I spent several years living in Mexico. I walked just about everywhere to attend school, teach school, shop, and otherwise live my daily life. Of English, Irish, Scottish and various other European backgrounds, I’m as “güera” (blonde, light skinned, light eyes) as one gets. Not surprisingly I stuck out like a sore thumb.
This fact alone didn’t necessarily mark me as a target for untoward approaches or criminal activity, but it certainly played a role. I can absolutely attest to the fact that I received more attention than my Mexican classmates and colleagues because I was different. I was also barely a twenty-something, and was over 2,000 miles away from my family.
So, I had to be careful. If I wanted to live independently abroad, I was responsible for ensuring that I stayed safe and sound while doing so.
The onus was on me to make sure I knew the language, knew where to go (and where not to go), and how to stay safe. I carried mace. I reached out to a friend who practices Brazilian capoiera to give me a few pointers about protecting myself. I didn’t walk around by myself at night if I could avoid it, and I didn’t hail taxis from the street.
Miss Nevada USA Nia Sanchez is crowned Miss USA during the Miss USA 2014 pageant in Baton Rouge, La., Sunday, June 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman) AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman
In sum - I was careful. I avoided danger first, and was relatively prepared to defend myself if that failed.
When I share this, few roll their eyes in disgust. In fact, most applaud me for being an independent woman, able to live safely and happily abroad by taking steps to ensure my safety in a country that is still considered one of the more dangerous in Latin America.
“After all,” they’d contend, “it’s the smart thing to do.”
So what makes college campuses any different?
Nia Sanchez, (Miss Nevada - now Miss USA) recently tried to contend that it isn’t different, and she was met with a flurry of criticism. She was presented with a question relative to the fact that “19 percent of U.S. undergraduate women are victims of sexual assault” and why she thinks "the issue is being swept under the rug and what should be done about it.”
Sanchez cogently responded:
“I believe that some colleges may potentially be afraid of having a bad reputation and that would be a reason it could be swept under the rug, because they don’t want that to come out into the public.... But I think more awareness is very important so women can learn how to protect themselves. Myself, as a fourth-degree black belt, I learned from a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself. And I think that’s something that we should start to really implement for a lot of women.”
She acknowledged a real problem, and presented a real solution that allows women to beat the “19 percent” odds (which, by the way, were grossly misspoken at the pageant) even when their universities aren’t doing enough about it. After all, is that not the feminist message? That we don’t need anyone - much less men - to do for us what we can do for ourselves?
[sharequote align="center"]Is that not the feminist message? That we don’t need men to do for us what we can do for ourselves?[/sharequote]
Here’s a stunningly beautiful, independent young woman (who could easily subdue most men in a fight), telling women that perhaps rather than waiting around for colleges to do something about the sexual assault problem, we ought to be ready to do something about it. Would those who criticized her prefer that sexual assault victims subdue quietly to the act, and then run to campus authorities afterwards?
Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post writes of Sanchez's response:
“This is not a bad answer, although the problem of prevention isn’t a simple question of confident women learning self-defense techniques against Stranger Danger (Sanchez’s professed specialty). For one, it usually isn't a stranger. For another, the onus shouldn’t have to be on women to become self-defense experts. It’s on everyone to establish a baseline of consent."
Petri then goes into a dialogue about the problems that exist within the university systems and the “flawed process” many colleges have for dealing with rape.
First of all, are women perpetually in college? To be certain, the burden is on the colleges to respond effectively to the reports of sexual assault. It is not, however, the burden of the college to prevent sexual assault. And, even if it were, are women to remain perpetually on college campuses (those with optimal sexual assault prevention and response protocol, that is), so as to avoid these situations outside in the real world? Sanchez’s advice goes far beyond the halls of college, and equips women with the ability to defend themselves wherever in the world they may be.
Secondly, for purposes of this argument, it is irrelevant whether or not the victim knows the perpetrator, or whether that perpetrator "thought" there was consent. Sexual assault is sexual assault. Period. The need for women to be able to defend themselves against evil does not diminish with whether or not she knows her attacker. Do we tell our troops in Afghanistan not to wear Kevlar because they happen to know the people who might one day attack them?
In this Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012 photo, a person walks on the University at Buffalo campus in Buffalo, N.Y.Credit: AP
Quite a few people weighed in on Sanchez’s remarks, and a common theme surfaced: “how about we just teach men not to rape?”
What a world we could live in if only we could teach terrorists not to blow up innocent people. Or teach sickos not to torture helpless puppies. Or teach pedophiles - who belong to both genders- not to lust after little boys and girls. It’d be simply lovely. And it’ll never happen.
So what’s the next best thing? Learning how to defend ourselves against them, while simultaneously working to improve prevention methods, and dole out actual consequences to the perpetrators. That’s key - you’ll note that Sanchez did not say that self-defense was the definitive way to deal with sexual assault on college campuses. She said it was a tool to help people no matter what their surrounding circumstances.
Maybe it’s time to - as a society - stop celebrating the likes of Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus, whose sexually explicit (and heinously disrespectful to women) lyrics teach us gals that it’s attractive to be a sexual object and start celebrating real feminine strength instead.
I’d say the advice of a fourth degree black belt is a pretty good place to begin.
Mary Ramirez is a full time writer, creator of www.afuturefree.com--a political commentary blog, and contributor to the Chris Salcedo show. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree
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