Rape Culture, Hannah Gadsby and Why Women Need Self-Defense

Since its debut on Netflix, Hannah Gadsby’s standup special, Nanette, has had people all over the world tearing up with both laughter and emotion in turns. Unsurprisingly, lesbian women in particular have identified with the themes in Nanette, and with the too-relatable stories of violence and shame Gadsby so expertly interweaves with humor.

It’s no secret that women who don’t conform to stereotypical femininity are targets of a specific kind of gendered violence, from everyday harassment, all the way to beatings and corrective rape. Gadsby connects this violence to the constant, pervasive degradation women and girls experience as a matter of course in a sexist culture, and she builds those connections into a boundary — she’s no longer going to tolerate it in silence.

“There is no way anyone would dare… test their strength out on me, because you all know… there is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.” – Hannah Gadsby

I am privileged to see the truth in this statement every day, because I am surrounded by women who have — or are — rebuilding themselves. I was affected by Gadsby’s story as a woman, but also as a self-defense instructor who trains women and girls. From a background in rape and domestic violence crisis work, I began using my martial arts training to teach empowerment-based self-defense (ESD) in 2014. In contrast to typical martial arts-based self-defense training, ESD addresses the fact that physical violence is just one aspect of a spectrum of violations women face.

From everyday sexism to verbal abuse to sexual assault, ESD practitioners include verbal boundary practice in addition to physical skills in their curriculum, so it’s relevant for the situations of harassment and abuse women commonly face. Our training is created with women’s reality in mind, and therefore with survivors of trauma in mind, because we know that a majority of women have experienced violence or violation in their lifetimes.

At least 90 percent of adult rape victims are women, and almost half experience their first assault by the age of 18. Ninety-eight percent of perpetrators are men, and more than 90 percent are known to the victim — family member, acquaintance, partner, coworker.

The majority of women have experienced rape, stalking, domestic violence, sexual abuse. Too many women, particularly women of color, are criminalized and incarcerated for defending themselves from violence.

All women have experienced growing up in a culture that shames, silences, and degrades women and girls, denying them opportunities and constraining their potential. All women have experienced growing up and surviving in communities that demonstrate, again and again, that these facts don’t matter in the face of a man’s reputation.

“These men are not exceptions, they are the rule. And they are not individuals, they are our stories. And the moral of our story is, ‘We don’t give a shit. We don’t give a fuck… about women or children. We only care about a man’s reputation.’ What about his humanity?” – Hannah Gadsby

For lesbians and other gender-nonconforming women, this pervasive culture of misogyny is overlaid with the added risk of being a woman who does femininity “incorrectly,” as Gadsby puts it, as she recounts being beaten by a man for being a visible lesbian. It happens all the time. But the rules for women in rape culture go deeper than our appearances. Lesbian or not, women who refuse to remain quiet, small, and compliant — in other words, women who defend themselves and their rights in ways great and small — are also rebelling against rape culture’s silent, compliant ideal.

Women — yes, all women – live with cultural forces that groom them to varying degrees into targets for violence and exploitation: Be nice (even when it means accepting disrespect), don’t be loud (even if he grabs you), don’t fight (even when you need to), don’t get too big or strong or capable or confident (what are you, some kind of dyke?). He hit you? Must mean he likes you! Angry, man-hating lesbian. You should smile more…

“He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him. And I didn’t…report that to the police, and I did not take myself to hospital, and I should have. And you know why I didn’t? It’s because I thought that was all I was worth. And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate. And that was not homophobia, pure and simple, people. That was gendered. If I’d been feminine, that would not have happened. I am incorrectly female. I am incorrect, and that is a punishable offense.” – Hannah Gadsby

I sometimes joke in our seminars that practicing self-defense means unlearning all the rules you were taught in kindergarten: be nice, don’t yell, don’t hit people, don’t bite. Perhaps this is another instance of a painful reality being “sealed off” into a joke, as Gadsby would put it, because the truth is, it’s not a joke at all.

Defending yourself as a woman doesn’t just mean defending your physical safety, it means challenging all the rules and beliefs that rape culture has beaten into you, physically and psychically. Be small/quiet/pretty/straight. Don’t fight back. You deserve this. No one will believe you. You’ll be punished. You’re not strong enough to resist this anyway. Accept it, this is just the way things are. Empowerment-based self-defense training goes against all the rules that keep women silent and compliant. By doing so, it challenges the very heart of a culture that demands our silence and compliance.

By the time many of the women we train begin rebuilding themselves, they aren’t just training to defend themselves physically. They’re training to fight an ingrained perception of themselves as weak, as incapable, as unworthy of safety and respect. They’re fighting to rebuild themselves in defiance of rape culture’s silent, compliant ideal. It’s the greatest privilege of my life to play a part in giving women the tools they need to take up that fight and win.

And win they do. Each victory, no matter how small, inspires the whole group. Many ESD participants come to their first class hesitant to raise their voices, use their strength, or claim their space. The change is visible as women practice, and not only in their physical abilities. Belief in your own worth and abilities needs to be strengthened as sure as any muscle. It’s hard, and it’s worth it.

Women come to training to practice setting boundaries and enforcing them, verbally and physically. Many also benefit from being able to tell their stories and receive support from the group. Trainers like me – and our numbers are increasing – owe our existence to foremothers who have been blazing this trail all along. In the US, the 60s and 70s, in particular, saw the rise of women’s groups, and lesbian feminists in particular, who raised consciousness and invented the now widely used term, “empowerment-based” self-defense.

These women weren’t just interested in providing physical training to women, though that was part of it. They were expanding our collective understanding of what women were and are up against, from stranger attacks to domestic violence, restrictive gender norms, compulsory heterosexuality, the wage gap, and the whole system of interconnected barriers that maintains men’s collective power over women.

The connections these women were forging sowed the seeds for younger women today to re-discover the power in this approach. While some of our trendier peers are dismissing self-defense training as passe, increasing numbers of young women are throwing their voices, bodies, and hearts into this work.

“I tell you this because my story has value. My story has value. I tell you this ’cause I want you to know, I need you to know, what I know. To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. Your resilience is your humanity. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless. They are the weak. To yield and not break, that is incredible strength. You destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents. I will not allow my story…to be destroyed.” – Hannah Gadsby

Access to quality, women-centered self-defense training is not a panacea for the harms of rape culture. While women are still routinely incarcerated for daring to defend themselves physically, empowering women through self-defense means more than just training women. It means fighting for the basic principle that all people have the right to safety, respect, and freedom from abuse. Giving women more support in resisting violence and violation is just one piece — but an essential piece — of the way forward. Study after study backs up what trainers and participants see in action every day: quality, comprehensive, empowerment-based self-defense training makes a huge difference in the lives of women and girls, and should be accessible for all women, regardless of finances, ability, location, or any other factor.

Rachel Collins is a martial artist and self-defense trainer based in Oregon. Her background is in rape and domestic violence crisis advocacy, Krav Maga, Boxing, Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu, and MMA. She is a certified trainer through ESD Global. Visit and shebeginsselfdefense.com for more information on her work.

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