Moving America Forward

If Universities Made This Course a Pre-Requisite, Campuses Would Be Safer for Female Students

June 7, 2016
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If Universities Made This Course a Pre-Requisite, Campuses Would Be Safer for Female Students
Stanford’s administration mandates students take an online "upstander" intervention module before starting school. Photo: Stanford University
As outrage continues to swirl around a Stanford student convicted of sexual assault, one class empowers women to be their own protectors.

Before Sandra Scott left home for college, her mother asked her to take a self-defense class — just in case she “encountered a situation where someone wanted to hurt” her. The 19-year-old Stanford University freshman from New Port Richey, Fla., did some research but never got around to signing up. When she got to Palo Alto, Calif., the sun-splashed campus seemed perfectly safe. Yet, when her resident assistant mentioned a new, student-run self-defense seminar starting the next quarter, Scott enrolled in it — partly out of a sense of obligation to her mom. In the company of 15 females, Scott says the class’s candid discussions opened her eyes to a different reality at the college.

“I had generally felt safe on campus. … I wasn’t exposed to anything — or to that much — but hearing from other women and how it had affected them, I realized sexual assault is a problem at Stanford,” Scott tells NationSwell. After taking the nine-week class, “I don’t know if I would say that I feel safer, but I definitely feel less naïve.”

Current student Daly Montgomery, a senior double majoring in aeronautics and African-American studies and rugby player, created “Protecting Your Bubble,” a self-defense course to empower female classmates to protect themselves. The class provides context about the prevalence and psychology for campus rape at large, explains the response systems in place at Stanford and teaches physical techniques to disable an attacker. Montgomery stresses that most participants probably won’t ever have to, say, knee a guy in the groin or scratch him, but that’s not the point. Rather, it encourages a woman to define her personal space — aka, her “bubble” — and to assert herself and feel she has the strength to back it up when someone tries to violate it. (In previous sessions, Montgomery also taught men and gender-nonconforming students.)

“If you are feeling unsafe, you are allowed to do something,” Montgomery tells her students. “That’s something they haven’t heard before. I realized through the class how important that was and how it’s not really emphasized anywhere else,” she says. “Much of what I aimed to do in my class was empower my students to realize they know more than they might think.” 

In both 2013 and 2014, 26 Stanford students experienced a forcible sexual offense.Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly

As universities across the country revamp their sexual assault prevention education to comply with federal law, self-defense classes often aren’t included — despite strong evidence proving their efficacy. This student-led class at Stanford adds a new dimension to prevention on a campus that’s struggled with sexual violence.

In 2013, according to campus crime statistics made public by the Clery Act, the university disclosed that 26 students experienced a forcible sexual offense — equal to the total number of robberies, aggravated assaults and car thefts on campus, combined. (In 2014, the most recent year available, Stanford students reported another 26 rapes and four cases of fondling.)

Clery Act data can be problematic: A comparably high number of reports may be evidence that a school has created an environment where reporting is encouraged, rather than hushed up. (Or, it could indicate a real problem.) Conversely, a low number could underrepresent the number of criminal acts. An official campus climate survey at Stanford in 2015 suggests the former: 6.5 percent of female undergraduate seniors reported being raped, and 36.8 percent reported sexual misconduct.

Led by the provost and philosophy professor John W. Etchemendy, Stanford’s administration responded to the violence and student outcry by overhauling the school’s reporting process for rape survivors and by mandating students take an online module about “upstander” (Stanford’s preferred term for bystander) intervention before they arrive on the palm tree-lined campus. The majority of the 11 students NationSwell interviewed at length over a four-day visit to campus this January, however, felt Etchemendy’s response did too little too late. (A Stanford spokeswoman, Lisa Lapin, denied several requests for interviews.)

During a rally in 2014, Stanford students demand better protections for victims of sexual assault.Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly

In response, student-led initiatives, including “Protecting Your Bubble,” began popping up across campus, centering their discussions on Stanford specifically. In Montgomery’s class, Scott says that hearing anecdotes from upperclassmen made sexual violence real for the first time, in a way completing the online course “from home on a computer” had not. Students in the course picked one session as their favorite: the fifth week’s module on “sticky situations.” In it, the group brainstorms hypothetical situations when someone else’s actions would make them uncomfortable (someone follows you home or touches you on a plane ride or public transit). In pairs, the girls act out how they would respond.

Thinking over a solution to each hypothetical dilemma made junior Esther Fan Melton realize that “self-defense is not about the other person, it’s about me and protecting my space.” Lex Schoenberg, one of Montgomery’s rugby teammates who took the class, echoes her, saying, “I think the most important lesson I’ll take with me is that I don’t have to feel powerless in uncomfortable or threatening situations.” She continues, “I now feel more confident in my ability to recognize and get out of certain sticky situations before they escalate too far.”

Schoenberg’s sense of empowerment aligns with clinical research on self-defense classes. A review of empirical studies shows that women who forcefully resist are more likely to prevent a perpetrator from completing a rape. In the past two years, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and one conducted by the University of Oregon found that a seminar-based university course like Montgomery’s could effectively reduce rates of sexual assault. With college campuses full of sexually active, young people, “there’s lots of opportunities for hooking up and partying,” says Martha McCaughey, sociology professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C, and author of “Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense.” In that environment, “there is certainly a need for both sex ed and rape prevention education on campus,” including self-defense training.

Despite these results, self-defense itself remains a sticky situation, hemmed in by opposition from all sides of the ideological divide, McCaughey says. Offering self-defense classes seems to be a natural fit, so why are they excluded? Some feminists take issue with placing moral responsibility on women to fight off an attacker, rather than on the perpetrator himself, while other left-leaners emphasize a nonviolent approach. And then there’s the group of gender traditionalists who contend women aren’t strong enough to defend themselves (or don’t want them to be), perpetuating a damsel-in-distress narrative that underlies some bystander intervention trainings, adds McCaughey, who also runs the blog See Jane Fight Back.

Those concerns quickly fade away with properly designed classes that empower women, like “Protecting Your Bubble,” which situates self-defense strategies within a broader look at the forces that either facilitate or discourage sexual violence. Interestingly, both its instructor and its students also report wanting to participate in the larger movement to change Stanford’s policies and procedures. When NationSwell first spoke to Montgomery in January, she noted that she hadn’t been “hugely involved in the broader campus response, just my little piece of it with my class.” But three months later, halfway into her second quarter of teaching, Montgomery says she feels more invested. “Before, I would say, I felt kind of disconnected from the overall activism. Teaching the class made me realize I have a very real stake in this — this is something I can contribute — and I’m more interested in trying to fit my portion into the overall movement.” Kaelyn Varner, a junior studying the intersection of science, technology and society echoes her sentiments. “I feel like I finally have knowledge and a platform to speak from.”

Graduation is only one week away for Montgomery. She doesn’t know who, if anyone, will take her spot leading “Protecting Your Bubble” next year — a perpetual problem in the four-year cycles of campus activism. (SARA, the Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse, Stanford’s direct services for survivors, has asked Montgomery to develop programming they could teach.) Effective methods to promote self-defense are clearly in place; it’s up to underclassmen or the university to see that the benefits reach future students.

MORE: This Proven Method Is How You Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses

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