I know a lot of women that take self-defense classes. They recognize that there is a lot of physical danger in the world. Should it be that way? No. But right now it is. And the reality is that even if culturally we make great strides in attitudes about force and violence, there will always be people who choose to use those to take things from others. Their decision makes sense. They want to invest in the tools and skills that may allow them to defend themselves. I don’t often run into anyone that thinks this is a bad idea.
That’s why it surprises me when I suggest that one of the pieces we need to add to the fight against rape culture is to teach emotional self-defense. We actually need to do this for much broader reasons such as the well-being of individuals and relationships. I’m going to talk more about that broader idea in a future post.
You may wonder what I mean by emotional self-defense. At its most basic it is the ability to embrace emotions, express them, and to not allow others to deny or dictate them. And equally important is not allowing another person to make their emotions your responsibility. The reason those skills are important is because we live in a world we constantly hear phrases like, “you need to stop being irrational” or “you are wrong to feel that way” or “you need to stop attacking me” (when someone expresses their emotions) or “you disappoint me,” and so many more. If we don’t understand how to defend against those statements, we end up accepting responsibility or making decisions that are a result of coercion and unearned guilt instead of actual choice.
Our culture teaches incredibly bad and damaging lessons about emotions. I’ve written about some of the ways we misunderstand and misuse emotions here. What I too often see from my female clients are beliefs that like, “I’d be a bad person if I didn’t have sex with him” or “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings” or “he said I was disappointing him.” They’ll also say things like, “my emotions don’t really matter” or “he said I was wrong to feel that way.” They end up “agreeing” to being sexual because they allow the guy to get them to accept guilt and shame that isn’t really theirs to own. They allow the the guy to make it their job to manage the guy’s emotions.
These things aren’t always done maliciously. Men are a product of our culture, too. We fail miserably at teaching them about emotions – the value of them, how to accept and handle them, and how to respect them. Some men use the methods above maliciously. Others do it because that is what our culture taught them about emotions. Their perspective is so ingrained that they don’t even see what is really happening.
Why wouldn’t we want to teach emotional self-defense to those who are most being abused by it? If women had the tools to understand that they don’t have to accept other people’s judgments of them as fact or that their self-worth isn’t defined by people trying to take advantage of them, wouldn’t we all be better off? It doesn’t mean that men aren’t doing bad things. It doesn’t mean we should put any less energy into changing men’s understanding of emotions and power and responsibility. It simply means that we are changing the system in multiple ways at multiple levels.
I personally believe that changing what our culture teaches about emotions is the key to making huge shifts in so many problems we face in this culture. While I believe that is what should happen, I also know that is a monumental task that isn’t going to happen quickly. So, in the meantime, let’s go at this problem from every possible angle. After all, if someone throws a rock at your head and you could learn to duck, wouldn’t you want to? I would…even if the person shouldn’t have thrown the rock in the first place.