Rape Aggression Defense, or R.A.D., as it brands itself, is one of the most widely offered women's self-defense programs in the country. R.A.D. was developed by a police officer, and is ubiquitous at colleges and universities; it's taught primarily by law enforcement personnel, making it a pretty accurate reflection of the way cops think about preventing sexual assault.
With more than 11,000 instructors, there's bound to be some variation in how instructors actually teach R.A.D. A course at James Madison University might not be exactly the same as one offered at the University of Toledo, or one at the University of Virginia. But every woman who takes a R.A.D. course does get the same Participant Manual—a 66-page treasure trove of advice, for the ladies, from the cops, about How To Not Be Raped.
Recently, after a prolonged search, I acquired a copy of the R.A.D. Participant Manual. When you read it, you start to see why those 11,000 R.A.D. instructors haven't had a huge impact on the problem of sexual assault at schools like James Madison or Toledo or Virginia. Because R.A.D. (in manual form, at least) 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 absurd minutiae like the best place for a woman to stand in an elevator. (The answer is: "Close to the control panel, with her back against the wall." Write that down, it'll be on the test.)
Universities across the country have been eating this program up since 1989, and no wonder: R.A.D. is a perfect slice of patriarchal fear-cake, studded with nuggets of bad advice and thickly frosted with condescension.
Take, for example, these "Risk Reduction Strategies":
HOME: 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.
Drapes and Shades: Draw the drapes and pull the shades. If the drapes are thin or worn, you may want to consider investing in a heavier fabric to prevent silhouetting.
Shrubs and Bushes: Try to keep the bushes and shrubs trimmed for consistent shape, which will make it easier to detect motion near windows.
None of this is exactly bad advice. 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. But the fascination with peeping Toms and sinister lurking shadows and… bush trimming? I'm sorry, that's not normal. It's not logical, either. When I told self defense instructor Lynne Marie Wanamaker about R.A.D.'s "buy heavier drapes" suggestion, she asked, "Why? Because heavier drapes will keep your neighbors from seeing the person you live with when he assaults you?"
R.A.D. 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.
Wanamaker is referring to the fact that in most sexual assaults, the perpetrator and victim already know each other. Wanamaker is well aware of that fact, because she trained at the legendary Center for Anti-Violence Education in Brooklyn. You won't be surprised to learn that an expert like Wanamaker, educated by a multi-racial organization where lesbians and trans people are central to the leadership, has a different perspective on self defense than the cops who teach R.A.D. Wanamaker's curriculum covers the full spectrum of violence women encounter—not just home invasion and abduction, but harassment, domestic abuse, bullying, coercion, and intimidation. She also teaches tools for preventing, disrupting, and surviving all of these forms of violence. As a growing body of research shows, this approach—developed largely by feminists and activists like the founders of the Center for Anti-Violence Education—can significantly reduce sexual assault rates.
I assume the law enforcement personnel who teach R.A.D. are aware that known assailants outnumber unknown attackers leaping from untrimmed bushes. Some cops must read the DOJ bulletins, right? Yet the R.A.D. manual features a disclaimer that the program's "information, tactics, and considerations... may be useful for various types of abductive encounters perpetrated against women", and that that "Rape Aggression Defense (R.A.D.) means philosophically 'defense against abduction.'" Emphasis is original, and I have no idea what "philosophically" is doing in that sentence, but the manual seems to be saying that R.A.D. is intended for use only in cases of abduction assault. Which, again, do not make up the majority of assault cases.
In other words, the nation's highest-profile self-defense program for women states up front that it's ineffective in 60 to 80 percent of assault situations. Katy Mattingly, who trained as a R.A.D. instructor, confirmed this. R.A.D. personnel, she says, stressed that "it was important to tell our students the techniques would not work if they knew the attacker. They were designed only to prevent abduction by a single, unarmed, stranger." When Mattingly asked why the R.A.D. curriculum didn't include verbal techniques or other methods to disrupt acquaintance assault, she was warned that R.A.D. "would not certify anyone who wanted to add or remove any techniques from the program." Mattingly was so disturbed by the program's focus that she declined to attend her final R.A.D. instructor certification session.
In other words, the nation's highest-profile self-defense program for women states up front that it's ineffective in 60 to 80 percent of assault situations.
