When Teaching Girls Karate Doesn’t Stop Sexual Assault

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An earlier reader, who anonymously shared her story, pushes back on the suggestion that karate could offer a solution for sexual assault:

Interesting discussion. Thank you for including a variety of responses. I admire the father’s determination to teach his daughter self defense by sending a painful joint lock lesson in the event someone has trouble respecting his daughter’s “no.” It is very important to teach children to say “no” and have their choices respected. It is important to give our children permission and tips to defend themselves. Loving parents hope their children will be successful in defending themselves.

I truly wish karate and other self defenses (i.e. pepper spray, whistles, or a weapon)  were the answer to rape prevention. I also pray his daughter is successful if the time ever comes to use karate. I hope she swings into action like all the tough superheroes on television and in the movies. I cheer her on. And applaud her parents and instructors.

I tried to fight. I didn’t win. I was outnumbered and drugged.

I also hope they wrap her in the courage to know that even if she encounters a bigger, stronger, perhaps karate-trained villain(s) who wound or outnumber her, she is not at fault. It is never the victim's responsibility to prevent rape or any other assault.

It is also important to teach our children that while there may be a time to fight, it is equally important to learn when to run if able, or when to remain still and quiet to survive to tell your story, even if you wished to die during the fight. Those are all equally noble and wise choices.  

Victims can’t prevent rape. Part of being a victim is being stripped of choices. Victims and their parents are usually only left with choice in how to respond to—and survive— the reality that they are now part of the unfortunate one-in-six statistic. (And as noted by other readers, the perpetrator isn’t always a stranger.)

And if she is successful, still wrap her in comfort; she'll need it because she is a survivor of attempted rape.

The idea that teaching self-defense could somehow shield a woman from sexual assault is a controversial one. And it teeters dangerously close to victim blaming—that is, the implication that it was the victim’s responsibility to prevent the crime (see also: concerns about the victim’s dress or level of alcohol consumption).

In an open letter to the victim in the Stanford case posted by BuzzFeed, Vice President Biden writes, “I join your global chorus of supporters, because we can never say enough to survivors: I believe you. It is not your fault.” He continues:

What you endured is never, never, never, NEVER a woman’s fault. [...]

We will speak to change the culture on our college campuses — a culture that continues to ask the wrong questions: What were you wearing?

Why were you there? What did you say? How much did you drink?

Instead of asking: Why did he think he had license to rape?