The Right to Worth
Originally published in print for Rain and Thunder, a radical feminist journal for discussion and activism.
I recently taught an empowerment self-defense course to a group of girls in a rural area of Costa Rica, the country where I reside. There were 10 girls, ranging in age from 5 to 13 and ranging in personalities from painfully shy to precocious as hell. This was the sixth day of a week-long retreat that I was co-facilitating, which was designed to focus on empowerment and self-defense, and included yoga, mindfulness, connection to nature, and this workshop, an interactive class connecting our US American participants with girls from the local community where our retreat was held. It was a lovely part of the retreat.
Empowerment self-defense (ESD) is different than traditional forms of self-defense taught to women. There is a focus on boundaries and verbal techniques. There is conversation and connection that is so much more than physical skills practice. There is space to process and confront our pasts as we learn tools for the future. We build each other up.
When the group of girls burst into our workshop space on day six of our retreat, we were all exhausted — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I took a deep breath and mustered all of my energy for the following hour, which was a flurry of fun and games, of movement and noise and laughter and striking and kicking. The girls were good. We didn’t spend any time with explanation, and we didn’t need to. They knew what we were doing. We may not always have the statistics memorized, but even from a young age, we know about danger. Even without the numbers to back us up, we carry this knowledge in our bodies.
But do we know where the danger comes from? Is it always lurking on a dark street? A faceless, unknown attacker? Of course not. Not usually.
Anyone with any knowledge about violence against women knows that we are not just at risk when walking alone on dark streets. We are at risk in our homes, in the homes of people we know and love, and at our workplaces. I often hear an argument, usually from men, that there are just bad men out there in the world, and in fact, there are just bad people. This is what I like to call, the ‘Bad Guys Theory.’ Bad guys kill, steal, rape and harm. Good people are good people. The Bad Guys Theory gives credit to good guys, because obviously, not all men. Good guys wish bad guys would stop being bad to women and children. Good guys want bad guys to be locked up so the rest of us can be safe. It’s very black and white. Good versus bad. This argument is frustrating for many reasons. On top of being overly simplistic, it allows for a lack of accountability. Good guys don’t have to examine their own behavior, because they are, according to them, good guys. In the meantime, the onus is often passed to women, who should get better at recognizing ‘bad guys’ and stop dating them. Good guys can recognize bad guys, why can’t women? Good guys can keep being good and women should take on some additional labor, work a little harder at seeing the red flags in bad guys so they can avoid them. Just avoid them.
We need to get better at seeing red flags. This suggestion angers me. It shouldn’t be our responsibility. We shouldn’t have to spend our lives looking for red flags and hiding from men who display them. We shouldn’t have to spend our lives crossing to the other side of the street. It’s exhausting. There are too many red flags. Too many streets to cross. How many extra steps must we take in this life?
And yet, isn’t this some of what I am teaching in self-defense? To see the red flags, to listen to intuition, run, walk or move away when we can, fight when we have to? Is it our responsibility to prevent assault, rape, and femicide? It shouldn’t be.
On the other side of the overly simplistic Bad Guys Theory, there is a complex feminist critique of ESD, that it shouldn’t be our responsibility. We shouldn’t have to learn to defend ourselves. I agree, in theory. In practice? I want the skills and the tools to be able to defend myself should I need to.
I haven’t been in, or led, any ESD class that says that it is our responsibility to prevent assault or rape, that if we didn’t fight, didn’t defend ourselves, it was our fault, that it was our responsibility. What we teach and practice are tools. We have these tools within us already. We have powerful voices and bodies. We can learn how to set verbal boundaries and use body language, hear our intuition. “Here are the tools. Here is how you use them,” is not the same as saying, “if you don’t use these tools, you are to blame for being assaulted, because it was your responsibility.” It can feel like a tricky line to navigate. In my classes, I always emphasize that we don’t use these tools to judge our pasts but to prepare for the future. They are not what we should have done. They are what we can do.
It shouldn’t be our responsibility to prevent ourselves from being assaulted. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to not be raped. But it is our right. It is our right to live in safety.
Worldwide, one in three women is sexually assaulted in her life. These are the statistics we know about women. But back to the Bad Guys Theory, do we know how many men sexually assault women? Do we know how many bad guys there are? In our communities? In the world?
I decided to start counting. I chose Costa Rica because it is the country where I reside, the country where I teach ESD to girls and women, not because it feels more or less full of bad guys than any other country I have lived or visited.
In Costa Rica, in 2018 there were 26 femicides. 26 bad guys.
Each year, 400 women on average flee their homes to shelters for women who face ‘an imminent fear of death.’ 400 women could have been murdered but were able to get themselves out. Another 400 bad guys.
There are 7,792 (yearly average) reports of sex crimes against women and girls and 2,638 reports of sexual harassment in public. Reported.
