Intersections: Examining the self-defense class issue

Two popular self-defense classes for women hosted by Glendale’s Status on the Commission of Women in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month have been postponed this month because of a letter from the National Coalition for Men that claimed the classes violate federal and California anti-discrimination laws.

Harry Crouch, president of the nonprofit group established in 1977 told the Glendale News-Press that the classes are discriminatory because anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, not just women or girls.

In the letter, the coalition says the exclusivity of the classes violates not only California government and civil codes but the city of Glendale’s own “Employee Code of Ethics,” too, which includes being respectful of and compassionate for everyone’s needs and maintaining a high regard for everyone without favoritism and prejudice.

The coalition seems to be right both legally and theoretically, but it’s complicated and its letter has brought a unique opportunity to discuss issues we tend to gloss over more than we explore.

The idea of offering self-defense classes for women during Sexual Assault Awareness Month works under the assumption that victims of sexual assault are female, when, in fact, men and boys make up 10% of victims of sexual abuse and rape in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network — a sorely underreported statistic.

Why shouldn’t men be able to learn, without charge, how to protect themselves against a sexual assault, too? We can’t play into stereotypes and make the assumption that men inherently know how to defend themselves or wouldn't benefit from self-defense classes.

Often male victims of sexual assault and domestic violence suffer in silence and go unrecognized. Not offering them the same opportunity based purely on their gender is wrong, and does nothing to advance the “equality” dialogue.

We cannot deny, however, the fact that more than 17 million American women or one out of every six have been the victims of attempted or completed rape. Compare this to the previous fact of 10%, or just under 3 million men.

Let’s also not forget the traumatic, unintended consequences of pregnancy by rape, either, which last time I checked, did not apply to men. According to network’s estimates, more than 17,000 pregnancies occurred in 2012 as a result of rape. This month, a new report published in the journal “Gender and Society” also highlights a startling situation: girls and young women rarely reported incidents of abuse because they regarded sexual violence against them as normal.

This striking imbalance of sexual assault is fact — men are the perpetrators more often than they are not. These classes or other similar movements aimed at empowering women are necessary, because we still live in a world where women are not equal, be it because of assault statistics, socioeconomic status or media portrayal, because we live in a world where being sexually assaulted is seen as normal.

The men’s coalition says that it’s committed to gender equality and “wants men and women to be treated equally.”

If this conversation is about equality, then why not address the huge, underrated role men have in preventing sexual assaults and violence. It has been said that teaching men to be dominant and aggressive often leads to “hyper-masculinity, male-peer support for sexual aggression, development of rape myths and adversarial sexual beliefs.”

Why not reverse this trend so that there will be fewer women who feel the need to take a special class in order to feel a little bit more in control in the case of a sexual attack? Why not establish educational opportunities so men (and women) can learn, perhaps together, how to prevent sexual assaults which lead to higher rates of drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

This side of the issue is rarely given the discussion it deserves, but it’s one that plays a huge role in combating sexual assault and promoting equality between men and women.

Should Glendale be offering self-defense classes regardless of gender? Sure. Depending on legal considerations, they might have to. Whether that means a coed class or separate one for men remains to be seen if the city does take into account the fair points the coalition has brought up.

Regardless, men need to be included in conversations by local governments and national organizations promoting equality when it comes to sexual assault, too, whether that means addressing their suffering as victims of sexual assault or their perpetration of victims, of which the statistics are unfortunately and overwhelmingly not in their favor.

As Andrea Barnes writes in the “Handbook of Women, Psychology and the Law” — “Only men can truly prevent rape. Women can only avoid it.”

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LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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