(adapted from my essay We Aren't Civilized Yet, which appeared in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 1, published in 2007 by Aqueduct Press.
At the end the panel "Military Women: Past, Present and Future" at the 2006 Wisconsin Science Fiction Convention (WisCon), my co-panelist David Haseman (a retired Army colonel) thanked the audience for letting us skip the question that usually dominates such panels: whether women can be effective soldiers. Instead, we ended up having a lively discussion -- at 8:30 AM on Monday morning! -- that covered such divergent topics as whether one function of war is the biological goal of genetic mixing and if democracies are indeed less warlike than other forms of government.
Of the many topics we covered that morning, one is close to my heart: self defense. This essay doesn’t recap the discussion at WisCon – you can read a partial transcript complied by Laura Quilter here -- but gives my current thoughts on self defense.
One of the more obvious lessons from the Iraq War is that it's difficult to plan where to put combat troops. Even during the so-called "actual war," there were a number of times when support military units such as cooks and supply troops found themselves under attack. As the war degenerated into an insurgency and the current civil war, this situation multiplied.
The result in a U.S. military that is 14.4 percent female is that women soldiers have sometimes found themselves on the front lines, whether or not they were prepared for them. This situation makes a mockery of the exclusion of women from combat positions, which are also the jobs that provide the greatest opportunities for career advancement in the armed forces. Women are actually serving in combat, but are neither being given sufficient training for it nor receiving professional credit for doing the job. They continue to be treated as second-class soldiers though their lives are on the line. The lack of a clearly defined front line in modern war also creates a good argument for upping the combat readiness training of all soldiers, even those who do paperwork jobs. (For a detailed discussion of how inadequate training of women in the military is both limiting their careers and putting them at risk, see Erin Solaro's excellent book Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military, Seal Press 2006.)
Whether a war takes the form of the traditional battle between two trained armies or the now more common form of bombing campaigns against civilian targets and guerrilla-style attacks, the historical truth is that civilian women have always been on the front lines. Although in the past the official combatants may have primarily been men -- a few disguised women notwithstanding -- battles have rarely been confined to areas that don't overlap with civilian populations.
Now that direct attacks on civilians have become an acknowledged strategy -- one unfortunately not confined to those labeled “terrorists” -- the idea that men must protect women and children is exposed as the myth it probably always was. In fact, the discussion at the panel about the value of war in producing genetic mixing comes from the idea that women are a legitimate spoil of war and rape is the privilege of the conqueror. That we now, on occasion, punish soldiers for rape does not mean that this idea has become obsolete.
While too many wars are raging across the earth, much of the human race is not currently in danger of being caught in the crossfire. But all of us are at risk from crime. Everyone -- male or female, young or old -- is at some risk from violent criminal attack. No matter how many laws we pass, humans have been unable to legislate violence out of existence. While these days we not only punish traditionally defined assaults but also have begun to recognize crimes such as date rape and hazing -- activities that were once ignored, if not quietly approved -- assaults still occur.
Humans have come up with many systems for protection over the years: walls, locks, and their modern counterpart, the security system; armies in their defensive role; police, private security firms, and even personal bodyguards. But no one wants to stay locked inside all day, and police officers cannot be everywhere at once. Even bodyguards are not a perfect solution (the well-trained Secret Service was not able to prevent the assassination of John Kennedy or the shooting of Ronald Reagan), and given the amount of privacy and money one must sacrifice to be guarded full-time, most would not exercise this option unless their lives were under constant threat.
Our culture operates on the myth that men are, for the most part, able to defend themselves. There's a corollary to that myth: men are expected to put their lives on the line to protect others, particularly women. Classically, this even includes protecting the honor of women. This corollary is well-entrenched: indeed, the story of the unskilled man who attempts to protect a woman from a verbal or physical offense and then finds himself in a fight that is over his head is so common in fiction as to be a cliché. Of course he always wins, or at least gets the girl. But in real life, alas, victory is never assured.
