of threat, and to spot threats. Martial arts training is not necessary for developing a capacity for violence, but it’s a nifty shortcut on that path.
I remember the first time my brother attacked me after I had embraced my violence. I was lying on the concrete sidewalk in the front of our house, and he jumped on top of me and choked me because I had said something that annoyed him. I was able to throw him off, spring up, and land a hard kick to his side. I could see the look in his eyes, that I was no longer easy prey. He never attacked me again, although I was ready for him if he did. (My brother was also a victim of childhood violence, and is now a peacemaker and one of my best friends.)
The first step for women who want to develop a capacity for violence is to recognize that we live in a world with high rates of violence against us. The second step is to truly believe that we donotdeserve this violence, ever. The third step is to recognize that fighting back is a more effective form of self-protection than passivity. The fourth step is to recognize the mental barriers that prevent us from fighting back against strangers and people we know. The fifth step is to develop the mental confidence to respond to violence with violence, whether through martial arts training or sheer will.
Women everywhere developing a capacity for violence does not mean we can prevent all violence, or that we can always effectively defend against it. But it does mean that we are better prepared for it when it comes. Ultimately, we strive for a world with no violence, but in the meantime, we’ll practice our head kicks until we are no longer punching bags for the patriarchy.
Dr. Caroline Heldman