Violence Dynamics and Gender: Unsorted Thoughts

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about violence lately. I’ve just started teaching another round of our women’s self defense course at Valkyrie; I’m working on a writing project that touches on how we need to be able to categorize and break down different kinds of violence to train for them; and I’ve started reading Anna Valdiserri’s new book, Creepology: Self Defense for your Social Life. There are a bunch of things bouncing around in my head right now that are important to how I write and how I teach, and I haven’t sorted them out entirely yet. This post is a first crack at doing that.

When we talk about violence in self-defense context, one of the first things we tend to do is sort it into two basic categories: social and asocial (or predatory) violence. The terms show up in a lot of books and classes at this points, but I’m going to steal the definition from Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane’s Scaling Force for its clarity and simplicity:

“[T]he intent in a social violence situation is to affect your environment. In other words, you want to establish dominance, “educate” somebody, or get him out of your territory. Sometimes that goal can be accomplished verbally, or whereas other times physical actions are necessary. Either way, social violence usually comes with instructions on how to avoid it. For example, if a guy says, “get the fuck out of my face,” he has told you exactly what will prevent escalation to violence… One key to social violence is the presence of witnesses, people who the adversary is playing to. He may be trying to establish status, deliver an educational beat-down, or even gang together with his friends to stake out territory. In most cases, however, there is an audience of his same social class to observe his actions.

[…]

Predatory violence is a whole different beast from social disputes. Violence is either a means to an end or, in the case of process predators, it is the goal itself. Or it might be somebody who wants to do really bad things to you simply because he can. Predators are usually solitary because it is hard for antisocial people to band together for common purpose for any length of time. There are generally no witnesses to the attack […] There are two basic types of predator: resource and process.

A resource predator wants something badly enough to take it from his victim by force. Examples include muggers, robbers, or carjackers. Such aggressors are often armed. If intimidation alone works, the resource predator may not hurt you, such as in a carjacking scenario where the vehicle is surrendered quickly, the victim is almost always left behind uninjured.

[…]

Process predators, on the other hand, act out in violent ways for the sake of the violence itself. They are extraordinarily dangerous. Unless the process predator perceives that you are too costly to attack, it’s going to get physical. You do not have to win, but you absolutely cannot afford to lose. The situation needs to end immediately. It may require you to take a human life to come out as intact as possible. Rapists and serial killers are examples of process predators. A fight with a process predator frequently ends with someone in the hospital or morgue.”

The framing here is a common one: social violence is dumb and potentially dangerous, but it’s got nothing on asocial violence. That’s the big, scary, fight-for-your life stuff against which verbal de-escalation and other “soft” skills don’t work. I’ve talked about them in the same way in my teaching, and I’ve seen a lot of teachers and writers frame the gap between social and asocial violence as a jump in severity and scariness.

And they’re right if your understanding of these categories is bar fight/group brawl/public demonstrative beatdown, vs mugging/rape/murder. Sure, some of the higher end of social violence can get lethal and scary, but there’s an escalation between the two categories. I think this understanding is extremely common in men, and for good reason — it’s how most of them experience the world. If they are going to be the victims of violence, the “low end” stuff is going to be social violence, and the serious, scary shit is asocial. And hey, men still write the books on these things.

For most women, though? The picture is pretty different. Social violence doesn’t happen to us all that much. Except in a few subcultures, women don’t fight each other. And men can’t gain social status by beating up a girl, so we’re not going to targeted by the majority of the common stuff. We’re not very likely to get in a bar fight, or get punched after a hockey game for wearing the wrong jersey. The high end stuff still applies — anyone can be a target for violent theft, rape, or murder, and women’s generally smaller size and lower social status can make us more appealing targets for the really bad shit.

So does the social violence gap mean that women don’t really experience low-level violence? Should we only be training to deal with the high end stuff? The average women’s self defense course would certainly make you think so. It’s all violent rape and strangers jumping out of bushes with knives and muggers with firearms.

Except that if you talk to the average woman, that’s not what she’s experienced (though it may be what she’s afraid of). Instead, almost every single one of us has experienced regular low-level violence. We’ve been groped. We’ve been pushed around and grabbed and cornered by men who wanted sex. We’ve been touched without our consent more times than we can count, threatened when we said “no” to a date, and harassed by low-level creeps who get off on making us uncomfortable. Most of us haven’t been raped (though far too many of us have), and these incidents haven’t always escalated to the “bad shit” end of the scale. They’re textbook low-level violence where there’s not a lot of risk of death or permanent injury, but there’s a lot of pain, discomfort, and potential for escalation.

Creepology — as the name suggests — talks a lot about this low level of violence and the people who perpetrate it, and Valdiserri has a great definition for the two types of “creeps” most women have to learn how to deal with:

Negligent Creeps make women uncomfortable by putting their own sexual desires ahead of women’s interests and comfort. These guys don’t set out to deliberately creep anyone out, but they behave in ways that they know will cause women to be creeped out on the off-chance that it might get them laid. The creeped-out feeling is a by-product of their seduction strategy.

