Sunday, December 6, 2009

Violence, Victimization, Self Defense

I have just returned from an exhilarating, terrifying, moving, transformative weekend, learning self defense at Impact Bay Area. It was an intense experience that made me think about victimization and punitiveness, and about the difference between laying blame and taking responsibility.

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.


Anonymous said...

Very cool Hadar. I'll recommend the course to my GF. She's mentioned taking a bit of martial arts once or twice, and it sounds like this course is more geared toward her specific goals on defense. -Colin

Hadar Aviram said...

Hi, Colin! Yes, the beauty of this thing is its immediate applicability to realistic situations. Martial arts are admirable pursuits, but this is an essential, necessary skill.

Unknown said...

I found this post very inspiring and touching. I would warn, though, of the limits of self defense. While it is important to learn to defend yourself, and even more important that this couse teaches you to avoid getting into the situation, an important point is that you could always get hurt in a fight, you can easily come across an assailant - especially one who is regularly violent - who is bigger, stronger, and better trained than you. While I agree that it would be desirable if more people learned self-defense (I took three years in high school, strongly believe in the importance of self defense classes, and should probably take a refreshment), I'm worried about the other side - the blame the victim, or the overconfidence. I know some extremely capable people who tend to think that one unable to defend herself was at fault; and I've known people who became cocky because of self-defense classes.
I also like to applaud Prof. Aviram's comments about severing the connection between opposing exaggerated incarceration and opposing violent crime. I think her points were extremely well taken.

Hadar Aviram said...

Those are excellent points, Dorit. In fact, one of the things I really appreciated at Impact was that the decision whether to fight back or not was very much left up to the person in the particular circumstances. There was no blame attached to either choice, which as you say is hugely important.

While being cocky is never a good idea, I think for most of us the problem is the other side: a lack of faith in our ability to fight when the situation calls for it. This experience really boosted my confidence about my ability to do something for myself in these situations. Most women tend to believe that, once they are grabbed by a violent assailant, the situation is hopeless. Happily, that is not the case.

Tom said...

Hello Professor Aviram. Thanks again for all your effort in Crim Pro this semester.

I don't have any experience with Impact, but I've heard of them. I wonder, was their program actually practical and realistic? I've always been concerned that a lot of what gets taught as "self-defense" to the public too often is neither, usually because it doesn't put enough focus on recognizing and responding to a dangerous situation as it develops as opposed to what to do after you're already stuck in one.

Hadar Aviram said...

Hi, Tom! Model Mugging places a lot of emphasis on realistic situations. Part of it is about having women do a lot of the fighting from the ground, with several terrifying scenarios of being pinned down by rapists. To make things better (by making them worse), the padded assailants will also use frightening and demeaning language of the kind that occurs in real-life scenarios.

Granted, there is nothing that will perfectly replicate a real-life situation. Fighting on mats, for one thing, differs from fighting on hard concrete. But we were certainly adrenalized, and several times I genuinely felt terrified. It felt very empowering to fight through the immobilizing fear.

Also, much time is spent simulating and discussing situations that may lead to an attack: setting boundaries with strangers, following gut instincts, and so on.

Tom said...

(Chuckles softly) I think one of these days, I'm going to start my own "super-realistic" self-defense training program, which will basically be indistinguishable from a Friday night pub crawl through the Tenderloin.