News | Self defense classes not enough

More needs to be done to address sexual assault

Content warning: Rape, sexual assault

What is the program?

Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) is a self-defense class offered through McGill Security Services. The class is “for women,” and consists of two sessions, held on two different days.

“The first part is […] a two hour theory portion, which covers all the risky situations.. […] We talk about risk reduction, risk awareness, risk avoidance, risk recognition […] and then we go to technical, which is, of course, punches, kicks, finger rolls, all of that,” Alexandra Gregorian, Investigations and Community Relations Supervisor at McGill and RAD instructor, said in an interview with The Daily.

The RAD self defense class costs twenty dollars and comes with a manual which provides suggestions on how to prevent risk and enhance personal safety.

What are the criticisms?

The program, which has been running at McGill since at least 2013, but is also offered at other North American universities, has faced criticism in the past. A Jezebel article from 2015 took a look into the manual that accompanies the classes.

According to the article, the manual is full of overly specific instructions for women, and “encapsulates the stone-age approach to sexual assault prevention that too many institutions in the U.S. still consider the gold standard: fear-based, authoritarian, and preoccupied with minutiae.”

The manual suggests: “Try ‘casing’ your own home, at night and/or during the day. Attempt to gain access when locked and ‘secure.’ If possible, invite a security survey from your local Police Department.”

“None of this is exactly bad advice,” the Jezebel article reads. “Doing these things won’t make you any less safe, although doing all of them (there are six full pages of Risk Reduction Strategies) might make you kind of paranoid.”

When asked about the manual and its role in the RAD classes at McGill, Gregorian responded, “[In the manual] what they do is they talk about risk awareness […]. Some of it is dated, [however] it really is about securing the home so there are no dark areas or things like that.”

“Doing these things won’t make you any less safe, although doing all of them (there are six full pages of Risk Reduction Strategies) might make you kind of paranoid.”

Paniz Khosroshahy,* founder of the McGill chapter of Silence is Violence, responded to criticisms of RAD by relating it to a more universal problem.

“If we want to critique RAD, we need to critique all education strategies on campus that address sexual assault because at the end of the day they are all used by the University to avoid responsibility for actual occurrences of sexual assault on campus and supporting survivors,” she wrote in an email to The Daily.

“It’s in the interest of the University to keep its students happy by saying ‘look we have these education initiatives for you,’ to detract attention from the fact that consent education may not work and that the University’s sexual assault policy doesn’t really focus on placing sanctions on perpetrators,” Khosroshahy concluded.

In a phone interview with The Daily, Bianca Tétrault, McGill’s Liaison Officer (Harm Reduction), who has worked on developing consent education, voiced her concerns and emphasized that RAD is not a total solution to the problem of sexual assault on campus.

“It’s in the interest of the University to keep its students happy by saying ‘look we have these education initiatives for you,’ to detract attention from the fact that consent education may not work and that the University’s sexual assault policy doesn’t really focus on placing sanctions on perpetrators.”

“I do have my concerns when it comes to self-defense focused courses. I think that it’s a very, very fine line that instructors walk, because we know the realities around the misconceptions of sexual violence, the stigmas and the internalization of the shame and blame,” she said. “It can’t be a stand alone solution or offering.”

“It is unfortunate that we have to put the onus on women for them to change their behavior because they’re not the problem,” Gregorian also noted. “But I feel that it’s our responsibility to make sure that we do provide a self defense class in the meantime, until there is a culture change.”

Where has the program succeeded?

Tétrault took the class a few years ago and spoke of the positive impact it had on her and her fellow participants: “What was […] impressive was actually watching the participants in the workshop […]. When we provide education, there needs to be components for everybody. We may not all agree on approaches, but we can’t say ‘just because I don’t believe in self-defense classes you shouldn’t either.’”

Gregorian agreed, emphasizing that she believes women come out of these classes feeling empowered.

“It is unfortunate that we have to put the onus on women for them to change their behavior because they’re not the problem.”

Both women emphasized the need for diversity in the solution to sexual violence, as well as recognition of the fact that everybody has a different way of feeling safe.

Gregorian spoke of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involving nine hundred women over a four year period across Canadian campuses, including the University of Calgary, Guelph, and Windsor.

“Half of those women were provided with the self defense course and half of them weren’t. What they’ve noticed in the study is that rape dropped by nearly fifty per cent. So these programs do work,” Gregorian said.

Moving Forward

When asked if RAD talks about recognizing dangerous and unhealthy relationships that could lead to sexual assault, Gregorian responded, “We don’t cover that specifically, but […] the theory [part of the class] is a safe space and we let [the participants] know it is a safe space.”

“I think the bigger conversation we need to have is who is responsible for preventing violence? Where does the responsibility lie?,” Tétrault also said. “Oftentimes the reality is that people freeze, and that’s okay, and that’s a survival mechanism […] We have to keep talking about that.”

*Paniz Khosroshahy is a staff writer for The Daily.


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