A Women's Total Self Defense course.
A Women's Total Self Defense course.

(WOMENSENEWS)— Imagine the U.S. were at war and the enemy sent over soldiers, as part of its terrorist campaign, to rape U.S. college aged-women. (The number is left unspecified since no one is sure exactly how many women were raped, partly because women are ashamed to come forward.)

What would the U.S. government do?

This thought experiment is useful because this hypothetical scenario gets at the gruesome reality for many college-aged women. They are not being attacked by a foreign enemy, but they are being attacked by their boyfriends, friends, acquaintances and drinking buddies. As Jon Krakauer’snew book "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" documents, there were 230 rapes in Missoula over four years, "most of which either weren’t prosecuted or the prosecutions were bungled." Krakauer’s book reveals the pervasive security risk that young women are exposed to and the lack of justice that our legal system gives them.

If this were a real war, there would probably be a general call to arms. (At least one lawmaker has suggested that women should carry firearms on campus.) But research suggests that asking young women to carry guns would only make them more likely to get shot. Here’s a better idea: what if we required all high-schoolers to take a self-defense class as part of their physical education?

There’s no reason to limit these classes to women. The danger of being a victim of violence is real for everyone. In 2013, an American had a 1-in-100 chance of being a victim of violent crime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of course, it matters if you live in Baton Rouge, La., where that risk is 1-in-15, or in Virginia Beach, Va., where it is approximately 1-in-1000 people.

Different Risks

While women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, men are more likely to be victims of violent crime. According to 2013 Bureau of Justice statistics, 1.2 percent of all males age 12 or older (1.6 million males) and 1.1 percent of all females (1.5 million females) were victims of violent crime. So while we tend not to think about men as rape victims (unless they are in jail), men also need to learn how to defend themselves.

Women, though, need to be able to defend themselves from sexual assault by men, especially those men with whom they are acquainted. Such defense requires special techniques. Women, for instance, should learn avoidance tactics, like throwing up on the attacker. For this reason, these defense classes should be segregated by gender.

Many techniques for defending oneself against sexual assault aim to make the perpetrator’s plan go awry. One lesson that stayed with me from the self-defense class I took as a graduate student at Princeton University is that you need to choose ahead of time how you are going to fight. For instance, you should plan to bite off the attacker’s tongue or gouge out his eyes before you ever find yourself in that situation.

Moreover, a lot of what women think they know about self-defense may be just wrong. Kicking someone in his manly bits is more likely to miss (and not necessarily effective if the person is on drugs) than trying to kick out a knee. If someone anticipates your kicking in the groin, that person can grab your leg and easily flip you to the ground. You cannot rely simply on having mace in your purse, because it is too hard to get to.

Avoid Second Locations

But self-defense classes are not just about hitting, kicking and biting. My instructor began the class with a question: If someone comes up to you on a crowded street with a gun and tells you to get in a car, do you get in the car? Her answer was never. The difference between getting in the car and not is the difference between being shot (possibly fatally) and being tortured, raped and killed. Never let the perpetrator take you to a second location.

Physical self-defense techniques also include breathing, controlling one’s body language and moving to safety. According to Mary Gavin, senior medical editor of KidsHealth, "self-defense actually means doing everything possible to avoid fighting someone who threatens or attacks you. Self-defense is all about using your smarts — not your fists." So understood, self-defense is something everyone should learn in physical education.

There are limitations, of course: self-defense is a less effective strategy if you are inebriated, and a lot of college students are raped when they have been drinking. But learning some basic defense strategies can be life-changing. Imagine if the Department of Defense were less targeted at wars abroad and more focused on protecting young people at home? That would be real homeland security.

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