Much of our discussion of the overuse of prison has to do with the mammoth-scale incarceration of nonviolent offenders. The fiscal, moral, and efficiency-related arguments against a huge correctional system should not cloud the fact that, in fact, there are folks out there for whom there really is no solution beyond incapacitation. The percentages are much lower than we may be led to believe in legislation campaigns. Nevertheless, the fact that horrifying incidents are uncommon does not make them any less horrifying.
It is important to say these things, because otherwise everyone involved in debates about penology and corrections end up on both sides of a divide: pro-victim or pro-offender. This boundary is false for several reasons. Research consistently shows that victims and offenders are not mutually exclusive populations. On the individual level, as David Farrington finds, growing up in violent homes is a good predictor of later violent behavior; on the broader spatial level, crime often affects low-income neighborhoods. While overenforcement tends to disproportionately target minorities, and the poor, underenforcement (as Alexandra Natapoff argues in this law review piece) might harm and overlook the same populations.
Arguing against too much incarceration does not equal arguing that crime and violence are not real. They are real, and so is fear of crime. Where you stand on such matters is very much up to your personal conscience. I've come to believe that the best way to fight against violent victimization is to be prepared for it; and the best way to take care of actual and potential victims is to take real steps to ensure that they cease to be victims as fast as possible. Maybe, if victims know how to defend themselves better, there will be less victimization, and people who have been truly hurt by violent crime will not have to resort to punitive politics as a tool to cope with their horrifying experiences.
Impact Bay Area is a nonprofit organization that teaches self defense to women using a technique called "model mugging". Participants learn basic and useful techniques to defend themselves in a myriad of possible situations and do many practice fights against padded instructors who simulate muggers and rapists. The fights are done in an adrenalized state and feel truly real and terrifying. When (not if) you prevail, you feel incredibly empowered. Since fighting is one's last resort, the course also teaches one to effectively set boundaries against assailants, to use one's voice and body language effectively, and, if these important measures fail, to effectively fend off attackers. Even in situations that seemed hopeless to me, it turns out there are many things one can do to continue fighting.
On a feminist level, self defense is incredibly empowering. Rather than theorizing patriarchy and male domination, self-defense transforms the classic perspective on the body (as an object of domination) to a tool of strength and wisdom in dangerous situations (if you're into this sort of discussion, check out this fabulous piece by Martha McCaughey).
I have yet to fully process the journey I went through this weekend. I was placed in terrifying situations, in which our mock assailants did a terrific job pinning me to the ground, grabbing me by the hair, insulting me using vile words, and creating situations that I would consider hopeless before this weekend. In all these situations, I fought back and prevailed. It was fantastic, and thought-provoking, and exhilarating.
I've learned that several places teach effective self-defense techniques. Girl Army is another option in the Bay Area, and a short search on the internet should help you find something helpful in your area. This course should be on the curriculum of every high school or college in the world. Until that happens, educate yourself and learn what to do to protect yourself. You are worth fighting for. Go kick some ass.