When I was growing up, my parents never gave me a lot of support when I didn’t like the way the world worked. In fact, they were pretty scornful. “Get used to it,” my mother would say. And “Those who feel sorry for themselves, should,” was one of my father’s favored sayings. Now, they were good parents, supporting me and my brother both physically and emotionally, patient to teach, and eager to see us learn and grow. But they simply had no time for whiners and children who wished for a different world.1 Later, when I was in high school and college in the ’60s, that hard-headed teaching set me apart from my own generation, where everyone’s personal mantra and the dream of personal fulfillment became to “change the world.”2
Recently, a member of a beauty pageant who also held a black belt in the martial arts publicly advocated self-defense for women. This remark drew a torrent of scorn on the grounds that a woman should not have to defend herself against stronger, rapacious, power-seeking males. Remaining free of attack was not a woman’s responsibility. Instead—presumably—society should change so that men did not, or would not, or could not attack women, or even wish to attack them. In the same vein, a woman should not be responsible for drawing an attack or even attention because of the way she dressed or acted. In such a world, a woman should be free to wear anything—or nothing—and still walk down the street without fear.
I agree. A woman should not have to put up with attempted rape, no matter how she dresses or acts.3 But that “should” belongs to the 99 percent of space and time over which the individual has no control. It would be better if society and human sexuality were structured differently, but they’re not. So, in this situation, that “should” is a fantasy on the order of “How I wish things were arranged” and feeds into the “change the world” meme. But since the world has not yet changed and perhaps never will, the individual must control what she can, which is her own behavior and her response to her physical surroundings.
Let’s be brutally honest here. Some clothing and most makeup styles, as well as some modes of behavior, are designed to draw attention by emphasizing some physical or emotional features, revealing others directly, and so create a state of desire in the male. This is part of how the species propagates. In the human species and in the society that has developed its mating rituals out of those ingrained sexual cues, it is not the female who initiates sexual contact. The male makes the approach to the female and does the asking. The female then takes control of the situation by making her breeding decision and either accepting or rejecting his approach. But that would leave most plain-featured females unattended as virtual wallflowers, while the majority of males flocked to those few women with obvious natural attractions. This would skew the distribution of genes disastrously and create great unhappiness on both sides of the sexual selection. So, over time, women as a culture have adopted bits of dress, coloring, scent, and modes of behavior intended to arouse the male into making that approach.4
Unfortunately, such arousal signals are not targeted to the intended object of affection, like a laser beam or poisoned dart. Instead, they broadcast to all males within range, like tear gas. Unwanted and unacceptable males are also aroused, and therein lies the problem. With the human male’s superior weight and strength, rejecting his unwanted advances is not always a matter of speaking skillfully, forcefully, or scornfully—regardless of what a young girl’s mother or an aunt may have told her.
Similarly, people tend to drink in any social setting in order to loosen the bonds of inhibition and make the joining of prickly, conflicted, self-conscious individuals more likely. This is another way in which the species propagates. Since drinking lowers a woman’s self-awareness and determination, it becomes important for her to choose her friends and the situation carefully, avoid drinking too much in public or among strangers, such as at a large party, and watch her glass and its contents to avoid ingesting a stealthily placed drug. To do otherwise is to engage in foolish and reckless behavior.
As it is a fantasy to wish that society or its impulses toward propagation operated differently, so it is a fantasy to wish that foolish behavior did not sometimes occasion bad results. This, too, is among the sphere of things the individual cannot control. All she can control is her own behavior, her actions, and her expectations.
A woman might wish that the sexual machinery were structured differently. She might wish that the society in which it operates and the human nature which it has created were structured differently.5 Women may even work together to structure their society differently for their own protection and advantage without any dependence on the male response. I’m not sure about the long-term functioning of such a society, nor about its short-term prospects during the transition period. But again, all of this is in the realm of things beyond the individual’s control.