Costa Rica police receive an average of 150 more domestic violence calls on soccer game days. So 150 maybe, kind-of, not-so-bad all the time men, become ‘bad guys’ during fútbol games. How many more calls don’t get placed during soccer games?
Organizations that respond to cases of violence against women in Costa Rica have an average of 8,710 consultations per year.
There are 45,855 court requests for protective measures for women.
Over 20,000 calls to 911 about domestic violence. That is 55 per day. Only 5% are followed up on.
There were 905 (reported, documented, convicted) cases of rape. How many more rapes were there, that were reported and not believed? How many were reported and the victims were accused of lying, were themselves blamed (she shouldn’t have been on that street, what was she wearing, she should have seen the red flags)? How many women just never told a single person?
Now, sure, maybe there is some overlap within these reports, and obviously not all violence is unidirectional, from men to women, but the picture is clear. There are a lot of red flags to avoid.
And what about when we do see the warning signs, when we run from the red flags, when we file reports and go through the exhausting process of our systems? The Organization of Salvadorean Women for Peace found that in 12% of cases of violence against women (reported), perpetrators were judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and police officers. We are at risk of being raped or abused by the very people who are supposed to be protecting us.
When I taught self-defense to this group of girls and teens, I was energized and inspired by their energy and joy. We laughed and giggled and shrieked and played. We hugged and held hands. We went around a circle and had each girl tell a reason she feels strong.
“I am strong because I believe in myself.”
“I am strong because I can say NO.”
“I am strong because I can do anything.”
These were some of the things these young girls said. Without prompting or guidance, they chose these statements. They are strong.
As inspiring as it was, it also broke my heart. I don’t want to imagine any one of these beautiful children in a situation where she has to use the techniques we taught, having to kick someone from the ground, or escape from a tight grab. But as long as the statistics remain, three of them will be or already have been sexually assaulted. We know those statistics. We can count them in a room full of women. Where are the statistics for men? Who are these ‘bad guys’ that three of them will be assaulted by? Nameless strangers on a dark street? Likely, the bad guys will be their brothers, uncles, fathers, cousins, and future boyfriends. The police officers they report to. The judges who rule over their cases. The politicians who make laws about their bodies.
In theory, it shouldn’t have to be our responsibility, but in reality, the statistics are stacked against us, and it is our right to defend ourselves. When we aren’t safe in our homes, on the streets, in courts of law, or at the police station, then we must. We must use our voices and our bodies and make ourselves strong. We must take up space. It is our right to access the power we have within ourselves, and even when it feels exhausting — we must.
It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate good guys about why the Bad Guy Theory is false. But we must. We must also do it with love and empathy. We must see how women are also conditioned by patriarchy. It is hard and painful to look at our own behaviors, to decondition ourselves, to step outside of what our society has told us is okay, but we all must do this — men and women.
We must do it with love because we are all sharing this world together, and we must love each other. We must love each other because there is not just a small percentage of bad guys that we can hide from or lock up. There is a spectrum of behaviors that are learned, taught, conditioned, and normalized that the majority of men worldwide engage in on some level of the spectrum. We can firmly and lovingly hold people accountable for their behaviors.
The criticisms are frustrating because they are valuable. The arguments are frustrating because they contain deeply engrained cultural stories. The arguments and the criticisms are parts of a whole. To address the whole problem, we need a global change in culture. Holy shit, that is overwhelming. Where do we begin? These tools we teach in ESD don’t confront structural violence or work against systemic oppression. They don’t prevent the behavior of assailants. But they do empower survivors and potential victims. They don’t just teach us how to fight back during a physical attack. They teach us how to access the strength of our voices, to love our powerful bodies, to trust our intuition, to move with confidence through a world that has historically been unsafe for us to navigate. They are a piece of changing culture. The solutions are also parts of a whole. So where do we begin? We begin by expanding our focus to see the whole, and then narrowing our focus, directing our energy into manageable parts. Empowerment is a part. Self-defense is a part. I choose to focus on these parts for now, but I know there are many other equally important parts to creating meaningful social change.
A one-hour workshop is never enough. There are so many techniques to learn. There is so much to discuss. Those girls may not remember how to best position their bodies to kick from the ground. They may not remember the best way to strike. But hopefully they will remember that they can. That they have the right to say, NO. Don’t touch me. Back off. Leave me alone. Hopefully they will remember the reasons they felt strong — because they can do anything, because they believe in themselves. A big part of the self-defense that we teach is accessing the strength we each have inside already. It’s about building ourselves and each other up, feeling good about ourselves, our bodies, our voices. It’s about feeling worthy and valued, and this is our right as humans, to be seen, heard, and valued.
We all deserve that right.
Data about violence against women in Costa Rica from INAMU.