I guess since R.A.D. has nothing to offer the two-thirds or more of sexual assault victims who know their attackers, their Participant Manual might as well focus on abduction. After all, it's easier to critique window treatments and shrubbery in 66 pages than it is to give useful advice on recognizing unhealthy relationships. But R.A.D.'s focus on worst-case scenarios is actually counter-productive. Women already worry a lot about abduction, even though there are other more common forms of sexual violence that we would do well to consider. Ignoring everything but abduction distorts the risks women face. A truly empowering system of self defense should give students a clearer, more accurate picture of risk.
Unfortunately, cops as a whole are not terribly invested in empowering people. They're often more interested in controlling them—in the name of protecting and serving, of course. But mission creep is inevitable when you see yourself as the authority figure responsible for everyone else's safety. That would explain why the R.A.D. Participant Manual comes across as a lengthy task list, where every imaginable way to pre-empt an already unlikely abduction is dutifully recorded, no matter how silly or life-restricting. For example, readers are advised to "avoid displaying vehicle license plates with your name or feminine labels" and cautioned to "[a]void vulnerable circumstances," like "alcohol, unfamiliar groups, or the lack of transportation."
That's right: Don't not have a car, ladies. Don't let your car betray your gender. Don't drink, and stay away from people you don't know. Have your father or older brother arrange your marriage for you. That seems like a safe way to live, right?
Some of the manual's advice is simply too generic to be helpful: "The internet in general is a dangerous place with many sexual preditors [sic]." Sometimes it's just the same old "Don't go anywhere alone" crap we've been rolling our eyes at for decades, as when it suggests readers "exercise with a partner" or "consider a gender specific gym for workout sessions" (you can drive there in the car you'd better not not have). When fear alone isn't sufficient to make their case, the authors try shame—as when they ask, under the peculiar heading of RAPE POISON AWARENESS AND CONSIDERATIONS, "Do you really want to drink from a community trough? Bowls, tubs, cans… Avoid drinks that you did not open or prepare yourself."
I appreciate the authors' attempt to make language come alive here, but, really, "trough"? The term conjures themes of purity and self-restraint that are—to put it charitably—outdated concepts in the public discourse about sexual assault. I wonder if anyone has told the authors that. I wonder if the authors listened.
When it's not cheerfully itemizing all the chores women must complete in order to avoid assault/stay pure/win the Grand Prize for Most Rules Followed, the manual has an endearing habit of nitpicking any risk reduction strategies students might have already thought of on their own. Keychains and pepper spray are defensive options, the manual admits, but you really need to take the R.A.D. Aerosol Defense Options or R.A.D. Keychain Defense Options training in order to use them properly. (Yes, those are real training sessions offered by R.A.D.)
Even something as simple as running away from an attacker requires extensive cost-benefit analysis when viewed through R.A.D.'s jaundiced eye. "Is running an option for you?" the authors ask skeptically. They're not talking about mobility impairment (which a more inclusive, empowerment-based self defense program would address explicitly). No, they're worried that women will "become exhausted in a short distance and be completely incapable of any physical defense." They recommend "aerobic exercise at least 3 times a week, with at least 30-minute sessions," which seems like an awful lot of practice for a skill that most of us mastered quite early. Sure, lots of us could stand to get more exercise (with a partner! Always with a partner!), but that doesn't mean we can't—or should be discouraged from trying to—run away from an attacker.
Oh, and if you do "choose to run" during an attack? Then you'd better "be aware of the terrain, the attacker's location, and of your own physical condition." Humanity has honed the flight reflex over million of years, but doesn't mean women are qualified to use it without following the protocol established by local law enforcement. Trust us, it's for your own safety.
Also, whistles: Totally fallible, ladies.
Pea Whistles and flimsy tin whistles are often unreliable when needed due to 'over blowing' or poor construction. Be careful with whistles, an attacker may lash out at the sound in an attempt to silence it. Whistles are used best during flight or with a reactionary distance in excess of 10 feet.
I love this passage more than words can possibly express, because it contains the aesthetically sublime phrase "be careful with whistles." Here I thought the possibility of sexual assault was my biggest safety concern, when in fact what I should be alarmed by are the FLIMSY and UNRELIABLE whistles that surround me, tempting me with their false promises of making a reasonably loud noise when I blow into them. These whistles might also make an attacker "lash out," which is behavior I would certainly otherwise never expect from someone who is attacking me. Whistles that should only be used under a complicated set of conditions that must be described by inscrutable jargon like "reactionary distance in excess of," so you might as well just forget about using a whistle, ma'am; you're obviously not qualified.