The flip side of the myth is that women need to be protected, can’t defend themselves, and shouldn’t be expected to; they must, however, defend their children in all circumstances. The corresponding myth involving women is thus that of the mother who gets between her child and the rampaging tiger or wild man with a gun. We often see warm-hearted human-interest stories about women who succeed in protecting their children as well as equally tear-inducing stories about those who die in the attempt.
These stories developed in more primitive times, when the survival of a clan -- or indeed, of the human race -- was tied to reproduction. Men were expendable, since they can't bear children and aren't equipped to breastfeed, and the next generation was worth more than the current one, so it was worth sacrificing a woman to protect the children. But since we no longer live in a world where every woman must produce as many children as she possibly can to ensure that the human race survives, we need to let go of ideas about defending ourselves that were developed when survival required producing as many children as possible.
We must recognize two important facts. First, the world is not safe. The level of risk may be greater or lesser, depending on where you live and what your resources are, but we are all at some risk of attack from our fellow human beings. While we often use the word "inhuman" to describe particularly awful crimes, the truth is that interpersonal violence is as much a part of the human makeup as love and compassion. In addition, there are numerous other dangers in the world -- disease, natural disaster, a vast potential for accidents -- that further jeopardize our sense of safety.
Second, women are as capable as men of protecting themselves and protecting others when necessary. That both genders buy into the myth that they are not keeps women at a significant disadvantage, because they must place limitations on themselves, such as traveling with a male companion or avoiding certain neighborhoods. Acting in accordance with this myth not only perpetuates a helpless mindset among the female population, limiting their sense of potential as well as their careers and dreams, it also impels men to take foolish risks, particularly men who really don't know how to protect themselves but feel that they must do something nonetheless.
During the panel, a member of the audience asked if we thought it would change things if most women knew how to defend themselves. According to Quilter's notes, Haseman and I both answered "yes" in unison and with enthusiasm. Once enough women know the basics of self defense, we will no longer be seen automatically as a group of victims, all of us vulnerable to attack on the sole ground of our gender.
Another audience member brought up the Heinlein quote, "An armed society is a polite society." But I'm not arguing that we should revert to a society where everyone carries a gun or a sword -- even if everyone includes women. Giving everyone a weapon is a more simplistic response than training everyone in the broad range of skills that provide self defense.
In the first place, while I do believe that people who have seriously studied the arts of war are much less likely than others to fight unless it is absolutely necessary, I question that "armed" leads to "polite." Too many people assume that having a weapon gives them an edge over others, and it's easy enough to learn how to use a gun without learning any of the restraint taught in martial arts or even the military.
In the second place, self defense has very little to do with fighting. Fighting skills can come in handy and learning them is a sure way to build self confidence, but most people will rarely, if ever, need to fight to protect themselves or someone else. In fact, when I teach Aikido, I point out to my students that the most important self defense technique you can learn is how to fall down and get back up. Not only will that help you if you should get attacked, it will also come in handy when you slip on the ice or take a header off a bicycle -- things that are much more likely to happen.
Here are some of the other important skills that allow people to protect themselves and others:
Paying attention: seeing what is going on before what is going on sees you.
Presenting a confident, but not overaggressive, persona: finding the balance between standing your ground and running roughshod over your adversary.
Being flexible: changing your route, changing your plans; adapting to the situation.
Trusting your intuition: if your gut says a situation is dangerous, getting out of it, figuring out why later.
Staying calm: keeping your cool in stressful situations.
Learning what to fear: learning that the things that frighten us the most emotionally -- stranger assaults and terrorist attacks -- are not nearly as big a risk as more ordinary actions, such as driving a car.
Perhaps most importantly, women and men need to learn something about self defense because it teaches you to accept risk in your life and to understand and deal with your own capacity for anger and violence.
On the whole, I'd say a society in which people have learned to pay attention to what is happening around them and come to terms with their own anger will be a polite society -- perhaps even a civilized one.