Malignant Creeps are low-level sexual predators who creep women out deliberately. These creeps engage in certain behaviors precisely because they know that it will make women feel repulsed or threatened. They are bona fide predators, even if they never go physical. They are doing as much as they can to get their kicks without doing anything overt or illegal. The creeped-out feeling is the goal of their activities.”

As a mutual friend pointed out, there’s a striking congruence between Negligent Creeps and Resource Predators, and Malignant Creeps and Process Predators. The goals and motivations are the same, as is the attacker’s disregard for the safety and well-being of the target. The only difference is one of degree: most of the damage that Creeps do is emotional and psychological; the damage that Predators do is almost always physical.

And this tells me a really important thing: the majority of women’s experience of violence doesn’t happen across two categories (social vs asocial violence), but along a single spectrum of asocial violence. There’s low-end stuff that makes us feel shitty, and high-end stuff that puts our bodily integrity and life in danger, but they’re all of a type, and that type is asocial violence.

Understanding this illuminates a whole bunch of the mysteries of how women understand and engage with violence, and why it’s fundamentally different from how men do. It’s not just that we’re (usually) smaller, weaker, and less accustomed to using our fists to solve problems. It’s also that the kind of violence that is an integral part of our lives is different. There’s not less of it overall (or more, necessarily); it’s just got a different flavour. If we take into account the low end of the asocial violence spectrum — where the creeps and gropers hang out — then the difference between social and asocial violence isn’t really one of degree. Instead, it’s a difference of goals (Do they want status? Or resources/sex/to hurt someone?), context (Are they performing for an audience? Or do they want to isolate their target and go after them away from prying eyes?), and available tactics for surviving (Can you fulfill the social goal through words? Or give them the thing they want without risking damage? Or do you have to fight back hard enough that it’s not fun anymore?).

If almost all violence that women face is asocial, then our pool of tactics and potential responses is necessarily different from men’s.

When we encounter a resource predator, all we can do is comply in the hopes of avoiding the violence, or fight back and deal with whatever escalation happens. This is why many women will give creepy dudes their phone number, or agree to a date they don’t want, or put up with a small amount of unwanted contact. They’re not necessarily freezing in the face of danger, or misunderstanding the risk that they face, or enjoying his advances. They’re making an assessment about what kind of predator they’re dealing with, and choosing to give him some or all of what he wants to avoid being harmed. It’s a rational choice that can work on the low-grade resource predators that frequent pick-up artist forums and other communities that treat sex and affection as trade goods and women as vending machines that provide them on demand. It’s a risky choice — What if you’ve mis-identified him and he’s actually a process predator? What if “what he wants” is more than you are willing or able to give up? — but it’s not blind or irrational. “Smile and nod and get the hell out of there as fast as you can” is a default escape method for a lot of us, and it’s based on temporary compliance as a way of putting off the potential for violence until you can make an escape. And it works, a lot of the time. It can still leave you feeling gross and violated and weak, but so does giving your backpack to a mugger. The things that keep us alive in the face of asocial violence rarely make us feel good.

As risky as compliance is, fighting back can be riskier. As soon as a physical confrontation is on the table, all of those differences in size, mass, strength, and martial experience become really, really important. Not only that, but “fighting back” against violence that starts out purely verbal, or takes place at the lowest levels of violation (a gentle touch in an unwanted place, a hug or handshake that lasts longer than it should, an “accidental” swipe at a breast or butt) doesn’t have a straightforward protocol. If someone takes a swing at you, you can punch him back. If he pushes you, push him back harder. Proportionality is easy to figure out in a straight fight. In a sexual assault, though? You can’t just do unto them as they’ve done unto you — that way lies additional sexual contact and something that looks an awful lot like consent — and you can’t smoke them in the nose either.

Saying “No!” gets taught a lot as the go-to for contexts like this, and it might work, but not for the reasons that many of us think. It’s not the assertion of boundaries that really does anything. Remember, we’re dealing with a predator here. Would you expect “No!” to work on a carjacker? Or a murderer? Of course not. It’s unlikely to convince a lower-level predator either. What it might do, though, is draw bystander attention. It might buy you allies. It might let nearby authorities (anyone from cops to bartenders, bouncers, or that one really big guy at the bar who likes to help women out) know that something bad is happening, and invite intervention. It might draw enough of the wrong attention that self-preservation kicks in and the creep backs off. Or it might just make him angry and lead to an escalation to actual violence. There’s never any guarantees.

And that escalation is really important. Women get told, over and over, that the risk of having a creep turn into a batterer or a violent rapist is low. That, statistically, fighting back is pretty safe. And that’s true, but a low risk isn’t the same as no risk, especially when the consequences of an escalation are going to be a lot higher for us than for your average dude in a bar fight. I think that the fear of escalation is also stronger because of that spectrum of asocial violence. A predator is still a predator. Even if all he’s doing is creeping, his M.O. and his intentions line up disturbingly closely with those of the rapist. No, not all men are potential rapists. But all creepy men are. A low-level resource predator may turn out to be a high-level resource predator. A low-level process predator may not be so low-level after all. Women understand that the high end of asocial violence is the worst and scariest thing that can happen to them. They also understand that it’s not fundamentally different in kind from the ongoing shit they encounter; it’s only different in degree.