Frankly I'm a little disappointed they don't recommend 30 minutes of practice with your whistle every week, or a four-hour session of R.A.D. Whistle Defense Options training (" Nine feet! THAT'S TOO CLOSE!!!"). Missed opportunity there, R.A.D.
Well, given that our whistles are plotting to deliver us into the hands of third-world sex traffickers, and some of us stubbornly insist on not trimming our bushes or owning cars, and others of us are too enfeebled by our trough-drinking activities to run away from a potential assault—what should women do if we encounter a problem? Why, call the police, of course!
Admonitions to "let the cops do it" abound throughout the R.A.D. Participant Manual; calling the police is advised eight times in the Risk Reduction Strategies section alone. Again, this is not necessarily bad advice—provided you're white and live in a nice part of town. Women who belong to other socioeconomic and ethnic categories, however, are less likely to receive a helpful response from cops. Do you think the R.A.D. people know that? Their manual is oblivious to this fact.
The further you read in the R.A.D. manual, the more you start to feel that, deep down, the authors would prefer it if we didn't try to protect ourselves at all—that they see that as their job, and they don't want us interfering. They don't want us protecting each other, either. Would you try to help someone if you saw them being assaulted? There are many excellent bystander intervention programs that teach people to do just that. The good folks at R.A.D., however, want you to think twice. "Often your safest means of assisting another would be to call for police assistance and obtain a good physical description of individuals, vehicles, direction of travel, etc." the R.A.D. manual cautions. "Not knowing all of the circumstances, or the entire situation before interacting in confrontational matters could be a serious mistake."
So unless you possess the All-Seeing Eye of Sauron, make no attempt to disrupt violence occurring right in front of you. Call the police, who are empowered by the state, and don't want you questioning or challenging that power—not even by intervening when you see something wrong.
The further you read in the R.A.D. manual, the more you start to feel that the authors would prefer it if we didn't try to protect ourselves at all—that they see that as their job, and they don't want us interfering.
The R.A.D. manual does pay lip service to the concept of women's autonomy. It offers its advice, we're assured, "not as 'parental sounding' demands, but as considerations. Evaluate each strategy independently as to whether or not it may apply to you and your specific circumstances… The bottom line is; you are ultimately responsible for your safety, and reliance upon other people and/or objects for your personal safety may be a huge mistake." Of course, the very next suggestion in the manual is the one about inviting your local police to come poke around your home, checking for inappropriate drapes and shrubs.
The manual also occasionally acknowledges that a woman could be attacked by someone she knows: "Say goodnight at your car rather than at the front door... He should respect your caution; if he doesn't, this may indicate future problems." But then on the next page, the authors revert to form, urging readers to list a Post Office box on their personal checks instead of a home address.
The manual's bipolar tone, and its 1991-2006 copyright period, lead me to suspect that someone has been making sporadic, heroic efforts to update this turkey. Unfortunately, I think those efforts are doomed. Fear and control are too thoroughly baked into the Rape Aggression Defense approach to be sifted out now. The very word "rape" appears 86 times in the text, and the R.A.D. logo, featuring a jazzy, diagonal "RAPE," appears on every single page, sometimes more than once. In all I count 161 total iterations of the word "rape," or 2.44 per page. Sure, it's just a word, but if you wanted to empower your students, would you keep the worst-case scenario constantly before their eyes? I've never seen a textbook that included the word "fail" on every page.
So what is the R.A.D. Participant Manual really trying to teach? To me, it seems like R.A.D. exists to reinforce reliance on a system whose efficacy is—to put it very mildly—uneven.
Cops want to rescue people. That's a noble instinct. Certainly we need to reduce the rate of sexual assault on college campuses and everywhere else. But given the (increasingly visible) tendency of police to abuse their power, it's worth asking why Rape Aggression Defense, a cop-built and cop-taught system that admits it's useless against the majority of sexual assaults, is the preferred—and often the only—sexual assault prevention offering on college campuses.
Maybe it's time to replace R.A.D.-style authoritarianism with self-defense programs that empower all individuals, and promote community-based solutions to violence, instead of relying on a criminal justice system that is neither fair nor effective. Such programs work—and they work for everyone, regardless of wealth or ethnicity or gender identity.
Or we could keep hiding behind our drapes and placing all of our trust in cops. That's worked out pretty well for colleges so far.
Susan Schorn is the author of Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly; she also writes the column Bitchslap for McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
Illustration by Jim Cooke