Self-Defense Class At Harvard Focuses On Fighting Sexual Assault

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For years, teaching self-defense has been considered a controversial way to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, with some critics saying it's a form of blaming the victim. Instead, the focus has been on teaching students what constitutes sexual assault, and teaching students how to intervene when they think a person might be assaulted.

But some Harvard students believe that's not enough, and they've decided to learn how to protect themselves.

Self-Defense Class

In a grand house off Harvard Square, which we are not allowed to identify, the students, a group of women, have gathered in a shabby, oak-paneled room to learn how to protect themselves.

Serena, a Harvard junior, wants only her first name used because the others want to remain anonymous. She took the class last year and brought back friends.

"It really was the most empowering day of my life, last year, in just realizing that there are such concrete tools that we can learn as women to protect ourselves, and to help us realize that we do have the choice in every situation," Serena says.

The mother of one of the women paid for the class.

Part of the instruction is in physical self-defense. Meg Stone, the instructor, teaches the women to get into a stable stance — feet wide apart, shoulders back, hands up like stop signs — when they feel threatened.

"So, this stance is a big part of our self-defense tools," Stone says. "Another big part is a strong voice. So I'm going to demonstrate it. I'm going to yell a short, sharp 'No!' from the gut. It's going to sound like this: 'No!' "

The women laugh at how startled they are by Stone's yell, and they applaud her.

For three hours, Stone teaches the women verbal and physical ways to deter aggressors on the street, in the subway, at parties in rooms like this one and in dorm rooms. She holds up a huge helmet to train the women how to jab at the eyes of an attacker. She teaches each woman to assess who is a threat and how to escalate her verbal responses in a dangerous situation.

There is pushback on college campuses against teaching women self-defense, because it's seen as a way of blaming victims. Critics believe the emphasis should be on teaching men not to assault.

Serena says it cannot be either/or.

"I don't think empowering women to defend themselves makes us feel responsible," Serena says. "Personally, I feel the opposite now. Now that if I were to be attacked ... I would blame myself less, because I could say I've done everything I could."

Stone has each woman practice getting out of a situation she does not want to be in after a man has brought her to a male-dominated space, say, his room.

Stone also coaches each woman to put a male friend on notice after he's tried to have sex with a female friend against her will.

"I'm your friend, and I'm concerned," one of the students tells a male actor as they act out that skit. "I want you to think about respecting [the female friend's] boundaries and the way you're affecting her."

"Yep, all right," replies the male actor in a harsh voice, indicating he's not being receptive. "I'm going to think about it a lot. I'm going to think about you, I'm going to think about Jill, and maybe how we're all done with this."

After class, the women reflect on what they've gotten out of it. One student says she learned that she need not do anything she does not want to do.

"I don't have to apologize for being myself and wanting what I want and not wanting what I don't want, and that's really empowering," she says.

Instructor Stone is frustrated that colleges and universities don't see the potential for classes such as this one. She's taught it at 35 high schools and just as many community groups and businesses.

But besides this session at Harvard, she's only taught classes at three other colleges. She's also been booked for a class at MIT. Emerson College and Boston College also offer self-defense for women, but not with scenarios for sexual assault.

This article was originally published on April 08, 2015.

This segment aired on April 8, 2015.


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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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