POSTED: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 1:15pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 1:19pm
CNN — The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs was roundly criticized and ridiculed last week by victims' rights groups, gun advocates and others skeptical of tips on the school's website for deterring rapists, which included urinating and vomiting as potential ways of repulsing assailants.
Laughable as they may seem, universities and law enforcement agencies across the country have been sharing guidelines like these for years as part of self-defense training and education programs. While such strategies may be worthy as self-defense, experts say they don't get to the root cause of rape because they're just that -- strategies for self-defense, not for stopping someone from committing sexual assault.
Much of the criticism stemmed from the view that there are more effective ways of defending oneself than self-induced vomiting or claiming to be menstruating, said feminist writer and educator Jaclyn Friedman, author of "What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety."
"A lot of that advice is based on the assumption that we can't use our bodies to protect ourselves," she said. "Women can learn how to use the strength of their bodies against the weakness of their assailants' bodies."
Others took issue with the recommendation that "passive resistance may be your best defense" in light of studies showing that fighting back can increase the likelihood of escaping rape, said Occidental College politics professor Caroline Heldman, who specializes in media and gender studies.
"It is absolutely false to argue that there is ever a time where you should lie there and take it," she said. "These strategies support the idea that females are inherently vulnerable and violable. But all humans are vulnerable if you know how to exploit their weaknesses."
Considered in a broader societal context, focusing on self-defense places responsibility on the victim to defuse an attack rather than on society as whole to prevent it, said Tracy Cox, communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
"Society needs to establish a zero tolerance for sexual violence. Instead of saying, 'don't get raped,' which shifts the responsibility onto a potential victim, the message should be 'don't rape' and focus on holding perpetrators accountable," Cox said.
"Sure, risk-reduction strategies -- such as self-defense classes -- can be part of a larger, comprehensive approach to preventing sexually violent crimes. But, in order to cultivate safer communities, we must create social change."
Such sentiments are part of a wider "paradigm shift" that many would like to see away from blaming victims for walking down empty streets or wearing short skirts. Instead, why not discourage sexually aggressive behavior, or create a culture of "engaged bystanders" who intervene before, during or after they witness suspicious activity?
"The issue really is about men, who we know commit most sexual assaults, and how do you stop men from doing it, not how do you coach women to cleverly get out of situations of harm," said Jackson Katz, author of "The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help," and co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, a program that teaches strategies for preventing gender violence through the bystander approach.
People tend to think they need to physically intervene to stop inappropriate behavior, he said. But there are other options, from encouraging partygoers to rescue a drunk friend to distracting an aggressive man with a joke to calling police.
In addition to the bystander approach, some colleges offer violence prevention programs to help men and women identify sexually inappropriate behavior. The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs is one of those schools, thanks to a federal grant in 2010 from the Office on Violence Against Women that led to the creation of the "Interpersonal Violence Prevention and Education Program." The program, which includes courses like "Interpersonal Violence 101," "Dating and Domestic Abuse" and "Sexual Assault Awareness," reached more than than 3,100 students and 63 staff members in 2012, according to information provided by the university.
Most universities and colleges, however, fail to take adequate measures to prevent sexual assault on campus, the U.S. Department of Education said in a 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter. About 20% of women and 6% of men are victims of completed or attempted sexual assaults during college, according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice report cited in the letter, which outlined schools' responsibilities to respond to sexual violence under Title IX
"Colleges in general simply have not done what they need to do to address this epidemic," said Occidental University's Heldman. "The fact that we still have victim-blaming in 2013 shows this is an ongoing problem."
In the wake of last week's controversy, UCCS removed the tips, which were intended as "last resort options when all other defense methods have been exhausted," the school said in a statement explaining its decision.
The tips were taken out of their original context as supplemental material for a self-defense course for students known as Rape Aggression Defense Systems, or R.A.D., Jim Spice, the college's executive director of public safety and chief of police, said in an e-mail.
The 12-hour basic class includes three hours of classroom discussion, six hours learning hands-on defensive techniques, and three hours of simulation activity. And, there was more to the recommendations than vomiting, urinating or claiming to be menstruating, he said, including yelling or hitting.
"The R.A.D. program covers very thoroughly self-defense tactics such as punching, kicking, eye gouging, use of weapons," Spice said.
"The list of crime prevention tips was only a partial listing of all R.A.D options for defense. We have and will continue to apologize for that error and are working to create more comprehensive crime prevention tips on our website."
Regardless of intention, reaction to the guidelines quickly took on a life of its own, becoming a trending Twitter topic under hashtag #UCCSTips. They surfaced through a tweet by the managing editor of the university's student newspaper "The Scribe." Jesse Byrnes told the Colorado Springs Gazette that he tweeted links to the tips while researching campus safety policies for an editorial.
The topic became a rallying point for gun advocates after conservative columnist Michelle Malkin spread word of the tips on Twitter and in a blog post titled, "Colorado morons want to leave women defenseless: 'Vomiting or urinating' better than carrying a gun.' "
Part of it had to do with timing: The week before, Colorado lawmakers weighed legislation that would ban firearms in college campus buildings. During the debate Democratic State Rep. Joe Salazar made controversial (and convoluted) remarks suggesting that carrying guns could lead to accidental shootings.
While Malkin and others sharing her views seized the opportunity to make the point that guns are more effective than whistles or other means of "passive resistance," others promoted the view that the focus should be on preventing rapes before they happen.
"Violence against women isn't about access to firearms, it's about a culture that views women as objects to be acted upon rather than fully realized human beings," said filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder of media literacy organization MissRepresentation.org.
"That's the debate we should be having -- how to change the culture of objectifying women and the acceptance of rape myths -- rather than this distracting conversation which uses the tragedy of rape as a chess piece in a game about gun control."