Reflections on Sexual Harassment and Community Care

One of the things I loved about teaching self-defense at Home Alive was witnessing the creativity people tapped into when asked to share ideas, stories, and imaginations of fierce and even playful self-defense strategies. It was inspiring and humbling to hold space for people to let go of fear and move into possibility. Play is not something people necessarily associate with a self-defense class. However, play, fun, and curiosity are essential for developing flexible, adaptable, and ultimately more practical strategies for safety and community care.

It was not always easy for people to access play in self-defense classes. Participants often came to Home Alive fearful of being hurt, of being hurt again, and terrified of not being able to defend themselves or keep each other safe. One of the ways Home Alive classes interrupted fear and helped people to embody play and fun was through exercises that demonstrated the multifaceted and imaginative ways people defend themselves. This approach demystified self-defense and supported notions of community care by highlighting ways people support and take care of one another without “expert training.”

For example, when a student asked, “What should you do if someone grabs you like this?” teaching an actual grab release was secondary to using the question as an opportunity to expand people’s focus (which was narrow and laser-focused on the grab), and to engage in curious exploration of opportunities and contexts: who is doing the grabbing? Where is the grabbing taking place? What is the nature of the relationship? What is the nature of the grab? What is the goal of the person being grabbed? What is the goal of the person grabbing? Are there social factors like power and privilege or access and ability to consider? What else is happening around the people? What other things are going on with their bodies and faces? Are they sitting or standing, walking, or moving? Are there other people around? Are they at work? At home? On a bus? At a party? In a meeting? If there are other people around? Who are they? Friends? Strangers? Coworkers? Team members? Officemates?

Having participants explore the multiplicity of context interrupts the notion that there is one “right” way to defend one’s self. These exercises also expanded discussions of self-defense to include social constructs and community engagement. In addition, people were encouraged to generate a wide range of options, together demonstrating their creativity, diversity, adaptability, and humor, which are all central to community care.

Community care is about understanding that the way someone protects themselves or sets a boundary may not only be wildly different from the way you would, but may seem unsafe or uncomfortable. We must support people in their individual approaches to self-defense, boundary setting, safety, and self-care, even if we disagree with those approaches. We cannot and will not set boundaries in the same way. Not all self-defense strategies are accessible or desirable for every body. The mainstream culture posits that there are correct ways people should defend themselves, such as checklists and safety tips, which are weaponized through victim blaming. These types of approaches to safety inevitably ignore or minimize how race, class, gender, ability, and age inform how people navigate the world, how they are perceived, what kinds of violence they are likely to face, and what access to social, individual, and community resources may be available.

Rather than narrow options, community care endeavors to expand the range of options available to a person. When we deeply accept that safety, self-defense, and even what constitutes violence and abuse will mean different things to different communities at different times, then we create space for all kinds of boundaries. If a self-defense class teaches that calling the police is an acceptable response to harassment, that teaching ignores how not all communities are made “safe” by a police presence. The class also loses out on expanding imaginations about other kinds of responses such as: community accountability groups, informal support networks, bystander trainings, police and law enforcement accountability projects, education curricula, or public forums.

Another way options are narrowed is by assuming that vulnerability is universal. Community care broadens the frame, language, and dialogue about safety, and offers multiple and sometimes conflicting options for safety and self-defense. It also interrupts victim blaming and interweaves individual and communal safety. Most importantly, community care centers on those whom are the most blamed, shamed, and marginalized by highlighting the fierce, vibrant, and creative ways that people and communities defend one another.