Women are directly or indirectly told, “Don’t get raped” on a daily basis. Various products like color changing nail polish, pepper spray, and tear resistant anti-rape clothing are sold to women under the assumption that it is their responsibility to not get raped and these products will aid in that pursuit. Unfortunately, most of these products are impractical, difficult to access, or very expensive. Additionally, none of these products work unless you buy and constantly use them. However one resource is available to women which cannot be misplaced and it is impossible to run out of: self-defense training.
According to Eliza Gray in, “The Sexual Assault Crisis on American Campuses,” college campuses are dangerous places for women (2014). She reports that 1 in 5 women become the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault during college. Because of this frightening statistic as well as federal investigations into Universities and Colleges across the nation, many schools are providing students with various training programs from bystander awareness to self-defense training courses.
In response to this crisis, Vanderbilt University offers a free self-defense class to students and other women in the Nashville area. Rape Aggression Defense Systems of Self-Defense (RAD) is a 12-hour long self-defense course designed to train women to avoid and escape from “abductive encounters.” As stated in their manual, the primary reason for this emphasis is that “an initial abduction must occur prior to crimes of rape and/or forcible sodomy.” Their ultimate goal is “to develop and enhance the options of self-defense, so they may become viable considerations to the woman who is attacked.”
The classes are exclusively for women because, according to the instructors, men do not typically need to worry about or defend against abduction. Likewise, our male instructor expressed concerns that men would use these training techniques against the women in the class thus making it a dangerous space for women. Since he was not allowed to participate, Xavier requested information from Lt. Berrios so that he could enroll in self-defense training as well.
Although the RAD handbook explicitly states that “[martial arts defense training] is excellent for developing body mechanics, physical fitness and confidence, but the time consuming dedication needed to be proficient is more than most people are willing to endure. In addition, martial arts training and its instructors are often too traditional, regimented and ceremonial for the vast majority of our population” they still recommended that Xavier enroll in a martial arts class or join one of Vanderbilt’s martial arts clubs to satisfy his self-defense needs. According to the instructors and the RAD training manual, men are not typically attacked, even though VUPD has sent out various reports of on and off campus muggings and other physical assaults wherein men were indeed physically assaulted. Ironically, there is a RAD for Men class, although it is not offered by Vanderbilt, which focuses on self-defense as well as recognizing and reducing aggressive behavior towards women and presumably other men.
The first 4-hour session attends to the logistics of the program. On that night, the instructors provide students with a large binder full of information and give a PowerPoint presentation for about two hours. Because it is “90% of self-defense education,” Lt. Rochelle Berrios focused on increasing risk awareness, risk reduction, risk recognition, and risk avoidance techniques in order to reduce a woman’s chances of being abducted and sexually assaulted. Most of these suggestions included fairly basic concepts such as “avoid walking alone at night” and “do not be distracted by your cell phone in public.” After the lecture portion of the class, all twenty of us went to the back corner of the large room to practice some of these skills. We worked on perfecting a basic defensive stance, primary offensive strikes such as punches and kicks, and primary defensive maneuvers such as blocks and escaping from someone’s grasp.
Similarly, the second class builds upon the first by allowing women to practice and perfect these techniques with a partner while also learning some new techniques such as how to escape when attacked in bed. The numerous repetitions allow for the self-defense responses to become second nature, so that, if the time arises, women will be able to quickly and effectively respond to abductive encounters thus improving their chances of survival. Much of this session is spent practicing various punches, blocks, kicks, and escape maneuvers with and without partners and on protective punching bags with the instructors. Ultimately, this class is intended to prepare you for both the final class and future real-world situations.
The final class of this three-part series combines the safety of a classroom with the dangers of encountering a stranger. A staff member known as the “red man” dresses up in protective gear and engages with each woman in turn. He verbally accosts her and eventually makes physical contact. At this point, each woman will use the techniques she has learned to disable the aggressor and escape to safety. By allowing women to practice their skills while under duress but in a safe space, this course hopes to provide her with more experience and thus a better chance for survival.
While RAD is a wonderful self-defense training program, it does not seem to be very relevant to the current dangers college women face. According to Gray, most sexual assaults are not perpetrated by strangers. Instead, it is much more common for a woman to be assaulted by an acquaintance or a friend. Particularly, she focuses on some of the dangers women encounter while drinking within the hook-up culture which pervades college life. Therefore, the RAD program, which heavily focuses on aspects of “stranger danger” seems very out of touch with the reality college women face.
In RAD the instructors frequently fed into the myth that rape is usually perpetrated by strangers. Although avoiding dangerous situations is important, by teaching avoidance as primary mode of protection, they are inadvertently feeding into the false stereotypes. “Avoid walking alone at night, Cross the street if there is a strange man, and do not be distracted by your cell-phone.” This is useful information, but how should a woman protect herself if she’s getting assaulted at a fraternity party? How does she respond in a situation where a friend is taking too many sexual liberties, when she has only been trained to injure her assailant and then run away and call the police? It is easy to defend yourself against a stranger, but how do you decide when a situation with a friend has escalated to a point that you should physically injure him? How do you recognize when a situation is getting out of control?
Even the small section on “Date Rape” is extremely out of touch. The instructors advise women to “Ask for his phone number instead of giving yours out” and “Be cautious of sharing personal info via the internet and ‘thefacebook’”. Similarly, they suggest that, as was required in the training sessions, women should always wear non-restrictive clothing and be sure to carry two pair of shoes so that, if necessary, they can comfortably protect themselves and run away from attackers. The reality is, women are not going to nor should they be expected to always wear the “right” clothing for being attacked. Similarly, it is out dated and silly to assume that college women are going to drive themselves to dates, especially since, according to Kathleen Bogle in her book “Hooking Up,” college students do not even go on dates anymore. Instead, they hook up at parties other on campus social events (2008).
This program would be much more effective if it focused on how to recognize when a situation with an acquaintance was transitioning from safe to dangerous. While the physical techniques will obviously work on anyone, stranger or friend, it is very important to teach women how to identify a dangerous situation and to recognize that friends and acquaintances can and will hurt them. Additional bystander training techniques such as those suggested by Eliza Gray could also be useful in this course, if the goal is to help reduce the incidence of sexual assault on and off campus (2014). Gray suggests teaching realistic strategies such as employing distraction techniques to stop a potential perpetrator. She explains that, “You can’t go up to a group of frat members and say, ‘Next time you see your buddy taking a drunk girl upstairs, you better say, Stop! No! Real men don’t take drunk girls upstairs!’ A more realistic strategy would be, ‘Hey, dude, your car’s getting towed.’” After the guy comes down to check, invite him to play beer pong as a distraction. A woman can also distract the potential perpetrator by spilling a drink on someone or initiating a group activity.
Overall, the self-defense training of the RAD program is very thorough and effective for avoiding and escaping abductive encounters and assaults such as kidnapping and mugging. However, it is not the most effective response to the current crisis of rape-culture on college campuses in general, nor at Vanderbilt specifically. This program should focus more on teaching women how to recognize and avoid dangerous situations wherein their acquaintances or friends might sexually assault them. Additionally, the physical self-defense training should include scenarios where friends or acquaintances are taking liberties and how to adequately respond. Likewise, it should teach women and men how to engage in bystander intervention. These changes could lead to a more effective and relevant self-defense training program for women and also make men feel welcome.
How can Vanderbilt improve this program? Does including other aspects of sexual-assault prevention broaden the scope too much? Did you even know that RAD existed and would you enroll in the class?
Destiny LaGarce & Xavier Turner