And this is why we’re so freaked out by low-grade process predators. This is why the leering, groping guy who “just doesn’t know any better” or “is a product of his time” is a problem. He may not be a rapist, but he’s operating on their terms. He is of their species. There is a line between that dude at cosplay conventions who gets off on making pretty girls flinch and squeal; and the creepy boss who likes leaning over his subordinates as they work and breathing on them and feeling them squirm and shift away; and the billionaire Hollywood executive or movie star that leverages an entire staff to groom, isolate, and deliver victims to him. It’s a thin, wobbly line, though. The only difference between these men is their answer to “How far am I willing to go to get what I want?” And women are aware that that’s an answer that can change any time. That “How far?” is a risk assessment far more often than it is a moral boundary. That it can change dramatically in the right space (somewhere darker, more isolated, with fewer witnesses), the right community (one where people are inclined to look the other way, or even help their local predators work), or with the right power differential (the consequences of going after a peer are almost universally different from the consequences of going after a subordinate or a dependent; so are the consequences of going after someone who is sober vs going after someone who’s heavily intoxicated). The wobbliness of that boundary is why many women are afraid. Why they feel paralyzed by even the weakest process predators and can do little more than wait for an opening and escape. And it’s why none of us are surprised when someone we had pegged as a malignant creep turns out to have committed something truly heinous.

I’m not certain how well men understand this difference in how women experience violence dynamics. I’ve had guys tell me I’m lucky that I don’t really have to deal with social violence. And they’re right, up to a point. But the absence of social violence in your average woman’s life is not an absence of lower order violence altogether. It’s just a flavour difference, but a flavour difference that has an enormous and fundamental impact in how we understand violence, risk, and our place in the world. And when so much of the women’s self defense courses out there are designed and delivered by men, I wonder how often this difference gets missed. Even when women design and run courses, so much of the supplementary and theoretical material we draw from was put together by men. By people with a different relationship to violence, and a different concept of what social and asocial violence look like and mean. I’m not saying that men can’t or won’t understand a woman’s relationship to violence, or that a man can’t be a fantastic self defense teacher. But I’m wondering what disconnects happen when the majority of our mental models and paradigms for discussing, categorizing, and making sense of violence are drawn from one group’s experiences. I think it’s definitely a factor in how often I hear men ask “Why the hell would you do that?” or “Why didn’t you just hit him?” when they hear women relate a story of how they dealt with low-level violence. They’re trying to apply their paradigms and solutions to a context where they don’t fit, and they get upset when we don’t trust their expertise.

I’ve leaned hard on writers like Miller in putting together my own course material. On colleagues who’ve worked as bouncers, and security guards, and cops. On men who deal with violence. Smart men with a hell of a lot to teach me, but with a perspective that’s necessarily limited by the shape of our world and their place in it. And the more I teach, the more I realize the places where they don’t quite fit with what I know. It’s invariably at the low end of violence. I would trust any one of them in a heartbeat to teach me how to fight off a knife-wielding attacker, take down someone way bigger than me, or get control of a fistfight. But a lot of the de-escalation and low-level stuff just doesn’t feel like it fits. You can see it in the different versions of teaching notes I’ve worked through over the years. From a first edition that was almost entirely a distillation of other people’s work and knowledge, to the three-years-later model that draws way more heavily on mine and Courtney’s experience. The high-end stuff is almost identical across the board. We polish and refine here and there, tweaking which targets we prioritize or how we teach a particular movement or what examples and test cases we throw out, but the shape is consistent. The low end has been worked over so many times it doesn’t even look the same. It’s been re-formated, re-worded, and re-understood to find the balance between their knowledge and our experience. To bring in the years of practice we’ve both had dealing with creeps and low-level predators, and to recognize that the fact that our experience of low-level violence is different doesn’t mean that it’s missing, or invalid.

I haven’t thrown out the male perspective on de-escalation and low-level violence — that would be an enormous disservice to all of my students to whom it is applicable — but I’m learning to balance it with my own. To apply not just my experience, but my analysis and understanding of the way violence works on a macro scale to my teaching. To trust that the way I see things is real, just as the way that they see things is real.

I don’t know what lessons there are in what I’ve written here. Whether there’s enough for the men I know who teach self defense to take and apply to their own material; to supplement their own understanding. Whether I’m re-stating things people already know, but with fancy jargon stuck on. Whether this matters. But I think it’s good to interrogate how we think about the things we teach. Not just the facts and techniques and strategies we want to pass on, but the conceptual frameworks and paradigms we use to organize that stuff and make it easy to understand. Where they come from matters. Their weaknesses and biases and assumptions matter. Seeing those is a pretty good first step.