As important as it is for us to advocate for gender parity in the arts, we also need to be advocating for our personal safety as women. The World Health Organization says one in three women worldwide experience sexual or physical violence, and one in every six women in America have been victims of sexual assault.
Author, actor and self-defense instructor Ellen Snortland, author of Beauty Bites Beast, the groundbreaking book on women’s self defense, has released it now as a new documentary. The film, Beauty Bites Beast — Revealing the Missing Conversations About Ending Violence, aims to spark discussions to help put an end to violence against women and girls.
Not only is physical self-defense important, but emotional defense and boundary setting is critical to taking care of ourselves as we advocate for better working conditions, equal pay, childcare and more. The film is currently screening in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities and dates to be added.
I caught up with Ellen to ask her five questions about her work, plus a bonus that is close to my own heart.
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Why do we not have personal safety lessons when we are growing up?
Cis boys are often taught how to stop a bully, how to relate to violence, when they are growing up. A much smaller percentage of girls are given personal safety tools; those tools are not passed on because of long-standing and archaic customs that separate genders at the infancy stage. Pink blankets for girls/blue for boys starts the road to bogus definitions of masculinity and bankrupt notions of “lady-like” behaviors.
The tricky part is that most parents and teachers don’t have a clue about the degree to which we disarm girls very early on. We teach girls to be nice no matter what. We frequently allow boys boundary setting with things like “You know, he just is past the stage where he wants to hug or kiss.” On the other hand, girls are frequently shamed into hugging people or allowing even the most innocent touch with an admonishment “You’ll hurt Aunt Susy’s feelings. She just wants a little kiss.” If our little girl Sally is not allowed to set boundaries with people she loves, how is she going to set boundaries when she feels threatened later on in life?
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Won’t teaching women how to fight back create roving bands of women beating men up?
No, and by the way, that’s a projection. Why would you be concerned about a woman beating you up unless you’ve done something that deserves retaliation?
The second most idiotic question I’ve been asked, and I hesitate to bring it up: Won’t learning how to fight back attract violence? This is generally a cover-up for fear, and is asked by people who don’t equate what we teach in personal safety to all disaster preparation. A sexual assault is a disaster for the target. We don’t attract car accidents by having car insurance or safety measures like seat belts, padded dashboards, airbags. We don’t attract food poisoning by washing our hands and being careful with sanitation in the kitchen. We don’t attract drowning by learning how to swim. Learning how to protect yourself is a simple acknowledgement that there are mean people in the world, and learning tools to handle mean people won’t attract them. It’s more likely they will feel that preparation and be repelled with not a thing happening. It’s hard to prove that nothing happened. And that’s our intended outcome: by being prepared in the event of violence, nothing happens.
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Why do you hate men?
Feminists have been chasing that red herring for a long time. It’s not really weird. It’s a distraction. Soon, the advocate for women’s liberation (marriage equality, civil rights, fill in the progressive movement here) has to defend why what they want isn’t an attack on the status quo. My freedom doesn’t equal your suppression.
What do you say to people who are staunchly pro-firearms as “necessary to deter personal violence”?
I usually start with — if I’m face to face with them — Where’s your gun right now? And in the time that they can take to answer, I could have already belted them a good one and they’d be out cold. That’s the smart ass answer. More thoughtfully however, I usually say something like: My family happens to be from hunting states originally where people had appropriate firearms for the task at hand: a shotgun for pheasants, deer, etc. None of them have ever had AK47s. I’m ardently pro-gun control, getting weapons designed to devastate other combatants off the streets. While I personally would not own a gun, hand-guns fall under my rubric of pro-choice. And you’d be surprised at how many progressives are “in the closet” hand-gun owners. I would beg them to get training if they are going to have one in their home and/or carry. Given that most people do not pack in the shower, I see owning a gun as a short cut sometimes to simply knowing what your own weapons — elbows, legs, arms, teeth — can do with self-protection.
Because pop culture movies sometimes actually have nuggets of useful information, is the “SING” clip from the 2000 movie Miss Congeniality accurate? If not, what should women do instead?
The best fight is no fight.
Bonus Question: I have a young daughter myself. What two or three things should I be teaching her now to take care of herself?
1) Ask your daughter to imagine she is a puppy or kitten. What would they do if someone picked them up when they didn’t want to be picked up? Don’t answer for her. Have her imagine in her own mind’s eye what pets do when they are protecting themselves. One thing they do is squirm. Squirming is not brawn-related and just is simple twisting and using all of the limbs and everything to make a larger entity let go! Pets also use their voices. Our barking equivalent is Yelling “Let me go! Stop! No, No, No!” while squirming. Pets employ all of their little bodies to this, then run away!
I like normalizing self-defense because pets are not overly concerned with being nice no matter what.
2) Let her know in no uncertain terms that she has the right to jurisdiction over her own body and you will back her up when she sets boundaries. If she doesn’t want to be hugged or have her cheeks pinched, back her up. Never say “Oh, you just made Auntie Alice feel bad. Let her give you a hug.”
3) Get her into a class ASAP! Our bodies need to be trained, not our minds. We don’t remember rules all that well when we have a potentially or full out violent incident. Our bodies do remember though and we are much better off when we have hands on practice. New York City has PREPARE Inc. which I can recommend wholeheartedly for any age.