Most questions in the debate about self-defense for women seem to revolve around issues of means and weapons. Which is handier, more effective, or more certain—a gun, knife, or knee to the groin? But that is like debating which of the five forks to the left of the dinner plate should be used for spearing the asparagus. The first principle at dinner generally is, “Do we eat?” So the first principle of self-defense is, “Do we protect?” The “why” comes first; the “how” comes later.
Self-defense actually goes beyond issues of women and rape. It goes beyond the physical method, whether gun, knife, or knee. It goes beyond the immediate point of conflict and resolution. It goes beyond a moment’s mental application to a specific situation or threat. Self-defense is a total mindset. It should be taught to both boys and girls. It should be part of any mother’s, father’s, teacher’s, or family friend’s training of the young.
That mindset says: “I am a whole person, with rights and obligations, with boundaries, and with a life purpose. I am not to be victimized, subjugated, abused, toyed with, taken advantage of, conned, cheated, or cast aside. I know the difference between right and wrong, between fairness and unfairness, between life and death. I stand here, and this is my ground. The air in my lungs and the space around me are mine. Anyone who would harm me must step back now.”
That mindset applies to every relationship, every commercial transaction, every job interview, every expectation of service for fee, and every acceptance of fee for service. It requires the individual to examine his or her actions and choices, approach the world with heightened awareness, and evaluate every situation for potential danger and traps. It requires the individual to decide for her- or himself the limits of personal power, the dimensions of personal vulnerability, and the scope of her or his own personhood. It impresses upon the mind the existence of margins and probabilities, advantage and disadvantage, friends and foes.
Is this a paranoid view of the world? Is it oppressively pessimistic? Is it too bleak to be considered? Very possibly. But every thinking, trained, self-aware individual knows or has been taught that the universe offers about a thousand and one ways to trap you and kill you—but only about six or seven acceptable ways to stay alive. This is not the world as you would wish it, but rather the world as it presents itself to you.
So yes, I agree: No woman should be required to mind how she dresses and acts, or be required to take responsibility for defending herself and her honor, against the aggressiveness of uncouth, untrained, unpredictable males with no code of honor they can call their own. But that “should” is still in the realm of space and time beyond individual control, of wishing for things to be as they might, rather than the way they are.
1. They would have thoroughly appreciated the “Serenity Prayer” as adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
2. Curiously, at this time of militant peace and mellow yellowness, I also became interested in Buddhism and Zen as part of my karate studies. I never was much for practicing meditation, and I never learned to appreciate the thematic complexity of the sutras, but I did pick up a few of the concepts. Among them was the notion that the only thing a person can control is him- or herself. In a world that makes you angry or sad, crushes your expectations, or tries to kill you, the only defense you actually have is to adjust your attitude, change your expectations, and increase your watchfulness.
3. I will go farther. I believe the penalty for attempted rape, as for attempted murder, should be death. But not after months of evidence taking, plea bargaining, jury selection, and trial, followed by years or even decades of judicial appeal. The issue should be decided at the point of contest by the intended victim. Snap! Bang! Finito!
4. By contrast, in other species the roles are reversed. The male bird evolves colorful plumage in order to attract the female, making her receptive to his intended approach. If nothing else, evolution shows the thousand wondrous ways of getting the job done.
The human sexual dance comprises more steps than those of birds. Actually, three steps: First, the woman signals wordlessly, “I’m attractive and available, if you want me.” Second, the man senses her receptivity, feels desire, and signals directly—usually in so many words—“I want you. Will you accept me?” Third, she makes her actual decision and signals, wordlessly or otherwise, her consent or rejection. In creatures with so many layers of thinking and interpretation to their highly evolved brains, and so many taboos and social consequences to their sexuality, it would be surprising if the matter were made any less complex. I believe that social engineers will interfere with the steps of this dance at their peril.
5. And in fact, male codes of honor and chivalry are part of a societal response designed to protect women from the male’s superior strength and weight.